Take the heat out of trial by fire

Tara Brabazon offers 10 tips to make doctoral candidates’ oral examinations less of an ordeal

April 21, 2010


Two of my students are within weeks of submitting their doctorates. It is tough to configure the right mix of compassionate support and needling motivation to ensure that the exhaustion, fear and worry are not incapacitating. All supervisors know that these final few weeks – to use estate-agent speak – will close the deal. If students suffer a metaphoric brain explosion and become so overwhelmed with stress that they cannot complete the necessary editing, a thesis that should have sailed through examination becomes mired in major corrections.

While remaining attentive, watchful and only slightly beady-eyed with the postgraduates, I am focusing on the next challenge confronting them: the oral examination. I am stunned at how little preparation goes into this crucial day. A mock exam is one part of the preparation required. I am saddened by the lack of concrete advice that students receive from supervisors and staff in the wider doctoral management structure. Postgraduates enter the exam room looking like they are about to have an internal organ cut from their body with a chainsaw, carrying a copy of a heavily highlighted doctoral thesis with a few Post-it notes hanging from key pages.

It is supervisors who are to blame for this behaviour. Too many supervisors supervise like they were supervised. In other words, they repeat patterns from personal experience. This is a flaw in professional development programmes, with universities offering few strategies to infuse new ideas, processes and practices into supervision.

Similarly, supervisors prepare students to be examined as they were examined. There are few guarantees in life. Two certainties are that Lady Gaga is not a natural blonde and that a doctorate evaluated in the 1970s or 1980s has little connection to contemporary protocols. Supervisory training is crucial because without this circuit-breaker, we will do to others as has been done to us.

We should be honest: most of us were educated in a kinder time for teaching. Our supervisors did not have to fight through a queue of undergraduates to get into their office. Their in-boxes (if they had one) did not beep with the regularity of a drug dealer’s mobile phone. Our university culture is different. The supervisory processes must recognise these distinctions.

In this article, and with respect for the postgraduates submitting their thesis and preparing for an oral examination, here are 10 immediately applicable strategies to ease the long walk into the cold room and make the most of the event. These ideas will not guarantee a pass or fewer corrections. However, these tips can create control over one variable: the student’s response to the environment.

1. Know that the first question will be easy. Be aware that the last question will be difficult.

Every oral examination commences with a preamble like “I know this is a stressful situation” and a preliminary statement about the intellectual shape of the next two hours. This comment will be followed by a simple request, to:

• present the key argument in the thesis, or

• discuss your original contribution to knowledge, or

• explain what drew you to this topic.

At its most basic, this first question could be, “So Sally, tell us what you were trying to achieve in this doctorate.” Knowing that the oral examination may start in this way, the candidate can relax into the first answer and present the headline findings from the research.

Candidates should know that examiners have written an arc of questions before the student meets them. Often each examiner will prepare five to 10 questions while reading the thesis and then meet with their fellow examiner for 30 minutes before the student walks into the room. The questions are combined and ordered. During that time, key decisions are made about the expectations for the oral examination and its relationship to the result awarded. Some examiners go off script, particularly if unusual or unexpected concerns emerge. But if they are experienced and prepared, then the entire process will be smooth and professional.

2. Listen to the question and wipe your intellectual slate clean after each one.

Treat each question as if it is separate, independent and disconnected from the question before or after it. Do not panic if your previous answer was poor; do not let it unsettle the rest of the session. I have seen students mismanage one topic and then be troubled and distracted by it for the next hour. I have seen others provide an incomplete or mediocre answer and then desperately attempt to correct themselves as each new question is asked.

One dodgy answer does not mean that a student fails. Treat the examination as if it is a day on the golf course. Focus on the current hole. When playing off the 12th tee, it does the golfer no favours to recall the bunker and the double bogey on the 11th. Instead, concentrate on the bunkers surrounding this fairway; don’t think ahead to the long tee shot that will be needed on the next. To continue the metaphor, it is possible – and likely – that a bogey on a couple of holes is balanced by birdies on others. With care and attention, an albatross is possible. Postgraduates are aiming for an even round on the day.

3. Write down the questions.

It amazes me how rarely students write down the questions asked of them. They enter the room weighed down by a bound thesis, a water bottle, 14 folders with random notes, worry beads and several religious icons stuck to particular chapters.

Examiners may ask a student to explain a comment on page 57 or page 310 in some detail. Most examiners assume that a student knows their own thesis without referring to it; after all, they wrote it. Similarly, examiners have spent several days and often a week working through a doctoral manuscript. They have kept detailed notes and written a long report. Examiners craft questions probing patterns, structures and arguments, rarely picking at individual pages or sentences. Students delude themselves if they think an examination can be steered in a particular direction through their Post-it notes.

