Graduate school preliminary exams are dreaded, anticipated, and for me, thankfully over. In the days before taking my second preliminary exam, my oral qualifying exam, I self-evaluated and determined that I was handling the stress of my impending exam exceptionally well. After all, graduate school is associated with a near constant low-grade stress, and I had learned various coping mechanisms to deal with it over the prior two years. Regardless, the graduate student’s keen stress-induced cortisol-awakening response informs them of their heightened anxiety. In other words, nightmares always tell.

I have asked a few confidants to share their own experiences with the ‘Oral Exam dream.’ Enjoy!

I wasn’t stressed about taking my oral exam, or so I thought until the night before. It was a normal evening; I planned to get plenty of rest before the big day. I tucked into bed, and turned off my nightstand lamp. It was then that my oral exam nightmare began….

I woke up, having slept through my alarm and rushed to school. I set everything up in my assigned conference room, only to find that oral exams were open to the public. I watched my friends wander in and take their seats. I chatted with a few of them, wondering where my committee members were, as my exam was set to begin in 2 minutes. I checked my email, only to find that my Chair had changed exam rooms on me! The exam was taking place across campus! I rushed to pack away my snacks and presentation and informed my friends of the new location and off I ran. I arrived late.

My face, while watching my committee members up and leave.

I began setting up my snacks and presentation only to realize that I left my laptop in the other room. I looked around and saw my committee members getting annoyed. My PI was looking down in embarrassment and shame. I luckily had my presentation on a flash drive and hurriedly asked if anyone had a laptop I could borrow. My friend Kelsey came to my rescue! I hooked up the laptop to the projector and began to copy my PowerPoint presentation over to the Macbook. Swoosh! My presentation copied then fluttered across the underwater landscape background image. I scrambled to find where the file landed on the Desktop. It was nowhere to be found. At this point, one of my committee members exclaimed in frustration, “If you are not prepared for your exam today, we can certainly reschedule!” At this, some of my audience members began to walk out. I quickly asked Kelsey for help with locating my file. I own a Macbook, but I couldn’t figure out why I was having this much trouble. Kelsey cheerfully informed me that she had set her Macbook to pirate theme, and that you had to search for files as you would search for sunken treasure. It was at this point that my entire committee stood up and exited the room..

At the thought of this failure, I was startled awake by my alarm. Thankfully, I knew that my actual exam couldn’t go worse than my dream exam. With this confidence, I dressed and left for school.

~Bailey, UNC PhD student in Genetics

These apparently exist. Build your own Lego laser pointer!


I’m the type of person who doesn’t stress out too much, so as I was preparing for my oral exam everything felt normal to me. My lab mate told me a funny story about her oral exam nightmares. “Funny, but I’m not even that stressed out,” I thought. So I strove into my oral exam with a sense of nervous energy, but also with the confidence that I would do well. Laptop? Check. Presentation? Check. Snacks? Triple check. And of course, my trusty laser pointer. But of course my laser pointer, being the miserable creature it is, decided to die a minute before I started my presentation. Thankfully, I was prepared. I had a backup laser pointer. Not only was this a backup laser, it was one better—a LEGO LASER POINTER. A lego laser pointer?! How awesome! You want one too? No you don’t, trust me. A few seconds later, I gripped my laser pointer a little too hard, and felt the pieces to crumble inward as the laser pointer began to break. *$#@!!!! I tried in vain to rebuild my lego laser pointer from the instruction manual that conveniently appeared in front of me, while simultaneously giving my oral exam presentation. Things weren’t going well. I begged the committee member sitting next to me to help fix the laser pointer while I continued on with my presentation, but he refused. I struggled onward, cursing myself and vowing to never buy a lego laser pointer again. Thank goodness it was all a dream.

~ Tim, UNC MD/PhD student in Genetics

I had this dream more than a year after passing my oral qualifying exam, and even stranger, my actual qualifying exam went pretty well, so I have no explanation for this. A little background: the qualifying exam format for the immunology program at my school is general knowledge based. The exam takes place in three rooms. There are two professors per room, and for 30 minutes the professors ask students anything they want to about immunology, before passing students onto the next room. In each room there is whiteboard where students can diagram and explain concepts.

I’m sitting in the hallway before the first room having clearly forgotten that I had to take my qualifying exam. I’m pretty stressed, but I think I might be able to just barely pass. I walk into the first room and they ask me to diagram a lymph node and a spleen. I draw out the figure I had memorized of an average lymph node and spleen and try to explain it to them in the context of the germinal center reaction. The professors look confused at my drawing and say that they don’t get it. They ask me to draw it more clearly. I begin, trying to more clearly delineate the T-cell vs B-cell zones.They still don’t get it and are now a little agitated. “If you can’t draw it, why don’t you just show us on a spleen!” one of the professors yells. I’m a little tense, and then I see a golden retriever on a table between the professors and me. At this point,  one of the professors demands, “Just take out the spleen of this dog and show us where the white and red pulp is located.”

I do not know where the spleen of a dog is, in this dream or reality. I try to talk about the white/red pulp a little bit more on the board, to avoid having to perform surgery on the dog, but I am interrupted by the insistent professor “This is part of your exam. Take out the spleen before your next room, otherwise you will fail.”

I woke up after that, relieved that my qualifying exam was over. I have since looked up where a spleen is located in a dog, but soon forgot.

-Anonymous Immunology Student

Do you have experience with the “Oral Exam Dream?’ Share your dream in the comments below!

Peer edited by Chelsea Boyd & Katie Veleta

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This article was co-published on the TIBBS Bioscience Blog.

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