How to succeed in the PhD candidacy exam

Worrying about your Ph.D. candidacy exam (prelim)? 

Been there, and here to help! 

I will cover everything from what is candidacy and what a first-year grad student should focus on, to what to do on the day of your oral exam.


My son Fuji who happens to be a cat, studying from my lab notebook during my PhD


It's an exam. Get ready to study :) 

Make sure to visit your school's official website and look up the candidacy requirements for your specific graduate program.

Here, I share my personal experience and guideline, having completed my Ph.D. candidacy in Physics at Ohio State University.

Here goes!


WHAT IS CANDIDACY?

  • 6-week formal exam required by the graduate school
  • Advisor/committee chooses a topic
  • Typically not something you have worked on
  • But good for you to know
  • You do a literature review, some calculations and become a mini-expert on the assigned topic
  • Deliverables: 20 page paper (at the end of 4 weeks) + Talk (at the end of 6 weeks)

The talk / oral exam makes students nervous because they can be asked any question from the assigned topic and in-context Physics during the talk. 

In my program, this talk is given only to the candidacy committee. In other programs, the talk may even be open to the public.


IF YOU ARE A FIRST-YEAR GRAD STUDENT:


Focus on finding a good Ph.D. advisor
  • Professor with whom you feel relatively comfortable
  • To interact with regularly and ask questions
  • Has research money OR ability to get TA support
  • Has project ideas that interest you
Yes, in that order


IF YOU ARE A SECOND-YEAR GRAD...

Hopefully, you have found a good Ph.D. advisor. If not, keep looking or get out of the program!

There are plenty other things you can be doing.

A Ph.D. is not worth doing unless you have found a good match for a Ph.D. advisor.

And, usually, you take the candidacy exam with the professor you hope to get your Ph.D. from so... don't worry about candidacy until you have found your match.

Personally, I found my match for a Ph.D. advisor in the fourth group I tried out in grad school.
This delayed my candidacy by a *few months*, which is really not a big deal.


YOUR CANDIDACY COMMITTEE

Usually comprises 4 professors as follows:

1. Advisor: you choose this person (say experimentalist)

2. In-field experimentalist, advisor recommends this person

3. In-field theorist, advisor recommends this person

4. Out-of-field professor, you choose this person

For your out-of-field, choose someone you are relatively comfortable with. Ideally, a professor who would have loved to be your advisor - the next best thing is to be on your committee.

It is important to foster good professional relationships with multiple professors in your department, not just your advisor.

Since I worked with multiple professors in the department and maintained great professional relationships with all of them, most of my committee ended up being professors I had directly worked with at some point. 

Candidacy is hard work either way but familiarity with your committee members can definitely make the process seem less scary.


TIME IT RIGHT

  • Professors are BUSY
  • Ask them to be on your committee ~4 months in advance
  • Schedule your exam on a day and time that works well for you – this is YOUR candidacy
  • Make sure your oral exam is on your committee members’ schedules
  • If a committee member is a hard-to-get professor such as Chair of the department, talk to their assistant for scheduling and don't rest until he/she has your exam on the professor's schedule!


ONCE YOU GET THE TOPIC REMEMBER YOU ARE NOT ALONE

  • Candidacy is not meant to be a lone journey, so don't make it one
  • You will need help and so get ready to ASK FOR HELP
  • Ask clarification from your advisor/committee on the topic – What are their expectations? Broadly, what outline should your paper follow?
  • Communicate profusely with your advisor/committee

They picked the topic, they want to see you are interested in it – Ask away, they will tell you when they cannot tell you something


FIND THE LOCAL EXPERT!

Your candidacy topic is not something you have worked on directly – but someone else in the department probably has.

Find that person!

Ask around if needed...

There has to be a professor, or a postdoc, or a senior grad...

Someone that will know the literature on this topic way better than you.



Meet with the local expert, take their suggestions


START WORKING ON YOUR PAPER ON WEEK 1

Don’t wait till week 3, start writing or at least making notes as you are reading. You will read a LOT during candidacy but everything you read will be NEW. Something you read during week 1, you might forget during week 2.

So, write it down!

Make notes, flashcards, whatever works for you, but find a way to easily revisit the things you have read and noted to be important or have questions about or want to include in your paper.

It is when you revisit a point and think about it again or differently that you really learn it

Personally, I had a go at the literature and made a list of all the things I did not understand or had questions about. Then, I attacked this list and slowly went through and looked up or worked out everything I did not know.

When I went to meet with my local expert I already had topics I wanted to go over with him. I met with him the first day for about 2 hours and over the course of my candidacy maybe total 3 hours.

You will be surprised how much you can learn from an expert even in a few hours!

So, don't forget to track down the expert on your topic!


GET EARLY AND REGULAR FEEDBACK ON THE PAPER

  • If your advisor/committee members like to give a lot of feedback, then that feedback flow needs to start in week 1, not week 3. Or, it will be very overwhelming.
  • Most students are worse scientific writers than they think
  • So it is essential to incorporate your advisor + group's feedback into your paper to make it better
  • You can also catch mistakes in your conceptual understanding by asking for feedback.
You might think you know something well but you will be surprised by how many misconceptions you might have about the work that your research group does. 

Candidacy is when you clarify these things and learn them for good!


GIVE A PRACTICE TALK

  • Schedule it a week before your real talk
  • Invite everyone in the department (at least some will come)
  • It’s going to be brutal
  • Have someone else take notes
  • Make note of all weaknesses and gaps in your knowledge

AFTER THE PRACTICE TALK, STUDY STUDY STUDY


Picture taken in Jefferson's library in Washington DC, was thrilled to find so many books of Plato, visited during my PhD

It’s OK, no one does well on their practice talk – Go home and cry! Watch Jane the Virgin.

But then, STUDY

Study topics you were shaky on / didn’t know 

This last week you learn the MOST


ON D-DAY

Now that you know more, you will know how little you know

If you are feeling beyond nervous, tell yourself to fake it till you make it


Remember the idea is to make your committee feel confident that you are ready to be a Ph.D. candidate

  • Get to the exam early -- get familiar with the room, whiteboards, set up your talk.
  • During the exam – station yourself near a whiteboard, do NOT try to hide behind your talk. 
  • No crutches allowed! 
  • You won't always have an immediate answer to their questions. 
  • You will have to work it out on the board. 
  • So, show that you are a professional and willing to work it out!


Having the right attitude goes a long way.

Be very respectful, alert and attentive.

Your committee wants you to succeed. Failing you will inconvenience them!

If you get stuck/flustered under questioning they might throw you a lifeline – recognize, utilize and move on!

Carry a water bottle.

My candidacy oral exam was exactly 2 hours.

Good to stay hydrated. Good to breathe. You can do this!

Good luck and let me know any questions in the comments!!

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