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Final M.S. Oral Exam

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: