Don't Panic!!!
May 6, 2010 9:55 AM   Subscribe

I have my doctoral oral examination in 2 weeks and I am really freaking out. Please help!

I passed my doctoral written examination about a month ago and now I have to face my oral exam. I am deeply, deeply panicked about it. I had so much confidence and pride in my written. I still do, but I can't seem to call up that feeling when faced with thinking about how I will perform during my orals.

I set up a mock oral for 8 days before the real thing and I'm even freaking out about that!

Please! Give me tips on how you got through this period of your graduate career. I am making myself literally physically ill with worry (migraines are out of control)! Also, for what it's worth: I am working on my PhD in Pharmacology. Any other science PhDs out there, please tell me about what your oral was like - in as minute detail as you can muster!
posted by sickinthehead to Education (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Molecular biologist here.

Your advisor wouldn't let you schedule the exam if s/he didn't think you were ready! Keep repeating that to yourself.

At this point, YOU are the expert on your dis topic, even moreso than your advisor is. Keep repeating that to yourself.

This is your time to shine. Show off what you know. Frankly, mine was even kind of fun. Not that I love giving seminars, but this presentation is the culmination of your hard work and you should be proud.

Now, the oral exam part: the questions. They weren't anything I couldn't answer, at that point. It was more like the committee members were asking me things as a peer. They weren't trying to trip me up or make me sweat. (It wasn't like qualifying exams.) There were some difficult questions, like why didn't I do a kinetic assay for such-and-such yet unpublished study; did I really think the journal reviewers were going to let that go? My answer was, "Good point. I can still do the kinetic assay if they want it. It will only take me a couple of days."

Most of the questions were really more focused on them making sure I was an independent thinker, at this point in my career. They asked me what is the difference between me and a really good technician? Answer: A great tech (lab worker without PhD) can probably do better wet bench work than me, but I can synthesize the ideas and hypotheses. I can be the director. I came up with the hypotheses in my dis on my own. (At which point, my advisor chimed in, "Yes, that's true.")

So... don't fret! You are becoming a colleague. Your job is to walk the border between humble student and confident colleague during this defense. You'll do fine!
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:21 AM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I should clarify: this is my oral defense of my thesis proposal - for my qualifying exam.
posted by sickinthehead at 10:25 AM on May 6, 2010

Breathe. I'm not in sciences, but social sciences, but still... The Panic is Real.
The oral defense is part of a Rite of Passage in becoming a professional in the field. They are not there to fail you, but they are there to play out the ritual that puts you in the hot seat so that once you have passed through this ritual you will be a professional-- one of them. And you, just like every other PhD must be subjected to the ritual. It's part of what defines the exclusivity of the position. And therefore you must suffer. But you will not fail. The ritual will only serve its function if indeed people normally make it through, particularly once you've made it this far. If they'd really wanted you to fail, you wouldn't be here now.

So, I know this does not make the suffering any less real. But try to step outside your immersion in the ritual for a minute to realize that it will be ok, and you will make it. When the panic wells up, remember that in fact, this ritual is not really about you at all, it's the social function of the ritual for all PhDs. You will do what your professional training, and your mentors have taught you through this process, and they will be there to watch you perform this at the defense. And then it will be done.

For what it's worth, I was supposed to defend my PhD when I was 5 months pregnant. It turned out that I was carrying twins, and couldn't fly to attend my own defense. It was postponed until the twins were 2 months old. I flew with 2 month twins and a toddler back to do my defense. At that time of personal crisis, I couldn't even remember what my dissertation topic was, let alone have any coherent academic functioning. I was totally panicked. Somehow, once I was in the room, it all came to me and it was ok.

And I passed. You will too. Hang in. Good luck.
posted by kch at 10:27 AM on May 6, 2010

I think this article has some very useful advice. It's written for a UK audience, but the advice is really helpful and timely. It includes information on managing stress and specific actions to take during the defense to remain as calm as possible (like writing down the questions they ask to give yourself a moment to compose an answer). Very much worth reading a couple of times.

Best wishes!
posted by BlooPen at 10:29 AM on May 6, 2010

step 1: breathe.
step 2. breathe some more.
step 3. have a snack.
step 4. walk around the block.
step 5. sit down in front of your talk and work at it for 12 hours a day.

