What Happens During the Oral Exam?

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I wanted to write a little bit about the Oral Qualifying Exam that I’ll be taking in two weeks, to give my family and friends back home an idea of what April 15th will be like for me.

At CU, all second year organic/materials/physical/biochem/analytical grad students take an oral qualifying exam. It’s about a 2-3 hour exam where you try best to explain and answer questions about your research to a committee of 3 faculty members. Prior to going into the exam, we write and turn in (to our committee members) a research summary that explains our whole project: the background info, significance, applications, specific aims, prior work done by other groups, current research done by oneself, and future work. The papers tend to be 5-10 pages, single spaced.

The exam goes down kind of like this:

As soon as the committee members are present, they send you out of the room to look over your transcript (grades in every class you’ve taken, overall GPA, # of cumes you’ve passed, etc.). I think then, they also talk about the “letter of recommendation” your advisor writes on your behalf.

You are invited back into the room and are given about 10 minutes to start explaining (chalk-talk style) your research before the questions start being fired. They might ask specific questions about my project, why this polymer tends to do that or why I’m using this type of monomer, but they could also ask anything I’ve learned in general or organic chemistry. Anything chemistry is technically fair game. So basically you need to know everything you’ve ever learned in college science classes.  Though I’ve been studying all year and working on my project for almost a year and a half, it’s impossible to know everything, so all you can do is try your best.

I’ve been told that they ask you questions you won’t have any idea how to answer. But the true test of pass or fail is how well you handle the question, working towards an answer, and yourself. They’ll try to stump you and shake you up a bit, but they also know you’ll be nervous, so they might help you through the hard stuff.

Some faculty members are frighteningly intimidating, but fortunately for me, I’ve taken classes with each of the members on my commitee, so they know me and the type of student I am and I know them and the type of teachers they are. That’s helped me in my study efforts over the past few months as well. I kind of (barely) have a feeling as to what types of questions they might ask.

The exams are tough, no one feels awesome about the experience during, but it’s something every aspiring PhD chemist must go through. My dad still remembers his oral exam, some 30 years ago. It’s not the kind of experience that just comes and goes.

If you pass: Huge weight off your shoulders and welcome to the official world of PhD candidacy. If you fail, well, there are 2 types of fails: 1. A “conditional fail” means you can retake the oral exam in the fall and try again to pass. 2. A “fail fail” means you will not be given another chance to try again and you’ll have earned a masters, but you’ll have to leave the program.

It’s scary, I’m scared, and like my parents have always told me, all you can do is work hard, study hard, and try your very best.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ah, the joys of grad school. You’ll do great and feel much better when it’s over!

  2. Rand says:

    Erin, I know you will prepare and do your very best. It’s good to be a little worried, scared- it means you care a lot. I’ve never known anyone in my long career, when doing something of significance, that did not feel that way. We’re all pulling for you!

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