Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Oral Tradition

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.


Chris said...

what about politics in the Dept?

Why not talk about politics between faculties in the Department?

Not good when politics determine the future of hard working graduate students.

Grading can be subjective and subject to politics...

Cori said...

As someone who took preliminary exams last year and will take qualifying exams next december, I'll admit that I find this post slightly terrifying, though in general I don't get horrible exam anxiety (9 hours of written test and 3 hours of oral is a bit intimidating even so).

My department allows advisors to be on quals committees, but my advisor chooses not to be because he doesn't trust his objectivity. I actually have found this really helpful as it's forcing me to form stronger relationships with five other faculty members so I feel like I have advocates for my research coming from people with diverse perspectives. Given taht I'll have to prove that its worthwhile in order ot fund the project, it seems to me like the more people who don't totally share my theoretical perspective I have to convince I'm, well, qualified before applying for major grants, the better.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post I would say. I would like to direct towards this article about MIT - Questionable qualifiers which gives the flip side of the adviser having the big say.

Again qualifiers are probably waste of time, especially when based on some coursework. Research is essentially different from courses.

Chelonian said...

Well, as regards the pass/fail question, I feel everyone should have at least one second chance, unless the candidate's performance is so abysmal that it brings into question how they managed to get into the PhD program in the first place.

Regarding the advisor's objectivity, I would add another consideration: that a definitive failure will reflect badly on the advisor in terms of overall "success rate" of students under their care, so some advisors may feel inclined to let someone get off easy, especially if the candidate doesn't intend to pursue a research career anyway (I know of several cases personally).

Alyssa said...

In our department, the advisor doesn't get a vote, but they may try to convince the committee (one way or the other) to pass or fail the student. This happens after the student has their oral defense and has left the room, but before the committee casts their vote.

I think it's important to get the advisor's point of view, as they worked the most closely with the student (especially in the case of a thesis defense). Some people are just terrible in an oral defense - either they can't think on their feet, or they're just plain nervous. So, the decision shouldn't be based entirely on 2 hours of questions (i.e., what the committee sees).

I think it's a good idea for comps/quals to have a written and an oral component for that reason.

Sneks said...

But how can an advisor ever vote "Fail"? Why would an advisor allow a student to even progress to a test if the student wouldn't "Ace" it? Shouldn't the advisor be well aware of their student's testing ability/proposal/defense/ability to be a grad student long before an Oral exam?

Niket said...

I have seen some very egregious examples:

1. Committee giving the student unanimous fail (1/10) and the advisor giving him the top grade (9/10). [Not prelims, but the advisor is known to do this with all students.]

2. Committee voting to have student redo his prelims; the advisor arguing that his student will not repeat the prelim because the student is good. The committee failed a marginally better student, whose advisor wasn't so vehement.

3. Advisor asking questions after the student's talk, some of which had already been discussed in their group meeting practice talk.

Based on these examples, I favour advisor not playing any role in his/her PhD student's prelims.

Anonymous said...

What about a situation where the entire committee votes to pass and the advisor votes to fail? That happened to me. I passed...there were known personality issues (and sexism was involved) between my advisor and just about everyone else, including myself.

Southern Grad Girl said...

Our advisors aren't allowed to even be in the room for our prelim/qualifying exam. However, there is some talking that goes on beforehand about what kind of student they are, their promise in the lab, etc.

My understanding is that if your advisor speaks really well of you in these conversations, then that helps your case quite a bit.

Anonymous said...

this comment is not related to this post, but due to lack of time I read these posts in batches, and commenting to an old one will not get to the right audience (FSP and her avid readers):

I just wanted to point out for those women out there in science who are looking for a female mentor but can't find one, that there is an online mentor-matching website ( that will at least find a pen-mentor for you! I did this when I was a postdoc, and while it was not as good as having an actual mentor in my institution, my pen-mentor (or, to be precise, email-mentor) was quite helpful and all in all it was a good experience.

