Qualifying exams: I laughed, I cried, I cried, I cried...
February 11, 2012 9:32 AM   Subscribe

Grad school filter: I need a reality check on my qualifying exams.

I'm a second-year grad student in the sciences at a US research university, currently taking qualifying exams for Ph.D. study.

Quals for my major are structured as a series of exams taken throughout the second year. A certain minimum cumulative score is required to be advanced to candidacy; a slightly lower score may qualify you to take an extra 'do-over' semester of exams, with the caveat that you have to achieve a somewhat higher total score. Questions are drawn from a core curriculum of classes, and are about what you'd expect for a difficult final exam question on one of the topics.

I got off to a slow start on points, as did most of the other students in my cohort (actually, despite scoring below 'par' on the first few exams, I was still scoring high relative to the other students taking the exams), but I've managed to ramp up my efforts each time, and identify weak points and study strategies. As another note, I've been doing a lot of group prep with the rest of the students taking the exams, as well as a fair amount of self-study, so I'd say that the amount of time and effort I'm putting in is comparable to the other students taking the exam. I also feel pretty confident that my own level of understanding/ability is similar to the rest of my cohort, based on the study sessions I've been in and our discussions after each exam. All things considered, I was feeling pretty good going into (and coming out of) the latest exam.

So, of course, I bombed. Well, I didn't bomb, exactly, but I kept getting the same minimal number of points that I've been getting. The rest of the students taking the exam did varying degrees of better. At this point, we're 2/3rds done with exams for the year, and I've only gotten about 1/3 of the necessary points.

What bothers me most is that I really don't know what else to change in my approach. We're not allowed to see our exams after they've been turned in and graded; the only feedback we receive is a grade and encouragment to study. My subjective perception is that I'm no less prepared or less able than the other students taking the exams, and I feel like I understand and can solve the questions they're giving me, but there's clearly a breakdown in there somewhere that I'm not seeing. I'd appreciate tips on what other approaches have helped people taking qualifying exams (though I know there's only so much advice that can be given, since no two schools do these quite the same.)

There's one more wrinkle to this, though, and I hesitate to ask about it because I feel like it sounds kind of crazy, but I can't think of a way to bring this up with my professors without it sounding like sour grapes at best and delusional and accusatory at worst, but I can't stop thinking about it, either. I figure there are enough MeFites in academia that I can at least gauge whether I'm letting my confusion/fear/imagination run away with me or if this is something I need to seriously consider might be a part of the problem.

My adviser is in the same department, but a different division. The work I do is related to both. Now that it looks like I'll fail my current division's quals, I'm being encouraged to join the other division. This isn't a bad thing--it would give me another chance to qualify for the Ph.D., albeit while requiring an extra year (or more?) of classes and quals. But it does also raise some disquieting questions, for me.

I don't believe that my profs are trying to give me low scores to deliberately push me out of the division; honestly, I think if that's what they'd wanted, they could've directly told me to switch majors when I picked my adviser or flunked me out during the first year of classes. I do, however, wonder if I'm at a disadvantage relative to the rest of my classmates, who are more directly tied to the division and have advocates (advisers) sitting in on divisional meetings and presumably being privy to discussion of quals. I do wonder if there might be just a little more leniency in grading given to a student who fell a little short on a question and represented a direct "investment" for a division member, compared to one who wasn't a "real" division student. More positively, I wonder if having the option to switch divisions is making my current division's profs take my problem a bit less seriously--i.e. "well, anon will be fine either way, just let it happen." And, well, I will be fine, but it will cost me more time and a lot more work, and if this is the case, I don't think it's really fair to let me continue with the expectation that my chances are just as good as any other student's.

If that's true, I don't think there's much I can do to change it; but if so, there's really no point in my continuing to study for this set of quals, when I'd be much better off sinking that ~15 hours/week into preparing for the other division's quals next year. I also would be able to save lot of self-doubt and crying, which would be nice. Of course, if it's not true, I need to stop obsessing on it, double down on my study efforts, and try to make magic happen on the remaining exams.

