New book aims to ease oral-exam anxiety

Professor pulls back the cloak of secrecy on a rite of passage for grad students.


(Edmonton) Help has finally arrived for the world’s 12.5 million graduate students—including more than 7,500 at the University of Alberta—who live in fear of what is considered a rite of passage: the oral exam.

Lee Foote, a wetland ecologist at the U of A, published Oral Exams: Preparing for and Passing Candidacy, Qualifying and Graduate Defenses to demystify the process and help students prepare.

MSc students must pass one oral exam, their thesis defence, and PhD students must pass two oral exams: either a qualifying or candidacy exam, and a thesis defence.

The book, published by the well-known academic publisher Elsevier, provides graduate students with solid advice on everything related to oral exams, from managing supervisory committees to overcoming nervousness, exam-day preparations, how to handle yourself and "manage" the exam, and even visualization exercises. There’s also a chapter for supervisors.

“The most important thing students will get out of the book is an understanding of the exams, a reduction of the uncertainty,” said Foote. He added the book gives students a certain level of confidence and tools to help them manage their fear. It also discusses how to hear questions and answer them effectively and provides some actual content of the exam preparation.

In fact, there’s an appendix with a list of about 500 questions, organized by topics, many of which are often used during oral exams that Foote has accumulated over the years from sitting on various committees and talking with colleagues.

The catalyst for writing the book came when one of Foote’s students, whom he considered a tremendous asset to science, almost failed her candidacy exam.

“And then I started seeing middle-of-the-pack grad students that glowed during their oral exams. What is wrong with this picture?” he wondered.

He went online and visited libraries, but to his surprise, didn’t find anything to help graduate students prepare for their required oral exams. He then talked to graduate students.

“The aura that came about is it’s a rite of passage, there’s a cloak of secrecy, they don’t tell you the stuff deliberately, there was all sorts of sense of subterfuge,” he said.

Foote added the information he had gathered to the notes he had accumulated after 10 years of teaching a graduate organization class and prepared a handout for his students. It proved so effective that he decided to use it as the outline for the book.

And the student who triggered it all? She recovered from the near miss, earned her PhD and published four papers. She now works as a successful ecological analyst.

The book is available through Indigo/Chapters, Amazon.ca and Elsevier Press.