A pity that they cater mainly to computer science and engineering: other fields (like neuroscience) are in the same predicament. But I liked it even though I am not in CS or engineering myself.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting post. I am a female graduate student in the physical science and will hopefully defend in a few months. My department is more political and the advisor seems to play a larger role in the fate of the graduate student. I've never seen or heard of a student failing the final defense, even though I have personally seen one that should.

daisy mae said...


there is a department on our campus (i was there for a year before leaving for a much less politically-motivated lab) where advisors routinely "fail" their students in order to push them out of the lab for whatever reason, rather than sit down and tell them that it wasn't working out, and they should consider their options.

the advisor i was working under actually failed her student at his PhD defense, and got the rest of the committee to do so as well - leaving a student with 7 years of work, and nothing to show for it.

some junior female science prof said...

I agree with Mrs. CH that the advisor should definitely have a say. The advisor is the person who has worked with the student for years leading up to the exam. They will have a much broader perspective than the committee, which will be working on just 1-2 hours of interaction, which may be a particularly good or particularly bad day.

I certainly don't think the advisor should have the only voice, or even an overriding voice. But any committee that doesn't take the advisor's view into consideration isn't looking at the student's full record.

To Sneks: sometimes the advisor doesn't know what will happen in the exam. While some students are clear "pass" and some students are clear "fail", others really are borderline. I've had a few of these cases; they usually know where they stand going in. If they can make the effort and really impress the committee, it bodes well for their chances of improving in the future and maybe pulling out the PhD. On the other hand, if they completely mess up the exam, or demonstrate no depth of knowledge - that tells you something about them as well. So I've seen cases where in the pre-exam discussion, the advisor admits their mixed feelings, and in the post-exam discussion the advisor agrees with pass or a fail.

To Chelonian: an advisor would much rather have a student fail at the quals than at the thesis defense.

Ms.PhD said...

Really sorry to hear about your student. That must have been painful for both of you. I hope it worked out okay.

Having said that, this is a philosophically interesting question. Re: what Chris said (and what DM said about me recently on his blog), I wonder if you're really "helping" students who are not able to stand up to being attacked, or who would otherwise be kicked out?

Won't they just continue to be attacked and/or be kicked out at some later point in their careers?

I know we'd all like to support the idea of "potential" and flatter ourselves in thinking we can teach students how to get through the system, but then again maybe the system is so broken that we just can't? That seems to be what DM says.

Personally, I've seen the adviser's vote abused too much. At my postdoc institution, the adviser is still the committee chair in some programs, which means they have final say over when their own student graduates, and the committee can't override their decision. This is not okay.

I also don't think it's doing anyone any favors if the committee says the student should pass, and the advisor wants them kicked out. Keeping the student in that lab is not a scenario that's going to lead to anything good in the long run.

Personally, I don't think quals have much relevance to what we currently do in research. I guess if basic competency is in question, then maybe some kind of exam is warranted?

But from what I can tell, quals are about random factoids that may not relate to one's thesis or ability to do research, and are more likely to relate to whatever the committee members work on. At schools where you get to choose your committee to relate to your thesis project, this might be fine. At others where the committee is chosen for you (including the gender ratio), this is often not okay at all.

Anonymous said...

I am familiar with a student of type 3). I'm not sure how a student can prevail in this scenario. If a student's adviser doesn't want them to continue, I can't see that it would matter in the long term even if all other members give a pass vote.

John Vidale said...

Kudos to FSP for describing some of the vagaries of the graduate student exams. I've got two to sit in on in the next week (both I'm sure will be passes and thus not prone to the complications described).

The system in general is so unregulated, random, unfair and with such diverse constraints and considerations that the only reasons it exists are (1) to pull the plug on graduate studies gone astray, which otherwise might linger for many more years, and often do anyway, (2) provide a little feedback to the student from faculty other than the advisor, and (3) try to force faculty to maintain a more synoptic view of department and college research.

A necessary and embarrassingly unscientific process - at best triggers some memorable parties upon passes.

quasihumanist said...

In the program from which I got my PhD, department regulations specified that one of the necessary criteria for passing the oral exam is that one of the examiners be willing to be the student's advisor. Usually the prospective advisor (who is not officially the advisor until a few months after the oral) is arranged beforehand, so if the prospective advisor decides the student is failing, he or she fails (unless one of the other committee members is suitably impressed and now wants the student).

