Working with the Exam Committee

by Jennifer Davies

Some departments have an established core of professors who conduct exams. If this is the case with your department, you should still meet with those professors and glean as much information from them as possible. They have undoubtedly conducted and read numerous exams and may be able to provide you with study or exam hints based on past successful (or unsuccessful) exams. You should also research their academic interests and even peruse their publications; this may be useful to you later, particularly at the oral exam stage.

Many departments, particularly those in the humanities, require that you assemble your own committee. There are some things to consider as you go about doing this:


The readers of your exams may or may not also be the readers of your dissertation.

The readers of your exams may or may not get along with one another.

You may or may not get along with the readers of your exams.

They may or may not be helpful to you during the studying process.


You should ask yourself what things are important to you and your department. Is it important that you pick someone who is an expert in the field or someone whom you are comfortable with reading your work? Should you pick members whose interests overlap or whose interests represent a diversified body of work? Should you choose someone who seems willing to help you or who is the best at what they do? In a perfect world, a reader would be an expert in their field, have a lot of time and energy to give you, and be a constructive and willing reader of your work and advisor during your study process. In the real world, these things do not always mesh. Figure out what is most important to you and where you are able to make sacrifices.

Try to communicate often with your committee members. This will make your oral exam in particular more comfortable and will also keep you in tune with any problems or suggestions the readers may have with regard to your work. Email makes this task much more convenient, but be sure to ask your members their preferred method of contact. And do not lose all confidence if they do not respond immediately or at all. Professors, particularly if they hail from institutions other than CGU, have other priorities or responsibilities. If you find that your reader(s) never responds to your queries or seems generally uninterested, you should consider finding another reader. If you feel that you are self-directed and can live with limited contact, however, you should do so. Again, you must figure out what level of faculty involvement is most crucial for you to succeed and you should preferably feel your potential readers out before you ask them to commit.

Find out if your department permits you to have readers outside of CGU. The 5-C community and wealth of other colleges and universities in the area may provide faculty resources for you. Do not be afraid to ask your department chair or advisor to make calls of introduction for you or to ask them to make recommendations for other possible readers. Most departments only allow one non-Claremont faculty member to serve as a reader, however. Again, it is important that you determine what your departmentís requirements are before you begin.

Be prepared. Going to your committee members empty handed is a sure-fire way to have an unsuccessful and unproductive meeting that can leave you in despair. Make sure you understand your departmentís requirements before you go to see them (you might be surprised about what they donít know about the departmentís procedures) and go over them step by step to make sure you both clearly understand the expectations. Go to them with drafts or notes or questions prepared. If you go approach them with a clear plan in mind (even if itís the wrong plan) you will have a better chance of getting useful feedback then if you ask them to "tell me how to do it" cold. Use your ignorance to your benefit by being as prepared as possible; let them hone what youíve done, not create it for you.

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