The oral exam. The candidacy exam. The comprehensive exam. There are many names for it, but all pre-doctoral graduate students come to fear it. At different universities, this pivotal exam happens at different points in your Ph.D. At Johns Hopkins, most students will take their candidacy exam after their main courses are finished, but before they have completed the majority of their thesis work.

This is usually somewhere between the end of the first and second year of graduate school. The examiners are a committee made up of faculty members, who prepare questions on both general aspects of the student’s field of study and specific topics pertaining to the student’s thesis in order to assess their readiness to continue the bulk of their thesis research.

I am currently a third-year student in the human genetics pre-doctoral training program. For students in my program, the oral exam takes place at the end of our second year, when we have finished most of our classes. We prepare a ten-minute talk on a topic of our choice (usually our thesis work), which is followed by two hours of questions from our committee members. I took the exam last year, and it was a harrowing, but valuable, experience.

Here are some tips that helped me while I was studying:

  1. Set aside dedicated time to study. You might be thinking, “But I just can’t take time off from my lab!” You need to prioritize, and your oral exam is of the utmost importance. You can’t continue on in your Ph.D. program, or in your thesis lab, without passing this exam. You might be thinking that you don’t need to study very much, but it’s likely that you haven’t realized how much you don’t know or may have forgotten since your coursework. It wasn’t until I sat down to make my study guide that I became overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information I was expected to master. Don’t be afraid to take time away from your lab work in order to thoroughly prepare; most advisors have also served on many exam committees and are usually very supportive about the process.
  1. Rehearse explaining the specifics of your lab’s specialty. Because you may be starting off your exam with a short talk or written proposal regarding your work, you will need to know the details about relevant methods and hypotheses. Usually, you are working with this material on a daily basis. Even so, make sure to practice explaining the complicated intricacies of your project that you might not talk about every day. Since most members of your lab know these areas already, it can be easy to forget that they are not common knowledge to researchers outside of your specific field.
  1. Try to familiarize yourself with the basics on most, if not every, topic from your classes. Your examining committee will have their own set of expertise. They might ask you questions from subjects of their specialty or content from lectures they gave during your courses. The professors will not expect you to be an expert on every subject, but you should at least be able to explain major ideas, broad concepts and a range of methods.
  1. Set aside dedicated time to relax. This might be the most important tip! Especially if you are highly motivated, don’t forget to take a break. Your brain needs time to let new concepts sink in. This way, you can incorporate new facts with what you have already studied. Taking a nap, eating healthy food and meeting up with friends can all help to take your mind off the stress of the oral exam. Find what works best for you.
  1. Ask for help! Other students have gone through this as well. They can help give you tips on what to study or where to go on campus for a quiet environment. You might also want to have older students ask you questions in exam format, so you can practice answering out loud. If you start feeling overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to ask your program coordinator, your advisor, or your lab mates for help! They might be able to set you up with a tutor for difficult topics, give you more time away from lab, or help you with time-sensitive experiments while you are out of the lab studying.

Your candidacy exam will be hard, but it’s supposed to be! Your committee will push the boundaries of what you know. Just remember that this trial brings you one step closer to completing your Ph.D.


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