Recently, I took the PhD qualifier exams for my department. In my dept. there are 3 exams, each covering a subfield (say subfield A, B, and C). First you are given an hour to work through several problems, and then you have another hour to present to several professors, who critique your answers and ask supplemental questions.

I was well prepared for all of my exams, and did excellently on exams B and C. Exam A did not go as well. During the oral part of the exam, I was asked a question using term Z'. I stated that I am unfamiliar with this term and asked for clarification on its meaning. I was given a vague and unhelpful explanation, along with some chastisement about how this term was "fundamental" knowledge. This wasted perhaps 5 minutes or so of the exam and make the remainder of the oral part fairly awkward. Though I believe I solved the problems correctly, I left with a bad feeling about the terminology issue.

After the exam, I looked term Z' up on Google. Seems it's a very uncommon term for Z. The textbook I was being tested on used Z, as did all 3 of the courses I've had on subfield A.

A few days later I got the results of the exams. I failed exam A, but will be allowed to retake it in the future.

For the sake of identifying what I did wrong, I spoke with one of the professors who administered my exam. I asked what I should focus on for the next time. He said "the fundamentals." I asked whether the terminology issue was the deciding factor and it apparently was not. Instead, he thinks I don't understand absolutely fundamental concept Y. Oddly, he also complained that I used a more general form of Y. (So, which is it? Do I understand Y really well or not at all?) The most I can make of this is that the terminology issue made him and the other committee member think I'm an idiot, and then they were much less fair to me from that point on.

He then asked me to solve a problem which he made up on the fly. I used one version of Y to solve this problem, and he complained that (though correct) how I did this demonstrates that I don't know what I'm doing. The annoying thing about this is that I'm a TA for undergrad class A right now and the way I solved this problem is exactly the way the book the dept. uses does. It seems that he'll complain regardless of how I do things.

I now believe this exam was not fair, and this professor likely will be on my exam committee next time. I doubt I'll be able to pass if he continues being so unfairly critical of me.

At this point, what are my options? I am considering appealing to the dept. head, but I don't want to make things worse than they are right now. I could make enemies in the dept. if I appeal, and I'm not sure if there are other options I should consider.

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    If multiple professors are telling you that you need to improve in some area then maybe they are right. What did you advisor say? – Austin Henley Oct 10 '14 at 21:56
  • In this case, the one professor I've spoken to is definitely wrong. (I don't know what the other committee member thinks as I have not met with them.) My advisor was present at the final committee meeting where all the decisions were made, and he did not have any specific knowledge suggestions. They did suggest that I might have been rude, but I don't think I was. The professor I asked did not seem to think I was rude, just ignorant. – AtomicAcorn Oct 10 '14 at 22:21
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    The path of least resistance may just be to study and retake that portion of your qualifier. It will be a very, very small bump in your long journey for a PhD. – Austin Henley Oct 10 '14 at 22:26
  • There is nothing to study. The professor I spoke with's claims about my knowledge are contradicted by their own statements as well as my performance on another of the exams (which builds upon knowledge of field A). My concern is that I will not pass when I retake the exam because this professor will continue to not give me credit for things I do correctly. – AtomicAcorn Oct 10 '14 at 22:31
  • Something occurred to me in reading your question, the professor was probably after a more intuitive, non-textbook application of 'Y' and 'Z' – user21984 Oct 10 '14 at 23:40
up vote 19 down vote accepted

It is hard to know the exact issues for an oral exam we were not present for and for which we are hearing only the candidate's version. Based on your own description it sounds like you feel very strongly that you know the material flawlessly and were treated unfairly. I'm sorry about that. However your description did not convince me that that's what actually happened: rather it sounds like the committee had some issues with your performance that you don't yet fully understand. Since you are allowed to retake the exam, you should find out as precisely as you can what went wrong and what they want you to do better.

I was well prepared for all of my exams

Isn't that for the committee to decide?

and did excellently on exams B and C.

May I ask: is that the feedback you got on exams B and C: that you did excellently? Or was it just that you passed? It matters: if in two out of three exams that committee really felt that you did "excellently", then they think you are an excellent student and there will be a lot of support for you to stay in the program. Also, do you have the same examiners for all three exams?

During the oral part of the exam...The textbook I was being tested on used Z, as did all 3 of the courses I've had on subfield A.... I asked whether the terminology issue was the deciding factor and it apparently was not.

You gave a very long description of something that took "five minutes" of a one hour exam and was explicitly said not to be a cause of your failure. You are focusing very strongly on whether it was reasonable for you to know the terminology. But then afterwards you just looked it up on the internet and decided that it was not something you need to know without talking to anyone else about it. That's a problem. Another observation is that -- and this is something that happens to lots of students - you let your entire performance get derailed by an inessential minor point.

For the sake of identifying what I did wrong, I spoke with one of the professors who administered my exam.

You should speak to every professor who administered the exam. Exams are not failed because one of the committee members didn't like your performance: at the very least the majority felt that way, and much more commonly they all did.

The most I can make of this is that the terminology issue made him and the other committee member think I'm an idiot, and then they were much less fair to me from that point on.

