Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Scientist's Conclusion, Part 4

As the time for Sung's comprehensive exam drew near, Carl still doubted that Sung was, in fact, prepared, that he could ever be prepared to stand that examination and do it justice. Even in their weekly sessions, Sung hesitated to complete answers and usually refused to pursue a line of reasoning without receiving a nod of affirmation, or an authoritative "Go ahead." from Carl. Carl mused to himself, half­ seriously, that he might be able to nod Sung through some of the more difficult questions on the oral exam if the student could only get himself off to a correct start.
The week of comprehensives came and Sung passed the general written exam—not brilliantly but adequately. His specialty written exam was uneven; he had badly botched one of the three questions on that exam. Because of his performance, he had been given a borderline pass. Thus, the issue of whether he passed or failed, and, hence, whether or not he could continue his pursuit of the Ph.D. degree, hung upon the oral exam. His committee was composed of four individuals in addition to Carl: Drs. James Karesh and Otto Munster from the Biochemistry Department, Dr. Harris Stillwell from Pathology, and Dr. Anando Vanadian from Immunology. Carl was very proud of having gathered this committee for his first graduate student; they were among the best minds and greatest reputations at the institution. Their willingness to serve on this committee was taken by Carl, perhaps with some justification, as an indication that he was accorded a certain esteem as a scientist, despite the fact that he had not yet achieved national recognition.
The format of the oral exam was structured so that the student first gave an overview of his thesis project, including highlights of any preliminary data he might have obtained. Then the committee members were free to question the student on any material to which he could reasonably be expected to have been exposed during his course work and his literature search pertaining to the thesis topic. In practice, the examination usually began with questions centering around the candidate's thesis project, then ranged farther afield as answers to questions suggested new questions to the examiners. A successful exam was usually fairly brief, perhaps an hour and a half, whereas less successful exams often went on for three or four hours.
Carl had rehearsed Sung twice on his presentation and, after each rehearsal, had asked Sung several questions of the type that might logically relate to the presenta­tion. Carl had also scheduled the examination for the afternoon at 2:00 P.M., for two reasons. First, he hoped that the committee would be in a pleasant, ruminative mood after lunch, and secondly, he hoped that, since the exam was to begin fairly late in the day, it might not last for more than two or three hours and Sung might be spared some of the more probing and esoteric questions that often come at the end of a long examination.
The afternoon of the examination, two others were present in the seminar room in addition to Sung's committee: the departmental graduate advisor, Dr. William Bock, and the department chairman, Dr. Henry Davidson. Carl was not entirely surprised, since it was quite within accepted procedure for any member of the department to be present at the oral examination of any departmental student. Nonetheless, their presence made Carl uneasy.

The next installment is  here .

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