On failing the quals … again!

I failed the quals again, on my second try, and now I must leave the program. I learned this on Friday, May 2nd, (it started with an ominous e-mail late Thursday night, leaving me unable to sleep or relax or frankly function well at all until I met with the committee chair on Friday) and was sort of reeling from the information for a while. I originally began this post the weekend after that, but I was busy dealing with the actual life decisions and the immediate need for fun and relaxation, and I forgot to come back to it until now.

I’m still pretty shocked and fairly pissed at the faculty of my department. The other person who had failed the first time and been encouraged to stay and take it again also failed this time around too; I ran into him on my way home from meeting with the committee chair and he was on his way to meet with him. Perhaps I had misinterpreted, but I had thought when they asked me to stay and try again that I just needed to show a good faith effort to do better this time around. After all, I had to stick around for an entire year in order to take the exam again, including a semester after receiving my Master’s degree. And for that year they funded me on a departmental NSF grant. They had invested in me and they had been the only ones to educate me (I stayed at the same school as I did my undergrad). They had accepted me into the graduate program even after my struggles with depression throughout my undergrad years, and they had encouraged me to stay and try again when I failed the first time. I really thought that I’d be fine as long as I studied hard. And I did study hard – but I still failed.

So, you may be wondering, what happened?

Things I don’t know:

  • Whether they deemed my performance better or worse than last time (i.e. what they were looking for). I took a different approach to studying this time around. I started studying before anyone else who took the exam this year, and it was my second time taking it so I had a better idea of what the experience would be like (but apparently no better of an idea of what they were looking for me to do). After I failed the first time, I was left with very little feedback. I asked to see my exam, but it wasn’t allowed. While he offered me some details about which subjects I had performed better and worse on, I had no idea if I had actually gotten things wrong, if they were unhappy with the place(s?) where I had to write “This is what I would do if I had the equation to start,” or if it was just that I hadn’t finished enough of it. This time, I felt more prepared and knew more material going into the exam, but there were still gaps in my knowledge. I felt (and still feel) like it was somewhat of a crapshoot, and all I could do was hope they’d either keep it to the most essential topics or that I’d be lucky enough to have recently reviewed the more obscure topics.
  • Whether I got things wrong on the exam or merely didn’t finish enough of it. This time, I’ve been somewhat unable to think about and exam my exam performance too much. It’s just too painful. So I didn’t ask any questions when I met with the committee chair.
  • What kind of departmental politics are going on and how they may have impacted the faculty’s decision to fail myself and my peer. Earlier this year, the faculty considered getting rid of the qualifying exam. Apparently some of the faculty think that we should still have it, but that it should be extremely strict, with no room for “Well he did better than last time” or “She’s a great researcher.” Those faculty think that in the past they had sometimes been too lenient. They cite departments at other schools (Princeton and MIT) where 1/3rd or more of the class is cut after the quals. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the faculty advocate completely getting rid of the quals. Some of these arguments and views may have been formed after last year, when 11 people took the exam and 3 of us failed. One person was taking it for the second time and passed, but I heard their performance was only marginally better. Of the three of us that failed, 2 of us were encouraged to stay and try again and the third was just told to leave. Later, there were complaints of politics playing a role in who got to stay and who didn’t, and I think this may have led to the viewpoints that it should be stricter. Meanwhile other professors saw that those of us that had failed were excellent researchers and had of course passed (and done fairly well in, I’m sure) the courses on which the exam was based. My understanding is that it is still possible they will get rid of the exam next year, or at least change its format.

Things I know:

