I apologize for the length of this post but I feel it is necessary to accurately convey the severity of the situation. I greatly appreciate those who take the time to offer advice.

I am a prospective PhD student in a major research institution and am writing on behalf of numerous students frustrated with our department's qualifying exam (QE). Things have been getting progressively worse over the past few years such that my fellow students have decided to petitioned our department(dept.) head for a procedural change. Unfortunately, several students refused to sign the petition for fear of malicious treatment by the faculty. The response to our petition from the dept. head and other faculty was unfavorable to the point that we are considering filing a formal complaint with the University. I would like to gauge the objective opinions of unbiased parties as to whether our reasons for complaint are justifiable.

I will describe the QE procedure and summarize our complaints below:

The formal reasoning given by our dept. for having a qualifying exam is "To determine whether the student has the knowledge, skills, and ability to conduct independent thinking and creative research." The QE is composed of 4 consecutive one hour written examinations, a research assessment paper on a pre-selected journal article specific to our research field, and an oral examination where we present the contents of our research assessment paper and then answer questions from 3 faculty members until they are satisfied. Students may retake any sections which they fail the following year. If after the second attempt, all parts have not been passed, the student must petition for a third attempt. If the petition is not accepted, the student must defect to the master's program. If that student already has a M.S. from the department (as is my case) then the student is forced to leave the program and 3 years of tuition is wasted.

  • Students are not allowed to see their graded exams or know their exam score. This privilege was removed without warning two years ago despite being present in our universities' student bill of rights. We are notified via letter of pass/fail status only. Also, no statistics are provided regarding the range of scores, number of students who passed, etc.

  • The dept. never reveals what score constitutes passing or failing. We have heard via word of mouth from certain faculty who sympathize with out situation, that passing can range from 30% to 80% depending on the exam category and changes from year to year. This, however, is not administrable evidence and would most likely be denied by the faculty who told us if ever questioned.

  • Exam content consistently strays outside the provided list of topics. The provided topic list appears to be lazily assembled by copy/pasting from course syllabi. The 4 exams are technically supposed to be covered by the 3 courses which the department requires all graduate students to take (they do not offer a graduate class covering the fourth topic). However, questioned are routinely posed from material covered in non-required classes, some of which are only offered every few years.

  • Exams are written by professors who's field of research is entirely unrelated to the exam topic and/or professors who have never taught the class which the exam covers. This leads to major inconsistencies in the materials covered and puts students who took the class from a different professor at a disadvantage Again, the dept. refuses to reveal who writes the exams. However, we generally figure it out in hindsight from off-the-record discussions.

  • The passing rate of these exams is very low. Less than 20% of students pass all exams their first attempt. Again, we cannot prove it, but it is suspected that the decision to pass a student is biased based on whether it is the students second attempt. Also, many students who get A's in the covered classes are failing these exams.

  • After our meeting with the dept. head regarding our petition, it was announced that the subjective third attempt to pass all sections was no longer going to be allowed. This is unfair as many students have required this third attempt in the past. Also, students taking these exams for the second time (which were in February), did so under the impression that, based on past history, they would get a third attempt if needed. This new policy will effectively force them to leave without a degree.

This list of complaints could go on for pages but I will leave it at that. I understand that a PhD QE should not be easy; however, are our frustrations warranted? I welcome both advice and constructive criticism.

  • 2
    Get a lawyer. If they truly are violating University rules, you can bust them. Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 0:22
  • 3
    Students failing alone is hardly grounds for formal complaint. I understand that's frustrating in a situation where your tuition funds the machine, but still. Some rights should be defended with tooth and nail, though. 1) You must definitely have insight in your own results (note: not necessarily others, not even via statistics). 2) Changing rules after the race has started is absolutely not fair. I guess your university has rules for both -- demand that they are applied. Most of the other points sound like faculty are "just" doing bad jobs -- but that's probably not a legal issue (for you).
    – Raphael
    Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 9:02
  • _ Students are not allowed to ... know their exam score.... We are notified via letter of pass/fail status only_ — Apparently you are notified of your exam scores. The students who pass have a score of 1, and the students who fail have a score of 0. (Ha ha only facepalm.)
    – JeffE
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 23:19

3 Answers 3


The basic reality of qualifying exams is that they can act as an "outlet valve" or "quality check" for various departments, allowing them to pick out the best students (if they admit more incoming students than they can accommodate in RA and TA positions) or to double-check their decisions (to make sure everyone is qualified). Of course, this only works if they are free to make the decisions however they so choose. This means that it doesn't make sense for them to post publicly exact scores, nor to publicize what a "passing grade" is. So you're probably not going to meet with a lot of support for public announcement of scores and distributions

However, most of your other points are valid concerns. You can't change the rules ex post facto—if you tell somebody before their second attempt that they have up to three attempts to pass, then you can't later change your mind and say "sorry, you only have two attempts." This is completely unfair. Similarly, asking questions on subjects that lie well outside the domain of what the exam should cover is also completely unreasonable. Passing should not be contingent on taking a class you haven't been able to take because it wasn't offered!

