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Oral examination for PhD candidacy

  1. May 8, 2013 #1
    So i just finished an oral examination the other day and I feel completely humiliated. I answered some questions correctly but I had massive brain-farts and I couldn't keep a coherent thought alive for more than a few seconds. I felt completely overwhelmed with the situation and I feel as though my whole education slipped out from under me. To give an example I was asked if potentials could arise from non-conservative forces, and though in any normal situation I would have said something brilliant about path dependency I answered 'yes, they can' like a blundering idiot. . . This has haunted me for almost 36 consecutive hours and I cannot sleep because of it. I keep wondering if the physics department is going to tell me to get lost or if I will lose my research assistantship. Any advice on this matter would be brilliant. Am I overreacting?
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  3. May 8, 2013 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    We have even less information than you do. Maybe you did OK. Maybe you didn't.

    All you can do is wait, I'm afraid.
  4. May 8, 2013 #3


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    It's rare that anyone comes out of a candidacy exam feeling like they did very well. There are a number of reasons for this.

    First, psychologically when you look back on exams, particularly oral ones, you tend to focus on the parts you had difficulty with and gloss over the parts that you did well on. You keep thinking "I should have said..."

    Second, such exams are usually designed to challenge you. Unlike the written exams that most students are used to where, if you've studied hard and understand a pre-defined set of material you can get a perfect score, candidacy exams are more about establishing the limits of your knowledge in your field. Different schools will approach them differently, but generally your examination committee will keep asking you questions until you get to a point where you stumble.

    Third, most people just aren't very accustomed to oral exams. In a written exam, you can pause, skip to the questions you know best first, erase something that you'd rather not say in hindsight, etc. It's very important to practice for oral exams in my opinion. Get together with other graduate students and take turns answering questions up in front of a white board. Get used to explaining things orally and thinking on your feet.

    In my experience, the feedback from such exams is immediate. After the exam we ask the student to leave, discuss his or her performance and when we arrive at a decision, we call him or her back and give the result. If this isn't how it goes for you, I would suggest talking with your supervisor if you want something, or just wait until they give you your result and do something to take your mind off of it.
  5. May 8, 2013 #4


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    Heh. In my oral, one of the examiners was a prof who was famous for speaking loudly. During one phase of the exam they kicked me out of the room to have their "confidential" portion. I was down the hall, around the corner, and in the bathroom having a nervous whiz. And I could still hear this guy giving his review of my thesis. In my case, I was pretty sure I'd done ok by the time I was invited back in the room.

    To the original poster: Nothing says you can't ask your thesis advisor. He or she was presumably in the exam room also, and will likely have a fair idea of what is going to happen.

    Also, it's fairly rare for the oral to be the killer. If the "system" lets you get that far and fails you, it looks bad on them as well as you. During my time in academe only one guy I ever heard of failed an oral. And they let him work for six months more and take it again. So he wound up getting his degree after all, just a little later than he expected.
  6. May 8, 2013 #5
    I suppose that makes sense. The problem I see with this approach is that I don't make mistakes in my math (I'm talking stupid algebra mistakes). I made several during that exam and it just makes me angry every time I think about it. My fear is that they'll see that as a weakness rather than a symptom of the scenario. Most of the committee know my work and know that I don't make those silly mistakes.

    Where is the balance between "this guy has really bad nerves which is making him act funny and stumble" & "this guy doesn't know his stuff"?
  7. May 8, 2013 #6
    It sounds like this was an oral qualifying exam, not a thesis defense.
  8. May 8, 2013 #7
    Between conference presentations, teaching undergraduates, and ultimately defending your thesis, the ability to keep your head while speaking about physics is an important skill to have as a PhD student. That is the reason for oral exams like you had. To what extent your examiners will weight this factor against their prior knowledge of your abilities is, like Vanadium 50 said, something we have even less information than you do. If you do get through this OK, then I hope this something you will take to heart. Just knowing your stuff isn't enough, so this is a skill you are going to have to work hard at developing.

    Beyond that, it's out of your control at the moment. You're not doing yourself any favours by stressing about it. We, who are unfamiliar with you and your situation, simply aren't in a position to give you the reassurance you're looking for. Just take a deep breathe, maybe go out for a fun evening with some friends tonight, and keep reminding yourself that you there's nothing more you can do to change what's been done. You can—and should—learn from the experience for the future, of course, and should talk to your advisor when this is all over. But stressing about something that is completely out of your hands is useless, no fun, and bad for your health.
  9. May 8, 2013 #8


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    I agree with Last One Standing.

    One thing to remember is that everyone on the examination committee has also gone through such exams themselves. They know what it's like and even though some may act like they may have forgotten, I doubt they really have.

    The examination is a formal process, but informally you're tested every time you interact with your supervisor, every time you have a committee meeting, every time you present your work, by the progress you make in your research, etc. The committee and particularly your supervisor should notice a disconnect between the work that you do every day and your performance during an exam. If you really had a questionable performance during the exam, one option that most schools provide would be to give you some particular material to focus on and then re-attempt the exam a few months down the road.

    If on the other hand you've been struggling with everything, the examination committee may not be so forgiving.
  10. May 8, 2013 #9


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    Maybe, maybe not. As others have said, we weren't there, so we don't know.

    But one technique to calm yourself down is to think realistically about what is the WORST possible thing that can happen after this. For example, you are not going to be thrown in jail, or fined $1,000,000, your story isn't going to be the lead item on the national TV news tonight ....

    Of course those are ridiculous options, but that's the point of the exercise - to recover your grip on reality.
  11. May 8, 2013 #10
    I find this line of thought very helpful. I really do appreciate everyone's advice; it is nice to know that people can show concern for others they've never met in their life. Thank you.
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