A CANDIDATE’S GUIDE TO THE PHD ORAL EXAM
Who, Where, When?
–about 8 weeks after submitting your dissertation, your oral defense of it will be set up and will take place in one of the School of Graduate Studies’ examination rooms (usually in 63 St. George St.)
–the examining committee usually consists of: the external examiner (who has written an assessment of the thesis), your supervisor, your committee members, another faculty member from the university not on your committee, and a representative of the department (the director or the graduate coordinator)
–you will receive in advance a copy of the external examiner’s report, so that you can prepare your response
–the exam will be chaired by a faculty member from another department representing the School of Graduate Studies; this person is there to assure that all proper procedures are followed but does not take part in the questioning
–the exam will last about 2 hours, with one or two rounds of questions from each examiner
–bring a copy of your dissertation, some paper, a pen (water will be provided)
-this is an academic “rite of passage” and has sufficient ceremony to feel like one
-you will enter the room, be introduced to all the committee, and then be asked to leave, so that the committee can check that all the requirements to degree have been satisfied, and agree on order of questioning, amount of time per question, etc.
-you will wait outside the room (calmly) until asked to enter again; you might practice your opening remarks (see below)
-the chair will then ask your supervisor to begin the questioning.
[It is assumed that the supervisor has, in fact, already asked you all the pertinent questions, so his/her job at the exam is really to ask you: “How did you get interested in your topic? What do you feel you have contributed to scholarship on it? Where would you go from here?”–or some variant on this. You and your supervisor will have talked about this beforehand and you will have prepared a response of no more than 20 minutes. You should bring notes, but plan to “talk” rather than “read” this response. Don’t repeat your thesis in detail–since everyone has read it–but try to summarize your contribution succinctly. The main purpose of these introductory remarks is to loosen you up and get you talking. Think of it as a chance to address some (not all) of the external examiner’s questions or any issues you feel are unresolved at the end of the thesis. You might also think of it as a seminar on your thesis, and enjoy it–this may be the first and last time you find 5 people who have read your work carefully and are totally engaged in it!]
-after the initial remarks, the external examiner will begin the real questioning, usually taking a bit longer time than the others (perhaps 20 minutes)
-other examiners will follow
-their questions may range from the particular (“on page 341 you say…”) to the general (“why did you use Foucault’s theories here?”), and may reveal more about the particular interests of the examiners than you expect.
[It’s hard to predict what sort of questions you will get, so the best preparation is to have reread the thesis carefully, reread any primary texts that are relevant, and get a good night’s sleep before. Being well rested and alert will help you think on your feet best.]
-after the first round of questions, another may follow. This is a neutral sign–i.e., neither good nor bad. It just means that people have lots of things to say.
-questioners may interrupt each other and a real “discussion” sometimes ensues.
[Remember, YOU are the expert on your thesis topic and so you should have faith in that knowledge. It’s ok to say you don’t know the answer to a question, if you genuinely don’t, but do say that you’d like to think about the issue with more time and less pressure and thank the questioner for the “excellent question.” In general, don’t be defensive, even though this is called a defense. Treat each question with the seriousness it deserves and respond always to the actual substance and never the tone of the question. Always attempt to bring the discussion (should it wander) back to your dissertation, where you should feel more comfortable. Be forthcoming and not reticent in answering: don’t make them “drag” the responses out of you.]
-when the chair senses that questions are over, you will be asked to leave the room once again
-in your absence a discussion will take place on the acceptability of both the oral defense and the written disseration; a vote will be taken on whether the work is acceptable “as is”; with “minor modifications” (typos, or minor changes that take less than one month to make); with “major modifications” (in this case a sub-committee is struck and you have three months to resubmit a revised dissertation).
-you will be called back into the room and told the (good, we hope) news
-you will then sign some papers in the graduate office
-then we can all celebrate with you!