The Four-Week Ph.D. Candidacy Exam

Graphic by Geralt, CC0

On March 16, I successfully completed my candidacy exams. In the curriculum and instruction specialization program, faculty of education, at the University of Victoria, candidates are emailed four questions and must answer two questions within two weeks. The final step is a presentation and oral exam. This post details some of that experience.

Answering two questions doesn’t seem difficult, but each answer must be a 30 to 40 page academic paper, not including references. The first question focuses on the candidate’s area of specialization and is known as the content question. The second question is on methodology.

I prepared meticulously for the exams over the past several months. Integral to the preparation was believing I had successfully passed the exams. I wrote the first two chapters of the research paper and completed a rough draft of the methodology chapter, and even up until the night before my exam began, I was adding to my quote bank.

Shortly after 9 a.m. on Thursday February 16, I open my email to read the two content questions and two methodology questions.

I chose to address the following in the content paper:

Drawing from past research, identify and explain the five most critical conceptual or theoretical issues that need to be addressed in future research about open educational resources.

My preparation paid off, as I had written about 90% of the content paper during the preparation phase. The paper was completed and proofread twice by Monday afternoon. The methodology paper required much more work and I wanted to complete it by Sunday night. This would give me three full days to proofread and copyedit the two papers.

I chose to address the following in the methodology paper:

A major mission of educational research is to evaluate the merit of various kinds of instructional innovations. Discuss the strengths and limitations of the various methodologies that might be useful in gathering evidence to evaluate open educational resources in higher education adoption by faculty. Describe and critically analyze each approach, then identify the approach most likely to be used in your dissertation.

I thought about the many false starts I’d had when writing my paper. I considered several theoretical frameworks and a number of methodologies since I began my Ph.D. journey in 2013. With those thoughts in mind, I decided to recount the how I chose and rejected case study, grounded theory, and ethnography methodologies and selected descriptive phenomenology.

I submitted my papers in the afternoon of March 1, about nine hours before the deadline. I was exhausted, even though I kept to my regular sleep pattern of about 7 and half of sleep each night. All tolled, I wrote, copyedited, and proofread for 113 hours and 37 minutes over the two weeks.

The final hurdle was the presentation and oral defense. I was not particularly worried about the presentation. I did not, however, want to do a normal “this is my research” presentation. I find these types of presentations boring to sit through, so I wasn’t about to deliver one.

I am good public speaker and I enjoy writing speeches, so instead of presenting my ideas, I decided to give a speech that bordered on persuading committee members that I am prepared and competent to move forward with my research. My concerns were finding a good hook for the beginning and dealing with mid-speech sag. Consulting my favourite speech-writing textbook helped, but pacing and “speeching” out loud provided the best results.

Speeches do not require PowerPoint, but I though it would likely be expected of me, so I searched Pixabay for graphics that I believe represent the five barriers to OER I wrote about in the content paper and the methodologies I reviewed in the last paper. The slides were used as a backdrop and I barley paid attention to the them.

Over the two weeks between handing in my papers and the oral exam, I worked for 22 hours and 32 minutes on the presentation and preparing for the orals. This included asking myself questions about the all aspects I’d covered in both papers and thinking through examples I could provide.

The presentation went very well, and as expected, I was stumped by a few of the questions, but I answered as best I could and once or twice acknowledge I had not thought of some issues. For example, I couldn’t answer how I would deal with the disclosure in interviews of some educators breaking copyrights laws by downloading copyrighted resources.

Nonetheless, after almost an hour of answering questions, I was asked to leave the room whilst my committee deliberated my preparedness to continue my Ph.D. studies. I took that opportunity to make notes of what to add to my research paper. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long for the results. I was called back into the room and congratulated for passing my candidacy exams.

The whole process was thoroughly enjoyable. I enjoy working under pressure and to tight deadlines. My preparations helped me succeed, and I doubt I would have passed the exam without first writing out the first two chapters and creating a quote bank I could turn to ensure experts in the field fortified my work.

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