Preparing for SAIS oral exams

The oral exam is a very small part of the overall SAIS experience – one hour out of two years of study – but I have to say that mine stands out in my mind as one of the most frustrating hours I spent there.  The exam proceeded differently than I’d expected, based on my adviser’s recommendations for preparation, and I left feeling like I hadn’t had the opportunity to discuss the topics that truly interested me – and had been caught flat-footed by a variety of questions on topics more tangential to my studies.  Here’s how it went.

How I was told to prepare:

  • Write a one-page paper on a topic “that will integrate knowledge from the student’s regional or functional program and international economics.”  (I wrote on the connections between structural adjustment, democratization, and civil war in Rwanda and Burundi.)  The examiners will read the paper, and may discuss it in detail, or pass over it entirely if they’re not sufficiently familiar with the topic to pose questions on it.
  • Read up on international affairs for approximately the week before the exam.  Examiners will often discuss current events, and ask students to provide political or economic analysis.
  • Review materials from all of your courses, but spend 70% of your time on the core economics courses.
  • All of the above suggestions came from my adviser.  A TA (and former SAIS student) also told me not to worry about understanding the detailed theoretical underpinnings of the core econ courses, but to focus on their policy applications.
  • I had taken courses or worked for both of my examiners previously, and was aware of their research interests.  As I studied, I tried to anticipate the questions that they might ask.

How it actually went:

  • We didn’t discuss the contents of my one-pager or any current events.  So much for the idea that “[the one-pager] along with a brief introduction by the student…will serve as the basis of discussion for the first 15 to 20 minutes.”
  • I reviewed the material from the core economics courses with an eye to their policy implications, as my TA had suggested.  I definitely wasn’t prepared for a 15-minute discussion of the theoretical preconditions for something to be considered a market failure.  (Examples of market failures in practice, such as the implications of failure of contract enforcement and property rights for land markets and agricultural output, weren’t considered sufficient.)
  • My economics examiner was a trade economist, so I had reviewed the basic trade theories in depth, but I was still a bit surprised to have to discuss the assumptions underlying the Ricardian, specific factors, and Heckscher-Ohlin models.
  • I felt much better prepared for the questions from my IDEV examiner.  They ranged from the general (“What’s the connection between democracy and economic growth?”) to the specific (“You mentioned that you wrote a paper on conditional cash transfer programs.  Do they reduce poverty?”), and touched on technical issues as well (“What’s the difference between an RCT, a quasi-experiment, and a natural experiment?”).
  • Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the exam was the fact that we didn’t discuss my independent study at all.  I really enjoyed writing it, and had been looking forward to running its propositions past my examiners.

In sum:

I felt like most of the advice that I was given about preparation was accurate.  However, there were several things that would have reduced my stress level considerably during the exam had I known them.

  • All of the heavily theoretical questions were drawn from the core economics courses, not from electives.  Be conversant with econ theory as well as policy applications.
  • Be prepared to defend your course of study.  For example, I took a course on African militaries, whose salience to development seems obvious to me, and was asked why this was a relevant choice.
  • Prepare a list of two or three main policy takeaways from each of your electives, as well as a few case studies that could be used to support these points.
  • If you’re currently taking another course with a professor, they probably won’t ask you about the content of that course, since they’ll already be familiar with your level of knowledge on the subject.