I’m about to get dismissed from a PhD program because I failed in the 2nd attempt of the qualifying exam.

Currently, I'm thinking of the option to appeal the dismissal decision due to a long history of mental health problems (anxiety & depression) and have the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) just before my 2nd attempt in the exam by 10 days as determined by the school psychological counselor & confirmed by my physician assessment. I’m not sure of this could be used as a ground for my appeal because I can present evidences for this ground and not able to use other grounds such as potential bias from my adviser as he was not willing to have communication & advisement after failing the 1st exam attempt. He actually told me “just do it and best of luck!!”.

Additionally, during the exam, there was one committee member who did not attend in person (joined us via a conference video call). I was notified several times during the exam that this professor was not able to hear me especially while presenting or answering some questions (when standing next to the projector or the white board to demonstrate some answers). The academic evaluation by this professor could be biased based on the fact that could not catch up all of my answers. However, I can not use this as a ground for my appeal because simply I do not have the evidence nor the presence of non-committee member auditing person at the exam. The director of the PhD program attended all of my previous qualifying exams (the 1st part that I passed & the 2nd part that I initially failed), but not the last attempt for the 2nd part.

I’m not making an excuse of mental health issues or ADHD diagnosis, but really made great efforts to study and prepare for this exam, and I believe that I answered most of the questions with logic and scientific rationales. I did also seek a confirmation of addressing each question asked by each committee members whether they had sufficient answers or they need more elaboration from my side.

My question is: How I can a valid arguments supported by evidences from my counselor & physician on the ground of mental health issues and ADHD? The other question: What is my chance of admission if I apply in the future for another PhD program?

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    This sort of question can only be answered locally at your university, perhaps between your doctors and the department. Without medical reasons, I think the chances of appeal are very slim. But given the past, it will be difficult for you to make a case that you can be successful. Think about how to best make that case. If any appeals fail, you can consider moving to a different institution, but you will need, again, to make the case for probable success.
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 22:37
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    Could you simply ask the person who will decide the appeal what they think? Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 22:37
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    I feel like I should warn you that doing a PhD is tough, and both anxiety and depression make it a lot harder! Almost everyone experiences a phase (or multiple) during their phd, where they feel like they are getting stuck, getting depressed and anxious. If you have a tendency towards those feelings, this might hit you extra hard. Make sure you are up for that!
    – Lot
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 9:16

3 Answers 3


I'm sorry for the tough situation you find yourself in.

First things first: no one outside your university and department can speak with any authority whatsoever as to what this particular group of faculty administrators will do. At best they can speak in general terms and give general advice. That is what I will try to do. Let me also begin by indicating my own experience: I am a mathematics professor at the University of Georgia. For the last three academic years I have been the Graduate Coordinator of the mathematics department. Thus if you were in my department you would be appealing to me (more precisely, to the committee of which I am the chair).

It seems to me that you are getting overly caught up on the legalistic aspects of your "appeal." You grasp at several things that might perhaps lead to bias on the part of committee members. But let me be honest: in the kind of academic culture of which I am familiar, this is not a very good strategy. Without evidence of clear and bias that changed the result of the exam, I think it is very unlikely that (say) the director of the PhD program will do more than inquire of the faculty members whether there were any serious problems or irregularities with your exam. When they say "No," there is not really any other group that can spring into action at this point, again unless you have something much more serious to allege and more material reasons to allege it.

Here is the reality of the situation: the committee who administers a graduate qualifying exam has extremely broad latitude in deciding whether the student passes or fails. There is probably not going to be a "rubric" that they did or did not follow or anything of the sort -- rather, they are empowered to use their best judgment. To be honest about it, a student at this stage is probably not in a good intellectual position to question their decision: you don't have the experience to know whether their standard is a good one.

Rather than thinking of the appeal as an argument that you have to win, I suggest that you appeal to the sympathies of the most sympathetic faculty member in sight. In particular, I do suggest that you mention your health issues of anxiety, depression and ADHD. As a longtime faculty member and administrator, I can tell you that (i) many students have these problems, (ii) they can become significant impediments to otherwise very strong students and (iii) these issues are (happily!) not nearly as stigmatized as they used to be, to the extent that "zero sympathy" for such a student is not such a tenable position for e.g. a public university in the United States to take. If you bring medical documentation of the problems, explain the serious steps you are taking to treat the problems and ask for another chance when your health issues are under better control, then I think you have at least a fair shot at getting another chance.

Good luck.

  • Dr. Pete L. Clark, I really was not thinking about using arguments about the committee decision. The only option that I would use in my appeal is my health problems as I do have documents that proof how serious I have been throughout the recent 3 years to seek medical treatments and psychological counseling on a regular basis which improved my academic performance for the PhD coursework which took me to this level in the program. I also have done and drafted my 1st research paper (ready for submission). Would that be helpful to be used in my appeal?
    – MAHT_5050
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 0:37
  • @PeteLClark I'm not sure that appealing to the sympathies of the faculty is a good approach. It's still true that many, if not most, grad school faculty either do not understand or do not have a lot of sympathy for anxiety, depression, and ADHD. And the student is entitled to disability accommodation whether or not the faculty happen to be sympathetic and understanding. Commented Mar 16, 2019 at 21:28

This is an honest and heartfelt answer from a History PhD student.

