After 50 years of teaching, professor sees PhD oral exam as the golden hour

Dick Scott

Dick Scott

I have been a member of the faculty at Stanford University for 50 years. After teaching my final doctoral seminar during this winter quarter, I have been reflecting on my teaching experience at Stanford. Since my arrival as a beginning assistant professor of sociology and medicine in 1959, I have taught virtually every type of course imaginable, ranging from large undergraduate lecture classes to small doctoral seminars. I have held many freshman and sophomore seminars in the living room of our home, and taught at overseas campuses: twice at Stanford-in-Germany, in Beutelsbach; twice at Stanford-in-England, at Cliveden and Oxford.

The settings for my teaching have varied enormously, from the well-appointed lecture and seminar rooms in History Corner to the high-tech facilities in Wallenberg to the balcony overlooking the Thames connected to Lady Astor's bedroom suite. But there exists a special class of teaching venues. In every university, one will find small, sequestered conference rooms, sober and staid: the sanctum sanctorum, set aside for special occasions. These rooms provide the settings for oral doctoral examinations.

If I were asked what type of teaching situation I regard as the most efficacious and extraordinary—the pinnacle of pedagogy—I would name the doctoral oral examination.

For the magic to occur, the format is critical. For most departments in earlier days, the oral was designed to be a defense of the penultimate draft of thesis. This approach, still in use by some departments, emphasizes the "exam" dimension: The candidate is expected to "defend" his or her dissertation research against a barrage of concerns and criticisms voiced by faculty examiners. It gradually became clear at least to faculty in some fields that such a defensive posture was not well suited to educational improvement. Depending on the intelligence of the candidate and the competence and stewardship of the oversight faculty committee, this format resulted in a family of outcomes with differing emotional valence, ranging from a celebration to a wake. If the work was well designed and executed, the oral exam provided an occasion for validation. However, if serious problems were uncovered by examiners, it produced a very long afternoon resulting in a disheartened candidate, an embarrassed principal advisor, and disappointed and frustrated examiners. Perhaps the main latent function of this exam format is to serve as a kind of peer quality control on dissertation supervision.

During the 1970s my sociology department, along with others, adopted a different exam format. Rather than evaluating the finished dissertation, the oral exam centered on the prospectus—the plan for the research—examining the justification for and proposed design of the work yet to be carried out by the candidate. Think about this situation for a moment. An aspiring scholar, likely in his third or fourth year of graduate study, working with his or her principal advisor, has spent the better part of the previous year selecting a topic, embedding it in the relevant literature, and developing a design to test selected arguments and pursue some issues of interest. A prospectus, usually 50 to 80 pages in length, detailing these concerns and the proposed approach has been written and distributed in advance to the examining committee. Examiners include the student's principal advisor, other members of the dissertation committee, another representative from the student's department, and a university chair, selected from outside the department. The prospectus defense engages six specialized, highly trained individuals—five of them faculty members, one a probationer—all concentrating on one piece of work for three hours.

What a difference framing and timing makes! Concerns and criticisms voiced before the candidate has finalized the definition of the problem, chosen the questions to be addressed, developed the design and data analysis procedures become constructive queries and suggestions for improvement. The tone is not "Why did you formulate the question in this way?" or Why didn't you consider this?" but rather, "Have you thought about framing your questions in this way?" and "Are you aware of this data set or of this new analytical procedure?" When the focus is on a proposed piece of future scholarship, then the candidate is thrust into an intensive type of brainstorming event in which six minds are focused on the questions of interest and how best to formulate the problem and craft the research design to address it. Often the examiners feed off one another in a kind of competition of creativity.

For the candidate it is, of course, intimidating; but it also can be an exhilarating educational experience. It is a supercharged, academic hothouse.

Some departments have elected to broaden the teaching impact of this encounter by inviting other doctoral students who have not yet prepared or defended their dissertation to sit in for the first hour, when the candidate presents a summary of the proposed work and responds to questions raised by members of his or her cohort. Following a short break, guests are excused and the more serious work begins. Other departments employ both a prospectus and a dissertation defense, the latter—because of the work accomplished by the former—serving primarily as a ceremonial and celebratory occasion.

The prospectus defense provides, in my view, a miniature model of the scientific community at its best. It fosters an "open architecture" in which teachers and student are able to intensively collaborate for a few hours, each participant attempting to contribute ideas to advance a common body of work. What transpires is an intensive, highly charged, purposeful and personal encounter. At its best it is, for me, the university's golden hour.

W. Richard "Dick" Scott is professor emeritus of sociology, with courtesy appointments in the Graduate School of Business, School of Education and School of Medicine.