testing "general" knowledge at the graduate level

Sarah Boomer sarai at u.washington.edu
Thu Aug 22 15:44:43 EST 1996

The candidacy exam thread is interesting and generated a question I have
and which our dept. has struggled with, changing the exam many times in
the process.

When I took the exams, we had to choose 3 of 6 subject areas (in micro.
these were things like - virology, bacterial pathogenesis, bacterial
genetics, microbial ecology, immunology, and cell biology).  In the summer
before the oral exam (which was in fall), there were 2 days of written
general exams.  Two faculty (for each subject test) wrote 6 big essay
questions, and the students picked 3 of these to answer (usually).  My
advisor - and several others - openly said - take a month off to study for
this and spend very little time working on experiments.  Clues for what to
study were not has hard as they may seem (especially for something like
"cell biology) because they were often topical or based on journal club.
The "wrench" questions sometimes, in fact, were elaborate questions to
explain, in utmost detail, techniques and the theories behind them
(longstanding lore has it that someone wanted a vast explanation for
centrifugation one year - physics and all (and that was just the
beginning) - and that class of students really bombed if they chose cell

Anyway - problems arose because the more hard-core, lab-only,
research-only PIs resented the "unwritten" month off study period.  So it
was dropped and replaced with various things:  three years of evolving
"general" exams - most involving a "second proposal" or "literature
review" piece of writing about another field (or two).  The student was
grilled a bit at the oral, in addition to their project-specific proposal.
They're still tweeking the system though.

One of my PhD Chemist friends said they took subject tests at 3 month
intervals through their second year and basically had to pass 4/8 or
something as part of the candidacy process.  I always thought that was a
good approach that would foster better, more continuous reading and
analytical skills.

Personally, I'm a little old-fashioned because I think students should
take the writtens, not really knowing what the questions are.  I don't
like the second proposal thing (or other ideas) because (a) they are never
broad enough;  and (b) there just isn't that element of surprise and I
think it's too easy for a student to bone up on a very, very specific

When I took the orals - we walked five miles, in the snow, and we liked
it... :)  Of course - my old boss recalls having to master German and
being tested on that too.  Oh dear.

So - questions:

What do other people think?
How do other people deal with this?
What really consistitutes general knowledge at this level?

Sarah Boomer				email:  sarai at u.washington.edu
Dept. of Microbiology			work phone:  543-3376
Box 357242				work FAX:  543-3376
University of Washington
Seattle, WA  98195

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