You are panicking yourself into a non-productive mode which is an extremely vicious cycle. STOP IT. Anxiety will be there of course, always, but you need to focus on what you can do in the next two weeks, not the exam itself. Two weeks is a long time away, so you can set your self small manageable tasks for each day, and get minorly anxious about completing those. Do you have all the cartoons and figures you will need? Drawing them well takes time, focus and calm. Make them now. It is a good thing to obsess over that keeps your mind reasonably occupied. Just keep plugging at it. As far as I can tell, it's the practice talk that's freaking you out right now, maybe you want to move that back a day or 2 and give yourself some breathing room?
Other things:
•Don't be afraid to have a minor crying fit every other day or so.
•Give yourself some sensory-limited downtime. like a dark cool room for 10 minutes.
•Talk with anyone and everyone who's willing to listen about what you're going to be presenting. Just making the thoughts and sentences cohere can take practice. So if you have a willing grad student or helpful post doc to talk things through with, capitalize on it.

All will be well, all manners of things will be well.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 10:36 AM on May 6, 2010

For me, I had the strong belief that my advisor thought I had done an excellent job, and the other professors on my committee either also knew this, or blankly agreed with my advisor. The department's whole system involved actually giving degrees to the people they'd been pumping stipend money at for 7 years, unless something was seriously wrong, in which case many many conversations about the future had already been had at the point of the oral defense. Realistically, the worst case scenario did not involve not graduating; it might involve looking like an idiot, and might reduce the number of people I could then ask for recommendations, but I had a post-doc lined up, so whatever. I know you don't like saying "whatever" about your PhD oral defense, but really, this moment is not what it's all about.

The main part of the oral was giving a talk about my research. Answering questions was pretty much limited to things related to stuff I'd talked about, but included questions about the slender relationship between my work and whatever the asker was an expert in. There were some questions that I recall totally not seeing what they were getting at, but again, they weren't trying to crucify me, they were trying to ask a question and get an answer... so I looked blank, said something peripherally related, and they asked the question again explaining better what they meant, and this cycle kept up until I managed to say something intelligent, at which point it moved on to the next guy's question.

On preview... this isn't your PhD defense, this is your qualifying exam? That varies a lot more from department to department, but it still holds - they want to feel good about their decision to admit you, and they want to you pass.
You're presenting a talk showing what you've done in lab thus far, and why it's interesting, and how you're planning to continue it as your dissertation project? You're becoming an expert - despite the fact that you feel like everybody in your lab knows way more than you do, nobody outside your group necessarily has a clue about this topic. The kind of questions that get asked here are in general intended to be helpful - do you realize how hard this is and how you won't graduate for at least 5 more years if you do all this? Have you thought about using this technique I'm an expert in? (oh, yes, you discarded that idea instantly because it's totally irrelevant and I'm not an expert in your project? okay.)
On the other hand, if for your department oral exams include the idea that they'll ask you questions on any topic they feel like, kind of like an oral version of the topical GREs or some standard-knowledge test... I'd be terrified too. But consider - there is nobody in your department who would not be terrified by that concept. The reality is never as bad as "we can ask you anything", and they will tend to shepherd you towards the answer they're looking for, so long as you're saying something they can comment on, or asking them to clarify something.
posted by aimedwander at 10:38 AM on May 6, 2010

Sometimes it helps to think about what the worst thing that might happen could be and what the result of that would be. My own oral exam example is about the worst possible, however the prelims were soon behind me and I got my degree. I was incredibly nervous at my oral prelims. I just completely choked. I didn't pass. I can't tell you details because I blocked it out. I thought I was the worst student in the world. It turned out that about half of my cohort and the one before had not passed all of the parts of the exam, including some really well-respected students. The faculty set another task for me to do during the summer, which I completed satisfactorily. I have a Ph.D. now. You already did well on the written part, so even if you do as badly as I did, which I doubt since your orals are on the work that you are already interested in (mine was on a different subject), you will still get your Ph.D., which is what matters. So your worst case scenerio is that you will get a Ph.D.

