There are three outcomes in my department's qualifying exam: PhD pass, Master's pass, and fail. I am fairly certain that I will not PhD pass and will only Master's pass. I still have a chance to retake the exam next summer, but I was wondering how I should proceed from here.

In our department, PhD advisors are only assigned after a PhD pass. However, if one fails completely, there is a thesis option to finish the MS. I think I did well enough to MS pass, as the threshold for that is quite low according to some of my professors. I don't see why I wouldn't be able to take the MS thesis option even if I MS pass -- our department is small and I don't think the professors are overloaded with supervising students.

I still want to complete my PhD in this department long term, but I am worried that an extra year without an advisor would leave me behind. Would it be acceptable to ask a professor (who very clearly states on his website that he will not advise a PhD student until they PhD pass) to advise me for an MS thesis, and then hopefully if I pass next year use that MS thesis work as part of my PhD dissertation/thesis work?

I do not care that much and understand if this professor supervises me less because he is my MS advisor vs. PhD advisor, but is this a silly idea? Would it be received in a negative light, like something analogous to "grade-grubbing" or trying to play the rules?


Background: I was admitted as a PhD student out of undergrad and will be starting my second year in a mathematical field in the US.

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    Is the MS Thesis option in your department an option that is frequently used, or only an option that theoretically exists on paper? Does this professor actually supervise any MS theses? I'm a mathematics professor who would usually be reluctant to supervise MS theses because I usually don't have any suitable projects. Aug 17, 2023 at 2:45
  • I'm not sure if I would go so far as to say it is frequently (> 25% of MS students) used, but I know some MS students who did not sit in for the test this year because they discussed with the grad. director to do the thesis option. As for the professor, he specifically mentions that he is open to master's students (also undergrads) to do research so I feel like he has some projects. Aug 17, 2023 at 2:53
  • To be honest, you should wait until you get your results. Don't speculate, as it makes things worse. Go out for a hike, take some time off, disconnect from the computer. But, you should definitely have a plan A, B, C, etc... Aug 17, 2023 at 4:49
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    Kind of like that time when Kakarot almost killed me on that pathetic rock called 'earth'. Haha, weakling! (lol, sorry I just can't resist the humor) Aug 17, 2023 at 4:56
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    Have you taken the exam and are waiting for results, or is the exam in your future?
    – Buffy
    Aug 17, 2023 at 13:43

1 Answer 1


As Buffy points out, I may be able to flesh out an answer here. Like I say in the comments, you should really wait until you get your results. Speculating and ruminating are pretty bad for your mental health. It creates unnecessary stress, and of course, you want to minimize your stress because you will get plenty of other things to worry about later. Don't sweat the small stuff.

Now, regardless of your results, you should have already a plan A, plan B, plan C, etc... Like they say, "don't put all of your eggs in one basket". I had a similar experience, where I needed multiple options after taking (and failing) my first attempt at a qualifying exam. I too was worried after taking it, but making a list of options helped me to cope with these feelings of anxiety. For example, it may look like this:

  • Plan A: Pass qualifying exam and ask Dr. X to mentor me. It was the best case scenario.
  • Plan B: Fail the exam, but I am given a second attempt (hopefully). Study and take it again. Also, have a contingency plan, which can look like getting a MS (possibly with a thesis) on the side, in case I fail that second attempt.
  • Plan C: If no second attempt allowed, still finish the MS. But also cultivate other options, such as applying to another program. I was considering mechanical engineering as another option. Maybe also get a certificate in a hot technical area so I can go and find a job after my MS.

And so on... As you know in math, the optimal path from point A to B is a straight line. But, things very rarely go as planned without hiccups. It is actually advised to have secondary plans, as it is better to be proactive rather than reactive. Also, yes, in my university, it wasn't a guarantee that you'd always get a second chance after failing a qualifying exam. I was beyond grateful that I was allowed to continue and take it again.

Now, in case you want to go with the MS with thesis option, yes I have had one friend who transferred his credits from a MS to a PhD (in the same school), so he continued his research with that same advisor. It can happen, just not the most common option. But I would bet that you'd still need to retake the qualifier if you are given an MS pass and you want to continue into a PhD dissertation. In my institution, there was no MS pass officially, just pass or fail.

Another thing is how to deal with rejection. It happens everywhere, and you failing a qualifying exam is by no means a reflection of you as a person. I personally failed that first time because I had a panic attack and was under new anxiety meds too. Out of 4 subjects, I passed 3 initially. So I just had to retake the portion that I failed. I buckled down and studied smarter, took care of myself (went to gym, therapy), and surrounded myself with good friends, not toxic ones. Things went much better second time around and I passed! I went on to get my PhD, with prestigious internships and 3 publications (1 which was a first-author publication). Not bad at all!

I highly encourage you to give yourself the benefit of the doubt. If you got accepted to a PhD program, you already are better than what you give yourself credit for. Keep going, as perseverance is a highly desired trait in any trade.

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