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Oral Fixation: Finding Your Inner Stand-up Comic

A graduate-level oral exam is a lot like a comic improvisation. The student stands on the stage and fields questions tossed out by an audience of professors. Perform well and there will be smiles all around; but lay an egg and it could be curtains for your career.

We have all heard the stories. ... A brilliant young scientist breezes through school, nailing every written exam. But when faced with a live board in their orals, they freeze up. Barely able to choke out hello and goodbye, they fail the exam and disappear. Or even worse, a student cracks under the withering pressure of a professor's aggressive questioning.

If you want to avoid the choker's fate, the first thing to realize is that an oral exam is, in large part, a performance. And although that may not present problems for comedians and musicians, who spend their entire life preparing to entertain audiences, it can give graduate students the willies. So it isn't surprising that many are caught like a deer in the headlights when the spotlight turns on them. That can spell trouble. But it doesn't have to turn out badly.

There are actually two sides to an oral exam, the material and the performance, and you will need to do well with both to pass. Getting up to speed on the material is probably the easiest part. Most of the questions will be drawn from your courses. That is still a lot of ground, however, so you should talk with your committee as soon as your exam has been scheduled. After I saw the list of people who would examine me, for example, I made appointments with each one of them. And in those meetings I asked only one question: What do you expect me to know for this exam? They were all remarkably specific, which dramatically reduced and focused my study time. Some even told me the exact questions they would ask, as I later verified in the exam.

Getting ready for the performance takes more time. If you are particularly shy about speaking in public (be honest here, it is your career ...), leave yourself a year to get ready. Start small. Give a 10-minute speech on a scientific topic to your significant other. Or give it to the mirror. As long as you say everything in a strong clear voice, it doesn't really matter who hears it. One method that I have used to prepare for guitar performances is to play my program into a tape recorder and listen to the tape. The exercise is both humbling and invaluable; nothing escapes the tape recorder's electronic ear.

As you get more comfortable talking in public, boost the time and the number of people in the audience. Volunteer to give a bag lunch talk to your group. If you're in a journal club, find an interesting paper to summarize and sign up for a slot. And if you really feel like broadening your public speaking skills, join the Toastmasters.

People in Your Neighborhood: The Wild Card

Every department, and virtually every exam committee, has one. The person voted most likely to derail your quest for Ph.D. candidacy. The faculty member who asks the unexpected, and therefore unprepared-for, question and pursues it until you either answer correctly or die trying. The wild card.

Preparing for the wild card is almost impossible; they make it their business to be unpredictable. But if you are dealt one, there are a few things you can do. Before the exam, ask around about all your committee members. A wild card's reputation always precedes them. Older graduate students can tell you what your wild card has (allegedly) done in previous exams and perhaps even pass on some of your Joker's favorite questions. You can also try to confront the wild card head on. Go to their office and talk about the exam. Some wild cards simply crave attention, and a personal visit might be just the bone to throw.

And if the worst does happen and your wild card catches you out on exam day, keep your cool. Do what you can to answer the question and hope for the best. Maybe your advisor will come to your rescue!

In the last few days before the test, try putting it all together. Ask yourself a question you think you might receive and then deliver the answer out loud. Or set up a mock exam with your advisor and a couple of friendly elder graduate students. But don't take this part of the preparation too literally. The chance that you will be asked any particular question is small, and even if you are asked the exact same question that you heard in a practice round, you won't get to answer it in the exam. One of those committee members will cut in and interrupt you just as you get rolling. I guarantee it.

Let's wrap this up with just a few words about managing the inevitable stress of test day. The adrenalin will be coursing through your veins as you wait for the exam to start. Your palms will be sweating, your brain racing, your heart may palpitate, and you may even shake and feel like throwing up. These are all the normal uncomfortable reactions to extreme stress, but they can interfere with your performance. So here are a few more mind-calming tricks from the musician's bag:

  • Eat a banana a half-hour before the exam. I don't know why, but it seems to work.

  • Breathe in slowly, counting to five. Hold for five. Release slowly for five. Repeat as necessary.

  • Imagine yourself walking into the room, taking your place near the blackboard, and saying hello to your committee. Slowly.

  • Stretch out before you get started. Doing a little yoga in front of your committee will calm you down and probably unhinge a few of your examiners. Advantage: You.

  • Once you get in the room, picture everyone in their underwear. I never tried this method (if you knew my advisor, you'd understand), but legend has it that it works.

  • Now get in there and kick some ass!

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