During the PhD journey, one important milestone is the advancement to candidacy oral exam. This is where a student talks about the work they’ve done and the work they intend to complete in order to proceed to the PhD dissertation phase. The student prepares a presentation and their committee can interrupt and ask questions at any point. Then the committee votes as to whether the student has advanced to candidacy. Because of the talk’s unique nature and importance, many students get overwhelmed preparing for it.
That’s why I’ve put together three tips to help you reframe how you think about an advancement:
1. Right Mindset
If you’ve had test anxiety in the past, anything called an "exam" will ignite stress. However, this is not an "exam" where you are checking boxes on a piece of paper — this is a conversation. Think of your committee as a panel of consultants who are there to look at the various components of your work and identify any blind spots that you might want to account for now, rather than deal with later. Think of this as a formal meeting where you get to discuss your project with some of the most brilliant people in your field and get their feedback.
2. Appreciate Questions
Instead of worrying about questions from your committee, try to appreciate them. Your committee is asking questions about your work for a reason. They want to make sure your plan is solid before moving on to the next stage. It would be far worse if people knew there could be an issue with your dissertation, but didn’t tell you until it was too late. This is an opportunity to examine your plan from every angle before moving forward.
3. People Are Trying to Help
Sometimes a committee member shares feedback in an unfiltered way and their vocal delivery can come off as harsh or judgmental. Whenever I work with people who are a bit more "direct" in their delivery, I like to assume they are coming from a protective mindset where they are focusing on the information, not on how they share it. For example, if a kid runs into the middle of the street, we might react with "No! Come back!" and forget to deliver that information in a gentle way. People on your committee are invested in your success. So if they ask questions that come off harshly, remember they are there to help you and have your back.
If you are preparing for an advancement (or another oral exam), try to adjust your mindset, appreciate questions, and remember that your committee is there to help. Before you enter the room, shake off any nervous energy, breathe deep, and walk into that room with your head held high. Enjoy this time where brilliant people are taking time out of their day to help you succeed.
Author: Bri McWhorter
Bri McWhorter is the Founder and CEO of Activate to Captivate.