Throwaway email: qualqualms@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Education (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A couple of questions about the formats of these exams. Are they orals or are they written? Do you give answers in front of a panel of people? Do you know how the grading is shared among members of the department?
Also, if you did very well on the next exam, will you pass the exam phase? Something to be said for having it over with.
posted by pickypicky at 9:44 AM on February 11, 2012

Ph.D. qualifying exams are such total epic and total bullshit. These departments need to fail some fraction of their students to keep their reputation as academic bad-asses so they come up with these completely pointless exams that test you on the most esoteric, obscure bits of subject trivia in your field. Since it's impossible to know everything, some quantity of students will always fail. And, of course, if they don't... well, evaluation is secret and passing is typically subjective, so it isn't really a problem.

The bottom line is that you probably aren't passing or failing on your abilities: They are probably passing or failing you based on a bunch of random factors largely out of your control. You didn't think this was going to be fair or ethical, did you?

I don't think I can know enough about your situation to say whether you should keep pressing where you are, jump to someplace different, or just move on with your life. But if you decide to go someplace else and keep working on the Ph.D., know that you're not a failure and that you're not alone.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 10:02 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hmm... ours were graded anonymously to eliminate the fear you're having (you get a code to put on your exam and the list of names/codes is held only by the department secretary). So, if nothing else, it's not an atypical worry (and it your scenario seems way more plausible than people being 'out to get you', which is what the worry in my department would be).

If you're anything like me, it's worth having a talk with your adviser about what you'll do should you fail. (Do make it clear you want to actually discuss that, not have a pep talk.) If you fail, will you simply transfer divisions and do it again? What if you reach the retake threshold?

Our prelim exams are structured rather differently than yours and I failed one coming into the program. However, the experience of having taken the exam put me at an advantage come the spring, when the other first years were taking their first prelims. (Of course, it was easy to get over that failure--failing was of no consequence; I wasn't even expected to try the exam then, never mind pass.) So, even though failing sucks, there's likely some advantage to staying the course and trying to collect as many points as you can, even though it might be fairly improbably you'll pass at this point.

I've managed to fail my oral exam this past week. I'm still angry about it. And being the guy who's just failed in a department where it's really rare to fail, at least outside my sub-field, sucks. (I think the last person to fail was in my sub-field as well.) But I think anxiety was a major cause of my failure and suspect that failing once will have made it easier to pass the second time round. (Part of my anger right now is feeling that my failure was something of a foregone conclusion, so we could have saved ourselves a couple hours and pushed back the exam. But that wouldn't solve the anxiety problem.)
posted by hoyland at 10:06 AM on February 11, 2012

I think that you think that the faculty are thinking more deeply anout quals than they actually are.

But talk to your advisor.
posted by k8t at 10:19 AM on February 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Wow...my experience with knowing grad students going through quals wasn't anything like LastOfHisKind mentioned, as it was pretty rare for someone to flat out fail in our department. They actually revamped our comps so they would be less focused on tiny details and more on integrating knowledge in a more useful way. One could argue that if the program prepared you well, then it looks just as badly for several people to fail. I think the general perspective of the faculty or university makes a big difference here. Do they see quals as a way to weed people out, or do they see it as a way to make sure people have incorporated what they've learned, before moving on (and with the understanding that they're judged according to some set standard, not compared to each other).

In this specific case, though, it must be really frustrating that you're not able to see where you need to improve. I agree that you need to talk to your advisor about this, and I don't think that kind of conversation will come across as badly as you think it might. You're genuinely interested in what you can do to become better, or to set yourself up to be the best you can be within an area that works for you. Be honest about that.
posted by bizzyb at 10:24 AM on February 11, 2012

I don't believe that my profs are trying to give me low scores to deliberately push me out of the division; honestly, I think if that's what they'd wanted, they could've directly told me to switch majors when I picked my adviser or flunked me out during the first year of classes. I do, however, wonder if I'm at a disadvantage relative to the rest of my classmates, who are more directly tied to the division and have advocates (advisers) sitting in on divisional meetings and presumably being privy to discussion of quals. I do wonder if there might be just a little more leniency in grading given to a student who fell a little short on a question and represented a direct "investment" for a division member, compared to one who wasn't a "real" division student. More positively, I wonder if having the option to switch divisions is making my current division's profs take my problem a bit less seriously--i.e. "well, anon will be fine either way, just let it happen."

If your exam grading is in fact not anonymized, I think this scenario is very likely. In fact, I think you've nailed the likely attitude exactly here. It's not malicious, it's just that they're not invested in you.

