In my (mathematics) PhD program, the administration has started to crack down on students who are not making their way through the program in a timely manner. This has only started in the last year, and is being aimed mostly at the lower years students who have not passed their qualification exams yet.

The problem is, there is a third year student who has not passed all of their qualifying exams, but is doing good research, and has a published paper, has an advisor, and so on.

They might pass their quals now (we offer them at the beginning and the end of the year), but if they does not, the executive officer of our has made it clear that they will be kicked out (they are one of the six, out of twelve, third years under such threat). This seems ridiculous to several of us, since they are working much harder and making more progress than many of the older students.

Several of us have decided that this outcome is not acceptable, given the circumstances. How should we proceed, if they do not pass the two quals they need to? At this point we are planning to draft a joint email. Should their advisor cosign this, or would a separate approach be better? There are several other faculty who would cosign as well, if that is relevant. Are there other actions we could take?

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    Are you saying that the students will be kicked out if they don't pass quals this month or at the end of the year? If the former, did they know about this in advance? And do you have some kind of "conditional pass" that's in between outright passing and failing? – Kimball Aug 21 at 19:06
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    Well, will they pass their qualifiers? What is preventing them? They are a hurdle that generally is a specific requirement. How long would you be willing to wait for a student to be able to pass them? Do you believe that there should be no limit, a 5 year limit, or what? Things to contemplate, and separate from the case of a single student. – Jon Custer Aug 21 at 19:41
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    You sound kind and thoughtful, but, if you're a student, you don't really have standing. You can help the student prepare for their quals, but there's no reason the administration should care what some grad students think of another grad student. – Ellen Spertus Aug 21 at 20:00
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    @Ryan: To clarify, are you a grad student or a faculty member? Support from faculty may have an effect. Support from grad students likely won't. – Nate Eldredge Aug 21 at 22:34
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    The way your question is written (with expressions like "we offer [quals] at the beginning and the end of the year", "There are several other faculty who would cosign", and in general the use of "they" for the students vs. "we" for the people taking action), you make it look like you are a faculty member too. Since you said in the comments that you are not faculty but a grad student, you might want to make that clear in the question, so answers can be tailored to your actual situation. – Luis G. Aug 22 at 8:07

Many institutions put requirements for progress for doctoral students. This has been going on forever and isn't special to your institution. It is only unfair if the people have inadequate notice after a rule change.

The problem, for the institution, is that such students use resources that might be better applied elsewhere. It is a judgement call. Some places have very strict rules and if you don't meet them, you must move on.

State sponsored universities, in particular have this problem as many of the funds are from public sources. A private university (by the US definition) can have a bit more freedom.

There is probably little pressure you can apply as a student, unless you can convince a large part of the faculty to oppose such a rule. You are making a judgement, of course. It may be valid or not, but others have their own judgements to make as well.

Sad to say, if a person isn't making progress it may be that they should do something else, instead. My preference is to let them see the issue and make their own decision rather than having it imposed on them, but the people who need to balance budgets may have a different view.

I once had to make a difficult academic decision and wound up moving to a different institution that turned out to be better for me in every way. It isn't the end of the world.

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    I understand that the student might be taking resources from others, but in fact this is exactly my issue with the administration's policy: there are many older students who are taking up resources and literally have made no progress on original research or thesis work, but will be allowed to stay (due to, e.g., advisor pull). The student in question is making progress, moreso than many others. Also, the rules have historically not been strict, they have been extremely lax, and only at the end of last semester has this new policy been talked about. – Ryan Aug 21 at 21:49
  • @Ryan If this student is getting support, is it from a professor's grant money or from the department? The dept may be undergoing (or foreseeing) a budget crunch. – mkennedy Aug 22 at 22:07

I have never seen a department where these type of progression rules are not flexible. If the faculty want a student to continue, they tend to find loop holes. If they want a student gone, qualifying exams is one of the easiest ways to get rid of them. If half of the third year students are under threat of not progressing, something is odd. Presumably, the department wants people to take (and pass) their quals. Regardless, I doubt that you, and your fellow students, can influence the outcome.

This is all a precursor to making you (or me) feel better about my advice that putting your head down and STFU is in your best interest. If the student is at risk, speaking up will make you both friends and enemies. Part of being an academic is learning which fights are worth fighting. This one does not seem to be one.

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    In particular, no faculty member in the department is going to want 6 out of 12 in a cohort to be kicked out of the program, and these faculty have the power to decide who passes. One expects they will err on the side of being lenient. – user37208 Aug 21 at 22:02

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