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Like most PhD students, I am having a difficult time with my qualifying exams and would like some recommendations on how to proceed from others who may have experienced something similar. 
 
I should start out by explaining that I started my program as a Master’s student at the suggestion of my advisor. I didn’t come from a great undergraduate program that actually had research options and my only prior experience with research was during my year off working with a previous graduate of my advisor. During my third semester, I petitioned for a switch that my advisor was enthusiastic about and transferred to the PhD program. I was also informed recently that I received the NSF graduate research fellowship award, meaning that I won’t have to be supported with teaching/research assistantships any longer.  
 
All students are expected to complete a prospectus which entails writing a research proposal about planned research and then presenting that proposal in front of the graduate committee. I did this during my second semester as a Master’s student and again in my fourth semester after my switch in programs took effect. Also during the fourth or fifth semester, PhD students take the qualifying exams. This requires five written exams over the course of one week, each from a committee member which assigns you a topic - usually related to their field of research, not yours. If you pass this, you are able to move on to the oral exam where they ask you additional questions with all members present and this may be related to previous topics or from any topic in biology. The topics I was assigned: general ecology, comparative physiology, flight biomechanics, mammalian auditory systems and auditory processing, and mammalian and insect visual systems. 
 
I was given eight weeks to work through a mountain of textbooks and papers that were recommended, in addition to resources I found myself. Needless to say, I haven’t slept properly due to all the stress and have been remarkably unproductive in every other aspect (which is extremely unlike me). I passed the written exams with little problem. They weren’t spectacular, but no exam I’ve ever taken (SAT, GRE, midterms, finals, etc…) has ever been great just due to the anxiety from all the pressure. For my oral exam, however, I was asked the first question and I just broke. Ultimately, I ran out of the room in tears right before an extreme panic attack, unable to even tell my committee members what was happening to me. The stress, the anxiety, were things that I tried to keep unnoticed because I don’t want to be perceived as weak, or that student who can’t handle the pressure. 
 
Since that incident, I’ve talked with my members and admitted to struggling with these things. To say that I’ve always struggled with tests and public speaking is an understatement. But it’s something I’ve been actively working (including counseling and medications) on since beginning undergrad and have focused especially on this past semester knowing I would have to do this. Despite all the work and preparation, I couldn’t do it and I don’t know if I actually ever will.
 
My committee members tell me that it shouldn’t be any different than any other time I have to speak. I disagree. When preparing for a conference or a lecture or even a job interview, you are generally narrowly focused on one topic that you’ve had the opportunity to rehearse and practice (not to mention no one at a conference tells you that you can’t come back if your talk isn’t good). This is very different from walking into a room with five people who could ask you literally anything.
 
The goal of these exams is to confirm that PhD students are broadly trained in biology, despite specializing in a particular field and to ensure that they are truly qualified to do research. I get it, but I also think I’ve managed to demonstrate these things in other ways. I’ve done a lot of coursework because Master’s students are required to have a certain number in addition to research, which is not a requirement for PhD students. I’ve taught science courses at my university and another university prior to entering the program, I’ve passed the written portion, and I’ve managed to get an NSF grant. All my members say to me that they know I’m prepared, that I know the answers, but they still insist on me going through this ordeal to continue. I am exhausted, humiliated, and frustrated to say the least. 
 
So, has anyone else had these experiences? Were you offered any sort of alternative way to prove you’re competent? Or am I really going to have to just accept that this shortcoming is going to alter my life plans despite being very capable in every other requirement? Am I really just not good enough? Is this really the best way for the Deptartment of Academics to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff or is my career as a biologist being held hostage behind faculty traditions passed on as normal?

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I am sorry to hear about these struggles. You are a competent researcher. You have earned your spot in this graduate program and you have demonstrated excellence through things like the NSF fellowship. So, congratulations on the achievements so far! 

I have two answers for you.

