candidacy exam prep. problems..

Karen Allendoerfer ravena at
Wed Aug 21 21:31:37 EST 1996

In article
<Pine.A32.3.92a.960819171817.29484C-100000 at>,
Sarah Boomer <sarai at> wrote:


> our department has a policy/admission committee who not only makes
> sure that students have a committee (and first pre-exam meeting) by the
> summer before the exam (usually in October) but also has been playing a
> fairly active role in defining appropriate committee member content.
>         As far as preparation, most advisors I know at least put the
> students through a few lab meeting pre-exams where it is the advisor's and
> the lab members role to simulate the exam.

Wow, your department is a lot more hands-on than mine was.  I think this
varies a great deal from dept to dept and school to school.  I think if
you're in one of those hands-off departments, Sarah's advice below is
quite good:

Do you have
> post-docs or fellow students in the lab who can assist you, guide you,
> grill you?  I wouldn't be afraid to talk to my boss at this stage of your
> career for such practice sessions.  Communication is probably the most
> important thing that needs to be happening right now - don't act like all
> you want is his/her direct guidance;  you may want to present your ideas
> about a committee or pre-exam drills, or even reading your proposal once
> for just glaring errors.  I've watched too many friends go through
> re-takes because their boss have a sink or swim attitude.  Part of that
> attitude, though, may apply to the pre-exam phase too, you know.  A
> student needs to show initiative and preparation then and make things
> clear then, during, and after the exams.

   My oral exam was supposed to also include "general knowledge."  I
stressed out about this more than I needed to, in hindsight.  There was
nothing scarier to me than to be staring the entire scientific literature
of my field in the face, and feeling responsible for it all.  
   So, I made a list of topics I thought were important based on my
thesis, and put down who I thought were the important workers in each of
those subfields.  I used a number of sources to help me make up the list: 
the recommendations of postdocs and other more advanced students (what
papers do you read?  Whose work do you admire?), textbooks, review
articles (oh, her name is listed a bunch of times, maybe her work is
important/interesting), and just "my own judgement" of those people who
had been through the department to give seminars, who was on papers with
whom, who had been invited to speak at important meetings whose names were
up on posters on the wall advertising these meetings, whose work I just
really loved reading, etc.,  and then showed this list to my advisor and
committee members. I said that I was going to try to familarize myself
with these topics and these people's work in preparation for my oral exam,
and I asked my committee members if they had anything to add.  Two of them
did, two of them didn't.  But then I had a defined list that I could work
my way through.  
   I think that defining what you have to do is an important first step
towards doing it.  And in a "hands off" department, this skill is very

My exam turned out to be fun, and so did my thesis defense.

Good luck,


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