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I'm in my first year of a PhD program in the U.S. One of my professors scheduled a midterm exam for 8:30-11pm at night, and I think it will be very hard for me to stay up that late for an exam. I'm already working hard between my classes, TA responsibilities, and research. I sometimes go bed as early as 9pm because I'm exhausted (which was not normal for me before entering the program).

I emailed the professor soon after the exam was announced, but he is unwilling to change the time, since there's no other 2.5-hour time slot where all the students in the class are free (the class period is only an hour).

My question is whether this is normal. If I want to continue in academia, do I just have to learn to deal with this kind of scheduling, or is this an extreme case?

Edit: To clarify, this is a graduate course that I am taking.

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    "Reasonable" and "normal" are two quite different things. Why does an exam have to be 2.5 hours? Why does it need to be in one sitting? There are alternatives.
    – Buffy
    Oct 1 at 14:52
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    It’s definitely not normal, and you can reasonably expect that this is probably going to be a one-time event in your course work. Hence, even if it’s not ideal for you, just shrug your shoulders and get through it. Oct 1 at 16:05
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    Why is he giving a test that isn't during your regularly scheduled time at all? Oct 1 at 18:16
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    you haven't said what time of day the class usually meets. But I would have thought an exam time like that would also be unreasonable for people with young children and all sorts of other groups. How does he even know that that's the only time in common, did he ask you all?
    – JenB
    Oct 1 at 19:56
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    I would start addressing why you are exhausted by 9pm every day. (Medical issue? Getting up too early?) While this is an unusual time slot for an exam, you may find your preferred schedule causing other problems later.
    – chepner
    Oct 3 at 13:32
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Universities that I have attended have always had specific policies for exam times. Generally, these policies required midterm exams to occur during normal class periods, and set specific final exam windows according to the time of the class. This helped to avoid conflicts, because everyone with, say, a lecture at 10 am on Mondays would have their final exam on, say, Day 4 of Finals Week between 2-5pm (some special cases always did result in conflict anyways, but these were dealt with on a case-by-case basis).

Typically, specific night classes would have nighttime exams, as well - the assumption was that at least a portion of students in a night class were taking those night classes to allow them to keep daytime commitments like a full-time job.

An 8:30pm-11pm exam time for a class that meets in the evening seems late to me, but could be justified as necessary to avoid other conflicts. For a class that normally meets in the daytime, yeah, if it were me personally I'd be finding a way to cope during more normal hours: splitting the exam into two parts, perhaps, or changing to a "take-home" format.

However, what matters isn't really my opinion nor yours, but the policies of your institution. What do those policies say about exam times?

As a PhD student, I would try not to worry about this sort of thing too much. Classes are a tiny part of the PhD experience, and I assume you'll be done or mostly done with them after a year or two. Your PhD classroom grades won't really matter too much for you unless they are below the "passing" standard - you'll be assessed for future positions based on your research output instead. Personally, I am very much a night person, but there have been a handful of times when I nonetheless had to crawl out of bed with some numbers on the clock that are horrible for me, like 6 am (even 8 am is pretty tough for me). Scheduling is difficult, and occasionally everyone will get pushed out of their preferred timing for one reason or another.

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    At 3 different institutions, I've never seen policies about midterm exam times. Oct 3 at 4:26
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    I've been in 3 different institutions too, and the only policy for Ph.D. exams --- giving that the number of students is small, and that exams at that level are few and well apart --- is "try to agree on a spot that's not too bad for everybody" :-). Anyway, I had to schedule exams (not PhD) at those times during the pandemic, to accommodate people confined in different time zones.
    – Rmano
    Oct 3 at 9:55
  • @DanielR.Collins From the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities: policy.umn.edu/education/exam University of Wisconsin-Madison: registrar.wisc.edu/exampolicy U of M only allows midterms outside of normal class hours in special circumstances approved by the Dean and must accommodate conflicts and be published in the class schedule; UW requires posting in the class schedule and syllabus. The vast majority of (non-final) exams at both are in normal class times; most of the exceptions are to do simultaneous exams across multiple course sections.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 4 at 17:31
  • @BryanKrause: Never doubted it was the case at some schools. And I can certainly see the utility of having such a policy now. But I doubt it's so widely in place as to help the OP. Oct 4 at 19:39
  • @DanielR.Collins Perhaps; in my limited experience these restrictions are ubiquitous; apparently in yours they are not. catalog.purdue.edu/content.php?catoid=9&navoid=10532 bulletin.stanford.edu/academic-policies/… catalog.upenn.edu/undergraduate/policies-procedures/course-exam/… So far, every pseudo-randomly chosen institution I've looked at has some sort of policy on this, at minimum requiring an early notification of students (e.g., before or during week 1) and procedures for alternate times.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 4 at 19:46
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It is common at many universities to have late exams if a class is taught several times in different sections at different times throughout the week, but the exam is common between the different sections. In those cases, you have to find (i) a common time that works for the students of all sections, (ii) one or a small number of rooms where you can accommodate everyone. For classes such as Engineering Calculus, Business Calculus, etc., that may have hundreds of students spread over several sections, that rules out every time slot other than evening ones, and so exams from 8-10pm are not uncommon.

