This is from a document explaining the procedure for the comprehensive exam for entering the Ph.D. candidacy at my school. It mentions that the potential candidate should withdraw from the Ph.D. program if they do not pass the comprehensive exam. My question is: What would be the consequences if the potential candidate simply refuses to withdraw? They would be fired, right? Is there any benefit in withdrawing from the program compared to just doing your research and waiting to be fired? Or, it is just the usage of polite language and beating around the bush in this document? For reference, this is about a university in Canada.

  • 5
    What country are you in? The language connotations differ... Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 22:27
  • 1
    I edited. thanks.
    – user35129
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 22:30
  • 14
    You aren’t an employee, you are a student. The effects are the same though.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 22:40
  • 3
    "Is there any benefit in withdrawing from the program" - besides not having tuition due?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 23:27
  • 1
    In British English "fired" would indicate the termination of a contract of employment it would not be used for a pupil in an academic setting.
    – deep64blue
    Commented Feb 24, 2020 at 8:40

5 Answers 5


When you withdraw from the program, you can tell people later (in a job interview, social situation etc) that you “decided to withdraw from the program”.

If you are fired you will have the option of either lying (with possible bad consequences if the lie is found out) or telling people “I was fired”.

Which of those sounds better?

  • great answers in this thread but this seems the most sensible reason for the student to do that/ for the program of offer such an option.Thanks
    – user35129
    Commented Feb 22, 2020 at 23:34

In the U.S., and to the extent I understand it, in Canada, funding is slightly and significantly separate from "being allowed to hang around, register for classes, etc.".

Of course, in many STEM fields, the usual expectation is that one _is_funded_ including tuition paid, so long as one is "in good standing" in the grad program. That means passing exams on schedule, doing whatever is prescribed.

Failing qualifying exams (if no repeats are allowed) surely puts one "not in good standing". Almost certainly this would entail loss of funding, and loss of tuition coverage. (Loss of teaching assistant or research assistant jobs, too.)

It might not immediately disqualify you from registering for classes, or from continuing in the graduate program... However, if the program requires that you (eventually?) pass the qualifying exam, and you're not allowed any further attempts after failing... success is impossible.

If the latter is your situation, you probably won't be escorted out of the building by security, but at some point you'll get no more pay, you'll be asked to vacate any office space, and have to pay to register, at best.

The only possible interesting thing is to inquire of your program how to get reinstated... or to be supported by them in trying to move to a lower-tier program that might be happier with you.

  • 4
    They have never once stated that they failed such an exam. They are only wondering out of curiosity why it is phrased this way. Why are you advising the asker to switch programs?
    – user64742
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 3:27
  • 1
    @user64742, I am only speaking exactly of the hypothetical, as an explanation of why it is phrased this way. Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 16:51

In some places, doctoral students aren't actually employees though they have some other position, such as a TA, which can be a separate thing. Your relationship to the university is "student", not "employee". In such systems what you suggest makes perfect sense. You can no longer enroll in courses if you fail comps. Normally a TA job also disappears since student status may be required to hold it, but that would be, administratively and legally, a different thing.

But if you fail comprehensive/qualifying exams, you won't be welcome, generally. You will get no benefit for "hanging around" and there is no path to a degree at that institution.

Some places you get more than one chance to pass, say twice.

In other places, doctoral students are employees of the university or a lab, and in such situations failing and being fired are about the same.


I imagine the details vary by institution, but the ones (in Canada and US) I am familiar with -

  1. Formally, to register each semester/quarter/whatever, you need to be "in good standing" according to your department. If you are not, you cannot register.

  2. If you have scholarship and/or grant-type funding, this is released contingent on you being registered and "in good standing" (or a similar condition)

  3. If you have funding based on TA duties (or similar), the precise conditions of your contract may vary, but I'd be surprised if any contract you have would be for more than one academic year, potentially even one term, and your institution would just not renew it with you.

  4. If you are funded through student loans, they will require confirmation that you are in good standing.

Therefore, if your department encourages you to withdraw, and you do not -- and don't persuade them to keep you in -- you will find yourself unable to register, and without funding.

Now in general, threats to take comprehensives etc seriously aside, departments don't actually want to push people out the door. If you have generally been making decent progress and something blows up, In my experience, they will work with you to buy you time, retake something, defer some deadline via accommodation/exception, etc. However, this has 3 important limitations.

  1. They don't have to do this, and it depends on specific people personally championing you to suss out how to make it happen and influencing bureaucrats to make it happen. So don't treat it as an entitlement.

  2. The dropout rate in graduate programs is appallingly high. This is not the place to discuss why and what should be done about this, but many people who drop out just aren't progressing at an adequate speed, from faculty's perception through insufficient creativity/imagination in the field (just not suited to it, regardless of how nice people they may be) and/or insufficient self-motivation and/or work ethic to make progress fast enough. A number of these seem to perpetually be overoptimistic about their ability to turn things around, and so for better or worse it's rules on progress deadlines or crucial pass/fails that end up pushing them out, with faculty members breathing a sigh of relief since they can't actually see that person succeeding in the end anyway (whether correctly or not). So expect exceptions only if your failure or running out the clock is an uncharacteristic blip and you have a bunch of supporters who will argue that this blip aside, you are making great progress and show every sign of being a successful finisher.

  3. If you do somehow stop the clock, or go away and work on something, AND successfully get reinstated later, of course you won't get financial support while you're "away", and you may well be required to retroactively register and pay full or partial tuition while you were "away" on your return. Depends on the institution, and is unfair (since you were not benefiting while away), but be prepared for it.

Not trying to be harsh here, just honest. Fully recognize that crucial junctures like comprehensives create a lot of worry and catastrophising. Hopefully that's all it is, and you'll do fine.


My institution (also in Canada) has similar wording but in the context of having a non-satisfactory grade on a required course, "the student is strongly recommended to withdraw from the graduate program". I spoke to my supervisor about this (same question as you) and in this context the reasoning is that you technically won't be eligible to graduate, but your supervisor can make a case for why you should be allowed to graduate despite the grades.

I'd assume that the reasoning is the same in your case. But I recommend that you speak to your supervisor/a department head about this. It should be an easy question to answer and it can likely vary by institution/department.

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