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C. Boake cboake at utk.edu
Mon Nov 24 09:46:49 EST 1997

In article <v01510104b09b2073bc08@[]>, mstorrie at vt.edu
(muriel lederman) wrote:

> > The best advice I heard going into my orals was to  remember that the
> > examiners don't care so much  what you know-they want to know what you
> > don't know, as so will keep changing the subject if you show competence
> > until they find one you trip on.
> IMHO, this is partly correct and partly NOT correct.  What I tell students
> is that someone will pick an area and go down that road until the student
> exhausts his/her information. The scary thing for the students is that they
> don't know whether they've gone far enough down the road when they sputter.
> It is NOT my experience that examiners jump from topic to topic until they
> "get you". Muriel

My experience is pretty much concordant with Muriel's.  We tend to drop
topics that students clearly know because we are satisfied with the
answer, however it is usual for the questioner to at least say "good" when
an answer is satisfactory, before moving on to a different topic.  We are
not trying to play mind-games. For the rare student who is reasonably
comfortable with the exam situation, we may all chat about a particular
topic for a while.  If a student doesn't know something, we tend to step
back and ask increasingly simple questions until we can figure out what
the student does know.  This is clearly uncomfortable for the student but
it is no more comfortable for the questioner; it is very distressing to
learn that a student does not have a command of the basics. 

The advice that I give students is to approach all preparatory readings
with the question "how is this relevant to my research?"  For the most
part, that is the mindset of examiners.  That is in fact how many of us
deal with the huge amount of technical reading that we conduct as part of
our faculty responsibilities.  A student has to know the basics of a
field, and give evidence that she/he is on the way to becoming an expert. 
(The PhD dissertation and defense is when we decide if someone has
succeeded in becoming an expert.)

Disclaimer: The preceding comments apply to the general areas of
evolution, behavior, and ecology.  Your experience may differ.


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