If soon-to-be examined students take only one tip from this article, it should be this. When the examiner asks a question, write it down on a piece of paper. As they ask it, look them in the eye, then note the key phrase to trigger an answer. This simple strategy can be a lifesaver. Not only does it give students who are nervous something to anchor their thoughts, it provides a clear recognition that an examination is a peculiar process.

Under strain, any of us can become confused and “forget” a part of or even an entire question. Therefore, write it down. It is not unusual or embarrassing to do so. Indeed, from an examiner’s perspective, it demonstrates respect for knowledge and the question. It shows that the student is taking the process seriously. Do not flick through the thesis. Do not look for a Post-it note. Look the examiner in the eye. Listen to the question. Write it down.

4. Pause before answering the question.

Oral examinations can transform well-balanced, brilliant and thoughtful scholars into screaming divas lip-syncing to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. A common error made by candidates asked a question is to launch into a rambling answer to avoid the embarrassment of “dead air” in the room.

Do not fill the available space with random words while you think of an answer. Instead, listen to the question, write it down, look up, take a breath, construct a first sentence, take another breath and only then begin to speak. Ten seconds of silence and thought between a question and an answer is absolutely fine. It does not show weakness. Do not become a Jeremy Kyle guest, engaging the jaw before the brain. Approach the question with an open mind, not an open mouth.

5. Ask a question of the examiner if you require clarification of a term.

The great advantage of writing down a question and pausing before assembling a response is that if there is a concept, idea or word used by the examiner that is unclear, it gives the student an opportunity to ask for clarification. The best oral examinations often commence with a statement like, “We know this is a stressful day for you, but we are here to dialogue with your work.” The most effective sessions have moments of light and shade, thought and humour. Therefore, if there is a term or phrase that is ambiguous, ask the examiners for clarity before you try to answer. Again, this is a respectful gesture, rather than impudence. It shows a desire for precision.

6. Take the tone out of the examiner’s voice. Listen to the content of the question.

Because most students experience only one oral examination in their life, they assume that the questioning is adversarial. Perhaps candidates have seen too many episodes of Law and Order or Ashes to Ashes, but they assume that all forms of interrogation involve a sweaty bloke trying to throw them into jail.

It is important to remember that examiners are people, too. They have different styles, but they all care for students and try to attain the best results for them while maintaining international educational standards. I have seen placid examiners be sharp with a doctoral candidate to ensure that they answer a pivotal question crucial to passing – and avoiding tumbling into re-examination or failure. Similarly, I have seen aggressive men go through the motions with a student, being ever so gentle, knowing that there is nothing the candidate can say to save the thesis.

The best examiners give students verbal hints about what they are doing: “Paul, I am sorry, but I am going to push you here. We need more from you when answering this question.” Another sign of importance is that they ask supplemental questions. They keep returning to a particular topic or content area because it is crucial to their decision-making about the calibre of the research.

Students should disregard the tone of an examiner’s voice. There will be aggressive and nasty examiners, although such people should be rare because supervisors enact an expansive background check on every scholar invited to participate in this process. Students must not think that if an examiner is sweet that they will pass or if the examiner is brittle they will fail. The reality may be the exact opposite of that assumption. Therefore, take the emotion, body language and posturing out of the examination room. Find content in the question rather than respond to a tone of voice.

7. Make sure that you are answering what the examiners have asked you, rather than what you would like to have been asked.

My major critique of the practice of holding just a single mock examination is that it relaxes the student and supervisors into assuming that the formal process will proceed well. The reality is that it is very difficult to predict where examiners will take the thesis. Therefore, the candidate must live in the moment and listen carefully. Much to my horror – and that is why I worry when students walk into an examination room with heavily highlighted theses peppered with Post-it notes – students think that they know what they will be asked and when they are not asked those questions, they proceed to answer them anyway.

While mock examinations are useful, I favour multiple modes of preparation. The key is to teach students how to concentrate and have the flexibility of mind to connect their research to the examiners’ queries. These days, from the first week of their candidature, I ask students about their thesis and record their answers. Postgraduates learn to listen to a query about their research, hear their own voice and become adept in managing nerves and testing findings.

Recently, I have started to record a series of 20 questions for my PhD students in the months before their oral examination. They listen to my question, pause the recording and offer a response. When comfortable with their answers, they are recorded and supervisors assess their progress. Before the examination, candidates have answered hundreds of questions through multiple cycles of reflection and commentary.

Particularly for students managing English as a second language, this more expansive support, planning and scaffolding is useful. It is important for students to realise that every examination is different. The students who face most difficulty are those with the greatest preconceptions about what they will be asked.

8. Be prepared to admit weakness and state what you could have done differently.

Postgraduates assume that if something went wrong in their research their theses will fail. Similarly, they take the “defence” bit of the phrase “oral defence” too literally. They treat questions like physical attacks. The best students disconnect the doctorate from their sense of self and know that it is a document presenting their research, not an avatar of their identity.

