The other day, I got an e-mail from a student preparing for a face-to-face annual review. She wrote about her preparation in competitive metaphors: a poker face; weapons and armor. I don’t think these are the best metaphors for approaching such situations. Even if these competitive metaphors are the most accurate description of the situation (depending on the character and intentions of the examiners), they are not necessarily the most effective way to think about the situation.
One metaphor to consider is to think of the examination session as the meeting of a working group trying to refine a project so that it can be brought to a successful conclusion. This may be accurate in the case of some professors, or in the case of some specific questions. During my oral examination, one of my professors, sensing that I was getting defensive, interrupted me to emphasize that the question had been meant to help me define my project, not to test me.
Another metaphor, is to think of being a salesperson. The examination is an opportunity to sell your ideas to professors—to persuade them to accept what you’ve got, or at least to get their interest in accepting it if necessary improvements are made. While it’s probably not best to think of the examiners as “suckers” to be cheated, it is useful to think about what sells a product or an idea. What moves people? What persuades them?
Sell something that you believe in, and keep your attention on those parts that you believe. In an examination, it’s good to keep a focus on the motivating reasons that guided choices. Focusing on motivations is more effective than focusing on weaknesses. If you’re trying to sell something to others, you consciously attempt to focus the conversation on the issues that are most positive. If you’re in a competition, you have to defend the weaknesses. If you’re selling something, you try to shift the focus to strengths. (Which is not to say that you want to make light of the concerns of your examiners, of course, but to emphasize your ability to guide the conversation.)
Part of what persuades people is that they see other people interested. It is commonplace in academic writing to cite the scholarly literature, but it can be useful in speaking, too. You don’t need to produce an exact quotation or citation to say “Scholar X was working on this idea, and I have adapted it.” Can you use citations as “celebrity endorsements”? If a famous scholar studied it, it must be interesting, right?
One metaphor that is relevant in some contexts is an idea that a friend suggested to me as I was preparing for my oral examinations. “Think of it as a celebration of your progress,” he suggested. On one level it requires confidence to approach an examination with the attitude that it is a celebration, but depending on context, it may well be appropriate. For me, taking the oral examination required getting all my professors to agree to give the exam. In that context, it’s pretty likely that the professors are predisposed to sign on: if they thought you had no chance of passing the exam, they probably wouldn’t agree. In situations where the exam is only held by application, then there’s pretty good reason to believe that the participants believe you have a decent chance of passing, so it makes sense to approach it as a celebration of sorts. This metaphor is not appropriate for reviews that are automatic, like the annual review faced by my client.
Live examinations and reviews are challenging. Thinking of them with positive metaphors— as collaborative work or as an opportunity to sell your ideas or as a celebration—can change the emotional tenor of the event. Some people love competition, so the competitive metaphors may work well for some. But others might do better thinking of the event otherwise. Emotional state is important for thinking well: if you’re feeling stressed, it’s harder to use the higher reasoning functions. Confidence is important: if you’re confident, it’s easier to think well. I like the sales, collaboration, and celebration metaphors because they are situations in which many people feel more comfortable and confident than in competitions.