Two years ago I failed my comprehensive exam at the US PhD program, although my advisor was happy with my results. Then, I started to work at one of the top companies, but, I have never ever given up my desire to finish a PhD.

I want to apply to PhD programs again. How should I address the issue of failing my comprehensive exams? Basically how to convince them that you are able to finish their program.

  • What is the comps and what are the big4 companies? And no life is wasted without a phd..
    – user111388
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 9:07
  • Comps are the qualifying exams at the end of the first year. Big4 companies are the consulting firms like KPMG, Deloitte PwC.
    – Mattheus
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 10:24
  • @user111388: Actually, comps may come later than the end of the first year. In math there are several topics covered, for example, and it may take more than a year to get the needed courses behind you. (US perspective)
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 12:24
  • 2
    I have edited your question to make it a bit more formal. Please rollback if you think it is conveying something different.
    – Coder
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 19:56
  • 2
    What is the question? Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 20:26

2 Answers 2


It certainly is possible; I too have anecdotal experience.

There's really two main items at question here.

  • Why did you fail your qualifying exams the first time?
  • What will you get out of completing a PhD?

My experiences are as follows -

First, I failed because I took them too early and was not professional about my studies as I should have been, plain and simple. At that point, I was locked into a rigid timeline for a retake which I attempted to negotiate with the department. They pushed back and I passed 2/3 retakes, but that was not enough. I did great research, my advisor totally had my back (and is still incredibly disappointed with the department and the handling of my situation), the only reason I didn't continue was because I did not pass the qualifiers.

Based on the fact that you are at a 'Big 4' consulting firm, you probably have a good career ahead of you. I was in industry for a while before returning to academia after undergrad, so I totally understand that academia provides truly unique opportunities. For me, it allowed me to re-orient myself from a management career track to a technical career track. And in the process, I fell in love with the process of finding research problems and having the freedom to really dig in and become an expert. Academia is really the only way for me to pursue the topic that I want to pursue, and to continue to develop myself as an independent researcher.

You really need to think hard about both of these questions. I did, and I knew that I wanted to continue. I worked hard to develop a relationship with another PI. And honestly, I'm working on problems which are more interesting to me in a niche field that is on the cusp of some very interesting results at the intersection of theoretical results and application.

There was another member of my cohort who didn't pass the qualifiers in the same round. They already had a master's, and decided that getting a PhD just wasn't in the cards for them.

On the practical side of things, you're giving up 3-5 years of, I am guessing, a 6-figure salary with good retirement package. That's a LOT of money, not to mention bonuses, raises, etc.. On the other hand, the golden handcuffs are likely not too tight on you yet, so now would be the time to take them off without too much pain.

In the end, this all really falls on you and how much you want to get the PhD - at this point, I would say it's not just want, it's how much you need to get it, for personal or professional reasons. There's plenty of ways to work on interesting projects doing what you want to do without a PhD. My biggest recommendation: exhaust those options before jumping back in.


Yes, it is possible to do this.

First, there are lots of reasons for failing qualifying/comprehensive exams, one of which is just burn-out.

It is even possible to move to a higher ranked institution when you do so and to be successful there. (Yes, I have anecdotal evidence.)

But, to do so requires an advocate who can assure the new institution that you have what it takes for success; knowledge, drive, skills. Your current advisor might be the person to do this for you but they will be putting their own reputation on the line to some extent so they need to be sure and you need to be sure that you will do what it takes to succeed. They will need to use already existing professional relationships to get another institution to give you the chance you want. This will probably limit the places you could move to in order to make it happen.

Another faculty member, not your advisor, might also be able to do this for you if you have a good relationship along with their respect.

  • Dear Dr. Buffy, may I please contact you? May be couple of your advices will help me get back on the track.
    – Mattheus
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 12:31
  • No, sorry. Work with your advisor. Keep up that contact.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 12:39
  • Thanks, did not mean to ask you for anything. Sorry for misunderstanding.
    – Mattheus
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 12:43
  • 1
    No reason to be sorry. My anonymity is important to me here. That is all. And good luck.
    – Buffy
    Commented Dec 2, 2020 at 12:49

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