Images of Clouds from the surface of Mars - the basis of Jake's MSc work! To see a second example, look under the cut below...
By Jake Kloos
As the summer winds down and the new academic year approaches, the feeling for me is bittersweet. On one hand, I am only one month away from completing my MSc degree. On the other, however, I have the notorious oral examination still ahead of me. This is a friendly (or so I’m told) interrogation of sorts in which 3 examiners will closely scrutinize the work that I have put forth, probing me with questions and clarifications for a mere 2-3 hours. It sounds daunting, and having heard my fair share of horror stories as an undergraduate, I am approaching it with slight trepidation. Whatever the outcome, however, it will almost certainly be a useful experience, and one that I will remember as I move forward in my professional career.
During my time at York and under the direction of my supervisor John Moores, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission. I have worked as a member of the Environmental Science team, and as a functioning team member, I have participated in mission operations as well as worked with the data returned from the spacecraft. The research that I have conducted for my MSc has been integrated with my role on the mission. Over the past two years, I have been responsible for overseeing the cloud observations executed by the rover. Since the onset of the mission in 2012, we have accumulated over 500 of these observations, and I have personally examined each and every one. What have I learned from them? You can read all about it here, which is a paper that takes a look at the results from the first 800 sols (1.2 Martian years) of the MSL cloud observations. Alternatively, if you are so inclined, you can read my thesis, which will be finalized some time after the oral exam, and linked to in a future post.
As a newcomer to academia, I have been lucky to have the support of some of the more experienced members of the lab, such as Casey Moore (a PhD student) and Christina Smith (a post doctoral fellow). In preparing for the oral exam, currently scheduled for September 16th, I have received a lot of useful tips on how to handle the barrage of questions that I will soon experience. In particular, Christina’s counsel to “channel your inner Einstein” was very well received. Additionally, I found rest in Casey’s advice when he casually told me to “just be a manimal.” I will try, Casey.
To help me get a sense of what the experience might be like, John, Christina, and Casey staged a mock defense last week. These are the members of the lab that have successfully been through a defense, and know what kinds of questions are within bounds. After going through my thesis, each of them came prepared with some questions and we followed the structure as it will occur on the day of my exam. To start, I gave a 20 minute presentation on my research into Martian clouds, which is considered the public lecture component that precedes the oral exam. Following the presentation, we jumped right into the in-camera portion of the defense.
Each member of the examining committee was given 15-20 minutes to ask questions. The first round of questions was directed more broadly, and was intended to ensure that I had a basic understanding of the principal concepts of my research. Questions such as “what are the atmospheric variables important for cloud formation?”, “what is a lidar instrument, and how does it work?”, and “what are gravity waves, and how do they form?” were asked. Generally speaking, I found this portion of the exam to be manageable, although admittedly some of my explanations could use improvements. Also, I learned that in most cases, it’s better to not say more than you have to, as that can often get you into trouble.
The questions asked in the second round were often more explicit, and generally referenced a specific passage from my thesis. This ranged from smaller details, such as typos or clarifications, to more critical concepts discussed in the text. This portion, I found, was more demanding. The specificity with which the questions were delivered necessitates a specific answer, and if you don’t know the answer, it is difficult to make it appear as if you do. Furthermore, the questions asked during this round were difficult to anticipate, but even so, it was good to gain practice developing an answer on the spot.
I found the mock defense to be valuable, not only because it allowed me to rehearse my answers and gave me an understanding of what the procedure will be, but also because it gave me self-assurance that I am well positioned to succeed. As I transition from an MSc to a PhD, and commit to another 4 years at York, I anticipate that I will contribute to many mock defenses in the future. Next time, I look forward to being on the other side.
Jake is a 2nd year MSc student in the laboratory who will be the first PVLer to defend a thesis in September.