My Best PhD Exam Advice

For those of you getting ready to take such things as PhD exams (and you know who you are; I’ve got one of you in mind specially), my advice:

(Now, this is not about the studying.  Let’s assume that you had a plan, and you had a schedule, and you spent months going over your class notes, and you met with your study group.  Or whatever you did.  Let’s assume that whatever you did to get ready, that piece of things is over.  This is for after that.  When you’re a week or less away from the exam, and you’re feeling a Bit Stressed.)

Written Exams:

If written exams terrify you, make sure you do your best to get sleep — or at least rest — the night before, and eat whatever you know will help you remain calm.  Get to the exam room, marshall your resources (computer, paper, pens, whatever), make yourself comfortable, and take a minute to breathe deeply and focus.  And then:

For the Love of God,  First.  Read.  The.  Damn.  Directions.  I have very occasionally seen people fail a written PhD exam because they weren’t able to talk about the material in enough depth or width, but that’s oh so seldom.  Seldom indeed.  No, what mostly happens, when students end up having to retake the exam, is that they were taking an exam that asked them to answer, oh, let’s say, three questions in four hours, and they answered two, and then they were pretty much out of time, and so they wrote a very slim or nonexistent essay for the third question.  Alas, that will not do.  So please, please, please, read the directions, and plan your time.   And then keep to that plan. 

Here’s one of the problems: you will not be able to tell your examiners everything you know.  And this will be very frustrating, if you have an hour to answer a question that you’ve been thinking about for a year.  I’m sorry.  Later, you can write your dissertation, and explain all this stuff.  But do NOT write the dissertation now.  Take the exam.  Plan out the answer to a question, make an outline, write the thing, move on.

Oral Exams:

If oral exams terrify you (this was true for me), prepare yourself as above.  You need sleep and you need decent food.  When you get to the exam room, say your hellos, smile, sit down, and breathe in.  Focus, as best you can.

Here’s the trick: you are not required to start talking the minute a question has been asked and is over.  You can take a minute to think about it.  One of the common problems I see in oral exams is a tendency to ramble.  But you don’t need to fill space.  Listen to the question, and allow it to sink in, and say, “let me have a second,” or whatever phrase works for you, and then answer the question only after you’ve got an idea in your mind of the structure of your answer.  Do not just start talking, hoping that there will eventually be enough verbiage to cover the answer.  A shorter, more succinct, clearer answer will be more effective, AND you will be more comfortable and happy with it.

And if the question doesn’t make sense, ask for it again.  It’s ok to say, “I’m not sure what you mean.  Could you ask me that again?”  And if you’ve been asked to talk about a certain text, and you know that would be a bad idea, on account of it is not in your head, say, “I’ll have trouble using that text for the question; may I use…..” and then mention the text that you can work with.

Overall Remarks:

Unless something has gone unusually and horribly wrong, your professors want you not only to pass, but to do well.  They have been working with you for, probably, years.  They want you to shine.  If they ask you difficult questions, it is because they thought you could handle them.  Now, I admit that in many cases this does not come across in their demeanor.  But it is nevertheless true.  They do not actually look better if you fail. 

On the other hand, like you, they are only human, and they have also spent many years hanging out in Academic Shame Culture, which can be psychically debilitating.  So if they are terrifying, that’s probably what’s going on. 

Finally:  You will probably do well!  Yay!  This is great!  But if you don’t, it is not the end of the world.  Even failing a PhD exam does not mean you are not a fine scholar. It means you failed the PhD exam.  In most cases, you’ll be able to take it over — think about what happened, and why it didn’t work, and address that issue in your preparation for the next round.   And if indeed, the graduate study part of your life is over, that will be sad, and probably humiliating for a while, but again, it will not be the end of the world. 

And at any rate, that’s not where you are at the moment.  You’re getting ready to take a big ol’ exam.  Get some sleep.

4 Replies on “My Best PhD Exam Advice

  1. Dr. Brannen,

    I do not know if you remember me or not, but I was a student of your in the Spring 2010 semester in UCOR 102. I’ve been noticing your posts on Facebook and decided to check out your website. This is a great article–very helpful indeed! I’m in graduate school now (M.A. Theology) and plan to go on to get my Ph.D. once I’m finished. I will save this article and use it when the time is appropriate.

    Jeanette Tellish

  2. Such good advice!

    The first 10 minutes of my oral exam was so horribly awful. I went around in circles, verbally, and it was all because I was nervous and freaked out. Luckily, after that first 10 minutes passed I hit my stride and did fine the rest of the time, and luckily, they were willing to overlook that first 10 minutes and give me a pass. 🙂

    My advisor and I talked about it afterwards. She (teasing): “What did you do that for?” Me: “Gah.” (I was so relieved she teased me about it–that meant it was over & done & worth laughing about.)

    1. I failed my orals completely the first time; I absolutely froze. So after that I knew to practice grounding and staying focused; it wasn’t about what I knew, it was about getting it out of my mouth. I’m fine with written exams, They’re easy. But I can easily freeze in situations that feel adversarial to me. Hence my advice.