I'm currently studying for a qualifying exam required by my M.S. program to get the degree and have also applied to continue onto a Ph.D. elsewhere (all of this in the U.S). This situation got me curious about a weird edge case:

What is likely to happen if I get accepted to a Ph.D. program, but later find out I have failed my qual/will not receive the M.S. degree?

I realize that no answer to this will be universally applicable, but the reason I ask is because I already have a B.S (what most of my fellow applicants have) and they don't necessarily know that my M.S requires a qual in the first place (so admissions decisions were probably made taking into account my coursework, etc.). So, on the one hand, it seems like even supposing I didn't receive the M.S. I am still an applicant with the same credentials as my fellow applicants + two years of additional grad level coursework + 2 years of MS project + 2 years of Research on top of these other things. On the other hand they accepted me expecting another degree which I don't have.

I'm not too worried about this personally and intend to pass, but I was curious since it is a real possibility for me (most people get 2 or more chances at the quals, but since I am changing fields a bit I wanted to take certain classes to help in Ph.D. admissions during my first year and ended up with only one shot).

It would be nice if this got answered as generally as possible for future worriers, but if more specificity is needed I did a math undergrad/M.S. and applied to Comp. Sci. for PhD. Also, the M.S. was not done to bolster my record but instead just because I found funding and got more time to explore before jumping onto the PhD "treadmill" as some of my professors have described it (meaning, my undergrad would have made me a good math applicant with research experiences, 3.6+ GPA, strong letters, from a respected school, etc. should I have decided to apply straight out of it).

Anyhow sorry this got long, I was just trying to walk the line between keeping it general and making it unanswerable haha. (Also, as a little aside, I can retake it late in the summer but it'd be a pain travel/housing wise).

tl;dr Accepted into PhD while in a MS elsewhere, but failed exam required for MS (all in USA). What happens?

3 Answers 3


I would say it depends on the offer/acceptance letter you receive. I know someone who was accepted to a PhD program while doing an MSc, but whose funding (scholarship) depended on him getting a certain final grade on his MSc. I can imagine situations where that is not the case, and where you are accepted to a PhD regardless of what happens with your studies before the PhD program begins.


The answer is simple: you lose your Ph.D slot.

When you are accepted in a Ph.D program and still need to finish the M.S the acceptance is conditional. You need to finish successful the M.S before the date stipulated by the Ph.D program.

This case is always foreseen and the rules are published in the call.

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    This still applies even if the requirement for entrance is a B.S and not a M.S? (i.e I'm asking if you're answering this assuming the PhD program requires their students come in with a MS like some other fields and/or countries vs. you're answering this knowing the MS isn't required but knowing that I am in the MS and applying means it became required for me unofficially) Jan 13, 2018 at 21:52
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    This is very specific, it would require to consult the rules of the call. However, if they took into account your posible M.S title as something that put you ahead of other candidates, they could require you to finish the M.S even if the program accept B.S candidates.
    – The Doctor
    Jan 13, 2018 at 21:58
  • Thanks for the answers! This uncertainty/poorly informed questions is in part because I have no idea what level of detail these calls usually will contain, etc. (When I applied to my MS I was already in the dept. and knew people so it was very casual) Jan 13, 2018 at 22:07

It boils down to two possibilities:

  • you have been granted conditional access (you can access only if you complete M.Sc);
  • you have been granted unconditional access (you do not need your M.Sc to access the Ph.D).

Please note that a M.Sc is not necessarily a prerequisite to a PhD, as well as a person can become a professor at university without having a PhD (increasingly rarer nowadays, country dependent, but still possible). It all depends on the local/regional/national regulations.

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