In other words, what you describe does not at all surprise me. You will just have to deal with it. If you worry about staying up that late, take an afternoon nap.

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    Wow! I'm surprised by this. It would never be considered acceptable around here. What about people that caring responsbilities? Oct 2 at 16:42
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    Yeah, this being acceptable is culturally specific to the US here. Oct 2 at 19:03
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    Universities are not exactly flexible about teaching schedules during the day either. Being a student comes with sacrifices in flexibility, whether that is an 8am class or an 8pm exam: You just have to make it work. Oct 4 at 4:53
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    @IanSudbery How would you solve the problem discussed in the answer then? It's also easy to argue that in many cases that a single class period (often <1 hr) simply isn't long enough for a good exam anyways which also makes an off-hours exam the most practical choice. Oct 4 at 8:19
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    @IanSudbery You know up front that if you take certain classes, that exams will be late at night. It's been that way for years or decades, every student you talk to will tell you about it, and it's on the syllabus. The dates for these exams are set before the semester begins. I recognize that it is maybe annoying to some, but you have many weeks to arrange for alternate work schedules or a babysitter for the two or three occasions over the course of a semester where this will happen. Oct 4 at 18:51
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This is not normal. Moreover, the professor’s explanation that he chose this time because it’s the only time when all the students are “free” is also illogical, since he clearly didn’t ask your opinion about whether you are “free” between 8:30-11 pm on the night he did schedule the exam for. If he had, it would have been completely proper for you to say you are not free during that time since you have another scheduled activity (sleep or some other late evening relaxation routine in this case, but the nature of the activity is none of his business). So, to my ears this sounds like an abuse of authority - maybe not the most egregious one I can think about, but nothing to be dismissive about, and one that would be taken seriously if it was raised at my own department, and other US departments I’m familiar with.

In view of this and of the professor’s resistance to persuasion, it would be completely reasonable for you to email the graduate program coordinator, express your concern, and ask them to intervene. It’s very possible that the professor’s approach violates specific departmental or institutional policies of which he is unaware. (Or maybe they’ll say he is acting within his rights and you need to respect that — that’s not a completely bad outcome either, at least you’ll know you tried and you’ll be no worse off than before.)

While I assume the professor is acting in good faith and out of reasonably good intentions motivated by a desire to solve a practical problem, it is not uncommon for professors to make incorrect assumptions about what sorts of measures are reasonable to take in pursuit of their ideas of how a class should be run. Sometimes a little gentle feedback from colleagues or a person with a bit of influence is all it takes to get your rights respected. Now seems like one of those times. Good luck!

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    The timing is most likely an issue of conflicts with other classes that students might be taking, which the professor could easily check without asking, and other hard conflicts like that. Oct 4 at 5:26
  • @aquirdturtle perhaps. I don’t know what led the professor to make the incorrect assumption that he did, and don’t see why it should matter. Your explanation, if true, would not make the behavior more excusable.
    – Dan Romik
    Oct 4 at 5:38
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I once scheduled an exam in the evening. But I did reschedule it after a student told me that she is not allowed to fly an airplane in the dark (she lived in the mountains and came to classes on her family airplane). I would not reschedule if a student just wanted to go to bed early.

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    Wow, may I ask what your university is? That sounds incredible!
    – Make42
    Oct 2 at 20:00
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    @Make42: It was in California and the mountain range was Sierra Nevada. Several of my students came to the university by airplanes. Buy only one could not fly in the dark.
    – markvs
    Oct 2 at 20:10
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    @JimmyYang: It is an airplane which is owned by the family (parents) of the student. It must have been a Cessna or something similar, I did not ask. "Rich" is a relative notion. If you compare the price of a house in Sierra Nevada with the price of a house in a California city, the difference can buy you a Cessna or two. I also had a student in California who had his own private jet. He would not consider himself rich either.
    – markvs
    Oct 3 at 0:49
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    Wow, it's really hard for me to believe that some people own planes...
    – Jimmy Yang
    Oct 3 at 1:30
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    @JimmyYang As I understand it (not being a pilot and not owning a plane, but having flown on a plane of this type once to a customer on his plane once - quite an experience), planes are not that expensive, relatively speaking. The costs of a pilot really add up though. So if you are a private pilot then this isn't so bad. If you had to actually pay a pilot for every time you flew to class, it would get very expensive very quickly. Which means flying within your limitations - I can imagine bad weather would mean any non-IFR-rated students don't show up! Oct 3 at 2:07
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I used to have a course that was held entirely in the evening hours because the location was somewhere different than the other courses were (it required specialized lab equipment in a Chemistry room). Those classes were usually until 22:00 (10pm), thus the exam was as well. Was it inconvenient? Yes. A lot of inconvenient things happen in life. Is it normal? Well, not in that it happened every semester. We only had it for the single course. But for that specific course it was normal. Everyone who did that course, did it during late hours.

However, we were warned up front that this was going to be the case for this course. Proper communication up front would probably have made a difference here.

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