It may be that as Samuel Johnson observed, nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging in the morning … especially, one assumes, if the anticipated hanging is one’s own. Similarly, my own mind has lately been concentrated on Ph.D. exams—not uncommonly viewed by participants with enthusiasm approaching that which would presumably accompany the prospect of being hanged—on the occasion of my youngest daughter having just passed hers.
To my knowledge, there is no standardization or even rough comparability when it comes to these exams, variously known as “General Exams” (Generals or GE’s), “Qualifying Exams” (Quals or QE’s), “Preliminary Exams” (Prelims), “Comprehensive Exams” (Comps), “Candidacy Exams,” etc. More interesting than the nomenclatural diversity is the substantive variety. At some schools, such exams focus entirely on the candidate’s proposed dissertation research, sometimes (in the sciences at least) literally involving the presentation and subsequent critique of one or more grant proposals, of which the best often ends up being submitted – and sometimes even funded.
At others, the candidate is expected to demonstrate grasp of a wide range of material generally subsumed within a broad, traditional disciplinary category, such as “medieval history,” “romance languages,” or “chemistry.” Some exams are entirely oral, others are written only, yet others involve both; some are open book, some closed. And presumably, some are fair and others unfair … although in all honesty, I’ve never partaken of any that could honestly be called unfair or unreasonable.
In the psychology department of the University of Washington, where I teach, each “area” (e.g., social, developmental, clinical, etc.) has established its own idiosyncratic system, such that there isn’t even standardization for psychology as a whole. Maybe this is merely appropriate testimony to the fact that “psychology” doesn’t exist as a unitary subject. In any event, within my area—animal behavior—a Ph.D. committee consists of four faculty, each of whom is invited to submit from two to five hrs of written questions, which the candidate answers during a designated week, followed by an oral component two weeks later. During these sessions, anything is “fair game,” although in fact the topics rarely delve beyond animal behavior sensu lato – i.e., ecology, evolution, genetics, sociobiology, all the way to Pavlov or Skinnerian behaviorism as deemed appropriate.
For all the radicalism of my politics, I tend to be a traditionalist when it comes to graduate pedagogy and evaluation, inclined toward exams that give the candidate an opportunity to demonstrate her grasp of the field generally, as well as of her proposed dissertation, and to involve both written and oral components. On the other hand, I am also partial to the once-widespread requirement, now pretty much defunct, of requiring reading knowledge of at least two additional languages; so I must also plead guilty to the charge of being downright retrograde. (I still benefit, albeit only occasionally, from my vestigial reading knowledge of French and German, although the little that remains regularly interferes with my ongoing efforts to learn Spanish.)
When my daughter was anticipating her “QE’s,” I felt called upon to offer advice, whereupon I found that I could only come up with two precepts, the same snippets of ostensible wisdom that I regularly offer anxious graduate students at the University of Washington:
(1) Try, believe it or not, to have fun, that is, to see the forthcoming exam (especially if it involves an oral component) as an opportunity to have an entertaining, engaging discussion with some presumably intelligent and well-informed people about topics that interest all of you. And
(2) Don’t pretend that you know more than you do. Nothing turns off a graduate examining committee more than arrogant pretense of deep knowledge and premature accomplishment on the part of someone just applying for working papers in the field.
There appears to have been remarkably little attention to the heterogeneity in Ph.D. qualifying exams, something we all take for granted and which nearly everyone in the academic world has looked at, in one form or another, typically “from both sides now,” as Judy Collins famously sang. A necessary evil, perhaps, but when it comes to “life’s illusions,” something that is at least preferable to the expectation of being hanged in the morning.