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"stage fright" + 4-headed exam committee = ?


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I don't know if anyone has gone through this particular situation but I'll feel out.  I suffer from severe depression and anxiety; I'm doing really well now with the meds and a great team of professionals.  Ideas and advice will be appreciated.

The story: I barely passed my written exam.  Part of it was due to the wording of the questions not being very clear how the essays were to be written/structured.  The other part was making a lot of mistakes (overconfidence took over my mind).  My committee let me take the oral exam with the assumption that I would know how to fix my mistakes during the conversation.  I ended up failing my oral exam with an opportunity for a re-take.

I spent the entire summer studying again.  My committee wanted me to correct my mistakes, which I did and now have passed those corrections with flying colors.  Now we are supposed to schedule an oral exam.  I met with three of my committee members individually and the meetings went solid for most part and everyone feels comfortable moving me forward.

Except for my meeting with my adviser.  I literally had a stress breakdown as she "examined" me.  My adviser got really worried and wondered if the oral exam format is really right for me even though the Graduate School has in its policy that second exams must be oral exams and observed by an outside representative of the Graduate faculty.  I was going to fill out the form to take my exam that afternoon but... I decided not to.

The stakes are pretty high because A) my committee claims that they're looking for my knowledge of A and B but it's like dealing with a four-headed dragon, not one because each had a specific strategy for handling their questions.  What I can say to Committee Member 1 will not fly with Committee Member 3 while Committee Member 2 is listening for something specific that Committee Member 1 doesn't care for; and B ) I have a real performance anxiety.  A lot of times I deal with it because I know I can always do X again or have a semi-script in hand.  This time, this is it.  If I fail, I'm done and out.  My adviser's biggest concern at the moment is the perception of the outside representative appointed by the Graduate School to oversee the exam of me, especially if I had a random nervous breakdown.

My confidence is now in the hole after working so hard all summer to build it back up.  This whole thing is rough on me because it's literally my only hurdle in this entire PhD program.  I have the dissertation prospectus approved, finished all of my coursework, and have gotten a good check of dissertation research done. The committee know it and really want to pass me so we all can move on with our lives.  My adviser wants look into petitioning the Graduate School for an alternative route to this kind of exam format though I'm not sure what exactly.

Anyone experienced anything like this-- with a difficult committee and/or serious performance anxiety for the oral exam?

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Several thoughts, all on the practical side. 

First, throughout this, it's important for you to remember that your committee supports you and wants you to pass. So, it's a question of how best to get there. 

Second, I can understand your advisor's concerns about this upcoming exam because I assume that there would be administrative trouble if you were to fail that could perhaps be avoided if they ask for accommodation beforehand. It wouldn't surprise me if it's significantly easier to ask now than to try and fix the problem after it happens (*if* it happens!). To me, worrying about this is part of your advisor's caring for you and wanting you to pass. 

Third, is there an official at your school who is in charge of helping in cases like these? The disabilities office or somewhere else? You cannot possibly be the first person to deal with issues like these. Maybe your therapists can intervene and help. 

I think an important question is: what do you want? I think you need to care less about what the rules say and what anyone else would think, and see about doing what's best for you in this situation. If there is something you could do that wouldn't cause this anxiety, wouldn't it be good? For example, is it possible to do a low key "practice exam" (if that would help)? Or, getting through the questions in writing first? Or completely replacing the oral exam with a written one?

And finally, please take care of yourself. Your health is the most important thing. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Thanks, fuzzy. Your advice was much, much needed!  I took it immediately.

Sigh.  I've just learned that things have gotten a lot more complicated.  The whole process is now out of my hands.  Limited availability of 3 committee members.... and the bureaucratic process for accommodations.

Perfect.  Not how I imagined my candidacy exams.  At.  All.


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