You are way ahead of the game by having a mock session. You will do fine.
posted by SandiBeech at 10:50 AM on May 6, 2010

I'm not a science Ph. D., but I have had anxiety about my own graduate exams. For me, it was liberating to remember that the worst case scenario was that I had to go get a pretty good job outside of the Ph. D. system (which, I probably don't have to tell you, is not ideal -- the stress is a bear!). Pharmacology isn't some esoteric subject nobody cares about. This isn't your only survival option and your life does not hang in the balance: if a meteor hits the school tomorrow, you're still going to be feeding yourself by mid-May. You'll keep all your friends. Your parents will still love you. All of your physical equipment will work exactly like it did before the school exploded. Air will still taste sweet to breathe.

I'm sure people will give you good tips about specifics to help you get what you want from the test, but while you're thinking about it, just remember that as much as it might matter, it doesn't matter matter.
posted by Valet at 10:52 AM on May 6, 2010

When I'm stressing about big event like this, I try to remember to ask myself what is the (realistically) worst thing that could happen. A big part of the fear and worry over something like this is that the outcome seems unknown.

The dissertation proposals I've sat in on have all been fairly chill--in general the committee members liked asking questions that were related to their own research.

And remember it's ok to admit when you can't answer a question.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:04 AM on May 6, 2010

Best answer: Oh, this is your oral qualifying? Well, no wonder you are freaking out. Forget what I said above.

Review, review, review, and go in prepared. Feel prepared. Look and act prepared. Be able to think on your feet. Don't feel bad about needing to stall for time a little while you are up there. The committee will be looking at you, but don't let that make you feel like you have to start speaking right away. Think things through.

Committee members will sometimes cut you off right when you are getting to the heart of your explanation. It doesn't mean that you were wrong, it means that you were so obviously right that they grew bored and wanted to move on to something that was more challenging.

They will test the limits of your knowledge, so you will walk out of the room feeling like there were things you couldn't answer. That's okay - it's only because their job was to push you to your limit. You don't know if your limit was greater or lesser than other students'; even if you surpass their expectations, they are not going to just back off and say, "Oh, you're doing so well." They are going to keep going until they have an idea of how much more you know.

Whatever they throw at you, don't let it fluster you - sometimes faculty like to ask weird things, just to see how you think. You might believe it has nothing to do with your field, but you can just clarify, "Are you asking me why the sunset is red because you want me to discuss the chemical makeup of the pollutants in air?"

Also, don't say, "I don't know" and leave it at that. Say, "I don't know X, but what I would do to find out is this..." or "I don't know X, but from my knowledge of Y, I would think this..." It's not BS'ing if you do it honestly and thoughtfully - they will stop you if you are going off track.

Good luck!
posted by Knowyournuts at 11:15 AM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Every time I am asked this by a colleague or student, I recommend Penny Tinkler and Carolyn Jackson's article, 'In the dark? Preparing for the PhD viva.' The full text PDF is available here for free.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:44 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

My one-and-only real-deal anxiety attack occured during my (first) PhD orals. I failed, and afterwards couldn't even study for the one allowed re-try. Desperate, I went to the doctor, who prescribed daily Xanax, and Inderal for the night before and day of the exam. I never actually felt any effects of either medication, but I could study, and I could sleep, and I passed the re-try with no problems whatsoever. This is a really, really good time to talk to your doctor--remember, he went through some very similar exams when he was in school, so he knows this isn't regular old exam stress.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:45 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

There is very good advice above. Xanax was invented for months like this. Also, preparation will help you to walk into this test ready to go.
That said, your preparation will probably make you the biggest expert on you topic in the room when it comes time to take the test. The test is an opportunity to show what you can do, and for your examiners to admire the work that they have done with you. Prepare enough so that you can have a really fun conversation. And surprise, my exam was actually fun!
posted by pickypicky at 7:49 AM on May 7, 2010

This previous question on viva defence has some good answers, including my one featuring a list of possible questions. As I say in the earlier thread, none of the actual questions came up in mine, but I found preparing for a list of questions much easier than just cramming randomly. Sometimes when I am stressed it is much easier to do things when there's a list and you can cross stuff off, and they do guide you to think around the subject and consider your work and ideas in context, which is often what a defence is actually about.
posted by handee at 12:45 AM on May 8, 2010

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