“A” Examination—

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					“A” Examination—
by Rachel Geisel, Graduate Student CBS, modified for Field of Immunology
One of the scariest and most stressful times of your graduate experience will be the „Admission
to Candidacy‟, or “A” exam. However with a little planning and advice, the whole thing can go a
lot more smoothly.

When do I take the A exam?
The A exam is taken usually half way through a Ph.D. program, generally at the end of the
semester when the student finishes their required coursework. The A exam must be completed at
least a year ahead of the B exam/thesis defense, so it is better to get it out of the way sooner
rather than later. Thus, it is important very early in your Ph.D., usually your first committee
meeting, to plan out your required coursework so it doesn‟t stretch on forever.

The exam takes about a semester to prepare for, so planning well in advance is required. At the
beginning of your last semester of course work, hold a special committee meeting to discuss the
format and date of the exam. The hardest thing about arranging the A exam is getting all your
committee members in one place at one time for the requisite 2-3 hours. Usually, P.I.s will know
their travel commitments several months in advance. However, clinical professors may be less
reliable and more difficult to pin down. The best thing to do is give committee members 2 –3
possible dates and times, and see which one fits everyone, especially you, best. If worse comes to
worse, you can always find another committee member (it is no big deal to change them prior to
the A exam, but much more difficult afterwards), or find a proxy in the same academic area.

What is the format of the A exam?
This varies between students and committees, but it is important to finalize the format at a
committee meeting prior to the event. There are two basic formats: an unstructured exam where
you walk in and get grilled, and an exam based on a thesis proposal. I prefer the latter as I felt it
gave me more control over both preparing for and during the examination. I would strongly
recommend doing a thesis proposal for the following reasons. Firstly, writing a thesis proposal in
the form of an NIH grant (ask your P.I. for a successful example) provides a framework for
reviewing literature, experimental results to date, and the aim of future experiments. Secondly, a
proposal defines what you have to achieve in order to receive your Ph.D. This sets up goals and
reminds you that eventually you‟ll get finished, as remote as the possibility may seem
sometimes. Pick a trusted advisor, like your P.I. or senior Postdoc to help review your proposal.
What you put in your thesis proposal isn‟t binding, usually you just have to justify to your
committee in your thesis defense why things couldn‟t or didn‟t work out.

The option is also there to write the proposal on a topic unrelated to your research, however this
will take a lot of time away from your project. A copy of the proposal is given to all members of
the committee at least 2 weeks prior to the A exam, so they have time to read it and prepare
questions. Prepare a PowerPoint presentation about 20 minutes long to present your proposal
during the exam. The slides provide a framework for explaining the material and for questioning
by the committee members.
How do you prepare for the A exam?
A thesis proposal will provide an excellent framework for preparation but it can‟t cover
everything, so here are some tips for preparing for the big day:

1) Meet individually with all your committee members and ask them what they would like you to
know. This will vary from very specific details to general concepts. Don‟t be shy about saying
what you think the major issues are, and on what things you intend to focus.

2) Ask other students who have passed the A exam, or are also preparing for it, on what they are
focusing. Their advice and help is especially important if you have common committee
members.

3) Draw up a list of review topics based on everyone‟s advice, what you think is important, and
what things are covered in your thesis proposal.

4) Know in greatest detail the techniques you work on, and how they function, common
techniques used in the field, and details of the references you site in the proposal.

5) Gain a background knowledge of your research area. Do a literature search on the topics, print
out and gather papers especially those particularly relevant to your work or seminal in your field.
It is also a good idea to have a basic knowledge of what your committee members work on, I
would suggest reading a review that they have written.

6) Know your P.I.‟s papers in detail, as they are the basis for the work that you have been doing
and will do in the future.

7) Textbooks can be a valuable source of general information, particularly on your major and
minors, use them to go over any concepts that you are uncertain about.

8) If you have taken a course presented by one of your committee members it may be valuable
to review the material. Have a good basic understanding of your course materials, but unless a
course focuses in depth on what you‟re working on, I wouldn‟t bother reviewing it in detail.

It usually takes about 2-3 months of solid work to prepare for the A exam, so make sure you get
organized and start reviewing with plenty of time to spare. Some graduate students have also
found a mock A exam, given by more senior graduate students and post-docs in their area,
helpful.

