Education Lessons Nonfiction Observations

The Oral Exam (II).

The hotel that was designated the “home base” for the exam is located very close to the Boston Public Garden. People of all ages were wandering along the perimeter and through the Garden, shielding their eyes from the sun with either their hands or with sunglasses.

Several bellhops glanced at us as we passed through the entrance. Inside, clumps of people were standing in the lobby. Some were in suits and clearly examinees—the test was divided so that some people were taking the exam that day—and others were in more casual attire. Others were seated in the leather chairs in the lobby, looking over brightly colored papers—registration documents, no doubt. Overhead hung several large chandeliers that glinted and sparkled from the light bulbs hidden within them.

Signs marked the way to the ballroom where we could pick up our materials. The woman behind the desk—friendly, calm, smiling—looked at my ID and then handed me a packet.

“Good luck!” she brightly said.

The packet included a bright yellow sheet of paper with my schedule on it, a name tag, and a few loose sheets related to who was administering the exam.

“Worcester?” I asked out loud. (And I am pleased to say that I pronounced it correctly: “Wooster”.) “I’m taking my exam in Worcester?”

Where is Worcester?

Apparently, it’s about an hour away from Boston by bus. And as much as I had hoped that I would be able to take the exam first thing in the morning to get it over with, no such luck: The first hour of the exam preceded lunch; the second hour of the exam followed lunch. Though we all paid $1350 to take this exam, lunch was not included. Neither were accommodations or travel fees.

The mandatory orientation was scheduled for later on in the afternoon to prepare us for the events of the following day. In the interim, I reunited with a close friend from residency, who had elected to stay at the hotel.

“There was a gruff guy on the elevator,” he told me, stretching his legs out on his bed. “When the elevator kept stopping on the floors before his, he was rolling his eyes and sighing loudly. Finally, when the elevator got to his floor, he walked off in a hurry and said some stuff under his breath. I saw him later and it turns out he’s one of the examiners.”


The Beau and I also strolled through the Public Garden and the Common, taking in the beginning of Spring, the clouds that were rolling in overhead, and the cool breeze that had kicked up. What was left of the sun glinted off of the gold-leaf roof of the State House and illuminated the now blue-green awnings of the copper-topped buildings. Soon, it started to rain.

I returned promptly for the mandatory orientation and quickly spotted another close friend from residency. His face lit up with recognition and he stood up to hug me. I was so delighted to see him. To our surprise, we saw another peer from our residency program, who now works in Boston. We waved enthusiastically at him before sitting down again, as the orientation had begun.

Imagine this: Between 300 and 400 psychiatrists sitting in one ballroom in a hotel. One man stood at the lectern on the stage and, summoning up as much enthusiasm as he could, intoned that this exam was meant to test your skills as psychiatrists and that, really, the examiners want you to pass. They’ve taken the exam before and they know how anxiety-provoking it is. Just make sure you take the buses assigned to you on your schedule; if you miss the bus, that’ll cause problems and you might have to take the exam again in a different city. And always have your ID on, because if you don’t have your ID, you might have to take the exam again in a different city. Don’t go out and drink tonight, you want to be rested for the exam. Remember, take the bus assigned to you and always have your ID because, if you don’t, you might have to take the exam again in a different city. If you have any personal questions relating to the exam, you can ask me afterwards. Any questions?

Someone asked a personal question.

“Talk to me afterwards,” he said. A few more people asked questions about timing, paper, receipt of results. He called on a guy seated near the front.

“So, uh, I plan on passing this exam,” he said loudly. “So when do I become board certified? Tomorrow [when I take the exam], or when I get the letter of congratulations?”

Quiet titters filled the room. The man behind the lectern chuckled and shifted his weight.

“Well, IF you pass”—some people laughed at his emphasis on the “if”; I turned to my friend and we simultaneously rolled our eyes—was that dig really necessary?—”your board certification will be backdated to the day of the exam. The document will be dated in April.”

When the room was exhausted of questions, the man behind the lectern wished us a final congratulations before dismissing us. Most of the people quickly filed out of the room.

A few of us lingered to speak with old friends and colleagues that we had not seen in close to a year. We remained in the ballroom for about 20 to 30 minutes, catching up on the professional and personal details of life that we had missed as a result. The ballroom didn’t seem so impersonal and stodgy anymore.

“You hungry?” someone asked. “We should go eat.”

Part one of this story is here.