First, the philosophical answer: yes, I do think there should be better ways for students to demonstrate their competence. I don't think the oral exam is the best way but I do think it is one way for some people to really show their excellence. In my opinion, PhD candidates should have multiple different opportunities to show their knowledge is different ways. That said, I do think there is some validity to the open-ended oral exam format, that is, one where as you say, you cannot prepare for by reading up on your expertise but instead, you are being tested on whether you can think on your feet and surpass a challenge that you cannot prepare for. Exams like this can be well executed or become an unfair test, depending on how the exam is carried out, whether the examiners are trained, whether students are briefed on the expectations and whether the test is fair.

Second, the more practical answer: despite the above and despite the fact that some faculty members might even agree with the above, the reality is that unless there is department policies or protocols for alternate exams, this is something you will have to do.  

I don't know you or this exam. What you say sound very familiar though, and I have seen many students in my department feel similar things to you and doubt themselves, when they really do have what it takes to pass the exam. I would suggest that you find some people that can help you get in the right mindset and approach this challenge in a way that will allow you to pass. I know that some people feel very uncomfortable talking about their science off-the-cuff, without any chance to practice or rehearse. So, if you feel this describes you, consider practicing impromptu responses. Some people feel uncomfortable when they have to speak about speculations or make statements that they are not sure of. It is also a helpful skill in science to find the right balance of discussing a new topic intelligently, without making unfounded statements. These types of questions require you to not just regurgitate knowledge, but to find connections between other topics you've worked on or studied in the past, and draw new connections while in the hot seat.

These are just two examples that might not apply to you, but my intent is to say that you aren't just developing arbitrary skills to pass this exam but will serve no further purpose in your academic life. Again, I don't know the exam, but some of the things you need to learn to pass the oral exam will actually be helpful later on too. But I do agree that for some people, a big part of these exams just requires one to persevere and push through it. I hope you can find the support you need in order to pass it.

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There might be coaching specific to this kind of exam.  If not in your area, perhaps the drama department.  ("Breathe in and out, give yourself two seconds to remember what text the question comes from, while calmly saying 'that's an excellent question'...")

Also, while I don't like to send people down this road unnecessarily, if you have a particular kind of anxiety like stage fright, something like beta-blockers (or a good placebo) might be an option.

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You're both right. I've tried the practicing and medications and felt really prepared going in...but still completely cracked. I suppose the frustrating part about the skill-building argument is that not everyone can have every skill. To me, writing is most important because that is the most common form of communication in our field and ubiquitous across almost all fields. But, most of my peers (and even a number of professors) are sub-par writers. I've read some answers to other students written exams and they were atrocious, but the correct answer was more important than style and grammar. I wish that the same could apply to this, that demonstrating knowledge is important, and how you do it is less important.

There are plenty of ways to show that you aren't regurgitating knowledge. I mean, the whole point of research proposals, review papers, and other publications is to synthesize information. So doing so verbally doesn't seem like anything special. Especially when your goal isn't actually to stay in academia.

It's also very frustrating when I've talked to other faculty at other schools who think the whole process is ridiculous. For many of them, our prospectus is their qualifying exam. Since I know this isn't something I can just force myself to be capable of, maybe the best solution is to take that NSF and find a program where such an intense requirement doesn't exist. I'm sure it sounds silly, or like cheating the system, but this is just too much for something that really is minor. No one will ever ask about these exams, no one ultimately cares about it. When going to get a job, they care about publishing papers and this all just feels like two years of distraction and no real research.

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46 minutes ago, Jtek said:

It's also very frustrating when I've talked to other faculty at other schools who think the whole process is ridiculous. For many of them, our prospectus is their qualifying exam. Since I know this isn't something I can just force myself to be capable of, maybe the best solution is to take that NSF and find a program where such an intense requirement doesn't exist. I'm sure it sounds silly, or like cheating the system, but this is just too much for something that really is minor. No one will ever ask about these exams, no one ultimately cares about it. When going to get a job, they care about publishing papers and this all just feels like two years of distraction and no real research.

