Physical Division Oral Exams
The purpose of the oral exam is two-fold, as reflected in both your preparation
for the exam and in the exam itself. The two principle parts of the exam are:
(1) The research report and (2) The independent research proposal. In thinking
about preparing for your exam, it is helpful to understand the purpose of and
expectations surrounding each of these two parts. In addition there are
a few procedural issues that you must address before you take your exam. These
are not difficult, but need to be done in a timely manner. We begin with a list of those
I. Preparing for your
You must do the following things before your exam. Please be
careful to get these done on time or you may have to reschedule your exam for a
1) Get approval from your area graduate advisor for your
independent research proposal two weeks
before your exam date.
Because it is likely that you will have to revise your proposal after
speaking to the graduate advisor, be sure to first submit your proposal at least three weeks before your exam
date (earlier still is generally better). A more detailed discussion of how to
write that independent research proposal can be found online at http://www.chemistry.ucla.edu/pages/grad/OralPChem.
If you have any questions after reading that document,
please contact your graduate area advisor. We discuss below a few key points
regarding this proposal.
2) Select your graduate committee at least two weeks before your exam date. That committee must
contain: your advisor, one faculty member from outside your division of
chemistry (outside of physical chemistry), one faculty member not in the
chemistry department, and one other faculty member of your choosing.
3) Reserve a room for your exam. It is wise to
reserve the room for three hours, although you will probably not need that much
time. Most exams take between one and two hours to complete.
4) Turn in a Oral Committee
Nomination Form at the graduate office at
least two weeks before your exam date. This form will include your exam
date and oral committee.
5) Provide your oral committee with a written document
containing your research report and independent research proposal at least seven days before your exam date.
This document may be delivered physically (i.e. on paper) or emailed to each
member of your committee as a PDF document. Regardless of the format, it is
your responsibility to ensure that it has been received at least one week
before your exam.
To help you better understand how to write these documents,
we now look at each of them in turn.
If, after reading this, you still have questions, please discuss them
with your advisor or your graduate area advisor.
A. The research report
The purpose of the research report is to allow you to
discuss with your entire dissertation committee the current and future research
that is being undertaken with your advisor. You may think of it as being both a
scientific discussion and a somewhat informal contract. Essentially you are
purposing to carry out a particular research program for your dissertation.
Your committee, by approving it and passing you, agrees that this program is
sufficiently interesting and intellectually significant to stand as your
dissertation. Moreover, they agree that the work should be possible to carry
out in a reasonable period of time and with the resources at your disposal.
In order to prepare the research report, you should write an
approximately five-page (single spaced) document that does a few things: First,
you must introduce your research plans, explaining the scientific background
and long-term goals of your work. This introduction and associated references
should explain to the reader what are the significant developments in your
field and how your research relates to them. Second, you should explain in greater
detail precisely how to expect to perform your research and ideally, you will
then discuss your preliminary calculations or data. Finally, you should
conclude with a discussion of your future work. You should feel free to discuss this
part of your work with your advisor.
B. The independent research proposal
The purpose of this part of your exam is to give you a
chance to discuss your own scientific interests without the help or influence of your advisor. This gives your
committee a chance to assess your development as an independent scientist by
seeing how you evaluate interesting new areas of research, learn new things
independently, and determine how to contribute to the scientific community in
that area by proposing a detailed and specific research plan. To that end it is
essential that you propose to work on a problem that is unrelated to your
current research. A useful rule of thumb (i.e. a good test) for that
independence is as follows: If you feel you might need to explain why the two
research projects are sufficiently different, even if you feel you have a good
argument, then they are probably not sufficiently dissimilar. More detailed help in writing the
independent research proposal can be found online at http://www.chemistry.ucla.edu/pages/grad/OralPChem,
but a few general comments are provided here. Be sure that your proposal is
sufficiently distinct from your current research (see above). Be sure that you
have identified an intellectually satisfying scientific question. And be sure
that your proposal explains how you will address that
question and what, based on your current understanding of the system, you expect to find. Be quantitative and be specific wherever
possible. You should refrain from
discussing this part of your work with your advisor, but you may ask questions
of your graduate area advisor if necessary. You may also discuss this work
with your fellow students.
II. The Oral Exam
The exam itself reflects these two main parts of your
preparation – the research report and the independent research proposal.
On the day of your exam, you will be asked to give a seminar on both your
current research and your oral proposal to your committee. Typically, this is
done using presentation software such as powerpoint
or keynote, but this is certainly not required. If you do use such software, be
sure that you have the appropriate projector and that the room has a screen on
which to project your slides. No matter how you make your presentation, you
should be prepared for about a forty minute
presentation on each of your two topics. You will probably not be asked to give
both presentations in full, but, since your committee may ask you to go into
greater depth in one or the other of them (most often the independent research
proposal), it is wise to be prepared to go into depth on both presentations.
A few words of advice:
1) Your committee wants to understand your presentation and
wants to learn something new and interesting. Try to speak clearly and slowly.
Start at the beginning. In other words, do not assume that everyone in the room
understands the basic ideas because you think they are self-evident. Be sure to address why your work is
interesting to you. If you explain
that well, your audience will also find it interesting.
2) You should expect to be stopped for questions from your
committee. Some of these will be simply points of clarification, but some will
be designed to probe how deeply you understand the concepts that you discuss.
Be sure that you understand any equation you present. You may be asked to
explain e.g. what assumptions were made in its derivation and how that limits
it applicability. You may be asked to derive it yourself. Be sure you understand whatever
experimental techniques are important in your proposal, and the precision of
the measurements you discuss the principal sources of uncertainty in them. If
you mention previous work, be sure you understand if it is generally accepted
to be valid and, if so, in what circumstances. Are there alternate theoretical
approaches and how do these differ from what you discuss? Are there different
types of measurements related to your work? Are these all consistent, and if
not, why not? These are merely a sample of various types of questions that you might
be asked, which I hope you use as a starting point. Thinking carefully about
what questions you or your fellow graduate students might have during your
presentation is generally a good way to prepare.
III. The End Result
Soon after you have finished your presentations and have
answered the remaining questions, you will be asked to leave the room so that
the committee can discuss your performance. Wait nearby! Your advisor will soon come out to
inform you of how you did. There are four potential outcomes of your exam:
1) Pass – You are now prepared to continue with
your current research plans. You next and final exam will be your exit seminar This is
the most common outcome.
2) Qualified Pass – You will continue with your
current plans, but your committee has identified some additional work that you
must do. You will be allowed to
continue towards you doctorate, but will be required to do some extra work as
the committee decides.
3) Fail with an opportunity to retake your exam
– You will not necessarily continue with your current work, but you will
have the opportunity to make a new independent research proposal presentation,
or research report presentation, or both, to your committee at a later date.
This is a second chance to pass the exam.