I just failed my 2nd Qualifying Exam in my PhD program. It was supposed to be a 60,000 word paper but it was an incomplete work.

I am in my 4th year at my PhD and my research is in field of humanities. My major is Geography. It is an integrated course, as in I joined as soon as I got my Bachelor's. I am doing my research on a multidisciplinary and very practically useful subject based on sacred forests and urban landscapes (I won't go into details). But, I was going through some intense emotional time for 6 months (June to December 2020-a critical period) due to personal tragedies in my family. Also low funding is also a problem. I am an international student. And pandemic is just making it worse.

Now, I feel absolutely devastated.I am not going to get a chance again at re-exam, and that is fine too. I can understand why they wouldn't want to invest in such a bad student. I do work very slowly, but sincerely and did learn and correct accordingly as my advisor said for this 60,000 word hell. Though I could not do field surveys and data collection due to strict travel sanctions, I tried backing up my research with more literature. The problem here is my research is focused on a more practical part of urban forestry, and it is so niche that there is a severe lack of academic work on my topic, if you don't count ancient scriptures (which is hardly academic).

I realise my mistakes and I am willing to do everything to correct them. I just need some more time. But being told I am not suitable to be a PhD student just based on the incomplete paper (it was just 40 pages long) hurt me more than being told how my research was absolutely useless. I am aware that my research IS useless at current stage, but I had all the future work set up in proper parts so it becomes relevant. I was not sure if I can give reasons about tragedies and poor health because last time I tried that they had said 'so what? even pregnant ladies do phd" and that was that. And that is fine too. But being told I am useless as PhD student was like taking a direct hit on what defined me. It was sort of an existential crisis. The shame and incredible sense of loss is palpable and making me clam up instead of working to get out of it.

I know it is not the end of the world and I am sorry for long sob story. I want to know how to proceed? Is it possible to get into a PhD after failing quals? Or do they dismiss you if you have failed quals? Should I immediately apply to a PhD or gain some work experience before?

Thank you.

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    Normally, it is possible to put in hardship applications (concerning health and other force majeure circumstances) before an examination. Unfortunately, this is much harder after the fact, otherwise every failed student would try that. I do not know if you can try for another PhD, but I assume you can, though I would probably pick a different place to do it, where they do not know you. It might be a good idea to work for a bit or do something else to distance yourself before trying again. Make sure you learn - I mean, really learn - from the experience what not to do again. Commented Jan 29, 2021 at 12:13
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    Should I immediately apply to a PhD or gain some work experience before? --- I recommend work experience from what you've said. What you've described does not sound like an ivory-tower area that you can pretty much only pursue in a university setting (e.g. medieval literary analysis, realism art aspects of cave paintings, gender issues in dystopian science fiction, etc.), and even if it were, if you find yourself pursuing it no matter what you do job-wise, then you'll have the answer as to whether you should try again. (continued) Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 9:05
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    You might find that you can happily pursue your interests and gain employment without a highly specialized and narrowly focused research degree. Indeed, obtaining such a degree is likely to limit your employability to a handful of highly specialized and narrowly focused areas, unless you can prove your competence in less specialized areas, which a few years of work experience will provide, and you will probably find it easier to get this experience before you get your degree and find yourself being classified as "over qualified" for such positions. Commented Jan 30, 2021 at 9:06
  • Just my personal opinion: I agree with those who say to try the work-world or something else. Of course, depending on your major, it may or may not be easy to establish a career in non-academic organizations. If you have a master's, you may be qualified to teach at various community colleges, etc., and you certainly could tutor other students, among many other options. Commented Aug 3, 2022 at 18:39

2 Answers 2


I have evidence that it is possible to do a good PhD in a new university after failing to pass qualifiers in an earlier one. In fact, the person I'm thinking of finished at a higher rated university than the original.

However, in this case, it took the efforts of a faculty member (and mentor) of the person to strongly advocate for the candidate's admission and to express complete confidence in their ability. The candidate had a bad experience with many factors at the original place but turned out to be very well respected by faculty at the second.

You have a hard road and it may not be possible to travel it, but look around you for any advocates that will argue for you. If you are currently suffering from burn-out you will need to get that under control. But advocates can help with that, also, just from their attitudes. Having a new advisor in a new place might work wonders if you can convince people of your ability and likelihood of success.

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    @Dragon Zakura: Buffy's first paragraph also applies to me, including the upgrade in university rank. In fact, for me the two universities in question were my 3rd and 4th graduate attendance stints --- the first at the highest ranked university I attended graduate school, the second at a then only Masters level program in my field where I got a Masters degree. (More details in the comments to this question.) Commented Jan 29, 2021 at 16:18

I am sorry to hear you have had such a dramatic experience. I also understand the self-doubt and hit to your self-confidence caused by this current event. One thing I suggest you do is to objectively evaluate the situation you find yourself currently in. Do you think you deserve to pass the exam based on your progress and efforts? That is the main answer you are looking for. If you want to stand for yourself, you should first think about your argument and you need to believe in it. So first step first. What is your argument here? Was your progress acceptable but your committee was unfair? Or do you agree with the committee that they rightfully failed your qualifying exam? I need to remind you that your advisor and committee members are humans and their opinions may not represent the objective reality regarding your situations. Some other professors in some other universities might have found your progress actually satisfactory if your work was presented to them. So, don't think of the opinion of your committee as something to tie your self-image with. You need to acquire their approvals of course, but it doesn't mean you should base your self-image on what other people's opinions of you are.

After you come up with an honest self-evaluation of your situation, you could start advocating for your case based on what you want to achieve. If your past situation is a culprit, providing appropriate documents supporting your case would help. If you think your committee members were not just in evaluating your progress, you might be able to change your committee and go through re-examinations. These all also depend on how supportive your supervisor is since you didn't mention his/her opinion here.

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