Death to PHD Qualifying Exams!

There is no other topic that elicits such a heated and stressful conversation of “war stories” than discussing our experiences with the PHD qualifying examination. This is the rite of passage we all had to take through our arduous road to receiving our doctorate degrees. For me, it was months of studying topics that I hadn’t looked at or used for over a decade. Worse, I gained over 35 pounds and continue to claim that it never left me afterwards! I sweated over one specific exam and shook so much that the professor thought I was going to have a stroke. I did great on the oral exams because I just thought out loud so my examiners knew my thought process on solving the problems. However, they really didn’t know my thought process was saying, “I am going to puke.”

I studied so hard that I could recite the exact page numbers in the books that defined the topics being discussed. I did every problem in the back of the chapters until I was solving problems literally, during my sleep and waking up exhausted.

These exams are supposed to show that we have mastered our discipline’s fundamentals, even if you learned them decades ago and haven’t looked at the subject matter since you were, well, a kid. No one likes them, and to be perfectly honest, after meeting Deans and Professors from around the world from different institutions, I have learned about the many ways professors and examination committees inflict pain on graduate students. Now, it’s time to stop the madness! The stupid saying of, “I suffered through it, so it’s ok for those that follow to suffer the same fate, they will live,” is unacceptable.

Yes, they will live, but the mental stress and cruelty inflicted is not something anyone ever forgets.  Now, let’s talk about what it is we really need to demonstrate proficiency in in order to be “Phd material”. The best/most intelligent PHD qualifying exam process I have ever seen was at the University of Utah's engineering school. They had students write a proposal for funding. A real proposal that had to meet all the strict guidelines of a funding agency. This meant that the students had to know how to do a literature search, analyze the works and not just copy a statement from the works and throw a list of citations of papers they never actually read after the statements. They knew how to interpret those works in their own words and constructively identify the limitations opposed to something like, “The work presented in [1] stunk and was worthless. Here, in this paper, we show that our method rocks.” 

Second, good Phd candidates know how to reimplement or recreate or simulate an algorithm that someone else did. Today, most of us provide our code for other researchers to compare against. I can’t tell you how many stories professors share of students who run code written by someone else, without having a clue  of what the code is really accomplishing or how it works. Furthermore, they think the code becomes their own when they delete the author’s name and comments and put their own name on itand then change a parameter or two in the code.

No, no no!

Failing the Ph.D. Qualifying exam can mean the end of your program. Most universities will allow the student to leave with a Masters degree instead. That is ok if you don’t already have one, but stinks if you do.  The worst case is when an individual invests years and then is told to leave the program because they fail the exam. Providing second chances is nice. Some schools and departments only give you a single try, but providing a second chance means a full stop on any other research progress to go back and study that material you had when you were a sophomore in college. The pressure is really on.

Now, for the inside scoop. The PHD qualifying exam should never be the easy exit for Professors to use to dump students they don’t want on their teams anymore. If the student isn’t performing up to expectations, or if the faculty member and the student simply don’t get along, making the student prepare for the qualifying exam knowing full well that they will fail is a waste of everyone’s time. If a professor can’t provide constructive honest feedback and tell someone they aren’t working out, they are simply being a wimp! Always ask for feedback and agree on deadlines and deliverables in writing.

Your faculty adviser has lots of power, even if they say it was a “committee decision”. The adviser is the best advocate in the room for a student, unless your adviser works among jerks as colleagues, who don’t like your adviser. I have heard of war stories where jerks may take their distain out on the adviser’s students. Eliminating  an adviser’s PHD students is one way for jealous peers to attempt to inhibit the adviser’s research progress. While this sounds crazy and totally unprofessional, which by the way it is, you have to remember that professors are supposedly human beings too. Some advisers may not be tenured yet and fearful of speaking out against the recommendations of their senior peers. This is when a good senior peer will join the junior faculty and get behind their plea to pass their student.

If faculty always put students first, they will look beyond their differences with other faculty and ensure the student gets treated fairly and equitably. A good adviser will fight to the death for you and advocate for their students to the best of their abilities.

I really like the University of Utah approach. If you can write a competitive proposal, you truly know the literature, know the state of the art and can propose new innovative ideas. We need more innovative professors, good teachers and most importantly, mentors who are not in this profession only for themselves, but in it because the most greatest reward is watching your students grow and flourish into successful Ph.D’s.

Note: All the views expressed in Dr. Panetta’s blogs are her own opinion and not the views or opinions expressed by her institution, professional organizational affiliations organizations or employer.