There has been a flurry of PhD exams in my department in the past month or so, a ritual of Spring. Some of these exams are final exams (a.k.a. the PhD defense) and others are preliminary exams.
Part of the reason for the spring examfest is that some PhD students actually want to finish by the end of the academic year and move on with their lives. Scheduling a PhD exam of any sort requires that all faculty members on a committee are in the same general area at the same time and don't have other commitments. The rare confluence of schedules means that exams tend to come in clusters if they involve many of the same faculty.
I've been associated with departments that have various formats for oral prelims: traditional exams involving firing questions on any topic (relevant or not) at the student, exams focused more on the specific research interests of the student, and 'exams' involving writing and defending one or two proposals. In all cases, a decision must be made as to whether the student's graduate career advances unhindered, comes to a crashing halt, or goes into a sort of holding pattern until the exam can be redone.
Some departments allow the advisor to vote on the fate of their own student and some don't. This leads me to the question o' the day: Should the advisor have a vote in the decision as to whether their own student passes or fails the prelims?
There are obvious reasons for disenfranchising advisors, but is the underlying assumption that the advisor is significantly less objective than many other committee members valid?
Consider a particular case in which advisors didn't have a vote, and in which I would have voted "Pass" for one of my students, but a majority of the committee voted "Fail". Presumably the no-vote-by-the-advisor rule was instituted for just this type of situation, but did my (hypothetical) "Pass" vote indicate that I was less objective than the other committee members? Did I want to pass a marginal student out of concern that my grant-funded project would come to a screeching halt if she failed? Was I unduly swayed by having a closer connection with the student? Was I influenced by the fact that the student was female and the rest of the committee was composed of male faculty who questioned her aggressively until she cracked? Or did my positive judgment more accurately reflect the student's overall abilities owing to my more informed perspective on the student's work and potential contributions, things that are not necessarily well tested by the orals?
I don't know. Mostly I thought the exam wasn't as bad as some others I had seen and I thought the student should at least be given the chance to do the exam over. I know that's not such an appealing option, but for some people it's better than outright failure. In that particular case, even if I had a real vote, I would have been outvoted, so the result would have been the same. In the case of a divided committee, however, the advisor's opinion could tip the balance one way or another.
In departments in which the advisor can vote on their own student, I have been involved in the following situations:
1. The committee and advisor vote "Pass" and everyone is happy.
2. The committee is divided; the advisor votes "Pass" (and in some cases prevails in discussion and in others doesn't).
3. The committee is divided; the advisor votes "Fail" (and in some cases prevails in discussion and in others doesn't).
4. The committee and advisor vote "Fail" and no one is happy.
The divided committee scenarios #2-3 are quite common and result at least in part from the fact that the oral exam may or may not be a good reflection of a student's abilities and in part from the fact that different committee members have different standards of evaluation. Regarding the concept of 'standards' in an exam format that defies standardization, therein lies another tale.