Fear Not the Oral Exam Kermit Wannabe PhD, Examiners for Harvard Would Pass Thee

Kermit is ready to storm the Ivory Tower armed with a high tech laser light sword to fight off the Committee who would turn him back.

What delightful silliness.

Evidently the committee doesn’t know or credit Kermit with a research proposal and a lit review done under the guidance of a supervisor.  All they know is he wants to be one of them and he’s gonna have to defend against their assault to get a PhD, just like they did.  So defend your work Kermit.

Kermit, like other PhD wannabes before him, doesn’t have experience or preparation with high stakes oral exams. The exam will prime him to deliver dramatics to another hopeful PhD wannabe later in his career.

The committee might let Kermit pass when he doesn’t deserve to pass.  See the tale of Jason Richwine’s Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy doctoral committee who gave him a pass and later refused responsibility for passing his dissertation linking race and IQ.

“The dissertation was approved, as all dissertations are, by a committee of three. The chair was George Borjas, an conservative economist who writes about immigration for National Review and The Wall Street Journal. Borjas told Slate’s David Weigel, “I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ, so don’t really know what to think about the relation between IQ, immigration, etc.… In fact, as I know I told Jason early on since I’ve long believed this, I don’t find the IQ academic work all that interesting.” Not exactly an endorsement of the dissertation.”

Why is Borjas on the committee if he has never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ?  In some oral exams, the chair of the committee is not required to read the dissertation.   Is Borjas not responsible for the exam outcome because he merely chaired the proceedings?  What exactly are the responsibilities of every member of the committee?  Who checks the correctness of the examiners?

“The second person on the committee was Richard Zeckhauser. He studies investing, not immigration, and his Harvard faculty website describes him as “a senior principal at Equity Resource Investments (ERI), a special situations real estate firm.” He said “Jason’s empirical work was careful,” but that he was “too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy.”

So why did Examiner Zeckhauser give Richwine a pass?  Why is he an on the examining committee for Richwine if he identifies himself primarily as a guru of specialty real estate investments?

“The third member of the committee is the big surprise, and the big problem: Christopher Jencks, for decades a leading figure among liberals who did serious research on inequality—a contributor to The New York Review of Books, the author of important books, including Inequality: Who Gets Ahead?, The Homeless and The Black White Test Score Gap. Christopher Jencks knows exactly what’s wrong with the studies purporting to link “race” with “IQ.

Examiner number three, Jencks would not give a public comment when asked.  The italicized text above comes from the article, Why did Harvard Give a Ph D for a Discredited Approach Linking Race and IQ? by Jon Weiner in The Nation in May of 2013.

The writer doesn’t answer the question he asks: Why Did Harvard Give Richwine a PhD?  Did the committee members just phone it in trusting in the shepherding work of Richwine’s Harvard supervisor?  Since the story broke teachers in doctoral programs have examined Richwine’s dissertation and commented that it fails the test for a sound and robust research project.  So why did Richwine’s supervisor advance the process?  Why did none of the checkpoints stop this work from going forward?

There is no academic literature on oral exams, or on the deliberations of examiners or approaches to supervision.  For all the literature on test construction, there is none on oral exams.  Oral exams should adhere to the principles of reliability, validity, inter-rater reliability etc., but they don’t because they are more like rites of passage rooted in the traditions of the middle ages. Vivas lack reliability and validity (Watts, 2012); they are not robust assessment instruments as can be seen by the tale of these three examiners for a Harvard PhD.

If the committee did fail Richwine, Richwine could sue and win.  The oral exam lacks credibility as an assessment instrument. The supervisor approved his methodology in his research proposal and he passed an ethics review.  And the credibility of the Harvard Ph D would unravel.

Kermit take solace in Jason Richwine’s experience.  The camel will get through the eye of the Harvard needle; few oral defenses fail, even when they should.  Oral exams are more akin to a Bar Mitzvah than an exam. No one is going to fail you Kermit.  (You could sue.) There now Kermit wannabe PhD, don’t you feel better?


Watts, Jacqueline. H. (20!2)  Preparing doctoral candidates for the viva: Issues for supervisors and students. Journal of Further and Higher Education. 36(3) pp. 371-381.

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