The responses keep rolling in! Here, OSU PhD candidate Victoria Muñoz offers reflection and advice on the exam experience and aftermath.
I am writing this blog in continuation of the tradition set forth by Kate’s fabulous post-exam response.
First, let me say that everyone’s experience is different. My exam went really well because, hey, I passed, but I just didn’t feel fabulous going through it. I read EXTENSIVELY for six months and I had a huge store of information in my mind when I went into the exam, but there were still questions that fell outside of what I had studied most strenuously. Ultimately, one cannot anticipate all the questions that will be asked. I was discouraged early in the exam when I received some “local” questions where there was essentially only one answer and I was not able to steer the conversation away to something that I did know. I was actually explicitly told not to do so by my examiners when I attempted to change the topic. The reason was that there was only one answer to these questions, and harping on these points rather than simply admitting “I am not sure” actually took time away from my exam and prevented me from being able to display my knowledge on other topics.
In total, this happened probably only three times, but it made me so uneasy that even though I did answer numerous questions well and display my understanding of the field, I walked out of the exam (awaiting the committee’s decision) fearing that I would not pass. In hindsight, I realize that my disappointment over the difficult questions clouded my judgment of the exam as a whole. After going over everything in my head, I realized that there were plenty of topics that I discussed just fine and my advisor also confirmed this to me after the exam.
I also realize that my committee must have known that I was perfectly capable of answering questions about general issues in the field, major trends, etc. As I later confirmed with others PhD candidates, my examiners were probably trying to test the upper limits of my knowledge rather than establish the baseline of my understanding, which they had probably already assessed according to my participation in past classes and in informal conversations. It was clear that I had read everything. The goal was really to see where the gaps in my understanding lay. I have personally identified those gaps through this process. So here are my weaknesses:
Major field: paratexts and dedications. I have a general understanding of how paratexts and dedications work, but I need to employ a more regimented way of incorporated these sections (which anthologies often skip over and I also tend to pass over quickly when attempting to get straight to “the text”) in order to better flesh out my expertise.
Minor field: Hispanists’ approaches to their discipline are intrinsically different from ours. Although both disciplines study literature, they ask different questions and position arguments differently. It’s not just a matter of understanding the texts and the history of their production; for the Spanish Golden Age, there is also a bit of a paradigm shift in thinking. This is essential for me to understand as I attempt to produce a comparative dissertation. I am glad to have learned this lesson now.
The adrenaline rush of the exam process lasted far longer than the exam itself. I found myself going over every answer, chiding myself over my shortcomings and ignoring my successes. At the end of the day, I PASSED! Moreover, I should feel proud because, difficult questions aside, I honestly feel that I studied hard enough to merit passing and I made it clear that I had prepared for this exam.
The best advice that I can give about the oral exam is the following:
- Make sure you review every text you mention in your written responses before returning to your general review. Some students don’t receive any questions about their written responses, but if they come up, you don’t have anyone to blame but yourself if you can’t answer a question you arguably could have anticipated. I was so worried about anticipating a random question about ANYTHING on my list that I did not dedicate enough time to simply going over the texts that I had discussed in my written responses. I should have drilled every detail.
- Understand that you WON’T know everything. Some questions will just throw you off and beating yourself up over the handful of details that stumped you rather than focusing on what you were able to answer perfectly well will just destroy your morale. You’ll get nervous and potentially forget things that you do know. I definitely clammed up and forgot things. A few of the questions that stumped me were actually questions that I knew how to answer after the exam. That’s part of the reason we get oral exams. Getting used to anxiety-producing environments will better prepare us for the dog-eat-dog world of the job hunt.
- Identify when examiners are asking you leading questions. If you don’t know the answer, try to gracefully indicate your uncertainty and let them decide what happens next. They will most likely give you a hint. With a few hints I was generally able to get there, but what threw me off was my fear that needing help meant I wasn’t prepared. I failed to recognize that sometimes leading questions are just confusing and that if you’re eventually able to get there, that’s all that matters.
- Make sure you have a good prospectus draft. Talking about my own work reminded me that I do know stuff, and it gave me another opportunity to talk about the field. Talk over the project with each person before the exam. If your committee believes in your project, they will probably also believe in you. This was honestly the most reassuring part of the exam.
After my exam, I attended the “Women in the Academy” talk and one idea that a panelist offered is that academia is all about challenging yourself. If you’re not feeling challenged, she explained, then you’re probably not doing enough. This advice really spoke to me. You may read a lot, but even so, you are going to be tested. Your committee wants you to pass and they will probably help you along (mine certainly did), but remember that the university isn’t just handing out PhDs. Expect to feel challenged. Expect to be pushed out of your comfort zone. Accept that you don’t know everything. Learn from it. Move on. Then, kick ass on your dissertation.