I failed two of my PhD qualifying exams (STEM) and will be mastering out from the program. I do not want to give excuse for myself but I feel like a lot of it comes from my bad relationship with my advisor who makes some things impossible for me to control (he was also on the committee for my exams) no matter how much I work.

As for my academic profile, I got all A's in my graduate coursework except for a B which comes from the only class that I took from my advisor. I also have two first-author papers at reputable journals and some other papers like conference paper. I am wondering whether should I still continue academia as although I am still interested in research, I am concerned that I have received a bad record from my current program which will affect my future prospects in academia. For instance,

  • How should I explain my failure in my qualifying exams?
  • Why did I not have a recommendation letter from my advisor?
  • How should I explain my situation to previous recommendation letter writers to write for me again for the next application cycle?
  • Should I apply for a lower-ranked school this time round since I am now seen as a more risky investment?

If I could explain my above situations wisely, I may try applying for PhD programs again. Although this experience is very disappointing for me, I will be much more prepared this time and will be more wise in terms of which lab I should join.


2 Answers 2


I know from personal experience that you do not need to give up! I also mastered out of a PhD program (in mathematics), but then successfully entered another PhD in mathematics program, and completed the PhD (and am now employed in academia!)

I did not explain my failing when applying to new schools- there's no way to really tell if you "mastered out" or if you were just getting a masters degree (at least in my case - double check this). I did state that my previous institution was "not a good fit," but that the potential future institution would be for ::insert reasons here::.

For my one letter writer that I reused - I simply said it was not a good fit for a program, but that I had researched and found institutions that I felt were a better fit. No questions asked!

I did not have a letter from an advisor - but in my case I didn't really have an advisor. Our advisors were assigned after passing the qualification exams. I did get a letter from one of my professors from coursework at that institution, as well as a professor that I was a teaching assistant for (to focus on my teaching skills). I also used one letter writer I had used previously (who I had published with). Again - I did not give an explanation in my applications (I think having some letters from the institution I was at helped even though it was not an "advisor")

It would not hurt to apply to lower ranked schools, but don't limit just to those. I applied to a variety. I still graduated from an R1 institution with a PhD.

Long story short - you really can still do it, if you have the passion. Do good research on good programs that fit your interest. Don't be afraid to look for a new advisor at your new institution if your first one doesn't seem to be helpful.

Best of luck!

  • Thanks! Were you doing research at your first institution and did you get a recommendation letter from him? This is my main concern as I need to get good recommendation letter from my department, just not from my advisor.
    – newbie125
    Jan 24, 2023 at 16:53
  • I was not - but I had done undergraduate research and that was the letter writer I reused the second time. Do you have other co-authors that are not your advisor? Could look there for a research letter.
    – mathkb8
    Jan 24, 2023 at 22:34
  • Yes I do. My concern is that they will question me as to why I did not have letter from my current advisor.
    – newbie125
    Jan 24, 2023 at 23:00
  • I suppose that may depend on the field - but I do not necessarily see this being an issue to be concerned about. Your transcript should not state your advisor's name on it, as far as I know. Of course, if it is more typical in your field to have an advisor you are actively researching with before passing qualifying exams, then maybe it would come up. You could just say, only if asked, that you felt that you worked more closely with a different collaborator than your advisor, and so thought their letter would be better.
    – mathkb8
    Jan 28, 2023 at 5:26

Lots of people have good, satisfying careers without a PhD, including careers in research and development, especially in areas where there is a lot of industry/government research. Masters and even bachelors degrees are sufficient credentials for entry-level jobs in those areas.

Most people who earn PhDs these days also continue in one of those careers, rather than one in academia, because there are simply far more PhD graduates than there are long-term academic research positions. Of those who stay in academia, many are in positions where the primary duties involve teaching rather than research.

No one can really advise you on what you should do next, but I think it's worth considering whether attempting another PhD will make the rest of your life better or not. If you do try again for the PhD, it'll be helpful to have some recommendations from people that have more support for you. Really, though, you need to think about why a PhD is your goal long-term and whether a PhD from the institutions you are considering will help you achieve that goal.

  • I do want to get a PhD long term though. My concern is how do I show my research potential to future schools as I won't be getting recommendation letter from my advisor. This is my main concern as PhD admission committee seems to take past experience in another school as a crucial metric to evaluate their future success
    – newbie125
    Jan 24, 2023 at 16:57
  • @newbie125 You say you have published quality papers and now have a masters degree. Run with that. And, yeah, most of the things you could have done are things you should have started long before failing out of your current program. You can't go back and fix that now.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 24, 2023 at 17:05

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