It does feel like an over-reaction. I think you may be both blowing this out of proportion and under- or misestimating the importance of being able to present yourself orally in a variety of occasions. Writing ability is important, but if you can't sell your ideas in person as well, you'll suffer as an academic. If you give an atrocious job talk or you aren't able to answer questions from left field (and some people specialize at asking those at job talks!), you'll have a hard time getting a job. Students might ask you any question out of the blue, whether or not it's actually related to what you are talking about. And similarly at conferences you might be able to prepare for the talk, but it's very hard to prepare for the question period. You can't panic and run off-stage every time someone asks you something you weren't prepared for. (And here, in fact, you've gotten several weeks precisely in order to prepare!) That aside giving engaging talks is a good way of getting yourself and your ideas out there, or getting invited to conferences and to give talks, and the conversations of the kind you have when not on stage are important for building connections. Those are sometimes as important, if not more, than the actual ideas you're trying to sell, and you can't control the direction they go in.* I'm sure you've noticed that success only has some correlation with good ideas. (As in, you can have good ideas and not be as successful, or not as good ideas but really good inter-personal skills, and be quite successful). So, I think this is a more useful skill than you might be giving it credit for. 

That aside, given that there are people around who agree that the current form of the qualifying exam might not be ideal, maybe there is a way to work something out where it's manageable for you but also meets the department's requirements. You'd need to work this out on an individual basis with your committee; I'm sure you're not the first person to deal with serious stage fright. That said, I would advise you not to do or say anything drastic until after you've calmed down, because right now it sounds like you're over-reacting. If you have a supportive advisor and committee, they should be willing to help you through this milestone in your program and move on to the next steps, especially if you're otherwise successful and could have a successful career in your field. Try to figure this out with them before you do anything quite as drastic as taking your grant and walking away. 

 

* For example, I've been asked on some interview what I think were the most important 3 inventions of the 20th century and why. Another person once asked what book I'd take with me to a deserted island. More than once someone asked some version of "young/old man/woman/person I admire in [my field/other field/science]", what paper I read recently that made me change my mind about my research (and what specifically it was), the most impactful paper/presentation of the year, and other things that caught me off guard. Those are just a few example. I doubt the specific answers mattered, but my reaction did. And then of course random people will ask about hobbies, books you've read recently, your favorite foods, recent travels, and any other thing that pops into their heads. Unless you plan to pre-rehearse every possible conversation you might have with other academics, you need to learn to deal with unexpected situations, including high-stakes ones. 

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There was a memoir by a symphony conductor who was once complimented by a famous lady for how he spoke in public.  His explanation: it wasn't his profession, so he felt no pressure.  (He was also very smart, articulate, and a bit arrogant, which didn't hurt.)

Perhaps, apart from practicing the "skills" that are freaking you out so much, you need to lower the pressure on yourself.  E.g., if your real work is in the lab, or writing reports, this is a chance to talk about something interesting with God knows who shows up.  Or some other formula that won't make this thing seem like such a big deal.  After all, you just have to get through it, not win a medal.

 

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Well, "stage fright" and even "serious stage fright" do not adequately define this. Not that the things you describe aren't important, but they're mostly applicable to academics, which I do not want to stay in. And, the consequences of not being great in the situations you describe are not life altering, besides giving a job talk maybe, and I have zero intention of applying to jobs where a job talk would be relevant. It's a blip and people move on. This is not, it is life altering, and I am not overreacting. Without this one portion of an exam, I not only am forced to leave my program, but I will also lose my NSF funding.

To be forced to do something that creates such a degree of distress in another person is just cruel. And I think to imply otherwise is ignorant and insensitive. Again, everyone has their strengths and programs should be building those, not making you feel like shit about yourself because you aren't exactly as they want you to be. And unless you have actually experienced this degree of distress in a similar situation, you cannot relate to it and have no right to tell me it's not that big of a deal.

And maybe the field of linguistics and history is different but there is no way that several weeks to prepare is enough to know everything about even one field, much less multiple. In fact, most people can't speak about the specifics of even their own field because science has broadened so much into hundreds of sub-disciplines.

