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I am early in the process of considering whether or not to return to a PhD program in mathematics. The program consists of three parts: a set of written exams (usually after year 1), an oral exam focused around the topics of one's specialty (year 2 or 3), and finally a thesis/thesis defense (year 4 or 5).

I stopped this process before the second and third parts, but in the process I earned an MS in Mathematics. I'd like to return to my original university and finish what I started, but I'm hoping to avoid retaking the written examinations.

There are two arguments.

First, that I be required to retake the written exams: It's been nearly a decade (that's right!) since I took them last, it would be justified re-preparation, and I would learn a lot by studying again to pass them. After all, 9 years is a long time and the previous results shouldn't 'last' that long.

Second, the I be allowed to pick up where I left off. Nine years is a long time, but it should be considered to be an extended leave of absence. I have already proven myself as capable of passing these tests, as evidenced by my MS from the same university. While I couldn't pass the present day equivalent versions of these exams (without much study), neither could many graduate students like me who are further along in their study. Also, supposing such tests have expiry, what would the year-length of the expiry be? Wouldn't any choice of length for an expiry be fairly arbitrary?

Given this situation, what can I expect? Are there known universities with and without expiry on such tests?

What would be equitable here? Most importantly what arguments can be made that I retake and pass these exams despite pertinent regulation?

  • Note: I attended the same university as both an undergraduate and graduate student. Other than the current nine year gap, I have had two large time gaps in my graduate student career. The second of these lasted roughtly 3 semesters and required that I reapply to the program. This fact did not void my previous test results however. Therefore I consider time, not readmission, to be the pertinent issue here. – ThoralfSkolem Jul 11 '15 at 1:45
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    Usually, rules for qualifying exams are a matter of official department policy, and should be in writing somewhere. If your department's policy says the exams expire, then they do. If it doesn't say, I would say you could make a good case that they do not expire. – Nate Eldredge Jul 11 '15 at 2:03
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    Alternatively, if they don't say, then they can make a good case that they do. And even the department agrees that they don't expire, you might not be able to convince someone to be your advisor unless you retake them. – JeffE Jul 11 '15 at 12:44
  • I am no longer planning on returning to graduate school. But in hindsight I agree with the answer below. Regardless of a policy argument that exams results don't lapse, any sane PhD advisor should require a retake. – ThoralfSkolem Aug 5 '16 at 7:08
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I don't think this is a matter of finding the right argument. If the rules of the specific department in question explicitly allow you to keep your old exam results upon readmission to the program after any length of time, then if you are readmitted to the program then you get to keep your old exam results. If they explicitly say the contrary, then you can't.

More likely there are no explicit rules which address what happens when a student leaves the program and then is later readmitted to it: there are no such rules in my program, for instance. In this case it is really up to the discretion of the faculty in the department. Moreover, since this issue will probably be bound up with your admission decision, being too pushy or argumentative about it could really backfire. I would say that it is certainly fair to explicitly mention that you passed the written qualifying exams in the same department at such and such a time, that you are excited to pick up where you left off, and that you are wondering whether this will be possible.

I do not advise that you say more than that or that you give detailed arguments. It is also not a matter of "equitability": they are not obligated to admit you at all, so they cannot be obligated to admit you with certain additional constraints. To be honest, the harder you argue about this the more strongly I suspect that you should take the exams again. Nine years is more than long enough to forget everything that you learned as a master's student. Indeed you write

While I couldn't pass the present day equivalent versions of these exams (without much study).

Since you have said this, I would seriously consider removing the identifying information from your account! Your own confidence that you could not pass the current versions of the exams is rather strong evidence that you should take them again.

neither could many graduate students like me who are further along in their study.

There are almost certainly no other students in the program who passed their exams nine years ago. Many PhD programs have total time limitations for exactly this reason. (There was a student in my program who had done everything but his thesis, and he eventually got timed out because he had taken too long: I believe, after nine years.) Moreover the other students in the program have spent the time since the exam pursuing their studies and going on to fulfill other programmatic requirements. You left the program. It is really not an equivalent situation.

Note also that although the mathematical knowledge tested on qualifying exams is not really time-dependent, nine years is long enough for the structure of the exams to have changed: if e.g. the syllabi are different or if the faculty know that the standards have been raised, then it is probably inappropriate to hold a newly admitted student to different requirements than other newly admitted students. To be fair, it is probably more likely that there has not been significant change.

Finally, let me note that you haven't mentioned why you are not willing to take the exams again. According to the structure you described, if you retook all the coursework it would take only one more year. One year in an American PhD program is not a long time at all. Taking one year to solidify your foundations before proceeding could actually allow you to graduate in less time than if you dive into something headfirst and then only after months or years realize that you need to backtrack to learn the basics. Please think carefully about whether getting excused from the exams is really in your long term best interest.

Good luck.

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