Five Surprises from my Oral Exam

I passed my oral exam recently – woohoo! No more thesis tweaking! No more exam anxiety! Bring on the leisure reading!

The experience of the exam was quite different from what I expected. Here are the five things that really surprised me:

1. People have read my thesis!

I knew that my supervisors and examiner (I only had one in the exam, which is a bit unusual) had read my thesis, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the convenor had as well. That may not always be the case, but it was quite helpful because I didn’t have to overexplain – since everyone in the room was familiar with my work, I could speak without having to make sure that my research perspective was clear to the uninitiated.

2. The exam wasn’t a grilling

My examiner didn’t ask any direct questions. Instead, she spoke at length about her impressions of my thesis, her co-examiner’s report, and the aspects of my work that she felt were open to challenge. I kept waiting for a clearly defined question to come, but none did. Eventually, she invited other members of the examination committee to comment, and what resulted was more of a general discussion than a formal Q&A. I’m sure that’s not the case for everyone, but it really drove home to me that examiners have their own personal styles, and they’re not all harsh interrogators.

3. The committee was (literally) on my side

When I pictured the setup of my oral exam, I imagined something like this:

doctoral oral

Fortunately, I was wrong. I shared a table with the entire examination committee. Because my examiner was beamed in by video link, those of us who were physically in the room all sat on the same side of the table so that we could see the screen. The committee was (spatially, at least) on my side, which felt rather nice and far less intimidating than I had expected.

4. The discussion was sometimes motivated by the committee’s own interests

At times, the conversation in the room seemed strangely divorced from my work – committee members enquired after research avenues I hadn’t pursued, or probed the relevance of my work to fields I’m not in. I got a little worried by those queries during the exam, because I didn’t feel prepared to address them. But after the exam, the committee member who had taken things ‘off topic’ shook my hand, smiled, and told me how interested he’d been in my thesis. I realised that his line of discussion came from his research interests. He wasn’t trying to stump me; he was genuinely interested, and wanted to chat!

5. The technology changed the experience

Slightly awkward technology might be the most consistent aspect of university life. My examiner came to the room via video link, and though we were lucky that the link never failed, it was a little distracting. I kept having to adjust settings so that the examiner could see what she needed to see. It wasn’t difficult, and a friendly support person showed me how to work the controls before the exam. But all that fiddling pulled my head out of my thesis and into the real world. Maybe that was a blessing.

I can now report from experience that the oral exam is not necessarily the scary experience it’s rumoured to be – it can actually be friendly and (kinda) even enjoyable! Plus, finishing the exam is the best feeling in the world. Seriously. And on that note, I’m going to go out and stroll happily along a beach somewhere, pausing occasionally to jump up and click my heels.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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