PhD Qualifying Exams, or Purgatory for Graduate Students

For many PhD students, summer is the time of year when classes slow down and research picks up. When campuses are quieter and happy hour is earlier. Summer is an idyllic time for most PhD students. Except for those who have to take the dreaded qualifying exam. At many institutions, qualifying exams happen during the summer. They take many forms – some students must pass true qualifying exams, where they show mastery of the Master’s level curriculum. Others take comprehensive exams, where they show mastery of the PhD level curriculum. Some take both, typically separated by about a year. In some fields, qualifying exams may be written; in other fields these may be oral exams. Sometimes PhD students gain candidacy (and cheaper tuition) upon completion of their exams, in other instances there may be additional hoops to jump through before this can occur. Ugh.

Qualifying exams are a rite of passage. It is hard to provide rationale for why they are necessary, other than: I had to do it so you do, too. OK – that’s not entirely true. There are good reasons for students to show that they can synthesize the information from several classes and utilize that knowledge to solve problems which may be more complicated than ones they might find in a classroom. In Biostatistics, there is often an a theory exam and applied exam, the latter which allows a student to demonstrate that they have mastery of important collaborative skills. Regardless of the process or procedure by which a student must prove that they are “qualified” to continue in the PhD, it is a very stressful time for most students. And rightfully so. Their performance on their exam could have long-lasting implications for their career. Not to mention their psyche.


Psyche: William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1892)

To complete my Master’s degree in Biostatistics, I needed to pass an MS comprehensive exam. This was also the qualifying exam for the PhD students, so my classmates in the first year of their PhD program took this same exam as I did at the conclusion of my master’s degree. The exam went moderately well for me, with the exception of the last question. As I completed the problem, for which it was necessary for me to compute a probability, with almost no time left, I was dismayed to find that my solution was negative! I clearly had made a math error somewhere – of course I knew that a probability had to be in the set [0,1]. I was almost out of time, so just made a note “I know this can’t be right since my probability is negative, but I am out of time and cannot go back to figure out where my error is.” When I saw the results of my exam, although I passed, I was disappointed to find that the Professor who graded it disregarded my note, and essentially dismissed my solution, with a rather degrading comment. This was the first time in my academic career I felt downright stupid. It had an impact on my confidence in my future studies. All of a sudden, I considered myself to be no good at theory.

And then, my PhD. I did very well in my classes and prepared like hell for my qualifying exams. At my institution, we had a 2-day in-class theory exam, followed by a 1-day applied exam. I studied with classmates. I studied alone. I ate, slept and breathed the central limit theorem. I was ready. This exam was mine. Except it wasn’t. The day of the theory exam came and I found myself hiding in the bathroom, hyperventilating. And did you know that you could play Minesweeper on the HP-48G calculator?

calcminesweeperEventually, I picked myself up, went back to the exam, and did what I could, which wasn’t much. And so I failed the theory exam. No one had failed the theory exam in so many years, that none of the current students could remember the name of the last person to have failed. I was dejected. I was humiliated. I was sure that I needed to consider my non-scientific career choice (an event planner, by the way… which I may have to reconsider now that I’m planning a Bat Mitzvah celebration). Lucky for me, I had the opportunity to take the exam a second time. I just had to decide if I wanted to. Could my ego handle more failure? Seriously: what would I do if I didn’t pass? I took long walks with my friends (now my colleagues), and talked about what my alternatives were. My husband and I considered what options I had. In the end, I decided to take the exam again. And long story short, I passed. As my advisor told me, I didn’t “do great”, but I did “well enough”. Well HOLY SHIT! As far as I was concerned, well enough was good enough to pass, and that was good enough for me to continue in the PhD. Woohoo! But the damage was done.

I continued in my PhD, and successfully defended my dissertation some time later. After that, I started a job as an Assistant Professor, and the rest is history. And like all history, we tend to forget the parts that aren’t as pleasant. However, I could never quite forget my experiences with my exams. For years, I would tell people that I wasn’t theoretical, that I’m an outstanding applied statistics, even while teaching one of the more theoretical doctoral level courses my Department offered. I descried my methodological work as applied, since it was motivated by real problems. The damage was done.

As time went on, I became the Director of Graduate Studies. Now it was MY responsibility to oversee the qualifying exams of others. This was excruciating for me. All of my anxiety would well up each time the exam came around. I would agonize over whether the questions were consistent with those we asked in previous years. I would lose sleep about whether we had sufficiently prepared our students to do what we were asking of them. When the exam was being administered, I would delegate a different member of the committee to proctor the exam and I would not step foot in the building. The students’ fear and anxiety were too real to me. The damage was done.

Like most negative experiences, though, I found a way to use my failures to help others. Unfortunately, we typically had a student or two each year who did not pass their qualifying exam. It was my responsibility to pass that news along to them. When I did so, I always shared my experience, and I believe it helped them to know that this negative did not define me. Even if I still struggled to believe this, I was able to convince them that it was true.

And now? Now I’m a Department Chair. It is clear that my qualifying exam experiences did not hinder my career. Do I think I will ever have a JASA paper? No. But that’s okay – there are plenty of other statisticians who can fill that role. I am pretty good at what I do, and there are many strong theoretical statisticians who are terrible collaborators. Does it still sting sometimes? Absolutely. People who get PhDs are over-achievers, and experiencing failure is not something we do often or handle well. However, learning from my failures, and using them to help others, is a skill that I’m so glad I have. I believe that my failures make me much better at my job today. I know that my failure helped me better understand my strengths and my weaknesses.

Could things have been different if my experience with my Master’s exam had been different? Maybe. Perhaps I would have been more confident in my theoretical abilities, which in turn could have led to me passing my PhD qualifying exam on the first try. But maybe not. I am a really good collaborative statistician, and I enjoy it. So it could be that I still would have found that path, even if I felt that I excelled in the theory.

In the end, I still hate qualifying exams and always will. I understand their purpose, I understand the benefit they provide to our students in the long-run (in a multitude of ways), and I know they’re not going away. Unless the Department Chair has the power to do that….



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