  • I struggle with this exam format. I’ve written about this before. It was a closed book exam, 4 hours long. There were 6 questions, giving us about 45 minutes per question. Most of the questions were very detailed, and I just couldn’t work through them fast enough. I left some serious chunks undone because I ran out of time. Also, my subject uses math heavily, and while I’m good at and enjoy math, I’ve never been good at memorizing equations (or memorizing anything). For most of my undergraduate education (at the same institution with many of the same professors who wrote the qualifying exam), exams were open book. That worked for me because I’m very good at using the available tools and information to solve problems, but I don’t see the point in memorizing anything that isn’t used so often that I memorize it without trying. This time around, I had written out about 100 flashcards of equations I thought I needed to memorize to be prepared. While many of the questions on the exam were fairly central to their subject matter, about three of the six were what I’d consider to be detailed specific cases which ended up requiring the use of equations that hadn’t even made it into my flashcard pack. One of the questions began with and required an equation for a special case that I had not memorized, and I was left completely crippled on that question.
  • I succumbed to the pressure during the exam. I had been studying for months, and I knew this was my last chance at the exam, and there was a lot of pressure. As I was working through the exam and finding it challenging, I began to get increasingly flustered to the point where I did shed some tears and I considered handing it in unfinished and walking away. I was distracted by how upset I was and unable to focus on trying to solve the problems in front of me.
  • I’m a great researcher. I’m organized and self-driven. Because I began researching in my advisor’s lab as an undergrad, I’d made significant progress on my projects and we had thought I might be able do the degree in a shorter time than average. As a member of a small lab group, I’d managed as many as 4 projects at once, while most of my peers were only in charge of one. I’d voluntarily taken on managing and mentoring the undergrads in my lab. And I’m first author on a paper with my advisor that was published in the main journal for the subject area last fall. Many of my peers were struggling to come up with a project and to write their thesis proposal, and I already have a draft from a year ago when I used a class project to write it. And my first poster drew compliments not only on the science but on the easy organization of information and appealing visuals.
  • Some of the faculty are sad to see me go. I know this because they’ve either told me directly or they’ve told my advisor.
  • I contributed significantly to the department. I’m the founding president of the department’s graduate student association; in fact I was the ONLY grad student to even respond when the committee chair was looking for students to get a GSA started, and I went and recruited others to work with me. I’ve interacted directly with the graduate committee chair and the department chair, and I’ve often contributed my ideas and insights when they were looking for feedback or evaluation. Also, whenever prospective students visited I gave them tours and made them feel welcome.
  • There are lots of places I can go from here. The graduate committee chair who gave me the news reminded me that I could still apply to other programs and that it wouldn’t go on my record or anything so it will just look like I just left with my MS degree. If I ever want to, I can return to grad school in the future, and I will be better able to choose a department that fits me.
  • I am looking forward to trying out other directions. I wrote about this before the exam in my post on my career path, but I am excited about exploring other research areas (perhaps some women in science research?), popular science writing, teaching and tutoring, or maybe research or project management in industry. I’m also considering working full-time for Husband’s company in the fall, doing a combination of marketing, project management, financial management, and online community building.

Overall, this was a pretty bad experience, but certainly one that I’ve learned from. Some days I am happy and excited about exploring other opportunities. Other days I get a bit down from the shock and emotions of it all. Always, I have my husband, family, and friends supporting me, and for that I am both happy and thankful.


14 thoughts on “On failing the quals … again!

  1. Wow, that formatting seems really unfair. Ours is committee style oral questioning of a written prelim and also general questions they feel you should know. My partner is in an equation-heavy major (MechEng) and they get tested on 3 subjects, orally.

    I always thought the purpose of the exams was to see how you think, not to test how much you can memorize.

  2. I’ve always hated memorization in qualifying examinations; if you know where to find information you’ll be just as good a researcher as the person who can cram dozens of random facts or equations into their brain, and you’ll likely be more accurate as well. I never had a written qual, but I’m sure it would have gone worse for me than the oral I did go through. It sounds like you’re in a good place mentally, considering the situation. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. wow. i am so so sorry. this really sucks (or maybe it’s a good thing for you?). i am taking the quals in 3 weeks and i am trying to decide if i should take off a week or two to stay home and study full time because i am a horrible test taker. but i don’t want to look like i can’t handle balancing both studying and bench work at the same time. but i want to be really well prepared. any advice?

  4. Crystal,
    If your exam is of a similar format, I would recommend biting the bullet and requesting the time off to study. One of my problems was that I felt rusty on things that I hadn’t reviewed closely since earlier in my 3 month study period.

    It definitely should be noted that many of the professors don’t acknowledge that this format ended up testing our memorization skills more than our ability to apply the concepts and work through the problems. They have this notion that a PhD student should somehow know it all so well that they not only remember the equations and how to do it but they can do it in only 45 minutes a question, which was also a major problem for me.

  5. I am disappointed that they did not give you any feedback about your previous exam. If you don’t know where you went wrong how the hell are you meant to improve next time. Your department does not know what it is doing in terms of education. As I have commented before, qualifying exams that require you to memorize details that you can easily look up, and therefore forget straight after the exam, are meaningless. If you have to have a qualifying exam, an open book take home exam would be more reasonable way of testing your ability to understand science. I as assuming that there was no way to change the format to accommodate some one with your level of anxiety and depression?

    I am assuming that you couldn’t get hold of previous exams to study from.

    Sometimes the American (graduate) education system leaves me gobsmacked.

    If you do go to do a PhD elsewhere, you should be asking what the qualifying exams are like.

  6. “If you do go to do a PhD elsewhere, you should be asking what the qualifying exams are like.”
    HELL YEAH. If I do decide to, I will not go anywhere that has an uncompromising exam format and won’t allow any consideration of my anxiety/depression issues.