What preparations do I have to make?
What preparations need to be made vary between fields, special committees, departments, and
over time. Don‟t leave them to the last minute! Ask the field administrative assistant, the Office
of Graduate Education or the Graduate School Records Office to help you fulfill all the
requirements of the field and graduate school. Go and see them about a month before your exam,
so you don‟t miss any deadlines.
A „Schedule of Examination‟ form must be filled out, signed by all committee members, a copy
given to the Office of Graduate Education, and the original turned in at the Graduate School
Records Office. This form must be turned in to the Office of Graduate education at least 14 days
prior to the exam. The schedule of examination form requires a location of the exam, so you
must arrange and book a conference room, with the department, 2-3 weeks before the exam.
Make the booking about 4 hours long, exams take 2-3 hours, and allow set up and clean up time.
The department administrative assistants can assist you in booking a room.

When turning in the schedule of examination form, collect a „results of examination‟ form from
the Graduate School or the Office of Graduate Education or the Departmental Field Assistant.
This form must be filled out at the exam with the result and turned in within 3 days of the exam,
after being signed by all committee members. Make sure no one leaves your exam without
signing the form. It would be a pain to have to track them down when you should be celebrating
or catching up on sleep. You also need to make sure that the Office of Graduate Education gets a
copy of this form.

After the schedule of exam form is turned in, the Office of Graduate Education will organize for
posters and emails announcing the exam to be distributed. A exams are open to any faculty who
wish to attend them, however in practice usually only your committee shows up.

Remember to book or secure any projectors and computers you require for your presentation
well ahead of time, and backup any files. Send a few reminder emails to your committee
members, especially the day before to remind them of the date, location and time. Believe it or
not, it is not unheard of for a committee member to forget to show up.

What happens on the big day?
On the big day, get in early and set up to make sure all the equipment is working. Bring a glass
of water, as you will be talking for 2-3 hours. When the committee members arrive, remind them
of the paper work to be filled out and the format of the exam.

The types and quantity of questions varies widely between exams, as does the length. Expect
specific questions on how techniques work, and what alternative approaches could be used.
Theory questions on areas of your majors and minors will be asked. More difficult questions will
be on experimental design and problem solving as well as philosophical questions about
unsolved mysteries in the field. These questions are difficult to prepare for, however the
committee members are trying to assess your problem solving skills, so don‟t worry about the
details too much.

The most important thing to remember is to admit you don‟t know something or when you are
wrong. Committee members will give hints and advice and are generally supportive if you have
difficulty with a question. However, they have been known to crucify individuals who make
things up or try to bluff their way out of a question.

The questions will keep coming until the committee members have had enough. Then they will
send the candidate outside so they can discuss their fate in private. There are 4 outcomes to the A
exam: 1) a pass, in which case it‟s all over and you can start looking forward to your defense.
They may provide suggestions for improvement of the research proposal, or areas which need
further work, 2) a conceded pass, where the candidate must meet some requirement stipulated by
the committee in an area of weakness, 3) you may be asked to retake the examination at a later
date, if your performance was unsatisfactory, and generally the committee will provide details on
the areas you need to work on, and 4) if you fail your A exam, chances are you really don‟t want
to be in the program anyway, so it won‟t be a great disappointment when they kick you out.
Don‟t freak out you wannabe scientists out there, 99% of people who take their A exam pass first
go.

Make sure you receive a signed “results of examination” form at the end. Get a copy of it to the
Office of Graduate Education and get the original to the Records Office in Caldwell Hall within
three days (the Office of Graduate Education will even mail the original for you if you don‟t
want to walk down to Caldwell Hall yourself).

A final word…
The A exam is a scary and stressful process, but the support and advice of your peers will see
you through. The A exam is the major test of you Ph.D., the B exam or thesis defense being
much easier. So once it is over most of the hard work is already done. As scary as it is, a vast
majority of people pass and most students come out of the exam wondering what all the fuss was
about. After surviving my A exam I found that I had a through knowledge of my field, a
worthwhile and focused project, and greater optimism about the remainder of my Ph.D.