Qualifying exams in PhD programs are an important checkpoint. They show if a student is ready for heavy-duty research. However, the number of students who don’t pass these exams can vary a lot between different programs and schools. This study aims to understand why this happens and what it means for the success of PhD students.

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Key Takeaways:

  • Exam success rates vary widely due to differences in exam nature, department views, and retake policies.
  • Qualifying exams test a student’s research readiness, adaptability, and critical thinking, and aid in identifying knowledge gaps.
  • Despite varied success rates, these exams are key indicators of a student’s potential success in their academic research field.

Qualifying Exam Success Rates

Every PhD program has a unique qualifying exam (Qual), often designed based on the research group one belongs to. The observed rates of success in these exams vary widely from one program to another, and from one institution to another. For instance, in some programs, nearly all students pass their quals, while in others, the pass rate could be as low as 50% on the first attempt. This spectrum of success rates is a result of the differing views departments have about the qual exam.

One of the major factors contributing to this variety is the nature and complexity of the qual itself. Some programs offer written exams that are pass/fail, while others offer comprehensive exams with a project outside one’s expertise area. The latter type of qual exam tests students’ ability to learn something new and write a research grant on a topic they’re not familiar with. This demanding process can stretch the students and test their potential to contribute to academia. One doctoral candidate highlights the challenging nature of the qual:

“I was given a project on a topic outside my expertise, and I had 30 days to master it and write a grant, present in front of a panel, and answer 1-2 hours of oral Q&A.”

However, there are also institutions where the bar for admission is set so high that nearly every student passes their quals. Yet, according to national statistics, only approximately 55% of those who begin PhD programs eventually earn their PhD. There is, therefore, a clear disparity between passing the qualifying exam and ultimately obtaining the PhD.

What percentage of PhDs fail their qualifying exams?
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Moreover, the exam’s retake policy also contributes to the varied success rates. Many programs allow students to retake the exam, with some even providing an opportunity to redo portions of the exam that they didn’t excel at. The percentage of students needing to retake the exam can range from 10% to 50%, depending on the program.

The different practices, policies, and perceptions surrounding the qual exams clearly indicate the significant role they play in shaping a PhD student’s journey. As one PhD student candidly puts it:

“The QE was really the ‘are you good enough to be a PhD’ exam, after that it’s mostly just ‘work'”.

Therefore, understanding the implications of qual exams becomes essential in planning and achieving success in one’s PhD journey.

Why Qualifying Exams Matter

Qualifying exams, or “quals,” are a crucial step in any PhD program. They assess if a student is ready for independent, intensive research. They’re not just testing knowledge but also the ability to critically think and form hypotheses. For example, a Physics PhD might be quizzed on complex topics like quantum mechanics, proving their understanding and analytical skills.

Quals also evaluate a student’s adaptability and resilience. In some cases, students are given a new topic, expected to learn it in a month, write a research grant, present it, and undergo extensive Q&A. This simulates the dynamic real-world research environment.

Preparing for quals helps identify and address knowledge gaps. A cellular biology student, for example, might discover she needs a stronger understanding of certain genetic processes. This awareness can lead to more effective study, broadening her knowledge base.

In essence, qualifying exams are pivotal in a doctoral journey, ensuring students are prepared for academic research. They are a significant indicator of a student’s potential success in their field.


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