Oral Examination Guide

A Guide to the EPS Oral Exam

The oral exam is a general qualification that examines the student’s readiness to continue as a PhD candidate.

Objectives for the student in the oral exam

  • Show an ability to identify important literature in the field, and to show a command of its content — synthesizing the current ideas and controversies that motivate the research topic
  • Articulate a scientific question, the rationale for the completed and proposed work, and the results that have been obtained or might be anticipated
  • Demonstrate the ability to frame a scientific question, acquire data, and evaluate evidence in context
  • Establish that you have an understanding of the research techniques that are relevant, and the ability to apply them while understanding their limitations
  • Propose a coherent body of work to be attempted during subsequent years, and explain how it will advance the field

Preparation for the exam

The first two years in the program constitute preparation for continuing research, including the research paper/proposal and the oral exam. Key aspects of this include:

  • Coursework, on topics relevant to research
  • Research, guided by the mentor and Research Advisory Committee
  • The first-year report, which is a low-stakes opportunity to describe and propose research
  • Presentations, which may be given to audiences of various sizes ranging from the research group to large conferences
  • Mentored Teaching Experience, which is an opportunity to develop oral communication skills that are critical to academic research, and to improve the ability to articulate scientific ideas

Before the exam

  • You must distribute your paper/proposal to the entire faculty at least one week prior to the exam
  • Faculty not on your committee may attend the exam, but must provide the student and mentor with three days notice.

What to expect during the exam

  • The exam begins with the research mentor introducing the student to the committee. The mentor will generally give an overview of the student’s research background and progress, and a very general description of the project.
  • The student will be dismissed from the room for a short period so that the committee can confer in private. During this time the committee will discuss context of the first two years, general highlights or concerns, and specific areas on which they might focus during the examination.
  • The student will be readmitted to the room and begin a research presentation. The student should plan to give a presentation on the order of 20-30 minutes if uninterrupted.
  • The presentation should begin with a description of the aims of the research, describe why it is important, discuss what the student has done so far, how those results can be interpreted in light of the hypotheses, and how future research should proceed.
  • The committee will ask the student questions. Some of these questions might occur during the presentation itself, particularly for a point of clarification. Interruptions should not be interpreted as an evaluation – committee members may interrupt for a wide variety of reasons (including curiosity), and it does not indicate that the exam is going well or poorly.
  • After the presentation is complete, the committee will continue to ask questions. The total time of the exam is usually between two and three hours.
  • When the committee has no more questions, the student will be dismissed from the room, and the committee will confer in private.
  • The student will be readmitted to the room, and the research mentor will tell the student the outcome of the exam, and a very brief explanation of the committee’s rationale for their decision.
  • Detailed feedback should be provided to the student in the form of a written letter from the research mentor. Generally, this should be provided to the student within two weeks of the exam.

Possible Outcomes

PhD level pass – The student advances to candidacy for the PhD degree. A PhD level pass indicates that the committee has judged the student to be ready to undertake mentored PhD research. This does not mean that there were no weaknesses or potential hurdles, but the committee judges that the student will be able to address and overcome those weaknesses and complete the PhD.

AM level pass – The student has completed a sufficient body of work for the AM degree, but the work has significant weaknesses indicating that the student is not yet ready to advance to PhD candidacy. The most common reason for students to obtain this outcome is that they are unable to sufficiently rationalize their work, describe their methods and data, or articulate the possible outcomes and interpretations of their research.  

Fail – The student’s work is insufficient for an AM-level pass. A fail could occur if there are major weaknesses in the student’s paper/proposal or oral exam.

Students in good academic standing have two opportunities to pass the oral exam with a PhD level pass. A student who achieves an AM-level pass or fails an oral examination at the first attempt is allowed to retake the examination one more time. The deadline for the retake is three months after the deadline for the regular oral exam. During this time, the student will be placed on academic probation. A PhD-level pass of the retake will remove the student from probation and advance the student to candidacy for the PhD degree. Failure to achieve a PhD-level pass at the retake will result in a recommendation to the Dean for dismissal of the student from the graduate program.

How the committee reaches its evaluation

The exam committee strives to be as objective as possible. However, at this level of research part of the evaluation is necessarily subjective. The committee weighs the student’s performance in aggregate, considering: how well was the research framed and articulated, how well were the preliminary results explained, how coherent were the proposed interpretations, how sound is the proposed research. The written paper/proposal and the oral exam will both have significant weight in the committee’s decision. The research mentor will provide context for the student’s first two years. For example, if specific hurdles outside of the student’s control prevented certain progress, the committee will consider that. The committee will discuss the student’s work, the strengths and weaknesses, and arrive at a consensus perceived to be the best way to advance the student’s career.

Advice for Students

  • Don’t panic!
  • Every exam will be different. Research projects are all unique, and it is difficult to make direct comparisons to others. Focus on your own work, don’t make comparisons with other students.
  • Don’t focus on acquiring lots of data. You will need enough data to talk about, but you do not need a huge amount of data for your oral exam. It’s more important to have a broad understanding of your work and to be able to explain it.
  • Know your committee. Talk to them and to others who have worked with them, and gain an understanding of the kinds of concerns they have and the questions they are likely to ask.
  • Know your committee’s expectations. Talk to your committee members well before the exam. Show them your data, talk about your work. Understand their concerns.
  • Start early. Start writing your paper before you even finish gathering results. You can write background and methods sections early. Your first-year report is likely to be a great starting point.
  • Draw. Being able to accurately draw an important diagram from memory is an excellent way to demonstrate command of a subject.
  • Practice. Give practice talks to your lab group, your peers, your mentor, and anyone else who will listen. It’s especially valuable to include members of your committee members’ research groups.
  • If you are asked a question and you don’t know the answer, say so; then demonstrate how you can think on your feet by describing how you’d approach the question — for example by describing important parameters and considerations.
  • Tell a good story about the background and motivation for your research – what is the problem or controversy you are trying to address? Construct a narrative; explain how your completed dissertation will provide the satisfying resolution to the problem you set up.
  • The subjective aspect of oral exams generally works in the student’s favor. Remember: your mentor and committee want you to succeed!