I have been on an exam committee where the student was extremely nervous and performed terribly, but the entire committee knew the student and thought well of his abilities, so we decided that he would continue to make a perfectly fine graduate student and there was no point in putting him through the ordeal again.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I always find it completely bizarre that some programs don't allow the PI to vote or sometimes (as in many programs at LargeU) not attend the prelim at all. If the PI is funded and so supporting the student in question with their grant money, then I think it is obvious that the PI should have a vote.

Now in my program, it was an unspoken rule that the PI should be a silent observer during the preliminary exam, but then got to voice his/her opinion and vote once the student had retreated into the hallway.

Hope said...

I guess I’m more interested in what happens to students who have to re-take prelims. Do they get any sort of feedback from their advisors or others on what they need to do to pass? Also, if a student is doing well academically and shows promise in the lab, aside from getting nervous and freezing up during an oral exam, why would a student fail a prelim? If the point of the prelim is to make sure that a student has the research skills and background to complete a PhD, isn’t this part of what they’re supposed to be learning during their first year or two in grad school? So if they’re not getting it, how are they making the grades?

Kevin said...

The tradition in both departments I've participated in exams for is to have a public presentation of the thesis proposal, followed by a shorter private grilling on the topics of the proposal.

The adviser has to be present, because a large part of the job of the committee is to determine how much needs to be done to finish the thesis---this sometimes means restraining the ambition of the adviser.

I have never been on a divided committee, and have only twice been on a committee that failed the student (unanimously in both cases). In one case the student was urged to take the thesis proposal and reformat it as a Master's thesis---there was not enough new stuff to be a PhD thesis, and the rate at which he was doing research made it unlikely that there ever would be (the admission to candidacy exam was several years overdue). In the other case, the student was given a chance to revise the proposal and re-present it---it hasn't happened yet. Again, the student was way past the supposedly required time for advancing to candidacy. He may not be allowed to register again, if he doesn't pass the exam this quarter (he hasn't scheduled it yet).

It is indeed painful to have to fail students who have spent a long time in the grad program. Forcing an earlier decision is probably a more humane approach.

Anonymous said...

The advisor should definitely be on the committee, should have a tie-breaking vote, and should be allowed to attempt to influence the rest of the committee, and here's why.
Testing a students’ ability to communicate verbally, think on their feet, or stand up to criticism is fine, but how do you make that kind of test consistent from person-to-person, or judge the performance consistently? Maybe that’s impossible. So you have an extremely subjective exam that then allows this cop-out for the cowardly/ethically-challenged advisors or department members to kick students out.
But would skipping the oral exam be a good solution? Maybe many students will never need to verbally present their work (seriously, what if a student were mute?) Or perhaps in their chosen career, the student will not need to on-the-spot, in front of 3+ scary professors, defend their knowledge of the details of one of the scary professors’ work. Or maybe the student will always burst into tears under harsh criticism. Are these students undeserving of a Ph.D. if they can, in fact, regurgitate their knowledge in some other way (i.e. on a written exam, in a peer-reviewed written paper)?
Based on what I think are the goals of Ph.D. programs, a student should be able to perform abysmally on an oral exam and still receive a Ph.D. And so, the advisor should at least have a say in these inherently flawed oral exams, or better yet, these exams should be done away with altogether.
And shame on the advisor who is too cowardly to tell a student face-to-face that it’s not working out in their advisor-advisee relationship. These are bright people’s lives and careers we’re talking about here!

Doctor Pion said...

Would you have been permitted to return the "favor", aggressively questioning some male student until he cracked, the next time you are present at a marginal exam?

Anonymous said...

This was some years ago. I had two advisers for my PhD. I was failed on the quals because one of them did not want me. There definitely was a better way to tell me to not work with him. My other adviser was a junior faculty then and she let me go too. The committee voted me fail because that is what my advisers wanted me to. I did finish a PhD in a university that was 5 ranks below.

Now, 10 years after that incident, I am a tenured faculty in the same top research university and my room is right beside the faculty who is responsible for me having failed!