Shared Goals in a Candidacy Exam

"The Candidacy Exam is dead ... long live the Candidacy Exam." This phrase has been floating through my brain since I took mine last week. Loosely translated, I think I want it to mean that the execution of the format of my candidacy left me thoroughly underwhelmed (I want it DEAD), but I absolutely want doctoral students to be able to attain and demonstrate a certain level of knowledge to indicate that they will be able to perform independently in the real world after their degree is attained (it must LIVE!). I have a longstanding aversion to tests, but I think that this one is well founded.  And for the record, I passed! Let me explain ...

As I sat locked in my basement for two weeks studying for the oral component of the test, which followed two weeks of marathon writing sessions completing the written portion (which followed about six months of "normal" writing sessions), I started pulling together the Cognitive Systems literature on collaboration.  This literature treats the world as a collection of sociotechnical systems, in which we must study people in their setting using their tools (i.e., technology!) in order to understand and change behaviors. From this perspective, a good collaboration is indicated when all of the agents in it are:


  1. Committed to the shared goals and rules of the system, and announce to the system when they are no longer able or willing or able to fulfill that commitment
  2. Mutually predictable - agents in the system can anticipate the behaviors of other agents
  3. Mutually directable - all agents can influence the behaviors of all other agents
  4. Maintaining common ground - all agents are continuously ensuring that they have the same mental model of the situation
As I walk through these, I can only conclude that my Exam experience was an epic failure of collaboration.  Besides my passing the exam (which, again, I did), it was very unclear what our goals were.  I thought it was a test.  They ask questions: I demonstrate knowledge.  What my committee was craving, however, was a fluid conversation in which I expertly pulled from the literature to bolster my opinion. I expected that they wanted breadth.  They wanted depth. And, probably, breadth.  I really wanted to talk about resilience and directed attention.  They asked questions about mode error and one branch of representation aiding. I didn't predict their questions well ... they didn't predict my style of answering, and were frustrated by it. Through the process, both before and during the test, we were unable to direct each other to the topics and style that would have made the exam more valuable to my future.  Ultimately, we didn't maintain common ground on expectations of content or tone of the exam.  I think I took a different exam than the one they were giving!
But let me be clear: I don't think my exam was special in this way.  I absolutely adore everyone on my committee, and hope to stay connected with them in some capacity for the rest of my career. They are dynamic people with brilliant minds.  Mine is not a Candidacy Exam horror story.  My frustration is directed at the exam structure itself, and I know I'm not quite being fair, as exams are not designed to be collaborations. This is the problem, and I firmly believe that the constraints imposed in order to assess knowledge can impede the attainment of knowledge. I've read enough to know that this is not a novel sentiment.
So, here's what I'd do if I had it to do over:
  1. Collaborate on goals - Determine what each member's goals for the exam are to be, and reflect on what yours are. If possible, communicate those goals well before the exam and allow everyone to respond.
  2. Collaborate on content - It would have been nice to know what level of breadth and depth was desired.  Also tell them what you'd love for them to ask questions on.  For me, I should have pushed more to have directed attention as a topic.
  3. Collaborate on style - This might be more of a negotiation.  Determine what the committee is comfortable with, and figure out if you're comfortable with it, too.  If not, keep negotiating! Ultimately, you are still the student in the equation (which deserves another rant at another time), so don't push it too far.
  4. Advocate for Collaboration - Choose to believe that everyone on your committee is there because of a deep desire for you to succeed, not only in the exam, but in all of your future endeavors.  The best way to ensure that success is through robust collaboration. Frame your encounters with them in this way!
What I'd really like to do, though, is "blow up" the Candidacy Exam system (Mount-Campbell and Grooms, 2011) and reframe it as a collaborative effort that isn't focused on one two-hour period, but is a team effort that culminates with sufficient knowledge, as measured by multiple perspectives, to be able to continue with a doctoral program. It shouldn't be a hurdle, but instead the gathering of supplies to endure what will come in the future.  Yes, ultimately it must be a summative assessment, but I think low-stress formative assessments along the way, which requires the student to be more vulnerable in sharing their current knowledge and the committee to share their perspective earlier, will ultimately bear fruit. The irony is that it's very possible that this was the vision of the exam from my committee's perpectives.  If so, we really should have maintained that common ground.