Selecting Your Orals Committee

Your Orals experience may become easier if you think of the exam itself as a long process rather than a “do-or-die” couple of hours. In some ways, the beginning of the second Qualifying Exam begins with the process of choosing your committee. The nuts and bolts of this process are fairly self-explanatory. This committee should consist of three professors who are typically appointees at the Graduate Center, although they need not all be English faculty. So if you have an interest in theater, or comparative literature, or history, you may be able to add a professor from a different department to your committee. To do so, you need EO approval. With the EO’s approval it is also sometimes possible to have a non-Graduate Center appointee serve on the orals committee. If, for instance, there is someone at one of the CUNY campuses who is not currently on the doctoral faculty at the GC but who you feel would be a particularly appropriate examiner, you should ask the EO if it would be possible for that professor to serve on the examining committee.

You may wish to first approach the person who you wish to serve as the chair of your committee. Often, if your interests and focus do not shift in the interim, the chair of the Orals committee goes on to serve as the adviser for the dissertation, and will therefore be someone with whom you will have a close working relationship. Each member of the committee will examine you on one list (more about compiling these lists in the next section). You may wish to approach professors whom you know from taking classes, but if you have an esoteric interest not normally covered in course offerings, you may wish to ask around the department. Often professors have a secondary research interest that they do not usually teach but will be happy to explore with you in an Orals list.

When you approach professors, feel free to candidly ask them about how they usually handle lists and exams. This will help ensure the best possible fit. While choosing professors, consider whether or not you have similar outlooks on similar interests. For instance, suppose you want to do an early modern list focusing on drama other than Shakespeare (because you secretly think Shakespeare is over-rated). Choosing an examiner who has made Shakespeare his or her life’s work and subscribes to the Bardolatry camp may add some unnecessary angst to your Orals-related stress. On the other hand, you may find that the challenge of justifying your ideas to a somewhat hostile audience helps to solidify your own, although few people seem to feel this way.

“If you have taken classes from the professors in the past, you should consider how they gave feedback in that setting. For instance, did you find their responses to your work and ideas provocative? Encouraging? You may also be worried about personality clashes between your committee members. One way to avoid those awkward moments is to compile your committee with the advice of your committee chair.

I think the first thing to remember about Orals is that you should feel like you’re in control. Sure, your committee members are the ones who are going to be asking the questions and they should certainly have a say in what (and how) you read, but, ultimately, it might be more helpful to think as the exam almost as a colloquium or an exchange—one that you should be able to shape through your answers. While I obviously can’t speak for all the different professors in our department, the impression I got from my committee is that the Orals are the turning point between coursework and dissertating and, along with that, they were looking for me to take an active role in shaping the experience and approaches—and in balancing their views with my own. (It helped, of course, that my committee was made up of professors I’d worked with in different capacities since the beginning of my time at the GC, but I’m not sure that was the deciding factor in the experience overall. Though I will say that if you’re completely in awe of someone and can’t imagine ever disagreeing with them to their face, then you might want to think long and hard about having them on your committee.)”

“I had done an independent study that in many ways foreshadowed one of my lists; the professor with whom I did that was already on board to be my advisor. Independent studies can be a great way of preparing for the Orals. Then I had taken courses with another professor, who I knew I wanted to be involved. Luckily they were both interested in the project, and they both suggested the third person, whom I had never met nor worked with, but who also seemed excited by the project when I approached her. (This third professor ended up becoming my dissertation advisor; the Orals were really helpful in showing me where I wanted my focus on this project to be!)”

“When I was thinking about who I wanted for my committee, I chose professors whose classes I’d enjoyed and who I knew gave thoughtful and nuanced feedback to my work. I didn’t have a dissertation advisor yet (though some people do have this planned before they get to their Orals), so I chose my Orals committee partly as speculation about what my dissertation would be.”

“I began my preparation by talking with my dissertation advisor. I knew who two of my committee members would be, and my advisor suggested other professors to approach, gently steering me away from what I thought was my genius idea of combining two early modern theatrical lists with an introductory foray into the field of Southern Gothic novels.”