The Dreaded Oral Exam

When I was looking at graduate programs three years ago as a prospective student, I spent a good amount of time scouring each department’s website to learn all I could about what it would be like to be a student in each program: who are the faculty members? what type of research is going on there? what requirements do graduate students have to fulfill? I realized pretty quickly that no matter what program I went to, I could not escape the requirement of the dreaded comprehensive exam. Then, it seemed like something far off, and I shoved it in the back of my brain for later. It’s hard to believe that what was so far off then is in the past now!


In the Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology program at UNC-Chapel Hill, second-year students are required to take an oral comprehensive exam. Students pick four topics within biology that generally pertain to their research interests that serve as a basis for questions that are fair game for committee members to ask. My topics were population ecology, population genetics, disease ecology and fungal taxonomy.

Other than that basic format, I learned that oral exam experiences vary immensely from student to student. Some students study for a whole semester, others only for a few days. Some exams last an hour and a half, and others may go for 3 or more hours. I can only speak to my experience, but graduate students should understand that everyone’s experience is different.

I took the advice of older students and explicitly asked my committee members for ideas on material to study. Some suggestions were very specific, pointing me to specific papers and texts; others were a little broader, focusing on concepts that I should study and be comfortable discussing. I found the latter a little overwhelming, as I didn’t know where to start and end. Should I just know the foundational work on certain concepts or should I know recent studies focused on them too? I decided to start with texts to make sure I understood the framework of certain ideas. I also tried to make a point to stay on top of recent papers in my field in case questions focused on current work (I wasn’t asked any explicit questions on current work, but super helpful habit to get into!).

The exam itself, was, of course, terrifying at first. I spent the morning before my afternoon exam desperately trying to distract myself from studying. I treated myself to coffee from my favorite shop in town, and talked the ear off of anyone who was willing to listen to me to keep the exam out of my head. When I finally got into the exam, it turned out to be a bit more like a conversation than I expected. I took my time to answer the first few questions, even if they were basic, because I didn’t want to stumble. As the exam progressed, there were questions I knew really well, and there were some that I was not as comfortable with (for example, do you know what the word parasexual means? I sure didn’t when I was asked a question that involved it.). I learned though that it is more a test of if you can think scientifically, and not knowing a word or two is okay!

In the end, there were certainly concepts I studied that I will likely not think about any time in the near future, but the exam made me more confident in my understanding of the field. Additionally, by refreshing my understanding of the basics, I have been able to more clearly explain ecological concepts to an undergraduate I work with.

A few tips for beginning graduate students preparing for a comprehensive exam:
1. Ask questions! Ask older graduate students what their exam was like and how they prepared. Ask your committee members for advice on what material to study.
2. If you can plan it correctly, don’t study the day before the exam.  I didn’t listen when I was given this advice, and I didn’t gain much from last minute studying except perhaps a even more anxiety. Give yourself the day to relax!
3. It’s okay to take a minute after a question is asked to think, but there is also value to thinking out loud once you have collected your thoughts. Your committee members are then able to see what your thought process is.
4. Think about how the material you have to study, so in my case, the four topics I had chosen, relates to your research. By question 2 of my exam, I had to talk about population ecology concepts in the context of my research, so don’t limit yourself to just studying from the textbooks.
5. Practice! I really think simply practicing answering questions aloud and with a chalkboard can really help you understand what the actual exam might be like. Ideally, practice with a graduate student who has taken the exam.



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