And what I'm trying to convey is that this isn't something that someone can "just get through" or "learn to deal with." If I could just suck it up and make it happen, I wouldn't be in this situation in the first place. I've been working on this problem for 10 years now and it's not getting better.

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I wrote you a nice long answer and accidentally deleted it when I was almost done. I'll try to rewrite all of the main points again.

First off, even though I don't know you or your work, like your profs I'm also confident that you know the material because you passed all of your qualifying exams. This oral test is just a means of testing you in a different format.

Tell yourself that you know the material so many times until you start to believe it. We would like to help you. But what it all comes down to is you have control over your own mind (not us!) and you also have the power and the ability to overcome your fearful and negative thoughts. Before you do your retest, come up with a mantra that you can repeat in your mind before you go into the exam room to help increase your confidence. For instance, "I will do well. I know the material. I passed my written exams. Everyone believes in me. I am prepared. I will succeed." Pick something that you'll feel comfortable saying. You probably won't believe it at first, but the more you say it the more you will be able to believe it.

After someone asks you a question, it's ok if you need a few seconds to organize your thoughts before speaking. You can say something like, "Hmmm... great question. Let me think about it for a moment."  Don't feel like you have to jump in right away and have the perfect answer immediately. No one will fault you for taking a few moments to think about what you plan to say first.

It's ok to ask the person to repeat their question if you don't grasp it for the first time around or even if you want a little bit of extra time to think it through. Sometimes hearing the question twice can be really helpful as you are collecting your thoughts.

Sometimes people who experience stage fright say it helps to look slightly above the heads of the people in the audience rather than directly at the audience's faces. If this trick helps you feel more relaxed, then do it.

Are you allowed to carry a clipboard with a sheet of paper on it or hold a couple of cue cards in your hand? If so, you might find it reassuring to jot down a couple of things you find a little bit trickier to remember or explain off the top of your head and have it with you. Some people also find it a bit more reassuring to have something that they can hold in their hand or clutch in front of their chest. while they speak

Lastly, some people find it helpful to prepare a presentation for an other student or two and have those students ask you questions as a way to practice. By having a dry run, this can help you feel more confident because you can try it out and get honest feedback from other students. Try to make it as realistic as possible in terms for the time you have to speak, the number of questions that they ask and the length of the question and answer period. You might even want to practice in the exam room, if you are able and if you'd find that helpful.

Good luck! You can do this.

Edited by thelionking

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Well. I'll ignore the "maybe linguistics and history aren't as rigorous as the science I am studying" bit and other not so subtle jabs at me. I'll also not spend time writing a long post about presentation skills and their usefulness in areas outside academia. I'll say this: if you've had this problem for over a decade, then this is something you could and should have planned for. I assume this exam isn't some secret they only let you in on after you've joined your program -- it's probably on the department's webpage and you could have known about it. The fact that you didn't plan for it is not anyone else's fault. Now the question is what you are going to do about it. If the entire point of this thread is to blow off steam, you're doing a good job. But if you want to actually get advice, that means being open to opinions other than your own. So here's mine: have you had a conversation with your committee about alternative ways of satisfying the requirement? Have you had a chat with the office of disabilities? Have you taken any action at all to try to fix the situation? There very well might be people who want to help you, but you need to ask for help, and you need to make a good faith effort to find alternatives, if you want to be able to move forward. You might also want to refrain from assuming you can know what experiences people have had, where they come from, or what they can relate to, if you know nothing about them. 

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I'll say I agree with everything Fuzzy said (and especially echo that taking jabs at other fields is not kosher), but I also want to take a bit of time to dig into the "not everyone has the same skills" line of thought. 

While not everyone has the same strengths, there are some skills that are integral to doing a job, or getting a degree. To me, oral and written communication are at the top of the list in STEM fields. As an adviser of mine once said, it doesn't matter what you know, or how groundbreaking your work is if you can't communicate it.