Of course, I have no idea what your department is really like, but I think situations like the one you've laid out here are not uncommon.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:33 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I didn't go to grad school for the sciences, so I'm piecing together my quals experience with a friend who did. Our experience wasn't exactly like LastofHisKind suggested. Failure was pretty rare, but technically failing and/or being asked to leave the program depended on a few factors beyond your scores, like your relationship with your advisor/committee, their faith in your ability to be able to continue/feeling that perhaps you are just a poor test taker, whether you were a good fit for the program in general.

So, yes, you might be at a disadvantage if you are not as "tied" to the program or that the program is not as "tied" to you.

I know people have suggested speaking to your advisor, but in both my friend's and my cases our advisors were spectacularly unhelpful for various reasons/in various ways (which ultimately led to both of our leaving our respective programs). My department had a grad affairs administrator who was both privy to our grades/feedback from professors and could gauge our standing and what we should do without breaking any confidences. Do you have anything like that?
posted by sm1tten at 10:39 AM on February 11, 2012

I'd also like to chime in that my prelims were not popularity contests either. In my year, I can think of one person who failed and was given the opportunity to retake the oral exam. He failed on his second chance. He was not a good fit for the program and I think after the initial shock, there was relief.

From how you've worded your question, I don't think you're in the same boat as my friend.

I think that you should find a way to ask about your performance on the exam. Perhaps the way to phrase it is:
I want to do really well on the retake, are there areas where I should focus my efforts?

I think you're just going to have to talk to the faculty involved - you can, perhaps, ask your advisor to ask the guys in the other division about your performance - but not knowing the department politics, I can't say if this is a good idea or a bad idea. At a certain point, it doesn't make sense that they would fail you out of spite unless there is a specific future responsibility to you that they don't want to take (do they have to fund you or teach you in some way? or if your advisor has pissed someone off immeasurably).

My advisor had refused a colleague's request to be on the colleague's student's thesis committee and so this colleague refused to be on my committee despite being an obvious choice due to subject matter. She was polite about it and apologized, but that was that. It was pure tit for tat, but it meant that I had to get someone I really didn't know on my committee. This kind of BS does happen, but I'd be surprised if it happened during a qualifying exam - unless your advisor did something really, really bad.

Talk to your fellow students more about the exam. And if you truly feel that your effort and answers were equivalent, then you should ask. Faculty aren't perfect and someone might have added something up incorrectly.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:05 PM on February 11, 2012

I would talk to your advisor, and then your director of graduate studies.

Basically, I can see why you'd be concerned -- my colleagues in the sciences have experienced something similar to what you're describing but their department is really competitive in general. HOWEVER, if that was actually the case, I think you'd've seen more signs by now -- people discouraging you from taking foundational courses, more questioning of your research project, etc. What you're describing normally exists in a larger department wide culture.
posted by spunweb at 3:42 PM on February 11, 2012

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
Hello all, thanks for your answers so far. Clarifying some of the questions that have come up:

The exams are written. Each exam is written by one faculty member and graded by that faculty member and a second grader within the faculty. We know, in each case, who the writer of the exam is, but generally not the second grader. There is no anonymization for the students. I still have the possibility of passing or at least getting a bye to next year, but it's a long shot given how I've been performing.

I spoke to both my adviser and our department's DGS (who is also facutly in my division and is directly involved in administering these quals) yesterday; in a lot of ways, this question is a response to stuff that wasn't adequately answered for me in those conversations.

My adviser is supportive of me, and has begun speaking to the faculty in his division about my switching. Ultimately, the course of action we agreed on, after my adviser had consulted with his division and the department chair was that I'd continue to take the rest of the qualifiers this semester, and I could switch divisions over the summer if it didn't get better.

The DGS was very nice about everything, but not especially helpful. As I said, we aren't given any information beyond . I asked what I needed to do to change, and he hedged a bit with generalities, but didn't give me any information that was specific to my performance or would give me a concrete way to change my approach (he did say that he was not involved on the grading for this exam.) He was also pushing the "switching divisions" angle a little more than I was really comfortable with, though reflecting on it now and after speaking to other students, I think that was intended to be a way of putting on a positive spin on "sorry, I can't help you."

