Surviving the Comprehensive Oral Exam

Matura (oral part) - during exam.
You may be asked to diagram you ideas, so be prepared. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This article originally appeared at on April 26th, 2013.

While my last Gradhacker post focused on the written aspect of comprehensive exams, for many graduate students there is another, equally dreaded component: the oral examination.

For even the most prepared students, this can be an intense and difficult experience. However, with enough preparation and the right mindset the oral examination can actually be an enjoyable experience where you get to talk about your ideas with members of your committee.

Having just completed this hurdle myself I’d like to go over some of the things that worked and those that I wish I had known before undertaking this process. This advice is the most relevant for those of you defending a written document that you’ve had time to prepare, but some of this will be applicable to more generalized oral examination formats.

Before the exam:        

Schedule the examination during you mental “peak” of the day: If you have the ability to set the day and time of your exam I highly recommend scheduling for the part of the day when you are most alert and focused. This meant my exam was at 9am since I become useless during the afternoon, and it worked out much better than trying to fight my natural rhythm. If you’re a morning person, schedule early; if you are at your best in the afternoon schedule your exam for that time.

Get enough sleep the night before: Do not stay up late to cram, what you’re about to do is too large to prepare for in one evening, so chill out. Hopefully you did you studying in daily blocks beforehand and are familiar enough with the material that you don’t need to turn the last day into a cramming nightmare. However, while outright cramming of your primary sources is not recommended, I do recommend the following:

Go over your notes briefly: The best thing I did while preparing for the oral examination was take hand-written notes to review later. In the end I had a study guide that covered my most important sources and summed up multiple concepts and techniques in my own words. This little notebook was extremely useful for a couple last-minute reviews of what I had put together the during the day and early morning hours leading up to the exam. I also highly recommend re-reading your written comprehensive exam at least one more time before the oral examination so that your proposal and all the details are fresh in your mind.

During the exam:

Speak slowly and remember to breathe: It’s not uncommon to speak rapidly when under stress. If you find that you are getting stressed during the examination and sound like you’ve had too much coffee take a moment for a deep breath or two to center yourself. If you can sneak this in while a committee member is speaking no one will even have to notice you collecting yourself and you will be able to respond in a much more calm, measured tone.  These examinations take a certain degree of stamina, so make the effort to remain relaxed so that you can maintain your energy through the whole event.

Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification: If a committee member asks you something that you don’t understand, there are two ways to deal with this. You can ask the committee member for further clarification, or you can attempt to rephrase the question to your committee member to make sure that you understand the major point. In either case, you should be able to get a better idea of what is being asked. However, there is always the chance that after clarification you still can’t answer the question. If that is the case…

Never forget the words “I don’t know”: In many cases, the oral examination is a test to failure; your committee will be actively looking for the limits of your knowledge. You will at some point hit this wall and won’t have an answer. If that is the case it is perfectly acceptable to say you don’t know. Don’t try to lead your committee, instead admit when you don’t know and use it as an opportunity to explain how you might test the idea or interpret it based off of what you do know. Either way, your committee should respect you candidness on the subject

After the exam:

Follow-up with any necessary paperwork: Don’t forget if your program has formalized documents that require signatures.

Take time off! I cannot emphasize this enough. For me it was a 3 day weekend where I watched too many Sopranos episodes and crocheted a new hat. Sometimes the best way to avoid burnout is to get out. Do whatever works for you, you’ve put in the hard work and have earned a break!

Do you have any tips and tricks on surviving the oral examination? If so, share them in the comments section below!


2 thoughts on “Surviving the Comprehensive Oral Exam”

  1. Great tips for the oral exam. Mine was grounded in coursework and then extended to hypothetical research situations. These tips would have worked for me as well.
    I also found the hand written notes extremely useful. We were also allowed to have a blank notepad so that while we were being asked a complex question we could make notes to ourselves and organize our thoughts. Sometimes I just doodled to buy time to collect my thoughts.
    Definitely agree on the “don’t know” response, but we were trained to try to relate it to something we did know. “Sorry, I’m not too familiar with that technique but perhaps one could use this other method instead…”
    Great write-up and congrats on completing your exams!

    1. Thanks for commenting Melissa!

      Your take on the “don’t know” is spot on; it is so much better if you can tie it into something related and demonstrate the breadth of you knowledge.

      I did something kind of similar to that where I ended up referencing the work of an invited speaker who gave a seminar on our campus just 6 days earlier. Somehow I managed to tie his work into supporting an alternate hypothesis of what might be happening in my system while on my feet instead of just saying “I don’t know”. That was one of the very few moments during my oral exam when I thought “you know, I might just actually be cut out to be a scientist, I can do this.”

      Good reason to go to seminar, you never know when or how you’ll use that information.

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