    Indeed, my department is infinitely more concerned with research production than education – which is why it makes no sense at all for them to kick out a good researcher!

  7. Flicka,

    So sorry to hear about your quals. This my uninvited 2 cents…..I noticed where you mentioned about the vagueness you were left with regarding your performance.

    If it were me, I would demand an accounting for their decision–including seeing the grading of the exam. It may hurt to hear it, but at least you will know. This is your career—you have to have feedback to correct/adjust your trajectory.

    Furthermore, I have seen blatant discrimination on the part of committees including decisions made on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and even who the person’s adviser was. Not saying it happened but if it did, not allowing people to see their exams/giving them feedback is the best cover. I am sorry—but something is rotten in the state of Grad School. Surely, they aren’t allowing people to see their exams because they are giving the same exams every time????

    Anyway, most grad schools take pride in the fact they make life so difficult. They will not make allowances for depression/anxiety. I can’t tell you how many people in my dept washed out due to stress or ended up taking anti-depressants. Many advisers/depts have the mentality that if they had to go through it, then their students must. Which is crap.

    Sorry, this is one of my soapbox topics. Makes me so angry. This behavior wrings the last drop of fun out of learning.


  8. Sorry to hear about quals 😦 such a bummer. I take mine in July and I’m thoroughly terrified. I’m adding ya to my blogroll 🙂 Can’t wait to read about what road you’ll take next!

  9. Maybe the question to ask is do you see yourself as a PI in the future? Although you’re a great researcher, maybe your committee don’t think you will ‘survive’ in the academia. Unfortunately, most PhD programs are oriented to train graduate students to follow a post-doc career (which can last up to 10 years in most cases) in order to become a PI (tenure can be really hard to obtain in some Universities). However, there are other job options available for individuals with a PhD.

  10. I really don’t know who are and never read you before. I failed my Qualifying exam and knew about it today…It is too painful…i never thought it would be this way…i lost dear people and didn’t hurt this much!!
    I will take it next spring as a last chance and i am so worried …..i am so sorry to hear that u failed two times..but i don’t think that this is the end of the world…great people always fails ! Thank you for sharing this with everyone…I am meeting with the graduate advisor on Monday…I really don’t know what to say or ask ! They said I have the right knowledge but my language was week, full of grammatical problems…I confess that I didn’t review my exam and was very stressed …it was 4 hours exam…

  11. This happened to me last Thursday. Am devastated and still pretty numb. I had similar but different experiences as our format it different. I alwatsbheardvstories about hoe bad it was but everyone in recent memory had made through. It just one of those. Tough things you had to get through. Well after I failed the first time, I recommitted, Exapnded my reading lists, met with committe members. I rewrote in July and defended last week. Everyone said this time was much better and I felt, if only slightly, that I had answered their questions better. I the end, mt committee of four was split two yes, two no and I needed a majority so I failed. One person ended my academic career. It was clear that my external member voted no. I could not believe that part. Anyways, I am done. Four years, thousands of dollars borrowed and all I have to show for it is graduate certificate, as I already have my MA. Now it’s to decide where I go from here.

  12. About 2 months ago, I failed my first attempt at my prelim. I was given a second chance, took on one of my committee members as a co-advisor, and tried to rewrite my proposal to address the comments given to me on my exam date. After all of this time and all of the tears I had shed stressing out about getting through this milestone, today I told my PI that I want to write up a master’s thesis and leave. Surprisingly, he was supportive of this idea.

    My lab is currently in a very tough spot because we have no active grants and have not had any for the past year. Since there is no money, we have a lot of limitations in the experiments that we can do. Because of this, we are losing a lot of collaborations. Even if I were to give my prelim another shot and pass, there would be no way to perform any of the experiments I propose until this funding situation is sorted out. Who knows when that will be?

    At the end of the day, I never had the desire to run my own lab or be a PI at a university. I decided to pursue a PhD so I could open more doors to work in the private sector, but I realized that having an MS also valuable. In graduate school, I did find that I also enjoy teaching. I could still teach community college with an MS.

    I feel like a huge weight is lifted off of my chest… like I’m free to finally explore my career options while I’m still young enough to do so. At the end of it all, this whole experience is NOT the end of the world.

    • That’s a very level headed view – good for you for being able to make that decision! You will probably find great opportunities in the private sector with just your MS, and avoid a lot of academic stress.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  13. I am taking the exam for the second time in January and am terrified. This is my last chance to pass and if i fail I’ll have to leave with just a Masters 😦 I agree with the comment made earlier that profs/administration have this notion that a PhD student should be able to remember multiple equations from multiple subjects and should know how to use them for given problems in a limited amount of time. Worst of all you can can spend a month studying a single subject just to find that the exam only holds one lousy question related to that subject!!

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