Monday, February 4, 2013

Candidacy Exam Tips 002

A few weeks ago I took time out of my day, headed on up to main campus, and attended an event organized by the University of Calgary's New 'My Grad Skills'. The primary focus of this event was to provide advice, by way of a panel of faculty and students, to PhD students facing candidacy in the next few months.

The candidacy exam, or comps or quals (depending on what school you happen to be at) is the penultimate academic exam. Upon its completion (usually around the 2 year point of the PhD student's life) you have the privilege of referring to yourself as a PhD Candidate. While the format  varies from program to program, it typically involves a written component (in my case a research proposal) and an oral exam. The oral exam, already the stuff of nightmares for me, will be a 2 hour questioning period by my committee members, plus 2 extra faculty. It's sink or swim, and a pass is determined by their opinions of how well your preformed and ultimately a vote, while you sweat outside in the hallway. I had the candidacy exam explained to me as "they will push you off a cliff, and they don't expect you to fly, but rather will see how far you make it before you crash."

Fun stuff right?

So any opportunity offering advice for dealing with the exam is much appreciated by grad students, regardless of faculty or field. Much thanks to My Grad Skills for organizing this session, and for those of you who couldn't attend, here are some of the big take home tips.

  • The vast majority of students will pass the first time, really it means more work for you committee if they are going to fail you. So they want you to pass too.
  • Make it your goal to have fun with it. Try to see the exam as an exciting conversation about your topic of interest, rather than as an exam. Really you are having an 'academic discussion, while convincing them you are up to the task of a PhD.'
  • Its an evaluation of how well you can think on your feet. Any type of 'defence' style practice will help (past thesis defences, defending papers at journal club, defending your proposal to your committee, *MOCK EXAMS*).
  • Its often the unpredictability or uncontrollability of the situation which lead to the most anxiety. You can make things more predictable by having a solid understanding of each examiner's field of expertise as this is likely where their questions will come from. Unfortunately you really can't be in control, they are.
  • The examiners are looking for an appropriate sense of breadth and depth to your knowledge of the field, they will likely leave areas of clear strength alone and probe areas of weakness more.
  • If you get to abstract, theoretical or philosophical questions, its likely a sign you are doing well and now they're just having fun with you.
  • Start you prep early, when you first start working on your project.
  • Develop a reading list. Send it around to your examiners and ask if there are major areas or references you are missing.
  • Make a reading schedule and stick to it!
  • Take advantage of campus services, like counsellors, to help avoid being sunk by anxiety.
  • Be as calm as  possible in the week leading up to it, and don't forgo normal activities entirely (like exercising, or your favourite TV show) you don't want to crash at the finish line.
  • Don't be afraid to answer that you don't know (obviously this shouldn't happen too much) its better to be honest about it than it is to try and BS an answer. Remember your examiners can smell BS from a mile away!
So if you're taking your exam soon, good luck. I hope you can put these tips to good use (I certainly plan to). Please add any more you may have in the comments. And really, don't forget to have some fun with it. It seems like you'll remember your candidacy for the rest of your life, hopefully you can do it fondly!


  1. Yikes. Good for you for handling all of this PhD business. I would never ever ever be able to. You're PROBABLY the smartest lady on the planet.

  2. Via this link you can find lots of articles on the thematic of exams and education overall


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