I just failed my PhD quals for the second time and they're going to kick me out of the program. Now what?
posted by anonymous to Education (27 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
To make a long story as short as I can, I work in an engineering field (aerospace) only vaguely related to my undergraduate and master's degrees. That said, I'm really good at it. To achieve a long-term career goal I need a Ph.D. In fact, virtually every every action I've taken for the past 15 years has been with that goal in mind. Those actions would include the city I live in, my current job, job assignments, hobbies and outside skills learned, and so on. So, several years ago, I applied to and was accepted into a Ph.D. program in aerospace engineering. I've taken over a year of unpaid leave from work, living off savings, to attend classes and do work associated with getting the degree. It has been a mighty struggle, not the lease of which is that I came into a field without the formal training (in this particularly subject) of my fellow engineering students. I even spent less time with my dying father than I could have in order to prepare for exams. Despite all that, I did well in my classes and made almost exclusively straight A's.
Well, I just found out that I failed the qualifying exams for the second time and they're not going to let me continue in the program. As you can imagine I'm pretty gutted. It's hard not to feel enraged at a system in which a person who aces his coursework is, statistically, very likely to fail exams where the only passing criteria appears to be "You pass if we think you passed." So yes, on one hand I'm clearly some sort of idiot unable to pass these exams, but on the other hand I'm convinced that the system is set up to screw over the maximum number of people possible. Last year, I happen to know, only one person passed out of a half a dozen or so people taking the exams in my specialization. And, it's hard to come to terms with having wasted years of my life and enough opportunity cost to buy a small house. And, while I always knew it was a possibility, I'm now about to turn 40 year old with the career goals I've spent every waking moment trying to achieve for the past 15 years having now gone virtually out of reach. There are secondary reasons for getting the degree, but the big one is now probably out of reach.
At this point, I think I may have the following options. I could try to salvage an MS but that may be impossible since I've now returned to work, the university is in a different city, and I'd probably have to take more classes to meet the minimum coursework hours requirement. Or, there is a very small chance I could to a different department, such as mechanical engineering, that is a little bit less crazy. I know of at least one student in my situation who has done that. Or, I could try to get into a different university, one where I live, and start a new Ph.D. program. Or, of course, I could just say "screw it" and walk away.
Making this more painful is the realization, with the recent death of my father, that life is indeed short. There's a lot of stuff I'm interested in doing that have nothing to do with that Ph.D. or my current career and I've been sacrificing all of it with my higher goal in mind. I've been a student, of one sort or another, for basically my entire life and every time go out to socialize in the evenings ("Sorry, I've got to study."), or have fun on the weekends ("Sorry, I've got to study."), or even talk about sitting on the couch and watching television ("Sorry, I've got to student.") it just kills me. I feel like I'm 40 years old with no life because I've been struggling so hard on this one goal for so long. So it's tempting, while I've still got some time and youthful energy, to just change course and career and do something else that might enable me to "have a life," as they say. So, at least at the moment, you can imagine that the idea of spending ANOTHER four or five years in a different Ph.D. program is just really painful.
Oh, did I mention that (against all logic) I feel as if I've let down my (deceased) father, who really believed in me?
Some advice or personal stories from anybody who's been in a similar situation would be really appreciated.