How Is a Thesis Different From an Oral Exam in Graduate School?

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Updated August 4, 2020

As graduate students enter their final year of study, they may begin to wonder how a thesis is different from an oral exam in graduate school settings. These two exam options are the most popular ways to assess whether a graduate student has actually learned the advanced material that their program requires, and they're often administered during the final semester of a students' candidacy in a given program. Students who don't pass an oral exam or receive approval of their thesis will be unable to graduate, with the program requiring a revised thesis or a revised attempt at passing the program's oral examination. Despite their similarities, each of these requirements offers a completely different way to prove mastery and to advance to degree conferral. A review of these differences may make it easier for students to decide between their available options.

The Thesis: Writing and Research that Proves Program Mastery

When it comes to finishing a graduate program, the most common word associated with graduation is "thesis." There's good reason for this, as the vast majority of graduate programs have historically required a thoroughly researched thesis paper to be delivered to a faculty panel in the weeks leading up to a student's graduation with their graduate degree. This thesis has traditionally asked students to pick an area of intense academic interest within their program and conduct new research in that field. In many schools, the goal is for students to have the thesis published in an academic journal to prove their bona fides in advance of graduation.

Though it has served schools well for many years, the graduate thesis has also run into a few problems. Some students have had their thesis ghost written by industry professionals, while others have plagiarized their work or failed to perform the level of research needed to truly contribute to their chosen academic field, according to Fortune Magazine. For this reason, many schools have either moved away from the thesis or have given students the option of an oral examination in its place.

The Oral Exam: Proving Mastery in Front of a Faculty Panel

There's no room for ghost writing in an oral examination. Instead of performing academic research and writing an extensive paper on its results and implications, students must instead take a comprehensive examination administered orally by their professors. This typically involves one student, one whiteboard, and a panel of two or three professors. They will ask the student two or three complex questions relating to their field of study, which the student must then prove or answer in their presence. This forces the student to "think on their feet" and instantly apply the concepts and learning objectives of their program.

Students who are successful in an oral examination will use all tools at their disposal, including a whiteboard or computer projector, to prove their answers correct and tie in concepts from their various courses within the graduate program. The faculty panel will evaluate the length, quality, and accuracy of their answers to each oral question as they consider whether or not the student has truly mastered the program's core concepts. If they have, the panel will issue a passing grade and the student will be moved to degree conferral after they complete their last academic requirements in the classroom. If the student does not pass, they will be invited to try again at a later date.

Related Resource: Master's in Engineering Jobs

Two Great Ways to Assess Program Mastery

Graduate degrees require advanced skills and practical applications of those skills, often culminating in research or oral proof of a student's learning. Whether via thesis or oral examination, professors will find a way to determine how successfully students have taken advantage of their time in the classroom. When it comes to determining how a thesis is different from an oral exam in graduate school, however, it's important to remember that the implications remain the same while only the format is different.

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