Tips for the ThM – Part 7 (summarizing research)

Listen carefully. I can absolutely guarantee that the first thing you will be asked to do in your oral examination is to summarize your research (thesis or guided research projects). I do this at the very beginning of every exam. So, you should not be surprised when this happens.

For some reason, though, this is an area where ThM students often struggle. Two things in particular stand out. First, the summaries usually take too long. You should be able to state your thesis and summarize the main points of the argument in just a couple of minutes. If you can’t do that, it suggests that you really don’t understand your argument all that well. Trust me, you’ll have plenty of time to talk about the rest of it later. For now, focus on giving clear and succinct statement of the thesis and argument.

Second, the summaries often fail to include some comment on why the research matters. Why is it significant? Why should anyone care? Does it have some impact on life and ministry? Does it contribute in an important way to your own development, or does it have significance for further research? Make it clear that this was not just an academic hurdle that you had to clear to graduate. (If it actually was, lie.)

The presumption is that if you’ve spent this much time on something, you should be able to provide a clear and meaningful summary. Make sure that you come prepared to do so.

Probably the most unnerving thing about an oral examination is to be asked a question to which you do not know the answer. Your first reaction will be to fake it, to come up with something that will disguise your ignorance and make you sound sufficiently brilliant. Ignore your first reaction. Your second reaction will probably be to deflect the question in some way, to divert the questioner onto some other issue about which you are better informed. Ignore your second reaction. If you really don’t know the answer to the question, you must say so. As I said in my last post, trying to fake your way through an answer actually looks worse than saying “I don’t know.” At least an answer like that demonstrates that you understood the question and are aware of the limitations of your own knowledge.

The key to saying “I don’t know” is to recognize that this is actually a part of the process. I’m not sure about other examiners, but it is actually my goal in an oral examination to get you to the point where you have to say “I don’t know.” And, I don’t do that simply to torture you. (The torture is just a perk of the job.) We all have limits to our knowledge, and one of the goals of the examination is to find out where your limits are. So, “I don’t know” is actually an expected part of the examination. It’s not a question of whether you’ll say “I don’t know,” it’s a question of when.

I should also admit that we are not beyond asking questions for which there is no good answer. (I am particularly prone to throwing in questions like this just to see what you’ll do with them.) If you get a question like that, feel free to say that you don’t know the answer because no one really does. If you want to go on from there and offer your speculative attempt to answer the question, go ahead. Just make sure that you clearly indicate that this is just your attempt to answer the unanswerable.

Having said all of that, of course, you want to avoid saying “I don’t know” too quickly. If you’ve prepared decently for the exam, you will be able to answer most of the questions adequately. So, if you think you don’t know the answer the question, make sure that you understood the question.  There’s nothing wrong with asking the questioner to repeat or even rephrase the question. A lot of the questions that get asked in an oral examination are spontaneous, so they’re not always carefully crafted. It’s entirely possible that the question is simply unclear. Make sure you understood it properly before admitting that you don’t know the answer.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on April 14, 2010, in Th.M. Program. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Marc, thanks for posting all of these. They have been extremely helpful.

    • I’m glad to hear that. Feel free to pass along any ideas that come to mind for future posts.


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