Preparing for the Ph.D. Candidacy Exam

David A. Sonnenfeld, Ph.D.

Dept. of Environmental Studies

State University of New York
 College of Environmental Science and Forestry

The following notes are intended for graduate students who are (or, are considering) working with me in preparation for their Ph.D. Candidacy Examination, one of the key milestones on the road toward the Ph.D. degree. These notes are based on my experience as a faculty mentor and Ph.D. examiner at ESF and elsewhere. They are keyed to students in ESF's Environmental and Natural Resources Policy (ENRP) doctoral program. The suggestions contained herein reflect my views about 'best practice' in this important area of graduate training; they are not intended to substitute for official guidelines.

The Ph.D. Candidacy Exam

Ideally, the Ph.D. Candidacy Examination will take place in the latter part of the second year of doctoral study, in parallel with finalization of the student's Ph.D. Dissertation Research Proposal. In preparing for the exam, the general prerequisite is that the student has largely completed advanced coursework and/ or independent study in several broadly recognized fields of study. The purpose of the Ph.D. Candidacy Exam is to evaluate the student's success in attaining expertise in a related set of scholarly areas sufficient for conducting original, advanced research; and successful graduate teaching in those areas. 

Selecting competency areas

The first task, in consultation with the student's advisor (Major Professor), is to identify several scholarly areas ('fields') in which the student wishes to attain expertise. In the interdisciplinary ENRP doctoral program, students are required to demonstrate expertise in an environmental and natural resource policy field (e.g. climate policy, energy policy, international forestry policy, etc.); a biophysical science field (e.g. agroecology, or energy biophysics); and a social science field (e.g. social theory of the environment, or social studies of science). A fourth substantive field may be designated, or the fourth Examiner may take an integrative, holistic approach (e.g. drawing on systems or interpretive approaches), across the other designated areas. Students may think of their competency areas as scholarly fields in which they might like to teach, if on an academic track; or that they might like to highlight in their resume ("expertise in ..."),  if on a professional track. It is a general expectation that competency areas, while useful in providing a strong academic foundation, are not meant to be used only directly for the student's Ph.D. dissertation research. Most defined competency areas should be broader than that, providing for, and ultimately certifying, the student's expertise in several recognized major areas of scholarly inquiry.(1)

Selecting examiners

Once competency areas have been defined, the next step is to identify prospective faculty mentors/ Examiners for each area. The Examination Committee includes the student's Major Professor, two additional Steering Committee members, an External Examiner, and the Exam Committee Chair, the latter usually appointed from across the College.In addition to the advisor (Major Professor), two other core Steering Committee members are required. At least one of the other Steering Committee members should be a faculty affiliate of the ENRP doctoral program, in my view. The External Examiner is the fourth member of the Exam Committee, and may come from elsewhere at ESF; from Syracuse University, Upstate Medical University, or Cornell University; from another institution; or from professional practice. (The External Examiner plays a more limited role than do members of the Steering Committee, who also review and approve the student's Plan of Study, and Ph.D. dissertation research proposal.) All Examiners should hold a Ph.D. or equivalent advanced degree in their field.

Developing reading lists

In close dialog with each Examiner, it is important to clearly define the topic and the scope of the examination preparation, within the general parameters of the ENRP (or as applicable, other) doctoral program. Preparation can be accomplished via comprehensive, advanced graduate coursework; or, when advanced courses in the field that the student wants to prepare in are not readily available, through focused independent study with the respective Examiner. In the former case, course syllabi can serve as primary reading lists, supplemented with additional readings as necessary. Preparation for a Candidacy Exam via independent study will require development of a comprehensive, systematic bibliography in the respective field, in consultation with the Examiner and possibly other experts in that field. It is very useful to locate, obtain and closely study graduate syllabi and leading texts/ textbooks in the field.(2)

Drafting field statements

For doctoral students under my mentoring/ supervision, my preferred method for Candidacy Exam preparation is via development of a well-crafted, well-documented 'Field Statement', presenting an overview of the field, outlining its major intellectual 'schools' or perspectives, discussing in depth several major approaches or perspectives within the field, concluding with a reflexive discussion of the student's relation and prospective contributions to the field. Typical Field Statements are in the range of 20-30pp. in length, double-spaced, with a complete bibliography. They should be looked at as comprehensive review essays (indeed some have been published as such), not books. (If, later, the student teaches in the field, she will find her Field Statements useful as draft lecture notes; in fact, it is often useful to visualize the Field Statement as a comprehensive, narrative outline or introduction to a 'state-of-the-art' graduate course on the subject.)

Practicing for the exam

Once the student has developed his reading list, read broadly and deeply in the field, drafted his systematic and reflexive Field Statement, then he is ready to prepare for the Exam itself. At ESF, the typical Ph.D. Candidacy Exam involves two rounds of questioning by Examiners. In the first round, each Examiner interrogates the doctoral student in a series of one-on-one exchanges. The second, usually shorter, round is somewhat more open and flexible, with various faculty members contributing to the questioning and discussion. The Exam Committee Chair may, but is not required to, ask questions, as well. The Field Statement serves as a primary study source for the Exam. In days prior to the Exam, I recommend working closely with a grad student colleague in running through a 'mock' exam, with that colleague role-playing as an Examiner. Students will learn and gain confidence through such practice - giving short, thoughtful answers to anticipated questions about their respective fields/ areas of expertise.(3)

Closing thoughts

As my doctoral advisor said to me, it is a great privilege and rare opportunity to have the 'job' of several months of concentrated study and learning in preparation for the Ph.D. Candidacy Exam. For the vast majority on this planet, there are few times when we have the luxury to read, think, digest, synthesize, and hopefully, understand what others before of us have learned and passed on to us, for the benefit of all. Treasure this special time in your studies, indeed, in your life.

Comments from a current Ph.D. Candidate:
(1) "Deciding scholarly areas is not only about what the student wishes to attain in future, but also about what the students already know in the past (life experience, knowledge foundation, or childhood dream all matter in the process). Deciding the scholarly areas is tightly linked to the process to choose a research topic," Xioaliang Yang (XY)
(2) "It is important to know that the individual examiner has his/her own guiding style. Some prefer reading lists, some prefer independent projects, or some simply prefer reviewing class notes that the student took from his/her courses," XY
(3) "For students, it is very important to let the steering committee member know where you are in terms of the preparation progress. The students have to communicate with the members regularly. I strongly suggest students not to take the exam until consulting with each member," XY


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last updated July 10, 2013