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I am a Ph.D. student at a US university. I started last fall. As a university requirement for Ph.D. candidacy, I have to take 3 written exams each lasting for 6 hours. Now, the rule is that the student will choose three professors who will send the reading material for the exam, which consists of a bunch of scientific articles.

The exam is in two weeks and I do not have enough time to go through those articles. I have my coursework and TA responsibilities, moreover, I work in my lab 9-5 every day which is what my advisor wants. Additionally, I am already working on several projects.

I am really scared whether I can manage to pass the written exam or not. Moreover, my professor does not seem to bother about my exams, he only cares about me being in the lab. What can I do in this case? I am trying to read the articles but I have other stuff to do as well, as I mentioned above. I do not want to leave the program as I have worked very hard to be here.

I thought about talking with the program coordinator but it might not be wise as things might get worse at the end.

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    How long have you had the materials to prepare? Is the timing of the exam fixed or did you choose to do it now?
    – Bryan Krause
    May 3, 2023 at 3:57
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    I'm not sure what the question is; we don't know what will be on your qualifying exam and cannot tell you how to study for it. Are you asking for strategies to ask your professor for time to study?
    – cag51
    May 3, 2023 at 4:49
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    Well, you know you need to pass this exam to continue, so, it seems like you may need to reevaluate your priorities if right now you're considering it a lower priority. Echoing cag51, not sure what else to tell you besides that. Your advisor is probably right - coursework doesn't matter, and your research will be most important going forward, but you don't get to continue the research part if you don't pass these exams. If your advisor isn't aware of that, you might need to explain it to them, they didn't necessarily have the same structure when they were a graduate student.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 3, 2023 at 4:49
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    @Bryan Krause: they didn't necessarily have the same structure when they were a graduate student -- The OP's situation sounds very strange to me and, until I saw your comment, I was at a loss for coming up with any explanation for the advisor's behavior. I've been a student in a graduate program at 2 different universities in which first-year students had their entire summer (between their 1st and 2nd years) free from all obligations (teaching, course work, etc.) while still receiving T.A. money, solely in order for them to fully focus on studying for their Aug Ph.D. qualifying exams. May 3, 2023 at 10:03
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    You tell your mentor that unless you can free up some time for exam prep, you may not pass the exam and thus won't be in their lab much longer May 3, 2023 at 12:23

3 Answers 3

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You should look at the comments, because they give good answers.

You already let yourself be put into a deep pit. Your advisor is not taking your fears seriously. This might be for all sorts of reasons:

  • It is not unknown in Academia that a powerful advisor can tell a qualifying board what to find, along the lines of: "This kid can do research. I want him/her in my group".

  • Your advisor was brilliant and never had to worry about passing exams. No way to empathize.

  • Your advisor is a good researcher, but in practical life a moron, who cannot accept that some things cannot be controlled.

  • Your advisor is ethically challenged, (but maybe still a good person to work with). Your advisor is fine letting you pull of the impossible.

Without knowing the situation better, I at least cannot give you good advice. The standard advice is to go and see your advisor and have a heart to heart talk, starting out with you declaring that you are really scared.

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    > "Your advisor is a good researcher, but in practical life a moron" There are a fair number of those.
    – cgb5436
    May 3, 2023 at 20:03
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The only thing I have to add here is a response to your last sentence:

I thought about talking with the program coordinator but it might not be wise as things might get worse at the end.

Speaking as a program coordinator, I wish students would come talk to me at the earliest point when they think things might be going off the rails. It doesn't always help, but there are many instances when I could have done something (given useful advice, made an exception, delayed an exam ...) if I had known in time but instead I'm left with cleaning up a mess. You should be able to speak to the program coordinator in confidence (i.e., without your advisor knowing), if that's a concern. They (the program coordinator) know more about the situation (the formal rules and unofficial norms of your program, something about your advisor's personality and track record, etc.) than anyone here does.

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You know you need to pass this exam to continue, so, it seems like you may need to reevaluate your priorities if right now you're considering it a lower priority. Echoing cag51's comment, it's not clear what else you need to succeed besides that. Hopefully you know how to read and understand papers in your field at a level appropriate to your career stage.

Your advisor is probably right in the broader sense of things - coursework during a PhD doesn't matter much for future positions in academia (post docs, professorships), instead your research record will be most important going forward. However, you don't get to continue the research part if you don't pass these exams.

If your advisor isn't aware of that, you might need to explain it to them, they didn't necessarily have the same structure when they were a graduate student. For example, for me the preliminary examination consisted of a paper written on a topic outside the research area plus a thesis proposal; the program tried to encourage timely completion, but in reality many students didn't complete the process until they were several years in the program and nearing graduation. There was very little urgency. In other programs, there may be an exam based off the required coursework where really no extra studying is needed: as long as you've done reasonably well in the courses, which may not be very difficult for most students in the program, the exam is mostly a formality. Dave Renfro mentioned in a comment that some programs have specific time set aside for qualifying exam prep, free of other coursework and teaching responsibilities. Your advisor may be more familiar with any of these other systems than they are with the system at the institution they work at now. It's even likely that the system is different for different students at the same institution who are part of other programs - maybe your advisor has mentored these students and doesn't have a full picture of the requirements you face.

Now, if you had been given these preparation materials many months ago, and only now began to address the lack of preparation with 2 weeks to go, I'd say you're in quite a bit of trouble and this situation may not be recoverable. However, if the most recent materials came to you just last month, it seems like you can still be ready in time, but you will need to focus on this extensively.

I would also look at what resources your graduate program provides regarding these exams: look at your graduate handbook or similar documentation, consult with staff in the program if relevant to see what expectations are, talk to senior students in your program who have completed this step.

More generally, it's important to recognize that the PhD is a time of growing independence. You're expected to be responsible for your own education at the PhD stage, more than previous educational steps. Yes, your advisor is there to help mentor you on the things you're new to: the conduct of research, the process of academic publishing, obtaining grant funding. You're likely expected to complete other tasks on your own, though, including managing your own time. You should not expect your advisor to say "I'd like to spend X hours on Task A today, Y hours on Task B, etc".

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