The Oral Exam

The morning of my oral exam for my PhD, I went ice skating. Ice skating is one of my favorite things, and it was incredibly quiet and calming.

10 minutes before my qualifier, I was handed a piece of paper with 10 questions. I got to pick where we started. I picked one, and I walked into the room. In my department, at that time, students had one hour qualifiers where they were asked questions in their discipline to see how much they knew and how well they could think of their feet. The idea was to push students to see how far they would get before they couldn’t answer questions. It was hugely intimidating.

When I entered the room, three faculty were there. I had switched disciplines from ceramics to polymers, and one of the three asked what I was doing since I was a ceramist. I explained that I had switched, and he just laughed and wished me luck. I laughed, too. I really didn’t know what I was doing.

I had practiced, a lot, with my colleague. He and I went back to back, and we both passed. We were told we were the most different students to work together. He could relate anything in the universe to the Flory-Huggins equation. It was a tour de force. I could talk about synthesizing things. (It was all talk. I still struggle with purity and yield.)

Tomorrow, my own students have their qualifiers. One of them stopped by my office. He’s really nervous. He’s brilliant. He should do fine. Our oral qualifier is designed to see if and how well students can design experiments to answer questions. He’s great at it.

Over the years, regardless of the format, the biggest reason students struggle is nerves. My experience is that nerves never go away, but practice and rehearsal make a world of difference. For some, though, being able to cope with nerves can take years of practice. Qualifiers tend to need to happen relatively early in one’s degree process. One doesn’t want to not qualify after being in the degree for 3-4 years. Then what? But, I wonder if qualifiers are a good thing or not.

I learned more during my qualifier preparation than at any time before or after. My students are practicing more than they ever have to be ready for tomorrow. What I question is whether they should have to leave the program if they can’t design experiments on their feet. I wonder if we can have different assessments at different times. I just wonder. We spend so much time working to make sure we admit strong students with a high probability of success. Do we or they benefit from a qualifier that can lead to their expulsion from the program? Is thinking on one’s feet critical to a PhD or not?


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