So you’re scared of the oral exam. Who isn’t? It’s one of the few times in life when a panel of experts will come together to pick apart years of your work and make a grand judgement which will massively impact upon your professional life. Yikes.
As horrible as that sounds, many PhD candidates emerge from their oral exams kind of surprised and very often happy. It’s usually less of a big deal than we imagine, and often much less specific than we fear.
When preparing for my oral, I imagined the examiners flicking between pages of my thesis, asking extremely thorny questions. “In a footnote on p.214 of your thesis, Ms Irvine,” I pictured them saying from beneath horn-rimmed glasses, “you cite a quote from the theorist Jean Baudrillard. Please discuss Baudrillard’s entire life writings, including his unpublished manuscripts, kept under lock and key in various museums in France, as they relate to this footnote that you wrote three years ago.”
They didn’t ask that, as it turned out. Actually, they didn’t really ask anything at all. We just had a conversation. It was almost… pleasant. (You can read about the experience here.)
Trouble was, because I’d been preparing to talk specifically about every tiny little detail, I wasn’t well-equipped for a general conversation. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. It took about half of the exam time for me to shift my perspective away from the trees so I could join my examiners as they talked about the forest.
If I was to sit my oral again, I would prepare very differently. I wouldn’t try to memorise anything, and I wouldn’t try to absorb information that could be considered peripheral to what I’d presented in my thesis.
Instead, I would work on my mindset.
I’d practise talking broadly about my research. I would test myself with a lot of ‘why’ questions – why did I choose this topic? Why did I use this methodology, and not that one? Why did I include certain things, and exclude others? I would think about what my research contributed, and where it could be taken next. I would get out of the detail, and into the big picture.
If you want to work on your oral exam mindset, you can use this great list of practise questions from Prof. Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics. You don’t need to have preset answers written out or anything like that – but if you can talk to those sorts of questions, extemporaneously and intelligently, you’ll be in a great frame of mind to enter the hopefully-not-so-scary oral exam room.