Friday, March 6, 2015

Distilling an ocean of theory and adding a few of your own drops

I recently completed my PhD qualifying exam at the University of Toronto-Scarborough for the Department of Physical and Environmental Science. Prior to going through the process the exam took on a sort of “black box” quality where I’d seen colleagues pass through unscathed but the depth of questioning that took place during the oral examination remained unclear. So I thought it might be of some value to comment on my experience with the process.

The format of these exams is fairly variable across departments and between institutions with some requiring the production of several essays in a short period of time, some based on an extensive readings list, some formatted as a proposal defense and others including some or all of these components. My exam took the form of a proposal defense which required submitting a 9000-word proposal outlining the theoretical framework & justifications for my research questions, hypotheses, objectives, methodologies, preliminary results, discussion and thoughts on the significance of the work, a 25-minute presentation of this proposal followed by an oral examination that lasted about an hour and 30 minutes. These exams are typically meant to be taken at the early stages of one’s PhD, but it seems that they often get kicked further down the road, as was the case with mine which I completed half way into my 3rd year of a 5 year program. This had its advantages and disadvantages where further progress allowed presentation and discussion of some interesting findings and a clearer picture of what my thesis is going to look like, but also came with the colossal challenge of organizing everything into what seemed like a miniscule 25-minute presentation. This was probably the most challenging academic exercise I have faced.

I finalized my presentation a few days before my exam, and felt that it had a nice balance between theory and my contributions, but this only after “throwing away” 100+ slides in the 2 weeks leading up to the exam… And while that might sound like a total waste of time, it actually forced me to distill what seemed like an “ocean of theory” to the essential elements that grounded my work. Further, developing slides that can visually communicate complex theory is a great form of study that can serve you well during the oral exam; even if you can’t show the slides you will know the material. Also, I can’t overstate the importance of peer and supervisory assistance here. I was extremely lucky to have my presentation lovingly torn to shreds by my lab mates. This can be a terrifying process as we know that imposter syndrome is alive and well in academia (http://irblog.eu/impostor-syndrome-phd/). Yet, we of course survive these practice talks and our presentations benefit greatly.

Once I was happy with the content and flow of my talk I decided to inject a little humour by photoshopping some images and spattering in a couple silly animations. This was probably some kind of self-defense mechanism where I was hoping that by putting a smile on the face of an examiner I might be able to ease my own nerves and the general tension that goes along with a comprehensive exam. Of course, whether this succeeds or not will depend on the demeanor of your examiners, your delivery and probably the general quality of the rest of the presentation. In my case, I found that the humour worked and offered a nice lull in the tension. I highly recommend trying this, once you’ve nailed down the meat of the talk of course. Beyond attempts at humour, you should know the talk. You shouldn’t be reading off any notes and should only read out points on the slide that are essential theory items or specific research questions, hypotheses or findings. There will be an upcoming blog post on presentation tips, so I’ll stop there… Just remember that in this exam, your presentation sets the tone. It is your opportunity to articulate your comprehension of the subject and the novelty of your work.


The written component of the proposal, on the other hand, can seem to be propelled by a perpetual motion machine generating an endless sprawl of “conceptual axes”, “synthetic approaches” and “novel perspectives” about your thesis topic. Here, you can definitely produce a fairly comprehensive picture of the subject and your perspectives but you’ll still have to tug the reigns so as not to irritate your readers with a bloated document. If you find yourself delving into the linkages between your thesis and systems theory, and you’re not in physics, odds are you’ve gone too far. Everything in your written proposal is essentially fair-game for the oral examination, so don’t let it disappear from your desktop once you’ve submitted it. You will most certainly get questions about the methods you’ve proposed or have employed, and you will need to be able to justify your choices and situate your studies within the literature.

The oral examination will surely be one of the most unnerving experiences of your academic life, but you can minimize your unease by continually drawing those links between your thesis and the literature in the weeks leading up to the exam. I found the oral exam to be a very fair process where I was tested on the biophysical interactions that I was examining, the measures that I used, and the conceptual links between my thesis components and the trends in the literature. Now, my thesis is fairly atypical in that it takes a multi-disciplinary approach to a larger topic, and this definitely generated some questions about the linkages between the various components. But beyond that challenge I think any questions about the “grand scheme” of your thesis can be addressed by highlighting those initial motivations that you included in your application to your program. In my application, I was required to write a page about why interdisciplinary perspectives are essential in the field of environmental science, and I was able to pull from that motivation to answer these kinds of questions. Odds are that your initial reasons for engaging with a certain research topic will ground a lot of your answers during the oral examination. One question that I didn’t anticipate was essentially “where do you see yourself in 10 years”?  I think in our PhD’s we can easily get tunnel vision and forget that there is an end to the process at which point we’ll move on to something new. So don’t forget about that light at the end of the tunnel during the exam. Think about your future aspirations and how far you’ve come since you became fascinated with your topic. Your examiners want to feel that engagement and passion. And you will get questions about the theory that are right in your wheelhouse, so take advantage when they appear and highlight both your understanding of the unanswered questions and how your work is not just adding to the complexity but is helping to bridge those gaps.

In the end, after all the late nights of writing, pecking at bowls of nuts (because cooking takes too long) and re-arranging your presentation slides for the 100th time, you’ll most likely find that this process has probably been the most constructive thing that you’ve ever been a part of.

1 comment:

Aishah Carter said...

I'm not a PhD student but your advice is helpful for all levels of study. Thanks for the optimism boost, useful guidelines and recommendations, and food for thought.