A Mental Marathon: How I Mastered My General Exams

 Nov 16, 2015    by Toni Klemm

Three weeks ago I passed my general exams (aka comprehensive exams or preliminary exams). It’s something Ph.D. students must successfully accomplish before advancing to candidacy, but achieving it requires more than just knowing stuff. Here, I would like to share my experience and maybe give some tips to everyone who still has to climb this mountain.

In my department at The University of Oklahoma, general exams are the transition point from classwork to doing research. The exam committee tests whether the candidate knows the state of the science in all areas related to their research, and it’s for the student to prove they are ready to conduct independent research. Like most generals, mine were divided into a written and an oral portion, although the particulars can vary depending on committee, discipline, and university. My generals consisted of five essay exams on five consecutive days. Each day, I had to answer three to six questions from each of my five committee members within 8 to 12 hours, followed by one, 2-hour session of follow-up Q&A and discussion with all of my committee members at once.


The key to making it through the generals is planning, persistence, and strong nerves – and a chunk of good luck. About 6 months ago, in early May, I presented my preliminary research idea to my committee and met with each member to sketch out topics to study for, things they thought would be good for me to know given my research focus. This gave me focus areas and goals to study for, which otherwise would have been hard given that my dissertation spans the fields of social sciences, meteorology, and agriculture.

So, how did it go?

The short answer is, it was a nightmare and mental torture beyond anything I had ever experienced before. But I passed, so I probably shouldn’t complain too much. But the task I faced each day of the exam was massive, and 8 (or 12) hours were over before I knew it. So good organization was key. Thankfully, my exam was “open book” (as opposed to closed book), so I could use all my handwritten notes from six months of studying along with other sources. However, handwritten notes were probably not the smartest choice, since text files are more easily searchable for keywords and topics. Luckily though, I use referencing software like EndNote, BibTex, or ProCite, to manage hundreds of journal papers, reports, book chapters, websites, and personal communication; each with entries containing abstracts, notes, cross-references, URLs, and of course the publication as a PDF file, catalogued in virtual folders and tagged with meaningful keywords. For a question about climate predictability or forecast skill assessments I had a folder of references. For a question on the economic value of seasonal climate forecasts, I had a folder for that too.

The written portion of my exam was a rollercoaster ride of joy and despair. I felt confident giving a good answer and even enjoyed some of the questions. But I was under massive time constrains, and at the end of every day, my brain was exhausted from the brutal workout and capable of handling no more than making dinner and preparing lunch for the next day. I might have looked calm, but inside I was under immense stress. But then I should be. 

Generals are to test what you’re capable of. You’re a rookie in a box fight taking on five professionals at the same time. Your goal shouldn’t be to win or to impress anyone, but to not get knocked out. Knowing that, I’m sure no one on my committee expected me to ace the generals, and realizing that helped me keep my expectations realistic and stay positive. By the way, I tried to not see my committee as this group of people set out to give me an unnecessary hard time, but as a team of experts giving their time helping me to succeed with my research idea, advancing science – and, oh, maybe getting a job later on.

If, somehow, the written part of the exams doesn’t stress you out enough, the oral part sure will. My committee was given one week to go over my written answers before the oral test. This meant I too, had one week to go over my five essays, to find weak spots, parts I explained poorly or was too vague on, or didn’t reference well. All of this was to try and anticipate what my committee would hone in on with more detailed questions. I identified plenty of weak spots, and quickly realized that whatever I did, I still had huge knowledge gaps, despite the five months of studying before the exams. From plant physiology and climate predictability factors, to map projections and the role of place in communicating and mediating information, to comparing single climate models and model ensembles. It’s easy to send someone out on thin ice with just one discipline, let alone multiple. I’m usually comfortable with public speaking, but during the oral exam I was so nervous that I could barely phrase a full sentence, or even remember the question. To my advantage, all questions were follow-ups from my written exam, so at least I didn’t fall over any new tripwires. Still, I was struggling not to stress out.

 Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com


After some 90 minutes of mental drudgery, I was asked to wait outside for my committee to discuss the final result. A colleague had warned me that no matter how much I know, there will come a point at which I won’t know the answers anymore; admitting this isn’t failure, but more or less part of the process. Still, as I sat there waiting I felt awful, and I honestly didn’t expect them to let me pass. It was impossible to gauge whether my answers had been good enough. I reflected - in a search for words (and self-confidence) I had asked each committee member to repeat almost every question. Most of my answers had been stammered syllables, not sentences. While I waited outside I mentally prepared (or hoped?) for a final question that I could answer really well.

Seven or eight minutes later, sooner than I expected, the door opened I was asked back in. I expected a long explanation for their decision, followed by a final, deciding question, or the verdict. But then suddenly, my advisor stretched her arm out to congratulate me! The rest of my committee applauded! I was so baffled I must have looked like I was in the wrong place. I actually asked her if this meant that I passed. Yes, it did! I did great, she told me, and added, no one thinks their orals ever go well.

It took me a few days to appreciate and fully realize what had just happened. There was no sudden relief, exhaling, falling back into an armchair and enjoying the rest of the week. I had to finalize my research proposal, continue developing a survey, and start preparing for upcoming conferences. One job done, on to the next one – I feel like this will be the new normal from now on. But I successfully completed a huge career hurdle and that sure is something.


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Congratulations for passing comps, Toni! And nice blog post!

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Photo: Toni Klemm