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.