The PhD Qualifying Exam Experience

The PhD qualifying exam strikes fear like no other exam. It forces you to study both broadly and deeply within your field, yet the exact content remains unknown until the exam day. Even then, the problems are usually more open-ended, leaving you pondering and uncertain. The format varies across disciplines, but the goal is the same – to examine whether the student is ready for doctoral research work. There’s an academic component, consisting of mastery and synthesis of subjects, critical examination of literature and argument, and then there’s an emotional, psychological component that’s largely unpracticed yet could be the game-changer.

I took mine last September/October and thankfully passed. It consisted of a 3-day take-home written portion, followed by an hour-long orals to be completed within the next few weeks. Not a PhD candidate yet, because there’s still a research proposal to be approved. The road to candidacy is long and arduous. Certainly greater technical insight was gained through the process, but what changed most might have been the mentality.

The exams required you to think clearly under copious amounts of stress (and sleep deprivation, and hunger). The thought of giving up was pervasive in the face of time constraint, but those 6 solutions just had to be churned out in 3 days. Then there was the orals portion during which 3 stern-faced professors stared you down while frantically searching for a solution on the spot. A rite of passage of sorts, one that could be a microcosm of academia. What happens when a roomful of colleagues at a conference decide to ask you, the presenter, a question to which the answer might not be obvious?

Perhaps the greatest psychological burden is one of failure. You start to question your own abilities and confidence, compounding the doubt already there about when you would get research results and graduate. You wonder whether you have embarrassed your advisor and research group. You might feel like crawling into a hole, unable to face your peers.

As earth-shattering as the experience can be, the truth is that those around you won’t think any less of you. I’m writing because I would like to provide words of encouragement to all those out there who will be taking it, or have taken it and came out unhappy.

No doubt the PhD qualifying exam is tough. It’s certainly meant to be, and the student is given the option to retake it for good reasons. The first time is always an unpredictable adventure. It’s normal if it doesn’t go as expected. Seek out the professors’ feedback, reflect on them and don’t take them personally. The exam pressure could be fortifying instead crumbling, though it might not feel like it at the time. Use the experience to help you grow. That same pressure will likely be faced elsewhere.

I’m interested in hearing your qualifying exam format and experience. I think sharing will help everyone who has to go through the process.