BEST OF DOC-TALK: Oral Exams

DEAR DOC-TALK From: An Anonymous Doc-talker: “Hello! I’m new to the list and I’m enjoying it very much. You’ve given great advice about how to write a thesis, but I’ve already done that! I’m about to defend what I’ve written and I’m terrified! Do you have any advice about this second stage of completing the master’s thesis?
 
…and Dr. Davé replies: Dear Doc-talker, A good place to start would be to read Sally Kuhlenschmidt’s article “Teaching Students to Manage the Oral Defense (“Teaching of Psychology” 19, 2 (April 1992): 86-89 which breaks the preparation into two parts: learning to cope with anxiety and understanding the oral exam. Her approach to coping with anxiety involves acknowledging feelings, restructuring ways of thinking about the oral defense, and learning ways to manage the feelings. Understanding the exam entails learning about the nature of it, how to prepare for it, and ways to approach questions. Learn about the format of your exam. The best way to do this is to ask two students who’ve finished their oral exams in your department to go step by step through the procedure. Reduce your anxiety. First, know the information in your thesis “cold.” Plan a 20 min presentation of the justification of your study and of the results and implications. Practice presenting this at least once or twice in front of a support group, a class, or a few peers who role-play committee members and ask you questions. Second, go page by page, paragraph by paragraph through your manuscript and make sure you understand every word, every phrase, and every concept. Too often students “paraphrase” what sounds good and don’t really understand thoroughly what they’ve written. A good way to find out if you know what a paragraph means is, after you read it, exemplify it, or create a metaphor or an analogy. Third, learn to control your anxiety. I used self-hypnosis for a month before my exam and it worked like a charm. There are a variety of “right-brain” exercises and visualizations you can do. Kuhlenschmidt makes several good suggestions. One thing you need to learn before you go into the exam is “how to answer questions succinctly.” Dr. Harriet Chamberlain, a media and educational consultant in Berkeley, California (510 548-9284) trains students to answer oral exam questions using what she calls her “PRE-OP” formula. It’s a way to answer questions convincingly and make sure you don’t go off on a tangent. The PRE-OP formula is: 1. Make a *P*oint–“I think . . .” or “In my opinion, . . .” 2. Give a *R*eason–“The reason I think this is because . . .” 3. Give an *E*xample–“For example, . . .” 4. Mention *O*pposing views (if any)–“Although so and so contends thus and so, I think . . .” 5. Restate your *P*oint–“So that’s why I think . . .” [If you give an opposing view, tell how your view is superior.] This format works for any question where you have to give an opinion (e.g., “What theory did you use and why did you select it?” It’s unnecessary for questions asking for “facts” only (e.g., “What statistical technique did you use and why did you choose it?”) [Dr. Chamberlain describes other techniques for dealing with the oral exam in Dissertation News #7. I’ve also addressed preparation for the oral exam in Dissertation News #3.] Good luck, Doc-talker! [And thanks to any of you list members who might have additional “how-to” suggestions for this Doc-talker.] –rd
 
From: A University of Virginia Doc-talker: To the person who wrote about orals-terror: I found PhD oral comprehensives to be challenging, stimulating, and yes, *fun*. I mean, when else do you have three or more profs, experts in your field, hanging on your every word, challenging you to take what you’ve learned and apply it flexibly and fully, listening closely to _who_you_are_ as a scholar? My comp exams were very tough, but I looked on them as an opportunity for an intense several-hours with some real experts in a field I love. Remember that they are also invested in your success, to a surprising degree–they do want to push you and challenge you and even see what you’re made of, make you uncomfortable, and so on. Some are worse in this regard than others, but you are their “young,” and they generally want to be proud of you. So go in there and make them–and yourself–proud. Tell what you know, ask about things you’ve wondered about, remark on contradictions and what you think they imply…engage fully with your discipline, and they will see that and reward you. (Also–be honest–if you DON’T know something, admit it and move on. Bluffing usually just makes you look bad.)
 
From: A University of Colorado Doc-talker I enjoy the list immensely and appreciate your efforts in moderating it. I subscribe to four unmoderated lists and enjoy your work as a moderator. I was wondering if we could explore the following question regarding study for PhD orals. I am beginning reading for my orals which I hope to take in September or October. My area of study is American Literature and I have a reading list of approximately 180 books. This list is split into three areas: Period (novels and background texts), Major Author (corpus, biography, and theory), and topic (primarily theory). I would appreciate any comments regarding the mechanics of preparating for this exam. For instance, how have people organized their notes? Has anyone used EndNote or a word processor to keep outlines, notes, etc.? What filing systems have people used? Upon reflection, after taking the exam, what methods of preparation seemed the most useful? If you had it to do over again, how would you have changed your preparation? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance.
 