You are tearing into other people's writing skills (something you're good at and they struggle with) and saying how important writing is, but then turning around and saying that just because you don't see the importance in oral presentation skills, it must not be important. Would you be as willing to say that someone who couldn't write, even passably, shouldn't have to write a dissertation if doing so caused them high levels of stress and anxiety?

i understand you a frustrated, and at to the process is getting to you. That doesn't mean it's OK to lash out, and it doesn't mean it's good to say "what I'm good at is hats important, and I shouldn't have to do the rest". 

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3 hours ago, Jtek said:

Well, "stage fright" and even "serious stage fright" do not adequately define this. Not that the things you describe aren't important, but they're mostly applicable to academics, which I do not want to stay in.

...

To be forced to do something that creates such a degree of distress in another person is just cruel.

...

And what I'm trying to convey is that this isn't something that someone can "just get through" or "learn to deal with." If I could just suck it up and make it happen, I wouldn't be in this situation in the first place. I've been working on this problem for 10 years now and it's not getting better.

I think these points are very valid and I feel the same way. To clarify, when I said to seek help to deal with it, I wasn't aware of whether or not you have already sought help. Your first post sounded a lot like other students under the stress of the oral exam, so I suggested some strategies that might help, but it sounds like you are facing much deeper problems.

That said, the reality is that the skills that cause you a lot of anxiety and distress is absolutely essential in finishing your PhD program. Just like you cannot just magically overcome whatever is causing your distress, you cannot magically skip this part of your PhD program either.

I'll ignore the part of your replies that make you sound very arrogant as if you already know what is necessary or not necessary to get a PhD in your field. The truth is that you do not get to decide this. Not all PhD programs are the same and not all PhD programs have the same goals/outcomes for their students. It seems like you are in a program that is not a good fit for you as it is emphasizing certain skills and experiences that you do not want/need (e.g. getting a job in academia). If you do not think you are in a good fit program, one solution is to find a new program.

However, remember two things if you try a different program: 1) at some level, all PhD programs are going to be designed for the graduate to be able to have a career in academia. Some programs are solely focussed on this (bad idea, in my opinion) while others develop this alongside non-academic career paths. I think it is an oxymoron to seek a PhD program that doesn't prepare its graduate for academia. 2) There is always some sort of oral exam in a PhD program. Some quals or candidacy exams might not be as much oral exam work, but your final thesis defense will be an oral exam with questions out of left field. 

The other option is to seek additional help to manage this stress as best as you can. I don't know how much help you have already sought and your particular situation, so maybe you have already exhausted all possibilities. Sorry if that's the case.

Ultimately, I disagree with you that these types of exams are not useful---I think these tests do select for attributes important in academics (again seeking a non-academic career doesn't mean you have different graduation requirements than those seeking academic careers). It is indeed cruel to force someone to do something for no reason, but you are not being forced. If the path of the PhD is not compatible with what you want to be doing, then you should seek different programs or different career paths. 

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I must admit, I skimmed through this thread  and somehow skipped over a few details including the part about some fields not being as rigorous. I also don't think that is kosher. All grad programs are competitive and more applicants are declined than accepted into programs, no matter which discipline it is. Just because some degrees lead to higher income potential that doesn't mean people in those fields are better or smarter than people in lower paying fields. Some people could be in a STEM program but choose to be in a non-STEM field because that is their preference.

I also think that whether or not you agree with your graduation requirements, if you want to graduate one day you're going to have to move beyond complaining about it to doing something to improve your situation. This can be a highly fixable problem if you seek the right resources to help you overcome your challenges and your fears.  

I would also like to add that some people have learning disabilities such as dyslexia or blindness, yet they are still required to write papers and written exams. Everyone has their own set of unique challenges they need to overcome in order to succeed yet everyone needs to fulfill the same requirements. 

Edited by thelionking

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Just to echo what others have said, oral communication skills are important in ALL fields. That's why many undergrad gen ed requirements include a public speaking requirement. Beyond that though, there are very real things which people can do when they have anxiety getting in the way of achieving their goals. One is to talk to a professional counselor or therapist (in your case, I'd value someone with the ability to write prescriptions in addition to specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy or DBT). It sounds to me, Jtek, that you very much need an outside professional to provide insight into what's happening with you.

