Grad School Survival Guide: Oral Examinations

For this entry in the Grad School Survival Guide, I begin with a story.

In the fall of each year, my department had meetings with the students in their first, second, and third year (individually) to discuss benchmarks in the program, student concerns, etc., sort of as a coaching meeting at the beginning of the year.

I was not in my third year when this story took place (in fact, I was in my eighth, and final year), and I had absolutely no intention of attending the third year meeting. I was just looking for a place to drink my coffee before meeting with a new visiting research fellow who also worked on Egypt, and I figured that the fourth floor common area outside the research fellows’ offices would be empty.

I was wrong.

Off I walked from the elevator in my best “I’m not teaching today and don’t have to look pretty” clothes (which is to say, the ones that didn’t have visible stains on them or had been co-opted by the cats as a nest on the floor of the closet) with my headphones in, carrying a paper mug from the ‘bucks and I don’t know what else … and discovered that twenty sets of eyes were watching me do so.

Had I but been naked it would have been a scene from a nightmare.

“Oh, hi.” I said over whatever Scandinavian pop-rock I was into that day blasting into my ears. “Um, can I sit here quietly? I’m meeting someone in twenty minutes.”

And that was when the invitation was offered. “The students are a bit nervous about comps,” said the graduate advisor. “Come offer words of wisdom.”

Trying to wrap my head around the need to be social–I am an introvert. I have learned to be an extroverted introvert, but I still, in my mid-40s, do not react well to discovering that I need to be social when I was not expecting to be–I came and took a seat at the table and asked the assembled group, “So, what about comps is stressing you out?”

It transpired that the students were nervous about the oral component of the comprehensive exams. And herein I said something that made our normally unflappable graduate advisor flinch:

“Oh, orals stressed me out. I was way more stressed about my oral comprehensives than I am about my dissertation defense.”

And, for the record, having now been through my dissertation defense (successfully), let me say definitively: yes, I was much more stressed about my oral comprehensive exams than I was about the defense.

If you are feeling as though this might be the case for you, let me offer this piece of sage wisdom: it’s not just you. And also, relax.

man in white shirt using macbook pro
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Why you’re stressed

You probably don’t need me to delineate the causes of your stress, but let me boil it down to one simple thing that, for me, fed into all the rest of my comps-related stress: I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

You see, oral comprehensive exams aren’t open to the public. I think they do that so that there’s no additional pressure on the examinee, but I’m not sure that’s actually the end result. By the time I started my doctoral program I had attended a handful of dissertation defenses. I knew what sorts of questions were asked, and I knew what they sounded like when they went well.

Later, I would discover what it sounded like when they did not go well (disclaimer: it wasn’t mine). One defense went so poorly that one of the committee members later apologized to me in her office because she said that “you poor students all looked pretty traumatized, and I want you to know that’s not how things normally go.” There were a lot of extenuating circumstances. I won’t go into it here, as it’s not my tale to tell, but it also served to demonstrate that for things to go that badly at a defense you have to put some effort into it. If your advisor and committee tell you you’re ready to defend, there’s absolutely no reason to lose sleep over the defense.

But … what about comprehensives? I’ve heard of people who don’t pass their comprehensives. What sorts of questions are asked? What does the right answer look like? I mean, this one time at a defense I saw a candidate deflect a question by coolly responding, “That’s an excellent question, but I would have to argue that it’s outside the scope of this project.” And the committee accepted that! Can I do that in comps? (Note: I wouldn’t advise it).

For a long time there was even a prohibition on sharing the written examination questions and essays with colleagues. I don’t know if it’s still in place, but I do know a couple of colleagues who posted their comps portfolios online. In my day, I didn’t even have a sample of what the stupid things were supposed to look like.

adult blur business close up
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A note on the written examinations

You’ll notice that I haven’t written a separate entry about the written comprehensive essays. And this is because they are not one-size-fits-all. Some universities put you in a room and give you x amount of time to do a brain dump of everything you’ve learned. Some give you a couple of days per essay. Mine gives you a month to do all of them. In short: advice that worked for me probably won’t work for you.

I had all my sources and materials at my beck and call. The “short” essay–at 24 pages–had hundreds of footnotes. If you’re locked in a room for eight hours and doing a stream of consciousness data dump of the previous year’s reading based solely on your memory, my advice will be completely useless.

For the written: Paint with big strokes, identify large themes, and write until you’re done. The purpose of the essay is to demonstrate the wide breadth of knowledge you’ve accumulated. The best advice I can give here is to suggest that you treat your written examination as a preparation of the orals. This is a document you’ll be coming back to in that session. Lay out your argument and explanation here.

trial

So. Orals.

There are two very helpful pieces of advice that were given to me about comps.

The first is that the oral exam is that it’s like an Oral Proficiency Interview in a foreign language. Now, if you’re in one of those lucky fields where you don’t have to do these (or you specialize in dead languages), let me explain how these work. The test is designed to determine how high your language ability goes. The key–and often missing–piece of information for the testee is that in order to determine how high your ability goes, the test has to exceed your ability to communicate in that language–in other words, for the test to work, you have to fail.

The conversation will begin with “hello, what is your name?” and proceed through “order this at the grocery story” to “please explain the macroeconomic impacts of Prince Feisal’s plan to develop the natural gas sector of the economy” gradually and slowly over the course of the session. At some point, your vocabulary and/or grammar will run out, and your ability to communicate will break. It’s supposed to, unless you’re a native speaker (in which case, why the hell are you taking a proficiency interview in a language you speak natively?).

Your language aptitude is then measured at the highest level where you were able to perform competently. Some mistakes, but you were able to plow through and make yourself understood despite them.

The comprehensive oral examination is a bit like this. The questions will be probing. You’ll be asked about areas that the committee feels you deviated away from, or didn’t address as fully as they wanted. They’ll push you to defend certain points you made. You might have been wrong once or twice. (These are all things that happened in mine). The idea is to see how much knowledge you built up over the past year and determine that it is Satisfactory.

You will not be asked names, dates, and places. More likely you’ll be asked about authors and arguments.

What I find helpful about the OPI analogy is this: you’re not expected to be able to answer everything. Not all questions are for answering. Some are to make you think. Knowing this makes a huge difference in how you react.

The other piece of advice I got, which I fear is also true, is that the comprehensive oral examination is academic hazing.

In my case…the committee decided before I even entered the room that I had passed the exam and spent the next ninety minutes putting me through the wringer mainly to get me to think about the things I hadn’t addressed fully in the written portion, so that I could be aware of them as I moved into the dissertation phase.

Why they couldn’t just tell me this I don’t know. There is an element of “we went through it, so you will also go through it” to all of this.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve done well in your reading for the exams, if you feel like you’ve done competently on the written essays (no one feels like they aced them, except for that one friend of mine who will message me the moment he reads this to tell me that he did … I see you, CMB), you should be well prepared for the orals.

If, on the other hand, you just skipped an entire section of your reading list because you found the material boring and uninteresting, then you probably have reason to be worried.

I know people who feel the need to “cram” for their orals. If this makes you feel better prepared, I won’t discourage it, but by all means don’t pull an all-nighter. You’ve had a year (or longer). You’re not going to shovel it into your brain at the last second. Re-read your written essays and get some sleep.

You’ve made it this far. It’s in no one’s interest to see you fail now!