The Graduate Board Oral (GBO) is a University Requirement for PhD candidates and has been in place since the beginning of time.

Patrick Breysse has been kind enough to write up a short description about the exam. If you have any further questions, please ask me, Patrick, or any student who has taken it!

The GBO is an exam usually taken sometime in the third year of graduate school.  It’s basically a somewhat more involved version of the research exam.  The student again gives a 20-minute talk based on their research to a panel of professors, after which they are asked questions about the talk and related subjects.  The talk and the questioning are generally more in depth than in the research exam, since the student has completed another year or so of graduate level work.  Before the exam, the student sends the panel a short (~ a few pages) summary of the research which will be discussed in the talk, including a description of the student’s plan for his/her thesis.

The biggest difference between the GBO and the research exam is the composition of the panel of professors.  A GBO panel consists of five faculty: the student’s advisor, two professors from the Physics and Astronomy department, and two professors from other departments.  A couple of months before the exam, the student and the advisor begin working with the department office to set up the panel.  Who ends up on the panel usually depends on (a) the advisor’s opinion of what a GBO panel should look like and (b) what professors the department office can manage to get in a room at the same time.

The main difficulty with preparing for the GBO comes from the fact that different combinations of professors can create wildly different experiences.  Professors on a GBO panel are free to ask you basically anything they want, though they will usually restrict their questions to topics at least vaguely related to your talk.  Some panels (especially those where the out-of-department faculty work in a similar field) will want to get deep into the technical details of your research, while others will want to test your knowledge of basic physical concepts.  A good rule of thumb is that if you shouldn’t mention a concept in your talk unless you’re prepared to talk about it in some detail.  It’s a good idea to spend some time before your GBO reviewing the basic physics in whatever field you’re talking about so you can be prepared for the questioning.  You can get some idea of what kind of questions to expect by talking to other students who have had the same faculty on their panels, as many professors often ask similar questions on multiple exams.

As for the talk, it’s a good idea to time it and make sure you can finish in ~20 minutes.  Some panels will interrupt you every other slide to ask questions (thus making any timing meaningless), but others will let you finish you’re whole talk before asking anything.  A good way to practice is to give a Wine and Cheese talk, which you can set up with the PAGS officers before your exam.  These are informal talks given to other grad students as practice for things like the GBO.  Many of the students who come to wine and cheese talks have taken their GBO’s before, and can give very good feedback.

Every student’s GBO is different, which can make preparation a bit unnerving.  However, if you know your material (which you do since you’ve been working on it for a while), it’s not as bad as it sounds.  If you have further questions about the exam, your best resource is older students who have already passed.  Good luck!

– Patrick Breysse