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Biostat Connections
October 1997

Department Revamps the Oral Exam

by Chris Corcoran

What do you call a dress rehearsal for your thesis defense? Under the old system, it was the oral examination. This is how some faculty viewed the practice, prior to this year, of waiting in some cases until just a month before the final defense to fulfill the oral exam requirement.

Department Chair Dr. Nan Laird points out, however, that there is a difference between Biostatistics and some of the other lab or social science disciplines. In other departments around HSPH, where data gathering is often the foundation of the thesis, the oral exam is an important means to justify the student's course of research before expensive data-generating resources are used; a grant proposal of sorts. Trying to apply the school-wide oral requirement to students in our department in a more meaningful way has been an issue recently addressed.

During the 1995-96 academic year, departmental leadership organized a special committee to review the current examination practices and to recommend changes where needed. Members of the committee pointed out in their final proposal that, according to current practice, "Many of our doctoral students take their oral exam when they are well into their thesis research and have already finished one or two of their anticipated 3 papers." At that point, the committee argued, "it may be too late to suggest constructive changes in the line of research and too late to have the student strengthen a particular area of their background." They suggested that the oral exam be moved up to within 2-3 semesters of passage of the written exam, in greater compliance with the School-wide requirement, and that initial thesis work be conditional on successfully passing both exams. Because the written exam will now be administered in September for students who are entering their second year, this means that students should fulfill the oral requirement within the first semester of their third year.

With the change in timing comes also a change in emphasis. The committee further proposed to "structure the oral examination so that the focus is on mastery of the minor fields and mastery of the statistical literature related to the student's chosen area of research." Ostensibly, students will achieve this end in part by writing a review of the statistical literature, including a brief overview of their chosen field as well as a summary of interesting problems that they could tackle, that they will submit to their oral committee prior to the exam.

Technically, this new policy applies strictly to students who entered during the 1996-97 academic year. However, most of the 1994-95 class opted to take their oral exams under the new approach, and the 1995-96 students will probably follow suit. Why? When asked, many of these students simply shrug and reply that it's a relief to finish the requirement earlier. Fourth-year student Janice Weinberg adds, however, that the new system just "makes more sense." The orals paper helped her particularly to identify what she understood as well as those areas that she needed to review more heavily.

Naturally, with any new policy there are some wrinkles that need ironing. For example, many students are hazy when asked what the required literature review entails. The committee's proposal asked for a paper approximately only 10-15 pages in length, but the size of these reviews has ballooned over time. So far, it's unclear whether the faculty desire more work on this project than they originally requested, or if students are simply expending more energy and resources than needed. "It's difficult to put this much effort into a paper only to have two people read it," laments one student.

In addition, most research areas have already spawned published reviews of the literature of some sort. Some students may feel that they are reinventing the wheel by gathering and interpreting some information already compiled by more qualified and experienced statisticians. Fourth-year student Nick Horton points out that his advisor, Dr. Nan Laird, has encouraged him to approach his orals paper in a different way. For instance, by including an original example that implements some of the techniques he discusses, Nick either hopes to turn the paper into a publishable entity in its own right, or at least to incorporate it into his first thesis paper.

In spite of some of these ambiguities, most students and faculty seem to agree that the new policy represents positive change over the old system. One student points out, however, that while the original proposal called for a meeting sometime in the future where students and faculty could assess the program as it had so far been implemented, such a meeting has not yet been announced. When eventually held, this could provide suggestions for further refinement of the oral examination process.

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Last Update: 9 October 1997