I wasn't there, but I think this is not a very good guess. Since there seems to be a lack of clarity about the result even after speaking to one of the examiners, I would consider asking for a written evaluation of your performance. It would be a good idea to discuss this with your adviser first and make sure that this will be properly viewed. I think it is a very reasonable request: you passed two out of three exams and will take the third one again. You really want to know clearly -- and spend time thinking about and taking into account -- the reasons for the failure.

. I used one version of Y to solve this problem, and he complained that (though correct) how I did this demonstrates that I don't know what I'm doing.

I don't understand what that means. As you've told it, it certainly sounds annoying. But he must mean something by it. Your conclusion

It seems that he'll complain regardless of how I do things.

is the most negative and unhelpful possible one. Does this faculty member have a reputation in the department for being so unreasonable?

You mention that your adviser was there for the deliberations [but I guess not for the exam itself?]. That should be extremely useful: you can get your adviser to explain their decision to you. If he does not understand why you failed despite being at the deliberation, then you do have a problem. If that is the case, definitely bring up the prospect of getting a written decision that you can then go over with him.

They did suggest that I might have been rude, but I don't think I was.

Whoa. Your advisor thinks that you may have been rude to the exam members, but you have just brushed that off because the one exam member you spoke to didn't specifically mention it?

I'll give you the honesty of a lifelong academic who is a complete stranger to you: to me, you do sound a bit rude and disrespectful. You look for confirmation on the internet that you are getting asked silly questions. You say "In this case, the one professor I've spoken to is definitely wrong." And you write

There is nothing to study. The professor I spoke with's claims about my knowledge are contradicted by their own statements as well as my performance on another of the exams (which builds upon knowledge of field A).

To hear a student who has failed an exam say that there is nothing to study the next time around is a huge red flag. Maybe you know the material well according to your own standards and previous experience. But if you know it perfectly: you are in the wrong place. No one who has nothing to study belongs in academia: you already know everything, so you have nothing to learn. Also you happen to know that your examiners are wrong, do not understand the material as generally and intuitively as you, and cannot even make logically non-contradictory statements in explaining themselves. Well, look: either you're right or wrong about this. But if you truly feel this way, then either way, at the very least this PhD program is not for you.

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    Thanks for the detailed response. Your suggestion to get a written evaluation of my performance is excellent, and is precisely the type of suggestion I am looking for. To clarify, what I am not doing is looking to get confirmation for my story. I am merely looking for avenues where I can pursue this matter further. – AtomicAcorn Oct 11 '14 at 18:16
  • I want to clarify a few points (limited by time). With respect to my performance on the other exams, it's both my belief as well as what was said by the examiners during the exam and my advisor. The "red flag" of not needing to study is my honest belief here. What they say I don't know is rather fundamental and I understand it very well. To give an analogy, the professor I spoke with claims I don't understand something similar to the fundamental theorem of calculus, but somehow I simultaneously understand something similar to the divergence theorem. – AtomicAcorn Oct 11 '14 at 18:19
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    There are aspects of the fundamental theorem of calculus that are not covered by the divergence theorem. If I asked you a question about the fundamental theorem of calculus and you replied with the divergence theorem then that certainly might demonstrate a lack of understanding. My point is that there is no such thing as perfect knowledge of any academic subject at the PhD level, so "no need to study" is a very distressing thing to hear from a PhD student. – Pete L. Clark Oct 11 '14 at 18:48
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    This is not to say that I understand why the professor believed that your performance on the exam was not passing: going by what you've said, you haven't received an intelligible explanation yet, and you deserve one. Nor do I understand why you are getting quizzed on the spot or on material that occurs in the text for an undergraduate level course. It should not be possible to fail an exam in which you answered all the questions -- excepting the terminology question -- correctly. So you should speak to the other examiners and to your advisor and get more specific information. – Pete L. Clark Oct 11 '14 at 18:53
  • Thanks again. My analogy was flawed. In short, I used a vector form of an equation they wanted a scalar form of. The vector form is more general (and is taught in undergrad courses, so it's not esoteric), and reduces to the scalar form with the appropriate conditions. I don't claim to have flawless knowledge, but I do claim that nothing I have heard indicates my knowledge is so deficient to fail the exam. – AtomicAcorn Oct 12 '14 at 2:12

I want to post what I did do for future reference.

Ultimately, I've decided that my best bet for passing quals is hitting a home run on my retake. One thing I did find helpful was speaking with someone at the ombuds office. They informed me of the procedures I would need to go through if I were to file an appeal. Given that, if I fail the retake and I believe the decision is unfair, I will appeal without hesitation. I would recommend talking to someone at the ombuds office to anyone else in a similar situation.

  • So, what happened? – Pete L. Clark Jul 7 '15 at 0:45
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    Retook the exam. Passed with flying colors. I thought about my first exam more and realized I made another mistake (from nervousness) which they might have taken as evidence that I don't know the fundamentals. Can't know for sure, as I never received very helpful feedback. I did spend a fair bit of time over the semester analyzing what I knew poorly in the subject (not necessarily things that would be on the exam) and thought this was a helpful exercise. – AtomicAcorn Jul 8 '15 at 1:45
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    Congratulations. I'm sorry that you didn't get more helpful feedback: that is always frustrating. – Pete L. Clark Jul 8 '15 at 1:49

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