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I am a graduate student in mathematics and I recently found out that I failed my qualify exams. I have the chance to take them next year. But now I am really concerning my future. The problem is that faculty members explicitly told me they wouldn't supervise students unless they pass the quals. That means I have to waste another year because of the exams. I am concerning that this will place me into big disadvantage compare to other students because they are already doing research (as I observed, almost everybody passed). I also feel embarrassed when the others ask about my results. I am reading on topics that I like now but I have a hard time adjusting my feelings and can't really concentrate. How should I approach this situation? Any advice will be appreciated.

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    "faculty members explicitly told me they wouldn't supervise students unless they pass the quals." I suspect that "unless" should really be "until" - the point being that passing quals is something you have to do in order to demonstrate that you're ready. Preparing for quals (assuming the quals are decent anyways) isn't a waste, it's time spent mastering the fundamentals. – Noah Schweber May 20 at 7:23
  • @NoahSchweber Would faculty members have negative impression on me based on my performance on quals? – Justin Lee May 20 at 17:37
  • Does your university have separate general and specialist exams, and if so, which did you fail? – Acccumulation May 21 at 15:15
  • @Acccumulation I failed the algebra exam. The most frustrating thing is that the one of the problem that I failed to solve was chosen from homework from a long time ago, and I just didn't have time to review that part. I honestly think if I have more time to review I can do better. – Justin Lee May 30 at 19:11
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The problem is that faculty members explicitly told me they wouldn't supervise students unless they pass the quals. That means I have to waste another year because of the exams. I am concerning that this will place me into big disadvantage compare to other students because they are already doing research (as I observed, almost everybody passed). I also feel embarrassed when the others ask about my results. I am reading on topics that I like now but I have a hard time adjusting my feelings and can't really concentrate. How should I approach this situation? Any advice will be appreciated.

Let's approach this line-by-line.

  1. It's natural that the faculty members will not supervise students until they pass the quals. The quals are supposed to indicate the student meets the prerequisites. Supervising someone who hasn't passed the quals is like trying to supervise a high school student in a PhD project - it won't work.
  2. If you indeed didn't have the knowledge necessary to pass the quals, then the year isn't wasted (it's better to spend that year getting the knowledge than to try doing something over your head).
  3. Will this place you at a big disadvantage? Well, you're behind by a year. One year is not a particularly long time. You are behind, but not critically so - just compare your case to those students who e.g. took a gap year to travel the world, who went to do full-time work in industry, and so on. You can catch up, if you put in the required effort.
  4. Odds are you're feeling more embarrassed than the people who are talking to you think you should be. After all, most people have failed exams before.

While it's certainly not something to be proud of, it's also in the past and not something you can change. Focus on fixing what's still to come. You are almost certainly going to meet more failures in the future, e.g. when applying for fellowships, when submitting papers to journals. Put these failures behind you and move on.

  • @JeffE It appears the answer has been edited since your comment and DV. – shoover May 20 at 16:17
  • I agree with your points. Perhaps this is the chance for me to face my lack of skills in certain areas of the subject that I failed. Now that I think of it, this is not necessary such a bad thing. – Justin Lee May 30 at 19:26
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From someone who's been there - I started in a PhD program in mathematics, received only a "Masters pass" on my written qualifiers the first time around, retook a year later to the same result. Left the program with a masters, since we only had two tries. Fast forward 2 years and I'm admitted into a different PhD program in mathematics. This school has oral qualifiers. First attempt at that and I literally break down and cry and ask to just stop and try later. Reprepared, and nailed it the next time.

I just finished my PhD in mathematics. I took longer than most due to qualifier issues at one school, changing to another, changing areas of mathematics, and dealing with increased imposter syndrome due to the experiences at school 1. Long story short, it's not a competition with other students. Don't compare yourself to others. You were admitted to the program and you can do it. Study hard, ask the professors for advice and follow it. If it doesn't happen, it's OK. You can still achieve a PhD, just perhaps at different university and at a different time. I am proof of that. Best of luck.

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