Effective oral examinations emerge when students realise that it is not the best scholarship they will produce. Indeed, as Graeme Turner told me nearly two decades ago, “If the PhD is the best research you will ever produce, you should be worried.” The doctoral thesis is an apprenticeship into academic life. The key is to note the weaknesses of the project and be able to explain how – if the doctoral cycle were to be replayed – specific methods, strategies or sections would be reconfigured.

The best example I tell my students is of a fascinating doctoral candidate who was enrolled for seven years – far too long. The media world had changed while she was writing it. Too many supervisors offered too much advice, generally involving reading their work to the neglect of the wider field. She realised that – ironically – the weaknesses of the thesis were actually its strength. She had trialled a process, and it had failed. Her thesis became about logging those failures to freshen the research literature. Throughout the oral exam, she detailed the changes to software and hardware that emerged throughout the candidature.

The examiners were thrilled with her candour. Before her comments, the predicted result was major corrections and re-examination. Because she had shown awareness of the context in which the thesis was written and had acknowledged the project’s weaknesses, the final outcome was minor corrections and no re-examination.

Examiners are not expecting perfection. They are not expecting a student to exhibit the wisdom of Zygmunt Bauman. The PhD is the start – not the end – of a research career. Admit what would be done differently. Show not only an understanding of the doctorate, but a capacity to transcend it.

9. Examinations are stressful. Do not deny the stress. Manage it.

The oral examination is like no other event in academic life. The closest parallel is a job interview. But if a person fluffs an interview, they apply for another job. If a student has a meltdown and starts speaking in tongues during the exam, three years are lost.

It is important to acknowledge the stress, rather than denying it. An oral examination assesses the capacity to manage the rigour of intense questioning. For the candidate, the key is to take control over the parts of the process in their hands. Check the arrangements. Visit the room before the day. Sit in it. Have a think. Arrive two hours before the scheduled time. Tell your supervisor your preference: to be alone or to sit with them. Either choice is absolutely fine. Most importantly, surround yourself with people who have been through the process. Do not be spooked or frightened by people who do not hold a doctorate. They have not earned the right to comment.

For students managing a specific challenge, incapacity, illness or disability, it is crucial that they register this matter with their supervisors and candidature managers. The student has a right to receive confirmation that the examiners are made aware of the issue. Unfortunately, (too) few universities have doctoral regulations for candidates managing disabilities or specific physical or emotional concerns with a bearing on the examination. Therefore, it is important that experienced assessors are involved in these cases to ensure fairness, even on an ad hoc basis. These modifications could involve a five-minute break every three questions or a 10-minute break after an hour. Seating arrangements can be reorganised or desks moved. If examiners understand the situation, they can create a management plan.

Do not worry that disclosure of particular challenges will jeopardise the result of the examination. It will not.

10. There may be a final question asking if the examiners have covered the key issues in the candidate’s research. Use the opportunity.

Oral examinations are a marathon of intellectual endurance and concentration. By the end of the process, some students look like they have been kicked around Old Trafford. They are exhausted and embarrassed. However, if they follow some of my recommendations, each question will be treated as a fresh opportunity to discuss research, rather than a chance to revisit a poor answer.

The best candidates keep momentum and maintain focus. This is important because not only will the questions increase in difficulty, but because there will frequently be a final question that allows the student to present themselves at their best. Examiners want to make sure that the candidate leaves the room feeling that they have done themselves justice. There will be a question that asks if there are any final comments they would like to make. The problem is that most students are exhausted by the time this opportunity arises. They limp a response like, “I think everything has been covered.”

A job interview often ends with the chair of the panel asking if the job seeker has any questions. This is a chance for the prospective employee to show that she knows the organisation so well that detailed questions can be asked.

The parallel is clear. Do not slouch out of the oral examination. Seize the chance. State the original contribution to knowledge. Log the challenges overcome, the interdisciplinary links forged and the opportunities for future research. Show that the doctorate is the start of a career rather than a speed bump in a scholarly road. Demonstrate enthusiasm for knowledge. Leave examiners with a good feeling as they commence their determinations.

This is hard to do. Every bodily organ is screaming to be released from the room. For five minutes, steady the emotions, smile, look into the eyes of examiners and express a belief in knowledge.

When the process is over, do not judge, ridicule, second-guess or demand revenge. Compartmentalise the experience. Remove emotion. Show courage and maturity to become the best scholar you can be. Make the corrections if required. Steel yourself for another oral examination if necessary. But know that you have survived an event that few people have had the privilege of experiencing. All education is a gift and an opportunity. To be given the chance to complete a doctorate is rare and special. It matters. Remember it. Make sure that, for the postgraduates you eventually supervise, the process is not repeated, but professional development gained to transcend it.

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