It's embarassing, I failed my quals (in PhD ECE). The school is going to give me a terminal masters (w.o. thesis). My gpa is also not that stellar (3.4+), from a mediocre school. But I have a strong will to do a PhD (I enjoy doing research).

My supervisor (along with other co-authors) are supportive in the sense that they are willing to write good letters (i.e. I have a quite decent publication record). So, I am planning to apply this year, my specific queries are --

  1. Is it really worth a shot? as I have a "bad record" now (although my transcript will not convey such information, but I am not willing to hide it either)
  2. If no.1 is "yes", then how should I justify this to the adcom ? For example, explaining my financial and family problems that I faced during my last years (probably in the SOP)?
  3. Is it possible to go to a better school/lab compared to my current one ?

Some particulars:

  • I am an international grad student in the US.
  • I have a 3.8+ undergrad score from south-east asia (used to be a class topper, if that helps)
  • My GRE was also decent.
  • 1
    I think you can probably break this composite question into smaller questions; i) whether or not to reapply, given the failure of the qualifying exam, ii) whether or not to explain financial and/or familial problems when you reapply, and finally iii) whether or not it's possible to get into a better school (the answer to which is most likely "yes it's possible but..." )
    – posdef
    Oct 21, 2013 at 7:18
  • 3
    @posdef: I do not follow, why I should break it into multiple sub-questions.
    – mordor
    Oct 21, 2013 at 7:21
  • 4
    because that's how StackExchange sites work, or at least that is the code that is accepted and expected in most SE sites. meta.stackexchange.com/questions/39223/…
    – posdef
    Oct 21, 2013 at 7:26
  • @posdef: Questions 1 and 2 can become one, but I don't think that breaking the questions will help.
    – Grey
    Oct 27, 2013 at 22:52
  • 2
    @posdef: It would make no sense to make the first and second questions independent of one another!
    – aeismail
    May 13, 2014 at 12:57

3 Answers 3


You can't let one setback keep you from pursuing your goals or dreams. Yes, it's bad that you failed your quals, but that doesn't mean you should just give up. Having supportive committee members will help a lot when applying to other schools or programs.


Do whatever is up to you to achieve your goals. Don't focus on the previous events but rather try to get some lessons from them not to repeat them in the future. Try to focus on your advantages. It seems that you are not in a bad situation. You have a supportive supervisor, not bad scores. Besides, if there is a procedure of reapplying, it means that they also know that someone may need a second chance. So, answering your questions.

  1. Certainly. At the end you may say, at least I tried everything. Just keep moving and you will see the directions. If you are staying in the same place, you will never know whether your path is right or not. Give it a try.
  2. You don't have to justify anything. If they ask, then slightly explain the situation. They are not monsters.
  3. You can apply to a few places simultaneously. Of course it is worth trying. If you have time to manage that.

As it was mentioned, you can also try to apply to another programs in your or other universities (if you want)/ Good luck.


Consider applying to a different school or switching majors in the same university. Yes it is certainly worth a short. And no do not mention financial or family problems in the SOP.

Also consider joining the workforce. It is good to have options in hand. A PhD is not very useful unless you want to stick in academia which means low pay, being stuck in small city in the middle of nowhere, dealing with procrastinating students, begging NSF for funding etc.

ECE Masters are paid well in the industry and most PhDs I know work on "stuff" that a Masters can easily do. There are always exceptions to everything.

  • 2
    Why is a PhD only useful in academia? Many industry jobs hire PhDs. And why would you be stuck in a small town in the middle of nowhere? Most universities I'm familiar with are in cities.
    – user14808
    May 13, 2014 at 12:23
  • 1
    If you want a research career (as opposed to a development career), a PhD is essentially a prerequisite today.
    – aeismail
    May 13, 2014 at 12:59
  • Most universities I'm familiar with are in cities — This is not the same as "most universities". Ahem.
    – JeffE
    May 13, 2014 at 13:49

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