Some notes about power dynamics: both the DGS and the department chair are members of the division that I am taking quals in, and are directly involved (write exams for) the process. My adviser is new faculty. I have no idea if this is coming into play or not, but it doesn't make me feel less nervous. Publicly, at least, relations among everyone involved are cordial.
posted by cortex (staff) at 4:33 PM on February 11, 2012

I am in academia, but not in a country that has qualifying exams for PhD students. However, I think your suspicion is entirely well-founded. I also wonder if it would look better for you to switch depts now and not take the rest of the exams, than to fail and then switch.

I have seen interdisciplinary students get shafted frequently during the PhD process. In our university, that usually means endless disagreements between advisors about the direction the research should take, and no one ever being happy with drafts, so that the student is told to rewrite over and over again until eventually he/she gets sick of it and quits, and the story that goes around is that the student was "trouble" all along. I would not be overly surprised if the existence of quals just means this process begins earlier.
posted by lollusc at 6:03 PM on February 11, 2012

It's so hard to know what's going on without knowing more about what field you're in and what field you're being encouraged to switch to.

It must be terribly frustrating not to get any information beyond "you pass" or "you fail." I haven't ever encountered that before, either as a student or a teacher or a friend of teachers. It seems like a fairly counterproductive strategy, but if that's how they do it I guess you have to roll with it.

Has your advisor spoken directly to the Director of Graduate Studies about the exams? Your advisor might be able to get more detailed feedback than you received.

I am sorry you're having such a disheartening experience. Kudos to you for trying to handle everything diplomatically and cordially.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:05 PM on February 11, 2012

In my eyes, there isn't really a problem here. Worst case, you switch to the other division, you take more coursework, and you're in the sub-division that you have support in.

If your work is really related to both sub-divisions, it is probably a good thing that you took the coursework requirements for both. You'll know the literature better and be better prepared to work in both sub-divisions.
posted by k8t at 6:08 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

In terms of prepping for quals, without knowing your discipline and/or how things work in your department as well as how you study, it is hard to say. HOWEVER, 15 hours a week for prepping for quals sounds like too little to me. In my quals prep, I (with a baby ages 3 months - 5 months at the time) worked 50 hours a week on quals. In my program, it is assumed that one spends all their time on quals preps. What else are you doing with your time? Working in the lab? TAing?

I mean, these are quals -- EVERYTHING ELSE beyond basic eating, sleeping, and exercise goes out the window. Do the bare minimum for your RAing and TAing. People understand.

Go through all the syllabi of all your core classes and re-read those readings and re-do your notes on them, now that you've been in the program for longer. (If you're in a friendly program, maybe have a shared folder of people's notes on these readings?) Then read any critiques or followups to those pieces. Take notes in a wiki or something. Keep all the readings in some sort of reference management system.

Getting through quals sucks. However, it is the most important prep for the dissertation in terms of time and energy management as well as kicking your ass from 'grad student' to 'scholar.' And the diss is a prep for you to be an assistant professor (or postdoc or whatever...) In many programs/departments/disciplines living and breathing your work is the norm. Quals are the first time that you're really expected to do this. And it seems that for many, it doesn't really slow down after that time.
posted by k8t at 6:14 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Feel free to MeMail me if you like. I'm not a grad student, but my husband is. He was scheduled to take his quals in October of '10, after many, many bouts of rescheduling. It was supposed to be a formality. His thesis was all but finished. He'd published in his field. We got married two weeks before and I was 18 weeks pregnant.

They failed him and asked him to come back next semester.

His second round of quals was scheduled for March 1st. His thesis was finished. He'd spent so much time studying that I hardly saw him and had to practically drag him to ultrasounds to see his as-yet-unborn son. I did the entire second half of my pregnancy on my own - to the point where I was still the one running errands to get cat food at 38 weeks pregnant when I could hardly fit in the car. My due date was March 11th. I was literally due to have the baby at any time when he had his exam. He had a job lined up for the following year teaching and just needed to pass his quals so he could defend his thesis (already finished!) and graduate.

They failed him again.

Knowing he'd published, finished his thesis, had a job lined up AND! had a wife due to give birth at any minute (our son was born eight days later), they still failed him.