From: A University of Virginia Doc-talker A Doc-talker asks about orals prep. I’m in English Lit too (Renaissance) and had a successful orals experience, so I hope these ideas will help him (and others). First you’re lucky to have a reasonably sized and defined list. Take the list and create hierarchies for yourself: some texts are essential texts; others of mid-level importance, others can be “gutted” (not skimmed). Central texts you’ll want to give thorough attention. Read these once early, and once late after you’ve absorbed more–your readings of these will change after a year’s intensive study, believe me. After pre-reading central texts, choose mid-level texts in theoretical or thematic clusters around (and next to) the relevant central texts. Keep the central texts handy at this time, to check insights against your own. (If you want examples, email me–I just tried a few and they sound hopelessly arcane for a wider list audience.) That way your reading is *applied* reading and can lead to coherent answers on the comps about more than one text. Next, “gut” the least important texts by reading contents, intro, conclusion, and by scanning the index or indices for topics heavily covered–browse as it suits your purposes–and move on. For a controversial text, NYT or TLS reviews are good. Finally, about a month before the exam, return to those “central” texts, and your reading of them will now be informed by a cohesive grasp of all that other material. Allow yourself conceptual flexibility–some texts you thought were minor you may wish to reclassify as major, and vice-versa: this is good–means you’re thinking about what’s important in the field. Talk of this in the exam. Related point: be able to theorize for yourself and for your examiners how each book on the list presents a useful window on the larger conception of that list. Question the list–for example, is the periodicity model implied by that list sound? What deletions or additions would you make to the list and why? How do the works of theory alter our conceptions of that major author–how does periodicity interact with the major author’s canonicity–and so on. Bring up these points in the exam. “Doctor of Philosophy” means you’ve been thinking through the big questions. So do it. If you take notes on paper, leave lots of margin space for cross-referencing. One purpose of an oral exam is to get you to think analytically AND synthetically (apologies to Hegel)–so allow yourself space on the page to do that. Take a day at the beginning of each month to review (FAST) the notes you’ve already taken. Then take a week or two just before the exam to review it all. If you know who your examiners will be, do a quick literature search and scan their most recent work on any topic relevant to your list–it’s great to be able to say, “yes, Prof X, I read your comments on that in last month’s *Pedantic Journal* and I find the thesis convincing except on this one point…” and then proceed to discuss. Keep in mind that your notes can form a good groundwork for your future teaching; allow the questions “would I teach this to undergraduates?” “To graduates?” and “How would I teach this?” to hover around your readings. Good luck. It’s really not so bad, and actually can be fun–look for things you think are really interesting and be able to discuss them. Know your stuff, of course. But enjoy it. (The reason I blagued on about it so long is that it’s a topic that upsets a lot of people, and really shouldn’t–I found comps a good although challenging experience, but I wish someone had told me that it would be fun–all I ever heard was fear and complaining. So in these long messages I’m trying to tell people what I was never told, and help them get more out of it.)
 
From: A Columbia University Doc-talker This is in response to the query about reading and note-taking strategies for orals preparation. I took my orals in Amer. history in December. I took notes on every book, but not in any special program. Just having typed notes on each book for orals prep was okay, but I regret now that I did not have a program like end note or ecco. That would have made my notes more useful for post-orals work, like reference for writing the diss. or teaching. Since my notes are in Microsoft Word, I can import them into most notes programs, but this will take some work. There is, however, in my opinion, a difference between book notes for orals and notes you may want for other purposes. I tried to keep my notes to one or two pages. Anything longer is not that useful. For orals, you want to know the forest, not every tree. As I read more, I got better at writing notes that combined the forest and the main important trees. When you are at the final stage of preparation before the exam, you want to be able to review your notes and refresh yourself as to the main argument, and not have to read ten pages of notes on each book. On the other hand, summary notes are not so useful if you find yourself later having a class where you will be teaching the book. then it helps to have more detailed chapter notes. I also did not take down direct quotes, except in rare instances, which I might have if I were thinking about citing passages in future writing. If I had to do it over again, I may have done more detailed notes on certain books. But how to tell which ones? and orals prep is always a time-pressured exercise. So it may be a luxury that is not possible to have. I also found that it was really important to be disciplined and write up my notes right after I read the book. Don’t procrastinate and do it next week. You’ll have to re-read the book. The best method is: read the book, mark important sections in the margins; close the book; write one or two paragraphs on what the argument was; then fill in important detail as you think needed, referring back to what you marked in the margins. Re: reading order. Well, in history, it’s fairly obvious to start at the beginning; I don’t know what Literature is like. I found it important to read and complete one field at a time (we have four) and not skip around as some people do, in order to have maximum concentration and not get into the trap of deferring books you don’t want to read. You’ll only have to face _all_ of them in the end, when you’re most panicked. But you have to find a method that works best for you. Hope this helps.
 
