Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Candidacy exams

I am currently in the middle of my candidacy written exam - otherwise known as 'candidacy hell'. I noticed as the exams approached and I discussed (or, more accurately, complained) about them, that many people didn't know what they are. So I thought I'd post a short explanation about them. Candidacy exams are also known as qualifying exams and most PhD students will have to endure them in one form or another. I had them explained to me by a committee member as a way for your advisory committee to ensure that you can handle the pressures of academic life and/or the rigors of research as well as to look for deficiencies within your knowledge that need to be worked on. They also see how you work under pressure.

Candidacy exams come in two basic forms: 1) a written exam and 2) an oral exam. The majority of people who have been through them have told me that they only had to endure a two hour oral exam. My department, however, makes you go through both. Here's a timeline of how this should work: Approximately 6 months before your oral exam, you/your supervisor/your committee (or some combination thereof) create a reading list to help refresh your memory on the basics within your chosen field, teach you new techniques for your research, and to catch you up on any important literature that you may have missed. My reading list included 23 books and 18 papers. I ended up reading them all, plus an additional 9 books and countless papers. Then one month before your oral exam, you receive four questions that your committee has compiled. You choose three of those questions to write 20-25 page (double spaced) papers on within the following three weeks. These papers get turned in to your committee members. Then you get a week "off" - but most people spend that time familiarizing themselves with the subject(s) of the fourth question. The end of that week is your two hour oral exam. The format for the oral exam usually follows a program: First, your committee members ask questions related to the papers that you have written, then, they ask about the question that chose not to write on, and finally, they can ask whatever they want on basically whatever subject they want. Usually, they don't ask questions that are too far out in left-field, but I've heard some real horror stories.

While this sounds (and is) pretty daunting, I'd almost rather have both the written and oral exam because at least you can feel prepared for the oral exam. Going into an oral exam cold with no idea what your committee may ask would be terrifying.

If I could change things, I would reduce the number of papers that we had to write from three to two in the allotted three week time period so we could spend a bit more time thinking about the subject matter and polishing them up when completed. However, it is what it is.

My oral exam is on May 5th at 2PM (MST). If there is a very loud pop heard around the world at that time, rest assured that it is my head exploding. Now back to work for me.