For universities that give two tries for passing the PhD qualifying exams, are the two tries "equal"? In the sense that does the committee consider more carefully on the second and last try of the applicant before failing him/her?

Just an analogy: for driving tests, examiners are known to be more lenient on the second (and subsequent) attempt, and more strict on the first attempt. Not sure if it is true for PhD exams...

Just to ask any professors/students here who are more experienced in this matter.


  • To be honest, it seemed to me that who the student has as an advisor seemed to effect their outcome also. If a student's advisor was leaving the University, they seemed less likely to pass. Whether there was any causation there, I can't say, I just observed correlation in time as a fellow-grad student. Over 30 full years have passed, and this was at one department at one University in the U.S. However, human nature being what it is, I suspect that this may have some (subjective) outcome on what happened. Commented Aug 3, 2022 at 18:36

2 Answers 2


Yes, certainly, although "fails" are stressful for all parties, if a student has mis-judged the preparation needed, for whatever reason, the first "fail" can send a message that more attention is needed or something needs to be done differently. In contrast, yes, in a system like my university's, where a second fail results in termination from the program, the committee is well aware of this possibility.

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    My experience as an examiner is that although the committee is very aware that a failing grade will result in a student leaving the program, there's typically no willingness to be more lenient in grading the exam on the second attempt. Students should expect that they will be held to the same standards on the second try. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 15:42
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    What @BrianBorchers says matches how my graduate school operated. However, I remember two cases where a candidate otherwise considered promising was given a third try. In either case, you should not expect special leniency in a second try if you weren't explicitly told that this is the case in your school. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 15:52
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    I did not mean to insinuate that standards change, only that people are well aware of the larger ramifications of a second failure. Thus, while the message "go study/work more, then come back" might make sense on the first try, it doesn't on the second. Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 16:05
  • I saw a case where one student was given a fourth try. Commented Aug 3, 2022 at 18:37

It depends on how common it is for people to fail. In my department, somewhere between a third and one half of people fail on first attempt (but will utimately pass it). They use the first attempt to get a feel for the level of preparedness, and may choose to take it in a semester when they have covered the basic classes, but maybe not the last one in the sequence yet.

If so many people fail, then there is no stigma attached to failing (and we don't consider it negatively either). I would ask how that looks in your department.

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