The qualifying exam is probably the most stressful and nerve-wrecking time for doctoral students, but this exam is an important step to obtain a doctoral degree. Before we discuss how to pass the Ph.D. qualifying exam, let’s first look at what the exam really is and when you would be in the position to take it.
In This Article:
About the Ph.D. Qualifying Exam
If you’ve grown up in the US, you are familiar with a variety of entrance exams. In high school, you have the ACTs and SATs. For graduate school, you have the GRE (GMAT for business). Different career specializations have their own graduate entrance exams such as the MCATs, LSATs and PCATs.
After passing the GRE and participating in a doctoral program for a few years, you must prepare yourself for a Ph.D. qualifying exam (or a qual exam). You will take this special exam when you are already in the graduate program to get your Ph.D. candidacy. Fortunately, this special exam will not cost any money.
In terms of what year of the graduate program is a good time to take your qualifying exam, it really depends on when you finish all your required classes. Commonly, it is closer to the third year of the graduate program.
What is the Ph.D. Qualifying Exam?
The Ph.D. qualifying exam is an examination required for all doctoral students to prove their preparedness and capabilities to apply and synthesize the skills and knowledge during the graduate program. Another term for this exam is a “preliminary exam,” or a “prelim”.
For many students, it generally takes at least a semester to prepare themselves for this exam. After all, it’s hard to predict what questions can come up. For example, random questions could arise from classes during your first year to the most recent classes you’ve taken so far. Therefore, it will take a while for you to review your notebooks, textbooks, and the research proposal.
To successfully pass your exam, you must plan early and organize a timeline for preparing and completing the exam.
When is the Qualifying Exam?
Suggested timeline before your Ph.D. qualifying exam:
- Closer to the end of year one, you can put together a special committee: a dissertation (PhD) advisory committee. This committee is composed of your major professor (or a professor who will be your mentor throughout your graduate program) as your chair and additional members from any discipline in your university. Work together with your major professor to plan your curriculum and guide your research.
- Throughout your graduate program, set up meetings with this committee to update them about your academic and research progress. Depending on the university, one of the earlier meetings can be a research proposal.
- When you complete most of your core courses, check all requirements for a qualifying exam at your university, and plan your qualifying exam date with your committee (usually, this exam takes place during the second year or third year).
- At least two weeks before the date of your qualifying exam, submit a request to schedule the exam to the graduate school.
What is the Ph.D. Qualifying Exam Like?
If you ask other graduate students about their experience during the qualifying exam, they would probably be more than willing to share some scary stories about it, including the most difficult questions and biochemical reactions they had to draw on the board. They would also inform you about who has failed the exam and ended up quitting the doctoral program. However, this type of information will not help you to pass the exam and it can make you even more stressed.
Instead, a better approach is to get information about the format and the process of the qualifying exam, so you are aware of what’s going to happen during the exam.
To start, the qualifying exam typically consists of two components: a written exam and an oral exam.
Written Qualifying Exam
After completion of the courses, the first type of the qualifying exam you must take is the written part. These exams will test your capacity to incorporate what you have learned from all of your different classes to formulate research questions and solve your research problems. Each of your committee members will test you separately on this part of your exams.
Oral Qualifying Exam
Format of the Oral Qualifying Exam
The oral part of the exam is when you gather all your committee members after you finish with the written part. The purpose of the oral qualifying exam is to evaluate your thought process and your ability to conduct the research required to complete a Ph.D. In addition, if your university requires it, you must present your research proposal and defend it during your oral qualifying exam.
Each professor in the committee will ask some questions related to your research proposal and your answers from the written exam. Sometimes the committee members ask you to explain and draw your answers on the board. As an example, your committee members could ask you to explain about how a transfection reagent works in a reaction, if your research includes the use of this method. Or, she could ask you about how to perform statistical analysis for your real-time quantitative PCR experiments.
The Possible Outcomes of an Oral Qualifying Exam
- Pass: If the dissertation (Ph.D.) advisory committee comes to a solid decision, you pass your exam and get Ph.D. candidacy.
- Conditional Pass: Your committee provides you and the graduate school with the conditions and a deadline for passing. Once you fulfill these conditions, you pass the exam.
- Fail: Your committee fails your exam, but they allow a reexamination.
- Unanimously Failing: In this case, the committee decides you fail your exam and all the professors oppose a reexamination.
What Do Professors Look for in a Qualifying Exam?
Committee professors look for your ability to connect your knowledge in your field of study with other related fields, including forming research questions, explaining your research and coming up with solutions to solve research problems.
What Happens if You Fail Qualifying Exam?
Depending on what your committee members decide, if you fail your qualifying exam, you may still be able to retake the exam or meet certain conditions. But, if this is not an option, you may have to leave the program for another field of study or university. In most cases, you should be able to come out with a master’s degree, unless you already have this degree entering your doctoral program.
Tips to Prepare for Qualifying Exam
- Learn more about your committee members, including their expertise, classes, philosophies, and style of questions.
- Ask your major professor and committee members for their input, including their expectations, their reservations and specific topics they want you to master.
- Ask for some tips from your colleagues about how they prepared themselves and handled questions during their Ph.D. qualifying exam, particularly those with the same committee members.
- Understand the format and the process for the oral exam so you can anticipate what’s going to happen.
- Study ahead of time and create a manageable task list of study materials you need to tackle daily.
- Set up and practice a mock exam with fellow doctoral students, if possible.
- Try to come up with possible questions from your committees and answer them.
- Conduct literature reviews and keep up with recent literature in your field of study and related fields.
- Be kind to yourself and take time for self-care, including meals, exercise, and fun breaks.
- The night before your exam, pick the outfit that makes you the most confident, try not to worry too much, and get a good night’s rest.
To better plan your qualifying exam, print the preparation checklist below:
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How to Pass Your Ph.D. Qualifying Exam | LPL Grad Site. (n.d.). Www.Lpl.Arizona.Edu. Retrieved September 1, 2020, from https://www.lpl.arizona.edu/grad/guidebook/academic-requirements/how-pass-your-phd-qualifying-exam.
PhD Students Suggested Timeline | Veterinary Science. (n.d.). Vetsci.ca.Uky.Edu. Retrieved September 1, 2020, from https://vetsci.ca.uky.edu/content/phd-students-suggested-timeline.
Preparing for Qualifying Exams and Dissertation Proposal Defense. (n.d.). Graduate Division. Retrieved September 2, 2020, from https://graduate.ucsf.edu/prepareforquals