He went back for a third time in October. He'd still been studying. He studied so much that he only spent four hours per day with our son in the first few months of his life and was stuck in his books the rest of the time. From October 2010 until October 2011, I barely saw him as he was doing everything he could to catch up. The problem was that one professor insisted on testing him on classes he had never taken. He had to, essentially, learn years worth of material entirely unrelated to his field wholly on his own. When he went back for the third time, he didn't even take the exam. He was told what he was going to be tested on and he just said "You know what? No."

I don't know if or when he'll ever take the exam again, but I am absolutely sure that yes, sometimes professors get a bug up their ass for one person. Every other person in his program that was due to graduate with him passed their quals with no problem. His friends from school all graduated and have jobs lined up. Thankfully, he's doing so well at his job that the University decided to extend his contract even without the PhD, even if it means a lesser title and a slightly lower salary.

Sometimes, people just don't pass. Hopefully! You won't be one of those people. But sometimes it happens and you'll manage to work it out. My own experience watching it go down is that academia can be a huge bullshit factory and I do truly wish you the best in your exams and hope that you pass. The reason I bothered type all this out is just a cautionary tale that yes, sometimes your advisor simply won't pass you and you won't necessarily know why.
posted by sonika at 6:41 PM on February 11, 2012

These departments need to fail some fraction of their students to keep their reputation as academic bad-asses so they come up with these completely pointless exams that test you on the most esoteric, obscure bits of subject trivia in your field. Since it's impossible to know everything, some quantity of students will always fail.

Well, that certainly explains my husband's situation described above. (Yeah, I wrote first, read the answers later...) I couldn't possibly explain to you why they picked him - but he was the sacrificial grad student of his year, for sure.
posted by sonika at 6:44 PM on February 11, 2012

Is funding involved in some way?
posted by spunweb at 8:00 PM on February 11, 2012

You've consulted your adviser and your DGS. They both gave you the same advice. Follow it. You are seeking to become a professional colleague of your faculty members. Lose the us-them attitude and you will be more likely to find one of these people acting as your advocate and mentor.
posted by txmon at 7:25 AM on February 12, 2012

Are you doing exam post-mortems with other students? If you can't get feedback from your examiners, that may be the next-best thing. (Disclaimer: my quals were in a completely different format.)
posted by en forme de poire at 6:54 PM on February 13, 2012

I'm with mr_roboto. I think its entirely possible that they are judging you harder than others. I doubt they are consciously grading you down, and I expect that a really good exam wouldn't fail but IANIYS (I am not in your shoes, although I've worn the same brand). My advice is the same whether they are consciously grading you down or not though: double-down.

My advice: think about why you are where you are and what your most important goals are. For most of my life science grad school peers, if they were in your shoes, doubling down and soliciting some magic (and passing) would have made reaching their goals easier. If you are at a really small school/program/set of divisions, this goes double.

Obviously, but making some assumptions, I favor the strategy of trying to improve your situation in your current division (i.e. pass the exam, have the choice of departments). It won't be the last time you're unfairly judged, and you might as sharpen your skills of succeeding in unfair conditions. Succeed or not, it will make the next time easier, I'm convinced.

Gather data. Could you get honest feedback from peers? If you have a sense of how well they are prepared, they probably have a sense of how well you are prepared. Do you see their writing? If you think that might be a factor, write out some stuff you might see on the next exam (no matter how wrong you might be about whether its on the exam or not), and see if you can get some honest peer or faculty feedback. Typically, you need to emphasize that you really want you have to be honest about wanting the feedback.

Often the dean's office has experience with this kind of thing, and they can be really valuable in the reality check department, although they usually have to be circumspect. You might ask them about what factors might weigh in the prospects of a department losing a student (+ hard-ass points, + more money for ..., - they look pedagogically incompetent (sadly that's probably not a factor)).

Whether faculty have a bias about you or not, it helps to know their values. Primary lit is fundamental, but also see if you can get some insight into the perspectives of your potential graders. Read reviews they've written. If your topic is covered at Faculty 1000, see if they've reviewed particular papers. See if they've written commentaries on newly published papers.

I'm guessing you're in the field because of some kind of passion for it -- stay in touch with that as much as you can. I am; I do; it's an imperfect process. Good luck!
posted by manduca at 7:53 PM on February 13, 2012

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