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It’s true that some students do not clear their OQE in their first attempt. Many others postpone the exam due to fear. This blog is written to disillusion the uncertainties encountered during the OQE process.

For those who don’t know, OQE is an oral presentation given by a student enrolled in the PhD program typically in their 2nd or 3rd year after completing all course requirements. The procedure involves the student forming a three-membered committee which prescribes the student a set of papers to read before the scheduled date of the exam. During the exam, the committee questions the student pretty intensely to gauge his/her fit for the PhD program. After clearing this exam, the student is officially called a PhD Candidate. This is the first of the 3 oral exams a student takes to obtain the PhD degree – the other two being dissertation proposal and dissertation defense.

The source for the fear surrounding the OQE exam is probably due to:

  1. The first time you’re evaluated based on the content you drive through to the committee with a thought that experts are going to judge what you say.
  2. Hearing about a bad experience of a colleague.

To be clear, Yes! OQE is hard. In fact, harder that dissertation proposal and dissertation defense.

Though the evaluation may seem unstructured, given a thought, there is a strict discipline involved in the evaluation process. The discipline stems from an academic mindset, i.e., “anything fishy, disregard the whole“. Since the committee recommends papers that are very familiar to it, you are thereby basically at a disadvantage during the exam. The disadvantage of the student is usually expressed by questions by the committee pertaining to fundamental details of the assigned papers and the most important fact which a student might overlook – ‘questions regarding the fundamentals‘ which the papers might not dwell into. This knowledge of the fundamentals, as well as the knowledge of the assigned papers, is what is being judged. The procedure ensures to identify whether a student would be a good fit for the PhD program that basically involves creating new knowledge over already existing ways. A student would be able to answer the questions appropriately if s/he is familiar with the topic through courses taken at undergrad and grad levels.

As part of my experience, I denoted to the committee that my interest lies in Computer Systems thereby all my assigned papers were Computer Systems related and during the exam, questions were asked pertained only to Computer Systems. However, as soon as I touched upon topics not in the paper such as ‘split-phase execution’ the committee started questioning me about it. Such topics are easy to extract from a student by general questions by the committee such as: “How does the paper implement aspect A of the prototype?”, or something like: “Are there any other ways to implement it?”. (Remember: All this knowledge comes through your coursework.)

As a side note, during the dissertation phase, you are at an advantage rather than a disadvantage because the topic that you present is what you already are becoming an expert in. At this stage of PhD, the committee would refrain from asking you “in what other way can you implement it?”. Also by then, you would be adequately trained in answering questions.

During the OQE, the committee by no means is leaning towards tricking you into failing the exam.

A student typically fails the exam due to these two fundamental reasons:

  1. Being ill-versed with the fundamentals.
  2. Not familiarizing with the assigned paper contents.

I personally hope that the above two reasons would help a student new in the PhD program to gain a perspective of the OQE process. Attributes such as confidence, clarity of presentation, good quality slides, etc. would stem forth as consequences of tackling the above two fundamental reasons.

As part of this blog, I’ll not go over methods for addressing the first reason. The solutions varies widely and by the time of attempting the OQE, every student knows the strategy that best befits him/her to familiarize with the fundamentals. However, if you are looking for directions as to how to analyze a research paper, here’s one by Prof. Pingali that I religiously follow: https://blizzard.cs.uwaterloo.ca/keshav/home/Papers/data/07/paper-reading.pdf . Such rigor of paper analysis might be too overwhelming to handling at first, but try to attain perfection if possible. However, any mistakes regarding the fundamentals of a field of study, the committee would be less forgiving.

I hope the content would help ease some level of uncertainties regarding the OQE. Attached below are two videos that cover pretty much my whole OQE presentation/questioning process.

Wish you all the best and good luck with your OQE!

Disclaimer: This post was written after I completed my dissertation defense.

Part1 of my OQE.
Part2 of my OQE.