Personally, I wouldn't let something like a fear of oral exams get in the way of pursuing my dream. I doubt you'll find any PhD program which doesn't require an oral defense of the dissertation, at which you'll get asked questions you probably can't anticipate (as fuzzylogician has already pointed out). I'll admit that I'm a person that was also terrified of the oral exam and didn't perform well during it. BUT, I performed just well enough to pass (barely, but barely is really all you need). If the current structure and set of expectations is too much for you, then you can and should talk to professionals (therapists, doctors, Disability Services, your PI) to see if any accommodations or changes can be made. Your committee wants you to pass. They wouldn't be asking you to do the oral exam if they didn't believe that you could pass it. Try to remember that going forward and not act rashly.

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I second the suggestions about seeking some professional help. I speak as someone who developed a language problem as an adult (neurological, acquired) and basically went from being an award-winning orator to struggling with speaking. Most days you won't be able to tell I have a problem, but some days, I struggle with finding simple words like "bird." I might come into the room and name everything that flies except "bird" (flies, geese, aeroplane, bats).

But like everyone says, this is academia. If you accept the "job" of being an academic, even if temporarily as a graduate student with no intention of being going further beyond your PhD, then you accept the mores of academia. So, temporarily, you accept this. Even for students with disabilities (like me!), standards are not lowered. We have to show we can meet the essential requirement that everybody else meets, with accommodation. What this means is sometimes, if I say, bat instead of bird, and I tell my professor that is not what I mean and ask for a second to find the word I want, they understand. But for them to understand, a conversation needs to take place (preferably with the disability office helping).

I'm sorry this is an ordeal for you.

It is an ordeal for me, too. But I gotta do it anyway. Unfortunately, so do you.

You can do this. I know you can.

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Maybe an informal practice oral exam would help? Get some of your lab mates/friendly postdocs to ask you softball bio questions in the style of the oral exam. Maybe your advisor would be willing to play, too?

It's clear that the oral exams are existing as a Big Thing in your mind, so breaking it down into a culmination of smaller & easier tasks might take the edge off it. Plus it allows you to gently get used to the oral exam set-up and what it feels like to be confronted by questions you weren't expecting.

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Not that the things you describe aren't important, but they're mostly applicable to academics, which I do not want to stay in. And, the consequences of not being great in the situations you describe are not life altering, besides giving a job talk maybe, and I have zero intention of applying to jobs where a job talk would be relevant. It's a blip and people move on.

In addition to what others have already said above, let me address this. I am a scientist who works in industry. I assumed the same things as you when I applied to industry jobs, and I found that my assumptions were not true:

1) I did have to give a job talk to get my totally non-academic research position at a large private corporation. And I have found that other research positions require the same thing. Many research employers want to understand how you think about science and how you design and conduct your science.

2) Even if you do apply for positions that don't require a job talk, you will still have to interview, which will involve answering questions about your research, your work, and your field on the spot. That goes for any kind of job - academic or non-academic.

3) Being able to talk off-the-cuff is an incredibly important skill to have in industry science. It's somewhat harder, sometimes, in that you not only have to be able to answer questions in the moment but you also need to be able to translate your field's jargon and language into language that non-scientists can understand easily. In fact, I would say the opposite of what you said above is true - the main way that I communicate in my job is through presentations, discussions and conversations, not writing. Sure, I write research reports - typically between 10 and 30 pages long, depending - but in reality, the way that I effect change with my client teams is through discussion. Being able to clearly articulate my research, my results, and my recommendations in oral communication is actually quite a bit more important than my ability to write.

A person in my job who had mediocre writing skills might be coached to improve; a person in my job who did not have adequate oral communication skills would probably be coached out of the job.

Yes, everyone has different strengths. But as a scientist, oral communication is one of the most important tools in your tool kit.

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