The final requirement for completion of an M.S. degree is an individualized oral examination. The Examination Committee consists of the student’s advisor as Chair, and two other members of the Environmental Science Graduate Faculty. With permission of the Graduate School, an outside member sometimes can take the place of one of the two internal members. Additional inside or outside members are also allowed. The Committee is usually selected by mutual agreement of the student and advisor. Any disagreements on Committee membership may be brought to the Graduate Program Director for resolution.
The student is usually responsible for finding a mutually agreeable time to hold the exam, which can be expected to last 2-3 hours. The Graduate Program Secretary should be notified of the tentative date, and will assist in reserving a room. She should also be consulted to ensure that the proper forms, including the examination form, are completed on time (preferably several months in advance, where possible).
The examination is different depending on whether the student is following the requirements of Plan A or Plan B for his or her Masters degree.
Plan A (with thesis)
The final examination is both a thesis defense and a comprehensive exam. The initial part of the exam is an open seminar presentation of the thesis, with questions from the public. The Graduate Program will provide light refreshments. The exam will then continue in closed session with the student and committee. Questions usually focus on the thesis, but other questions are also appropriate, as described below.
Plan B (with expository essay)
The oral is a closed comprehensive exam only; it is not a defense of the essay. Although all areas of Environmental Science are potentially open for discussion, it is typical that Committee members ask questions related to the student’s expressed area(s) of interest. Often this will be the subjects of the courses that the student has taken (most likely with the Committee members or in their areas of expertise), the essay topic, and/or the student’s past, present, or likely future employment.
Comprehensive Exam (both plans)
At the beginning of the exam, the student will provide a completed degree application form, including an unofficial transcript, and will then be asked to leave the room for several minutes. This allows the Committee to finalize the examination format. Upon the student’s return, it is customary for the Advisor to ask an initial question about the student’s background and interests. For Plan B students, the Committee also might request a brief summary (3-5 minutes, without audiovisuals) of the essay. Then each of the Committee members, in turn, will spend 20-40 minutes directing the questioning (with the Advisor last). Other Committee members are free to interrupt and/or follow up as appropriate. If the first “round” of questions is short, there may be a second round.
Comprehensive examination questions ideally try to test two types of knowledge. First, it is expected that the student will have learned a substantial body of factual material, as needed to function effectively within an area of Environmental Science. Many students find it helpful to review their course notes in the weeks before the exam to be better prepared to show this competency. Second, it is also expected that finishing students will have the ability to synthesize information from different sources and be able to work out a solution, with Committee feedback, to more complex questions that they do not “know” the answer to. For Plan A students, both types of knowledge are frequently demonstrated as part of the thesis defense, so that other questioning often is not extensive.
When the Committee members agree that they have finished asking questions, the student will again be asked to leave the room for a few minutes. The Committee will discuss the student’s performance, then invite him or her back into the room to learn the outcome. Possible results include:
Pass. The Committee feels that the student demonstrated sufficient competence to warrant the award of an M.S. degree. The Committee will sign the examination form. For Plan A students, the Committee may also sign the thesis portion of the exam, and the thesis itself, or one or more members may withhold their signatures from this section until thesis revisions have been satisfactorily completed by the student. For Plan B, the advisor only must also separately sign the section of the form indicating that a satisfactory essay has been completed. The student should then see the Graduate Program Secretary to help ensure that all other requirements (including Graduate Program Director’s signature) are completed by the appropriate deadlines.
Fail. The Committee feels that the student demonstrated inadequate knowledge of Environmental Science to justify awarding of an M.S. degree, and signs the line indicating ‘did not pass” on the examination form. (This outcome is unusual, as both the student and advisor typically would know that the student is not ready for the exam, and would agree to postpone it.) The student should consult with the Graduate Program Director to discuss his or her status in the Program. Under Graduate School rules, the student is entitled to take the exam a second time.
Unfinished. The Committee feels that the student did not adequately demonstrate, during the examination, sufficient competence to warrant the award of an M.S. degree. This most often is a result of extreme nervousness or inadequate time to prepare. In this case the Committee does not sign the form at all, but instead develops a plan to address the concerns raised. This result should be communicated to the Graduate Program Director, along with the proposed remediation. Usually a new exam will be scheduled once the student has completed the requirements.