My current situation is that I am studying a PhD in statistics in a school in Canada. Because I did not pass the qualification examination, I switched to a master's degree. At present, my transcript will record that I am studying for a PhD. But it will be recorded as a master's degree from the new semester. The main reason is that my doctoral qualification exam is a course, and the result will be a failure (59/100) on my transcript. The statistics courses I have taken before having good scores (90+) and I have taken 5 courses in statistics.

I did a master's degree in mathematics before, and had a mathematics thesis published. I have a recommendation letter from a professor at my current school, but not my advisor. The professor at the current school will help me explain why I transferred to a master's degree, focusing on My interest is in mathematics rather than statistics.

Q1: My current plan is to reapply for a PhD in mathematics. I would like to ask how not to hurt my PhD application in mathematics? Like in my SoP?

Q2: How can I explain my failure in a course (which is actually a qualifying exam, but the name is not a qualifying exam) that will make the committee think I can succeed in the Math PhD program?

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    What do you mean by 'make up for my current situation'? It is what it is, and you want to move on. You likely will need to explain to some degree why you failed quals in statistics, but are those related to a math PhD?
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 14:25
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    Are you asking how best to lie/mislead about what happened with your PhD? Why should failing a previous PhD not hurt your application for another PhD?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 14:33
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    What subject was the course/qualifier for. Somewhat specific would be helpful.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 14:51
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    @Hermi How to explain what?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 17:52
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    @DaveLRenfro It looks like you should make an answer of the things you wrote here. Comments are not for actually responding to the question. Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 11:23

1 Answer 1


(slightly expanded and edited version of comments)

Maybe write something brief that says initially you were studying statistics based on what you had been told about its marketability, but in doing this you seriously misjudged your interest in statistics and failed to pass your doctoral qualifying exam (i.e. Stat 501 — Doctoral Research Skills). Then say that you learned from this experience that, for you, it is more important to pursue what you truly like, which is mathematics.

You’ll want to minimize verbiage in discussing this, so resist the temptation to write another sentence that makes the “qualifying exam / course” relationship more explicit than given by the parenthetical i.e. part. Proceed immediately to your strong points relevant to the program you are applying to by providing statements that give evidence you can succeed in THEIR program, and don’t dwell on statements that give reasons for your failure in ANOTHER program.

In a comment you asked about saying the following: “Since I was unable to attend the class presentation and had already missed the deadline to drop the class, I ended up failing the STAT 501. Also, STAT 501 is a course on applied statistics, and I struggled with the statistical way of thinking due to my lack of prior experience with applied statistics.”

I think it would be best NOT to delve into such reasons. For example: (1) "unable to attend the class presentation" — This raises the question of why you were unable to attend. Moreover, if there is a legitimate reason for why you couldn’t attend, then this raises another question, namely why you were not otherwise accommodated regarding the class/qual-exam. (2) "missed the deadline to drop the class" — This introduces another failure on your part, that of not keeping up with deadlines. (3) "lack of prior experience with applied statistics" — This suggests a weakness in being able to independently learn necessary background knowledge in something, which you don't want to convey when applying to a Ph.D. program.

In summary, briefly acknowledge your failure and what you learned from it. However, don’t continue by providing more details and explanation, as this is wasting their time (they want to know whether you can succeed in THEIR program, not whether you could have succeeded “if only . . .” in some OTHER program) and this could introduce unintended suggestions of possible shortcomings that would be of concern to them.

Naturally, in a more extended in-person or video interview, you could go into more detail, but even then do so carefully — you’ll make a better impression by owning up to your mistakes/shortcomings than by trying to explain them away.

  • +1 for "You’ll make a better impression by owning up to your mistakes/shortcomings than by trying to explain them away." Commented Feb 22 at 10:10

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