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So it's pretty much an unwritten rule at least in biology departments in the USA that when a student is defending his or her thesis/dissertation that they provide some sort of food or refreshments. There has been at least coffee and pastries provided by the student for their committee and audience at every defense I've ever attended.

My question is, how often do students do this for qualifying or comprehensive exams? Since they are private I have never attended one to know... Would committee members expect at least some coffee?

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My question is, how often do students do this for qualifying or comprehensive exams?

At my previous department (in ECE, if it matters), students do for qualifiers/prelims what they do for their defense, the only difference being that you scale down the total quantity of refreshments that you provide/purchase a bit if the exam is not open to the public.

Would committee members expect at least some coffee?

I don't know about "expect," but it's nice to have some on hand: at all of my exams, all of my committee members went straight for the coffee upon arrival to the exam.

Edited to add — The oral portion of the qualifying exam at my previous department consisted of a presentation which was meant to showcase any research highlights the student had achieved up to that point and future directions. If your qualifying/comprehensive exam is like that described by @CameronWilliams below in the comments, then bringing refreshments may not make any sense, i.e. your mileage may vary.

  • This is an interesting dichotomy with mathematics. In math, comprehensive exams tend to be standard exams that are taken en mass. Some universities also have an oral comprehensive exam that is many-on-one (or don't even have a written one at all) but I haven't heard of anyone providing refreshments for it since it is (usually) a formality. – Cameron Williams Apr 12 '15 at 1:36
  • @CameronWilliams Thanks; answer edited a bit. – Mad Jack Apr 12 '15 at 2:30
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I think this question is based on a misconception: in my experience here in the US, it is not the student who arranges for food to be present at a defense, but the advisor and/or the department, under the standard conventions for a talk. As such, it would also be the advisor and/or department that would arrange it for earlier exams if appropriate.

So: if you are a student considering this question, don't worry about it; it's not your responsibility. If you are a faculty member, ask the senior faculty in your department what their custom is.

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    I suspect that varies by location. My wife certainly arranged for food at her defense (and was expected to). – Joe Apr 12 '15 at 5:04
  • @jakebeal, what you're describing I believe is appropriate for departmental seminar talks and such. – CephBirk Apr 12 '15 at 13:12
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    @Joe Maybe we've got another case of "Academia varies a lot" here... – jakebeal Apr 12 '15 at 13:41
  • @jakebeal I think this depends on what is meant by "defense." For example, in my department, there is a more-or-less private interrogation by 4-5 profs (even if it is public, no one else ever attends), followed (iff successful) by a colloquium talk given by the new PhD to the whole department. The student certainly doesn't provide food for the latter, but may very well for the former. – user4512 Apr 14 '15 at 3:06
  • @ChrisWhite Where I did my graduate work, Ph.D. defenses were always public and generally quite well-attended. Essentially, it was the colloquium you speak of with the extra frisson of tension inherent in the possibility that something might go very wrong. – jakebeal Apr 14 '15 at 5:54

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