From: A Tennessee Doc-talker Preparing for comps and orals is partly a function of how each person thinks… I’m a doctoral student in strategic management, so my comments may not apply to all areas. The group that I went thru coursework with prepped more or less together for comps and orals. While we did not have a reading list as such, we reviewed all of the articles and books covered in all of our courses and all of the major journals in our field. Since we had divided up the readings during courses and abstracted everything, we had about 10 notebooks full of abstracts. We reviewed those. My study partner and I built tables (in Word Perfect, but any method works) which covered major themes in management. One table, for example, covered general schools of thought within management. In the table was a one or two line summary of the general theory, comments about any underlying assumptions, and cites and examples… Another table did the same for theories of leadership (at a greater level of detail than the general one, but still as compact as possible). We gave copies to the other members of the study group, who provided comments and suggestions. The goal was to organize our thinking into themes, at a macro level. By the time comps rolled around, most of these tables were about 1-3 pages long – the final set was probably less than 15 pages. Again, the goal was to provide mental images during the exam of ways to organize. Obviously, this approach may not make it easy to rattle off a list of characters in a specific novel. What it does do is make it easy to recall things like how a specific theme or theory developed over time – such as being able to trace a theme like alienation thru a series of novels. Anyway, it worked for all of us – we all passed on the first try. The hardest thing to keep in mind thru all of the preparation is that these exams are very time constrained. Thus, answers which focus too much on details may ignore “the big picture”. Since the faculty here seemed to want to see that we could synthesize/integrate, our approach worked very well. If your faculty loves trivia, your mileage may vary significantly… (smile) The hardest part is sticking to a schedule. We have had a study group all the way thru the program and continued to meet during comps prep. We still meet weekly as a sort of dissertation support group – both to exchange ideas and to keep each other motivated.
 
From: A Northwestern University Doc-talker My qualifying exams, also in literature, were both written and oral, but here’s a method that helped me. I used a 4×6 index card (5×7 would be even better; 3×5 too small) for each book on my reading list and wrote down the *essential* things I needed to remember about it. I used a different color card for each subdivision of my list (poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, criticism) and filed them accordingly. This works best with the criticism and theory, because, as one of my professors said, you need to boil down each critical text to one or two sentences that summarize its argument. For the primary texts, the cards usually can’t hold everything you would need to know to write about them, but they can serve as “flash cards” to remind you of the dates, characters, and bare-bones plot outline, plus one or two interpretive points you’d like to make. These cards were especially helpful the night before each segment of the exam (3 days of written questions and then an oral several days later): instead of wading through reams of notes, I reviewed the cards and thought about how I would answer possible questions. A friend of mine who took her exams in the same field and at the same time used the index cards for criticism, but she typed more extensive notes on each primary text into her computer. We both passed.
 
From: A Michigan State University Doc-talker To the Doc-talker who is studying for orals/comps (BIG tests): I spent too much time taking notes because I did not summarize enough before jotting things down. (I realize I may be the only person who had this problem.) This resulted in my not dividing time very well among areas. Luckily, I studied the areas I did not know as well first, so it was okay to spend less time on the remaining areas which I already knew.
 
From: A TAMU Doc-talker My field is geology, not literature, so I’m not sure how applicable this advice will be, but I think you might be able to use some of it. When I studied for my qual. exams (oral and written,) my system of keeping/organizing notes was a simple three-ring binder. (Make sure it’s thick.) I used dividers to separate topics. The next step was to go through all my class notes, and summarize the important info. After I felt I had a good grasp of most things I needed to know, I wrote myself a list of questions: What were some basic things I needed to know, but wasn’t sure of? What were the questions most likely to be asked during the exam by each committee member? I compiled the list of hypothetical questions, and researched the answers. (This was actually very successful; I’d say 90% of the questions I anticipated being asked were asked.) One word of advice: Don’t get hung up on details. Make sure you thoroughly understand the basic concepts in your field. Something else which may be helpful: Ask other students in your field what questions they were asked during their exams. Even if the same questions aren’t asked during your exam, it still gives you an idea of the kinds of things you’ll be expected to know. Good luck!
 
From: A Canadian Doc-talker: Reply to the Doc-talker’s question regarding preparation for oral exams. I wrote mine a year ago and based on my experience I would give the following advice: – don’t spend too long trying to absorb the contents of any one book. Put your energy into understanding the general arguments of each author and synthesizing your own ideas on the topic. – it’s not cheating to spend time reading book reviews. These can give you valuable information about the context of historical discussions on various issues. – most exam questions are historiographical, not historical (in my experience). – try to get as much information as you can from your professors regarding what they feel is important and what they intend to ask. The good ones want to know what you have learned, not what you haven’t learned. – continually review your notes; I took detailed notes as I read, then for each book wrote a one to two page book review summarizing the argument and my response to it. I then annotated my bibliography with a paragraph description for each book. My final review during the last week consisted of rereading my reviews and my annotations, as well as writing out practice essays. I hope this helps. Good luck!