Preparing for Orals Exam

Wikis > Preparing for Orals Exam

I write this as a 4th year student that passed her orals at the beginning of her third year. It is my firm belief that you should not spend longer than 6 months on preparing and passing your Orals because you need to keep it moving and focus more on your dissertation. It is possible, if you are comfortable with the literature in one or two subfields of Sociology, to pass your Orals in 3 months, which is what I did (pregnant and teaching so it is doable, even if the preparation is intense). Here’s how:

1.      First, you need to figure out your three sections. Since, for the most part, students work on their orals once they’re level II (45 credits), there are at least one or two sections they feel comfortable with considering for the exam. I recommend following ASA sections, see here: There is some debate on whether or not your orals lists should help you with your dissertation literature review and/or theoretical framework. The latest email from Rati stated that this was not the way to go about your lists – instead, your lists should be three areas within Sociology that you can teach comfortably at the undergraduate and graduate levels. For some people, the lists will be useful as areas of teaching and for the dissertation.

2.      Once you figure out your possible three areas, you should think about professors that can serve on your orals committee. Remember, they must all be part of the GC sociology faculty but they don’t all have to be central faculty in sociology at the GC. This means, you can check out nearly 100 different professors, by first going through their profiles and then narrowing the list down. I remember making a word document with around 20 professors and their bios which I then narrowed to 5 professors and it is to those 5 professors I sent the following email. Remember, this process will take about 1-2 weeks. While you are waiting to hear back, go through the black orals folders in Urania’s office and pull out previous lists that are relevant to your work. Make copies of all the lists, separate into three piles, clip each pile and start reading through these to see what keeps coming up over and over and these pieces should also show up on your lists.

“Hi Professor _____,

I wanted to know if you are available to be on my Orals committee (for the Sex & Gender section) if my date would be set for early Fall 2013. I wanted to ask you about your process: what do you require of the student, how do you want them to prepare for orals, what is your process for the actual exam in terms of the kinds of questions you ask and what you like the student to focus on (general themes, specifics, etc.)? I really appreciate your help in figuring this out. Thanks so much, Simone.”

3.      Once you (hopefully!) receive emails back from the professors, figure out which 3 you want to work with, keeping in mind how they will work together (always an issue) and consider who you’d like your to chair your orals. The chair of your orals committee is the professor that will (in theory) go through all of your lists and prepare you for the date of the exam and will keep time and everyone else in line. NOTE: This person does NOT have to then become your dissertation chair at ALL, do not worry about that right now. When you know the three professors, send the following email ASAP because the scheduling of your orals exam may be a difficult thing to pin down and might take up to 3 weeks of back and forth. During this time, you are making your lists which should absolutely be kept to 20-25 titles. These titles may include articles, chapters or books. Do not be married to any of your lists as they WILL change at least 2-4 times in the process.


“Dear Professors 1, 2 and 3 (Simone’s Orals Committee),

Thank you all so much for agreeing to be on my Orals committee. I appreciate each of you working with me on this important step in my graduate career. To review, Professor 2 is chair of this committee and the 3 sections are: Sex & Gender (with Prof 1), Sexualities (with Prof 2) and Race & Ethnicity (with Prof 3).


I am considering last week of September, Friday Sept. 27, for my Orals exam. Are all of you available on that date? Does anyone have a time preference – morning (12-2pm), afternoon (3-5pm), or evening (5-7pm)? If there are any conflicts, let me know. Thanks again, Simone.”

4.      There will be some back and forth on figuring out the date and time and whether the room is available which is why you are also communicating with Rati at this point so that she can let you know whether or not you can reserve a room. Your main consideration here is to stick to the weeks you wanted and not allow anyone to push up your date too much. Our professors are very busy, sure, but they don’t operate in the same universe and don’t always consider that you’d like to stick to your deadlines and stay on track. Therefore, you have to be your own advocate. Once you have the date down, email your committee with the final date/time/room and note that you will be sending each of them separate emails with the first draft of their respective lists.

5.      Email each professor with the first draft of each of your lists that should have at least a couple of subsections and 10-15 sources overall. Make sure to be very specific about your final number of titles. If you want 20 (I had 22 on each list and it was plenty), tell them that so that they keep that number in mind when making changes or suggestion new titles. Make sure you tell them this is a rough draft and that you are continuously working on the lists. Ask them to meet with you to go over the list, it is good to meet before the orals, trust me. You don’t need to meet more than once, unless they are around and don’t mind doing that.

Generally, as with everything, you should indicate to them that you are a highly functional person who works independently and appreciates their advice but has their stuff together, thank you very much. Assert yourself as the scholar that you are, rather than as a student constantly asking for advice. At this point, some professors will want to add a lot more to your list and others will not like some of your sections and yet others will ask you to cut important (to you) sections. This is all normal and part of the process. You must stay flexible.

