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I'm a first-year Ph.D. student in STEM who recently took their qualifying exams, in which we take two. I absolutely failed one and passed the other with flying colors (according to a faculty member). Luckily, in my department, I only have to take the one I did not pass. In terms of why I failed, it was a combination of choking and being deficient in one course which I thought could be remedied by self-studying, however, I did not put in the time. In that regard, I absolutely take the blame.

I am stressed about the future because I believe I embarrassed my advisor* by performing quite poorly. As such, he may have revaluated his opinion of me, which could lead to possible termination. After getting the results, he has not spoken to me about what happened. Without trying to come off as a narcissist, I was recruited by him given my strong research background and graduate coursework from my bachelor's, which allowed me to start doing research the first semester of my doctoral program. As such, from the very start, I believe there was a lot of pressure to pass the exams with ease.

Given that I am unsure what he is thinking, would it be appropriate to contact him to clear the air? I assumed he would bring it up, but I can now see two things happening: We don't speak of it or he will approach me at a later time. This summer interim it was planned I would continue with research.

TLDR: I failed one of two qualifying exams and am unsure of my future with my advisor given that I have already started research. Should I approach him about it, and how should I continue forward?

*I apologize if this concern comes off as silly, however, I was raised in a household where honor, integrity, and face are extremely important.

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  • Something you should learn for the future: never feel pressured to pass something with ease. You can always just put in the required time and let everyone think it was easy. Your wouldn't believe how many geniuses out there are really mostly very thorough learners instead of hand-wavy-pass-the-exam-with-ease. – DonQuiKong May 16 at 8:09
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    which culture are we talking here? – lalala May 16 at 9:45
  • @lalala Probably the US or Canada. Qualifying exams for a PhD aren't a thing in Europe, though I'm not so sure about the rest of the world. – Crazymoomin May 16 at 11:46
  • @Crazymoomin well, I know also Singapore has QE. But if it is US or EU then I would say, althout the student cares about face, supervisors usually does not (except his own...). If it is a not US or EU one has to approach this differently. – lalala May 16 at 11:50
  • Thank you everyone for the helpful response, it helps a lot. My institution is in the US. – Chen1579 May 18 at 3:23
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You should talk to your advisor.

It's completely natural to feel embarrassed if you have done badly in an exam where everyone was expecting you to do well. It's also natural to feel you have let your advisor down, especially as it sounds in your case they recruited you specifically.

However, from what you have written, I'd say you have more positives than negatives to take away from the situation: you have started a PhD during a global pandemic and passed half your exams with flying colours. You note yourself that you only failed the other exam because you did not study one topic enough -- that shows great maturity and awareness of what can be done to rectify the situation.

Furthermore, everyone fails exams (or does worse than they were hoping or expecting to). I'd wager you're not the first of your advisor's students to have failed an exam -- or even the tenth. Any advisor worth their salt will not take this personally -- instead, their reaction should be "how can I help my student to succeed when they retake the exam?". If their reaction is to drop you as a student due to one failed exam, I'd say you're better off without them, frankly.

So, I counsel you to talk to your advisor, stating what you have done here. You can write it in a email first if that feels more comfortable. State what you plan to do to ensure you pass the exam next time around and ask if they have any advice. You can also ask if you should continue to focus on research over the summer or switch to studying for the retake (this might depend on when you will resit the exam -- is it before the summer?).

The key to any successful collaboration in research, and especially a successful student-supervisor relationship, is communication. Keep an open dialogue from the beginning and you will hopefully not run into problems further down the line.

Don't be afraid to ask your advisor for help: that is what they are there for.

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    Thank you for the very helpful response. The qualifiers are offered once a year, so I have some time. When writing this email, would it be appropriate to keep it short and concise? Also, what sort of response should I expect? – Chen1579 May 16 at 0:39
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    I think the key thing here is talk to your advisor - you need to be more direct and get better feed back face to face (or at least via zoom or on a phone call) – mmmmmm May 16 at 10:08
  • @Chen1579 yes, try to be clear and concise. I don't know what sort of response you should expect as I've never interacted with your advisor. You need to bite the bullet and talk to them, otherwise this fear will continue to impede you if you ever have bigger problems to discuss with them in the future. – astronat May 16 at 10:47

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