How To Escape At The Last Minute
After all their research is finished and a dissertation is written, some
Ph.D. candidates get cold feet. They realize that a life of angels dancing
on Turing machines simply isn't exciting. For those students, we offer a way
out: simply make a mess of the oral final exam.
Unfortunately, Ph.D. candidates often rehearse answers to questions about
their research for many years; flubbing an oral will require practice. For
those students, we offer a simple study guide. Here are techniques that can
be used to confuse the panel and guarantee a life without research:
- Provide an incorrect answer. This is perhaps the cardinal sin. Don't
overuse the technique or the panel will think you are joking.
- Give a long-winded exposition on another topic unrelated to the question.
This is the ``show what you know'' approach. The panel will assume you
cannot answer the real question and are directing their attention
- Redefine basic terminology or define new, absurd terminology. For
example, say "During this examination, the term ``yes'' will sometimes
mean ``no'', ``maybe'' will sometimes mean ``never'', and ``no'' will
sometimes mean ``maybe''. When the astounded panel asks, "are you
serious?" stare at them with a deadpan expression and answer "yes."
Let them try to decide what it means.
- Talk about yourself and your experiences instead of the subject at hand.
Tell what you did instead of what you learned. Give detail as if the
story will eventually have some relationship to the question. To move
to personal experience, use a segue such as, "That reminds me -- late
one night Tuesday night when we were studying this topic, a power failure
and a stray dog caused some real excitement..."
- Argue with the examiners. It helps if you can slander each of them
independently. At the very least, question their credentials: "who
do you people think you are, anyway?"
- Listen carefully to the questions, and take advantage of the wording.
If an examiner asks, "Can you outline for us the exact procedures used
in your research, and note any exceptional or unusual techniques?"
Simply mutter, "yes" and wait. When the examiners become impatient,
point out that they have no grounds for being upset because you have
correctly answered the question that was asked. Indeed, they only asked
whether you can do something; they did not ask you to do it.
- Revert to meta-answers and avoid the question completely. For example,
suppose someone asks a direct question such as, "what percentage of your
experiments succeeded?" Begin by saying, "that is a difficult question
to answer." Go on to explain why the question is difficult (i.e., there
are many ways to define success and calculate the percentage. One needs
to think about being precise and insuring that all percentages sum to
100. Here's a good opportunity to bring up that power failure again, and
its effect on success.
- Talk forever without really giving an answer. Interrupt yourself and
diverge into seemingly related topics. Keep wandering back onto the
question from time to time. Babble on until they, or you, fall asleep.
- Stick to the subject at hand, but give as many low-level technical details
as possible. Get down to the bits and stay there. Avoid all concepts and
summaries. Give detailed facts instead of describing their significance.
Use tables of numbers instead of graphs. If possible, introduce long,
complex equations without balanced parentheses.
- Restate the question, but change it slightly to make it easier. Use it
as an excuse to introduce a whole new topic of discussion, and avoid
answering the original question. Later, when the examiners realize what
you did, they will be furious!
- Add a dozen caveats to each answer. Begin by saying, "of course, my
answer depends on the communication system available in the country, the
supplier used for spare computer parts, a local power company can provide
uninterrupted electric power, the probability that cosmic rays from outer
space strike anyone or anything involved, the number of days lost because
someone is sick, and the stability of world economic markets..." The
beauty is that most of what you say is true. If the panel asserts that
you don't need to worry about all that, ask them, "You mean you don't care
about a stable world economy? What kind of human beings are you, anyway?"
- Be judgemental. Look directly at the committee and say, "I don't think
your questions are worthy of an answer, and if you can't come up with
anything better, I think we should terminate this examination." The
examiners will agree with you, and the exam will end.
If the panel happens to be in a good mood, they will try to give you the
benefit of the doubt.
To fail outright, you must be careful to avoid giving them any grounds for
Thus, you should eschew the following techniques, all of which tend
to help your presentation and increase your chances of passing:
- Define terminology so that everyone in the audience can understand the
the question and the answer. For example, the introductory statement,
"when you ask about foobars, I assume you mean the variety sold in
hardware stores and used around homes," clarifies which foobars you
will be discussing.
- Restate the question so everyone can hear it, especially if the question
is asked by someone near the front of the room.
- Reformulate the question into a form that is more general or emphasizes
concepts. For example, "When you ask about the price of one hundred
foobars, you probably want to know about the relationship between the
quantity purchased and the discount available."
- Answer the question directly by giving a typical or ``average'' case, and
don't worry about all possible exceptions until someone asks for more
detail (e.g., "Foobars usually cost around five dollars.").
- Defer questions that will be covered later in your presentation by saying,
"I will talk about that topic in ten minutes; if you can hold your
question until then, we'll have a much better context for the discussion.
- Compliment the person who asks a question (e.g., "That's a good question
because it cuts to the heart of the matter.")
- Don't be afraid to take irrelevant questions off-line (e.g., "A detailed
answer to your question may require as long as thirty minutes and isn't
germane to the rest of the discussion -- can we meet afterward in private
to discuss it?") You can supply a short answer and defer detail (e.g.,
"The quick answer is: although what you ask is *possible*, it isn't
practical -- I can tell you more in private if you are interested").
- Remember not to overestimate the audience. Even a Ph.D. may not have all
the terminology in his or her head. When in doubt, or when discussing an
esoteric point, try to work a simple reminder into the first part of your
- Remain calm and relaxed. Looking tense or worried makes you appear to be
- Don't take yourself too seriously. After all, you can always drop out and
go to work for a behemouth software house. Thus, the worst case is that you
will make more money.