Oral Qualifying Exam Questions

This essay is intended as a guide to help faculty members who have been assigned to serve on a committee that administers an oral qualifying exam. Everyone knows the nominal purpose of such an exam: to test whether a student has sufficient background to enter the Ph.D. program. However, you should be aware that there are secondary reasons for such exams. Most important, by the time a student reaches a qualifier, he or she may have become overconfident; it is your task to ensure that the student leaves the exam more humble than they entered. Unfortunately, facing a bright, eager Ph.D. can be daunting -- many of them have actually studied, so they are fairly knowledgeable about the field. If the student is too bright, they may need two opportunities to become humble; you may need an excuse to require a student to retake an exam.

This guide helps. It provides faculty with a set of questions that (a) sound reasonable on the surface, (b) are impossible for the student to answer, and (c) are completely unexpected. Faculty can keep it handy during the exam and use the questions as needed.

The Area Question

The Generic Systems Question

The Generic Theory Question

Second-Round Systems Question

Second-Round Theory Question

A Real Systems Question #1

A Real Systems Question #2

A Real Systems Question #3

A Real Systems Question #4

Real Theory Questions

The Ultimate Systems Question

The Ultimate Theory Question

One final note