“The Smiling Executioner”

I have done many exams in the past, several of them microbiological. They have been consistent both in their lack of originality and also their focus on knowledge base, often requiring regurgitation of factual knowledge learnt from textbooks.


The primary focus of any professional exam should first and foremost be to ensure that the candidate has a good understanding of the subject, is safe, trustworthy, and knows when to ask for help. These are difficult enough attributes to assess.

However in addition, I think exams should also at least attempt to assess candidates on their ability to think on their feet, to innovate, to adapt and to lead. These are attributes I would certainly also be looking for in a prospective employee.

Here are a few examples of exam questions I have thought of that at least try to assess these additional attributes:

  • Summarise your prototype design for a “perfect” incubator?
  • You have been asked to put together a multiplex PCR for enteric bacteria. What micro-organisms would you include and why?
  • You have been asked to restrict to eight the number of different types of agar plates that the laboratory orders in. Which agar plates would you choose in this sub-set of eight and why?
  • You happen to notice that very few agar plates are growing Staphylococcus aureus in the morning plate read. Give reasons for this and what further investigations are required?
  • The Laboratory Biohazard cabinet will be out of action for two days. How will this affect your laboratory service and how will you cope?
  • A sales rep meets with you, presenting a new Enyme Immuno Assay which he/she proclaims to have 100% sensitivity, 100% specificity and 100% positive predictive value. What questions would you want to ask him/her in order to get the real story?

Most importantly, these are the sort of questions that cannot be answered straight from a textbook, although obviously a good deal of knowledge and understanding is required for all the issues involved.

I suspect not all microbiology students would like these types of questions. Maybe it is just as well I am not an examiner. Otherwise I would probably be known as the “Smiling Executioner”!


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