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Carnegie Mellon Department of Chemistry

Guide to Graduate Studies

Supplemental Materials

Preparing for the Oral Exam: Research Progress Report and Candidacy Exam

Your poster content can often be converted into slides to form the basis of your presentation. You will have more time to delve into details of results in this setting (up to 30 minutes).

You should be sure to include substantive information about your future research plans, following the same guidelines as for your written report:

Note that, since substantive discussion of ongoing work, including future plans, is one of the major evaluation criteria, you should be prepared for substantive questions, such as about alternative approaches. 

You should be prepared to go to the board in order to make your answers as clear as possible. Whenever possible, try to keep in mind good teaching practices of listening very carefully to questions, writing in a clear, organized way, and stating any assumptions you feel you need to make in your responses. It can be helpful to prepare some supplemental slides to help you in answering the more difficult questions you anticipate, However, be aware that your committee may, at their discretion, ask you to answer questions without using those slides.

Be sure to prepare to answer a fairly broad range of questions on the background of your research. It's a very good idea to practice giving your presentation in front of other students and post docs so that you will be well prepared and calm at the exam itself. Try to get students from the groups of faculty on your committee, especially more senior students who have been through oral exams, to attend a practice session and ask you some fairly challenging questions a couple of days before the actual exam.

Of course, you cannot anticipate every topic that will come up. Your committee expects that you will have to "think on your feet" at some points during the exam. An important part of good performance is being able to reason methodically, drawing on both fundamentals and your reading of the literature, when asked a difficult question. Practice using fundamentals.

You may sometimes need to stop and think a bit before answering; that is also expected. Keep in mind that it isn't always bad to say that you don’t know, but it is generally preferable to follow that with an educated guess and an explanation of your logic.