Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Preparing for the Doctoral Dissertation Oral Exam

It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to work with graduate students. I am feeling absolutely terrific today because one of my graduate students successfully defended her Masters thesis yesterday. This summer, one of my doctoral students successfully defended her dissertation, and another of my masters students successfully defended his thesis. In the next few weeks, two of my doctoral students will face their candidacy exam.

In this post, I will write about how to prepare for the oral exam. There are several types of oral exam that require different kinds of preparation:  Doctoral Candidacy Oral, Masters Thesis Oral and Doctoral Dissertation Oral. I will focus on the Doctoral Dissertation Oral.

Step 1. Write a good quality doctoral dissertation.

As a graduate supervisor, it is my responsibility to assist my doctoral students with the selection and planning of a suitable and manageable research topic, to meet regularly with my student to discuss their academic progress and research, to respond in a timely manner to written work with constructive suggestions for improvement, to guide and support productive work with the supervisory committee, to support the student in applying for grants and scholarships, to be familiar with the rules and procedures of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, and Graduate Programs in Education, including the chronological sequence of events and deadline dates in a student’s program, to assist the student to be aware of current program requirements, deadlines, sources of funding, and general expectations of examinations, and to encourage the student to make presentations of research results within the University and to outside scholarly or professional bodies as appropriate. There are many other responsibilities and roles that a doctoral supervisor holds that build upon this list, including scheduling the Oral Exam. The University, the Graduate program, and graduate students have responsibilities too, and these are listed in the Handbook of Supervision and Examination at the University of Calgary. 

So, there are many stages and elements of doctoral supervision, mentorship and academic work that go into the doctoral student's completion of coursework, developing a research problem and questions, proposing a doctoral research study, preparing a research proposal, defending the doctoral research proposal during the candidacy exam, applying for ethical approval, carrying out the study, analyzing and interpreting data, and writing a good quality dissertation. I will speak to those in another post. 

Step 2. Prepare for the Oral Exam. 

Now, after several years of preparation, the dissertation is complete and the oral exam has been scheduled. The purpose of the Dissertation Oral defense is for the student to publicly discuss and defend their research as a scholarly contribution to the discipline and for the examining committee to make a collective decision on the quality and acceptability of the work (pass/fail) and to make any recommendations for revisions and improvement of the dissertation. 

At the University of Calgary, we invite students to prepare a short presentation on the dissertation, and to take the first 10 - 15 minutes of the 2 hour oral exam to address the examining committee.  

Part of preparation for the oral exam is to anticipate the examining committee's questions. For example, I ask my doctoral students to consider questions like these and to review their dissertation while thinking about how they might answer each one: 

  1. What motivated you to conduct this study? What need or problem does your study address?
  2. In planning and preparing for this study, what are the major theorists / researchers that influenced your design and thinking?
  3. Can you list and explain the main contributions of your study to your discipline, profession and or policy?
  4. In what way does your study build and extend upon the existing research / literature in your discipline? Contradict the research literature? Address gaps or questions in the literature?
  5. What new ideas did you learn about educational research, and about yourself as a researcher, by carrying out this study?
  6. Describe any unanticipated outcomes of findings that resulted from your study. Were there any surprises in your data collection, analysis of data, and synthesis of findings?
  7. Describe what worked well in the conduct of this study, and what would you change for a subsequent study of this kind?
  8. In what ways can you build and extend upon your study in the future?
  9. How might you mentor another graduate student who aimed to carry out research related to or replicating your study?
  10. Why did you choose the approach to data analysis used in your study? Are there other approaches to data analysis that you might have used?

Many other questions can be added to this initial list - however, the key point is preparation for the oral exam. Doctoral students know the ins and outs, strengths and weaknesses, findings and recommendations, of their study better than anyone else - even thought the examiners will have read the dissertation and have questions. So, I encourage my students to think about and prepare for potential questions, and to also feel confident in their academic writing and preparation that has lead up to the writing and completion of this dissertation. 

Finally, I always recommend that my doctoral students eat healthy meals, get some exercise and get several good nights of sleep prior to the exam so they can be in top form during the exam.