Ph.D. Qualifying exams: what they do and do not mean

My youngest son went to a very progressive public kindergarten in Houston, La Escuela Rice, that was supposed to be highly technological, multi-grade, and bilingual in Spanish. This school also had a special grading system that did not have letter or number grades. Instead it had levels of things that were supposed to reflect what the child actually knew. I suppose they were fairly standard categories of childhood cognition and development, but I had a big problem with them.

My problem with these categories was that they purported to indicate what the child actually knew rather than how he had performed on some test or assignment. The teachers had to give lower categories early in the year so they could indicate progress. For this and other reasons, we ended up with ridiculous forms that judged my son for what he was, rather than how he performed on specific instruments. And they got it wrong.

I don’t think there is any metric out there that can fully take the measure of a person. Any exam, oral, written, project-based, whatever measures only performance on that exam. This performance might be a good predictor of how one is likely to perform on future such exams. It might even do more than that. But it is not the measure of a person. No one was going to tell me that my son did not know things I knew he knew. They could tell me how he performed on a test, or what assignments he did. They could not go further.

This is also true for Ph.D. qualifying exams. They are the measure of performance on that exam, not an overall measure of the person. Does this mean that people that generally perform well, indicating that they are hard working, dedicated, creative, and smart will not also show this on qualifying exams? Yes, it does mean that, but that is not always the outcome.

Ph.D. qualifying exams take many forms. Some are strictly over a thesis proposal. Some cover general knowledge in a subject. Some are over a literature review, or a set of defined readings. They may be written, oral, or a combination. They may be given by a committee that the student chooses, or that the institution chooses. The prospective major professor may or may not be on the committee. There may be multiple different exams, in the first and third years, for example. They are generally supposed to be an indicator that the student knows the literature in their field, has analyzed it critically, has chosen an important question for their Ph.D., and has identified a research approach to that question that is likely to result in a document that will form the thesis for the Ph.D.

The timing of these exams is either set by the program or determined based on when the student seems ready to do well with them. The outcome of these exams is usually positive. They may be used to indicate a student needs to take more classes, or needs to improve their knowledge in a field. Occasionally they are an indication that the program is a poor fit, resulting in the student leaving with a Master’s degree or less. Since they are a measure of performance on the exam, not a measure of the student, one can have excellent students that struggle with the exams.

“Joan, you don’t know half of what you think you know and it is going to show on your qualifying exam. I bet you’ll end up taking three or more classes to make up your deficiencies.” Said Alan Templeton to me back in 1975 as I prepared for the qualifying exam after a bit more than a year in graduate school at Texas. Few words in my life have stunned me more. I had six weeks to the exam and was determined not to take any more classes than necessary. I began to read everything I could find. I read Wilson and Bossert’s Primer of Population Biology. I especially read Watson’s Molecular biology of the Gene. I read MacArthur and Wilson’s theory of island biogeography. I don’t know what else I read, but it worked. There was a tense moment when I had to draw the lac operon on the board at the request of Guy Bush, but I prevailed without having to take a single extra course. Some of my fellow graduate students were not so fortunate.

The cases that are the hardest are those where a really smart student who generally performs extremely well, struggles with their qualifying exam. This could be because of fear of speaking in front of professors. It could be because the student did not understand the format of the exam. It could also be because the student fails to grasp the subject matter. This is especially likely to happen when the student works on something far removed from the field of the adviser.

I was certainly at risk for this on my second exam over my intended thesis project since my project was on social behavior and kin selection of wasps and I had no mentors at Texas in this area. That I did not fail is probably thanks to broad and smart mentors at Texas, to the visiting professor program which invited leaders in many fields for weeks at a time, and to the careful critiques of other graduate students. It is also likely to be because I kept visiting my undergrad mentor, Richard Alexander, at Michigan, who was an expert in that field.

Having to retake a qualifying exam can be devastating. But it is not a measure of the person. It is a measure of the project, or the person’s preparation in a given area. Worse than retaking a qualifying exam is proceeding with a project that is not as well framed as possible. This could waste years and even compromise a whole career.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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