Student and Faculty Advice

What students advise about approaching your orals

The best way to choose committee members is to make appointments to speak to the various faculty members who you think would be interested and knowledgeable in your area of study. If you like the feedback you receive, try to find dates and times that that person is available to sit on your committee. The chair of your committee should be someone who understands your research well, as this is the person who most influences the committee on whether or not you pass your oral exam.

One of the early steps in preparing to take your orals is to write a proposal stating the purpose and goals for your research project, the preliminary data that you have, and what you plan to do in the future. It is recommended that the proposal be thorough but concise. The written proposal should be distributed to your committee members for feedback. It is appropriate to ask your committee members the types of questions they might ask, based on the written proposal that you have given them to read. The questions you are asked during the exam depend on who is on your committee and the content of your research proposal.

It may also be helpful to discuss with your committee chair the format your exam will follow. Many students prepare a 10-minute oral summary of their research proposal as the first part of their oral exam. It is important to stress the significance and scope of the research that you are proposing to perform for your thesis project. Practice orals are one of the most important things you need to do in preparing for your exam. It is the best way to identify your strengths and weaknesses in everything from your general knowledge to your presentation skills.

The strategy for studying depends mainly on the specific project being proposed. You should ask both your research advisor and committee chair for guidance. Study general principles before becoming immersed in the specific.

A faculty member’s perspective on your orals

In choosing an orals committee, it is important to select a group of professors that will be able to understand your research topic and offer constructive and insightful criticism. It should also be a group with which you feel comfortable—in both a personal and a scientific sense. You should get a clear indication from your chair about what he or she wants to see in your written proposal. It is up to the student to make sure an acceptable proposal is provided to the committee.

The faculty always assume that the student is going to pass, and it is the duty of the committee to decide whether or not the student is properly prepared, understands the thesis topic, can discuss general scientific issues in a thoughtful and intelligent manner, and is ready to advance to candidacy. The committee does not expect the student to know everything, and there will be questions that the student may not be able to answer.