6.      So what should actually go on you orals lists? How do you begin making subsections? What about the dreaded questions? Don’t worry; by looking at other students’ lists, you will already have an idea. Then, put what you consider to be the absolute classics for that subsections and the best titles you’ve seen recently in that subfield. I think, in general, it’s good to have something that references the classics, the contemporary and the theoretical/methodological in each section. It’s also important to figure out the order of your sections and then make sure your texts don’t overlap even if they may be relevant to more than one section. Let me give you an example using my three sections: Sex & Gender, Sexualities and Race & Ethnicity. The first two sections appear to be more related (because race gets overlooked a lot when it comes to sex, gender and sexuality studies) so I kept them next to one another within the order. Because sociology belatedly (when compared to other fields like women’s studies or anthropology) addressed sex and gender and THEN sexuality, Sex & Gender was the first section that I would discuss during my orals. Then went Sexualities and then Race & Ethnicity. There were parallels that ran throughout all my sections and it’s good to consider these because in the beginning of you orals, you’ll be asked to briefly (3-5 minutes) introduce yourself, your lists and why you chose what you chose.

The other important consideration is that some of your titles will come from outside sociology because sociology’s take on things may be, shall we say, not up to date. Prepare to have a considerable chunk of your titles be sociological and to defend other key texts as they relate to your section. Sometimes, this will not be an issue to your professors at all and other times they’ll like it to be kept within discipline. On that note, remember that even if YOU know how to structure your orals in the most comprehensive and up-to-date way possible, that doesn’t matter as much as what your professors believe because they are the ones that are going to pass you and you need to please them, period. Still, you can fight for certain pieces you find essential but if, say, your professor does not like the work of the authors that you want to include, it’s probably best to cut, especially if their reasons are personal and that sort of beef goes back to before your birth. Finally, based on feedback, your lists will change but they will also change once you begin to read over some of your texts in more detail. That’s okay too. The only sad thing is how much money it may cost to keep buying books. I remember spending around $200-$300 on books for my orals and many of those did not make the cut. Eventually, my lists went through a third version and that was the final version.

7.     Now, let’s talk about how your orals will actually go and how to formulate the questions that will are key for the second part of your orals exam. Now, listen closely to this part because understanding how MUCH time you have will save you a lot of grief. For each of your sections, you have 20-25 minutes to talk, that’s it! Each of your professors may ask questions right after you finish with their section and then there may be questions once you are done with all three sections. The entire exam should NOT go over 2 hours and it is up to your orals chair to make sure it doesn’t. When you have 20-25 minutes to talk, you can’t really go into any of your titles for more than a minute. Once you know you can’t talk about something for more than a minute, you know you need to keep your summaries precise and short, which is pretty hard to do. In the beginning, I wrote up each title for several pages, then I cut that down to a paragraph for each title and in the final weeks, I made an orals express list which had the list, the questions organizing the list and about a sentence or two for each title. Sometimes, your professors will not tell you to create questions and will give you their own questions to answer during the exam. Sometimes, they will expressly tell you to create 3-4 general questions that can be thrown your way during the exam. These 3-4 general questions can organize your list into subsections. You can come up with the questions first and then put your titles down as the answer to each question or you can come up with your subsections first and then create a question out of each subsection.

What you absolutely MUST do is practice speaking about your titles with a friend in the weeks leading up to your orals to see what you need to cut and how much you need to leave out of discussion. You will quickly see how little time you have and that you should absolutely NOT be reading through every title in great detail. This exam is not about knowing everything, it is about being able to have texts speak to one another, to have control over the conversation across subfields and to be able to establish yourself as a capable scholar in the eyes of your professors.

8.      One of the ways to do this is to carry yourself in a calm and collected manner during the day of the orals and during the orals exam itself. When it came to my prep work, I considered impression management as a concept. I wanted to be professionally dressed and bring food and wine and chocolates because even though everyone tells you to chill and that it’s casual, you should play to your status position which, as a graduate student, is below your professors. I know it’s a mind game and doing this is obvious but, at the end of the day, no one is going to say no to wine and chocolates. During the exam, I recommend you sit down at the head of the table facing your committee and placing the orals chair closest to you. When introducing yourself, look at everyone and when doing each section, look mostly at the professor that is in charge of that section. Have a notepad with you or a fancy folder with paper to write down their comments or questions as they reflect on your lists. It’ll keep you grounded throughout the exam and keep you focused. When they are asking you questions, stay calm! They may be trying to rattle you or to throw you off but you need to regain control of the room or to look over to your chair if you are especially flustered. It’s okay to know you don’t know something and mention a different point from a different text that you think is closely related. It’s okay to say that you don’t think their point is exactly relevant and you’d like to keep the exam moving. It’s okay to laugh during your orals exam and to appear relaxed. Even if you don’t feel relaxed, appearing relaxed signals to your professors that you are not easy meat, you are not easy to break down. I know for a fact that some professors want to see that you can handle yourself with this information and with their talking at you and that this is really the last time they can do that before your FMC or dissertation defense.

Your orals will go by quickly and they will be behind you sooner than you know. You will pass them, people very rarely fail their orals. I had a really great time doing mine. Once you pass, go ahead and celebrate. In rare cases, there may be something that comes up during the exam between your professors (again, their beefs have little to do with you so keep it together) that you will need to address. Address it and move on. Write the committee a final email thanking them very much for their work and support and time. Take a week off to do absolutely nothing but, once that week is over, start thinking about your dissertation proposal if you haven’t already because one of the worst mistakes people make is to allow for a large gap between orals and their FMC. Do not do this! Good Luck! Email me at if you need me and my orals lists are listed under the ‘student orals lists’ section.


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