Most importantly, though, is that it sounds that like the bigger problem is that the faculty in your department aren't taking their duties with respect to the qualifying exam very seriously. If this is in fact the case, then they should change the exam into something they can live with. Otherwise, they're wasting their time and yours, and possibly needlessly ruining people's graduate careers and professional aspirations. This is simply inexcusable. Unfortunately, short of raising a ruckus with the university administration (or being willing to file a lawsuit), I don't see much hope of things changing.

  • 1
    I see your point about the need for discretionary freedom with grading. However, I am surprised that not being able to see our own graded exams, even in a private meeting, is a non-issue. I did not mention it in the original post but the department has an unfortunate tainted history with preferential, even malicious, treatment of students by faculty (who are still there because of tenure). Thus, keeping the exams confidential means there is no way to maintain accountability with grading Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 18:36
  • 2
    That's the point, though: faculty members generally don't want strict accountability. They want to be able to "fight for" "their" students, if need be. A strict grading scheme and standards make such goals much more difficult to achieve.
    – aeismail
    Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 22:22
  • 4
    I fail to see the downside of releasing scores to the individuals involved (each sees only his own score). At the same time, frankly this is why one should interview other grad students before accepting into a program. You've learned the hard way. Commented Mar 26, 2014 at 0:24
  • "Passing should not be contingent on taking a class you haven't been able to take because it wasn't offered" is not exactly true. It is fairly common for "the" course for an exam to not be able to cover every topic that can appear on the qualifying exams. It is left to the student, as partially a demonstration of their ability to learn on their own in a research setting, to make sure they know all material that can be on the exams, and not simply what was taught to them in the available courses. If there's zero mention of this material being on the exam, then you're right: it's a problem. Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 6:54

First of all, your concerns sound reasonable and valid, if the facts are as you've stated.

It sounds as if your department has decided to use a quota-based filter to limit admission to a Ph.D (only some X fraction of students will be allowed to go on). That would explain the general mystery surrounding the process and their unwillingness to post standards for passing/failing. While they're within their rights to do things this way, they're trying to have their cake and eat it too. Because if they were required to state this explicitly, no one would want to come to the department to play this version of Hunger Games.

Unfortunately, it's not clear what you can do. Some things are possible:

  • can you document the instances of questions deviating from prescribed material ? While this wouldn't be a smoking gun ("You should know this already" - say the professors), it would at least force them to be more specific about what's contained on the exams.

  • can you document the inconsistencies between material taught and material asked on the exams ? for the same reason as above.

  • changing rules midstream is a big NO NO. This is your strongest complaint if you have to take the matter up further. At the very least, students have to be grandfathered in.

Beyond that, you should remember one source of power you do have. Professors need grad students, if for nothing else than to do the work professors have promised their grant agencies they will do. Deans need professors to spend research money on students so they can say that they're using grant money effectively. None of this works without students. Obviously you can't take collective action without numbers, but a protest where you submit blank exams could make an interesting statement.

But that should be a last resort.

  • 1
    In my opinion it isn't an admissions issue. Our faculty have beyond ample research funding; more funding than available students in fact. Their stubbornness to change seems more ego driven, despite the fact that change would benefit both parties. Unfortunately, I don't see a group collective action happening anytime soon. One student was confronted by a faculty member about his participation in this petition and we subsequently lost almost half of our original signatures Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 18:48
  • 9
    "Their stubbornness to change seems more ego driven, despite the fact that change would benefit both parties". It's desperately unlikely that the faculty are all sitting there thinking, "gosh, it would be wonderful to do exactly what the students have asked, but we'd lose face, so let's continue with this system that we all agree is appalling". More likely they have other motives, e.g. it would require a lot of time-commitment and lost flexibility from them to improve things. People are more commonly busy or over-controlling than self-destructively egotistical. Find out what those motives are. Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 19:00
  • It does sound like the most important component here is time: in that the faculty would have spend lots of time to change a system that is working for them.
    – Suresh
    Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 20:17

You have implied two basic options: staying without fussing or trying to lobby for changes, or staying with some attempted hostile influence. But both cases are graduate students with low status dealing with tenured and like-minded-to-tenured professors. Someone who understood law could tell you legal strengths and someone who understood university policies could advise you on means of redress within the university. I can't do either, but I want to give another option.

There is also the option of entering another program. There would be losses, but what is written between the lines in your detailed "Here are the details as objectively as I can give them; how do things stack up?" original post is a question of "Can I from my present position obtain an appropriate position within my university, or not?" that does not consider seeking a more appropriate department and university. I know there are things you would lose by transferring out, and you might have to take some things again. But in terms of a hostile departmental administration, there are much better options than what you can work out within a university that does these things, even if you can improve some of them by academic grievance procedure (a point on which I do not offer informed opinion).

I did a second master's and was dropped on suspicious grounds (passing was 60 points, minimum for entering Ph.D. placement was 63 points, I had 61 points... after I decided that the one area I really wanted to impress the department was my thesis, and the department made me change my thesis topic, which I declared at the beginning of the year, so completely that I retained none of my earlier study--two thirds of the way through the year; the 61 was a 61 for half the time I spent during the academic year and no credit or recognition earlier). I'm looking for a more appropriate place, even though it pains me I was not able to complete my studies there.

I wish you the best, and a boss in or outside of academia who will be more humane in dealing with humans.

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