My university was not a tier 1 school, but it is one of the University of California unis. Our Qualifying Examinations were designed such that it is nearly impossible to fail them if you do all the preliminary work prior to the oral evaluations. Essentially, you have to write several long essays that survey the bibliographies of your field and demonstrate your position inside of that academic conversation.

The people who failed their QEs at my school did not put much effort into (or did not complete) the written portion. The oral evaluation is mostly just a demonstration of your memorized knowledge of research/researchers in your field and a defense of your position/dissertation.

I have some bad news, but please take it as best you can: members of your QE committee all have PhD's and they all advise doctoral students for a living. They fully understand the stress and strain of graduate school. They are aware of the attrition rates and even the problem of suicide among grad students (we lost one of our own to suicide during my time in the program).

That being said, there is no way a committee would vote to dismiss someone from the program unless they felt that person was incapable of moving forward with productive research. Unless you are producing research on why vaccines are bad or why Nazism wasn't such a bad ideology, you are likely being dismissed for the reason that the committee feels you are not in league with the expectations of a PhD graduate. Specifically, their decision is not about the fact that they had trouble hearing you or interpreting your answers. It's that your answers revealed to them that the depth or breadth of your knowledge of your topic is not at the level it needs to be at for you to advance to PhD candidacy.

There is another factor in all this you might not be aware of: At the time of QEs, your advisor submits a holistic evaluation of your progress to the committee and to the administrative department with his/her recommendation about your candidacy. It is not at all unheard of for advisors to act with favoritism or to mistreat advisees, but the more likely explanation is that your advisor feels the same way the committee does.

If you are going to be dismissed, you are owed an itemized list of reasons why. You could try to counter-argue those points. Your strongest argument might be that your advisor is guilty of dereliction of responsibilities to you, but that is a hard thing to prove against a tenured and respected faculty member. Even if you do win, he's going to be even more obstinate moving forward.

My honest advice is this: you do not really have a case. Arguing that you studied really hard and used scientific rationale to the best of your ability during your exam is insufficient; it's the kind of thing undergraduates tell their TAs all the time when they fail a test.

To address your first question: "My question is how I can a valid arguments supported by evidences from my counselor & physician on the ground of mental health issues and ADHD?"

You cannot make this argument. You are literally saying "I should be allowed to remain in this program because I have mental health issues that prevent me from performing acceptably in this program."

To answer your second question: "The other question: what is my chance of admission if I apply in the future for another PhD program?"

If you wait a few years and have considerable success managing your mental health issues, I see no reason why you couldn't get into another program - but you'd have to be forthcoming about the fact that you were removed from your first program, and you'd have to demonstrate that you are now capable of succeeding. That will be tough.

Two other things you should consider: Graduate school and mental illness are an explosive mixture. Grad school is decidedly not good for anyone's mental health, and if you already have these issues, I can't imagine it's a good fit for you. Also, there is very little actual use for a PhD unless you want to teach at the university level. An M.S. is plenty to land you a decent job outside of academia and sometimes still inside it as a researcher. Take your Master's (which you were probably awarded during your second year) and grab a job! There is no shame in not finishing the PhD.

edit: for clarification, I do not mean to imply that a person struggling with mental health issues should never be in graduate school. But I do mean that it is reasonable to expect that grad school will exacerbate those issues. It's a big enough problem that this warning is repeated to virtually all incoming PhD students, and it's a topic that's discussed openly during the program. Good schools will have good resources available to students who feel mentally unwell during their program. But if you were my son/daughter and you struggled with those issues, I would say "Don't go."

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    There are some good things here, but you could read the last part of this answer as saying that people with mental illnesses don’t belong in (“aren’t a good fit” for ) grad school. Would you care to reconsider this part of the answer?
    – Dawn
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 23:36
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    Well I honestly would caution literally anyone about the mental price of attending graduate school, but for a person who is already struggling with mental illness, I would warn them outright that grad school will very likely exacerbate the issue. I certainly do not mean to say that people with those issues don't belong in grad school. But it is a real danger to them in some situations, and all people with those issues should consider the possibility that grad school could compound them. Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 23:45
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    I have edited my statement per your recommendation Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 23:48
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    "That being said, there is no way a committee would vote to dismiss someone from the program unless they felt that person was incapable of moving forward with productive research." This is wrong. Most committees would not do it, but some would. For example, some students are dismissed for financial reasons, with qualifying exams used as an excuse. Similarly, some committees would fail to dismiss a student who has no chance of success. Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 0:17
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    Whether qualifying exams are almost impossible to fail may depend on the discipline. In math, these exams have teeth and about 15-30% of students fail in most departments I know of. But the broader points of this answer stand: Committees generally make decisions based on evidence, and in the case in question it sounds like the candidate's abilities are insufficient (for whatever good or bad reasons). Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 3:43

MAHT_5050, this sounds like a hard circumstance. I don't have an answer for your 2nd question (chance at another PhD program). For the 1st question (appeal after the fact due to health issues) unfortunately I am pessimistic. If you're in the USA and you have documentation that you need accommodations, find out who is your school's Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) administrator.

The idea behind the ADA is equal opportunity. To create equal opportunity normally arrangements go before a test. It's up to the student to request accommodations on time. Also here's an unofficial page: http://studentcaffe.com/prepare/students-with-disabilities/ada-your-rights-college-student

So, you might ask the ADA administrator.

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