Just to ask, how common is it for universities to ask a PhD student (fully funded) who has failed the qualifying exams to pay back partially or in full their stipend?

I heard some anecdotes that some universities require students to pay the equivalent of masters course fees in order to graduate with a master degree. This is supposedly done to deter students who enroll in a PhD to get a free Master by deliberately (or otherwise) failing their qualifying exams.

Thanks for any input from any professors/ students inside or outside US!

  • 3
    You can never say never, but to "hear" about students deliberately failing their qualifying exams in a cunning plot to get a free Master should be an urban myth. While you can put anything in a legal contract, it doesn't mean it is enforceable. I genuinely doubt that an agreement to pay back a stipend because of failing an exam would be in the U.S. Oct 16, 2015 at 0:47
  • 2
    Deliberately failing exams because a new try at a later time (with a possibly better grade) is preferred over a just-about-passing grade happens (and is, by the context in which this happens, completely legitimate within university rules), but I fail to understand how failing could lead to a "free" degree. Oct 16, 2015 at 8:02
  • 1
    @O.R.Mapper The only interpretation of "free" that I can think of is that, by being a Ph.D. student, one can get funding that one could not get as a masters student. So honestly applying for and getting a masters degree costs money, whereas pretending to be a Ph.D. student, failing, and getting a masters degree as a consolation prize does not. Oct 16, 2015 at 8:54
  • 2
    @AndreasBlass: Oh, ok. I thought of "free" in the educational sense (i.e. without qualifying by virtue of passing exams and the like); didn't think of the places where there is a monetary aspect to it, or where a Masters requires similar funds as a PhD. While your explanation sounds reasonable, I wonder whether the qualifying PhD exams wouldn't be at the beginning of a combined Master + PhD programme, rather than after all educational requirements for the Masters degree have been fulfilled. This would make sense if, as would be the case, enrolling for a Masters and enrolling ... Oct 16, 2015 at 9:01
  • 1
    ... for Master + PhD is not administratively the same during the Masters phase. Oct 16, 2015 at 9:02

1 Answer 1


In the United States, I have never heard of such a policy, and would consider it somewhat strange and vindictive on the part of the university. Yes, it can be frustrating for professors when a student drops out with a Masters, but it's better to lose an unwilling or unable student early than to attempt to cudgel them along toward an ill-deserved doctorate.

In terms of "free rides" and "paying back," in most cases that I am aware of, a Ph.D. student who is supported by the department or their advisor is not just given money, but is working as a teaching assistant or research assistant.

Perhaps if one was supported by an external fellowship it might include such a term. If I were a student, however, I would be very leery of accepting such an offer.

  • 1
    This is right on target. Some programs are designed to be flexible and allow for an exit with either a Masters or a PhD. Others are intended to lead to the PhD, but even in such a case, if things are not going as well as hoped, the department is happy to cut its losses and give the student a Masters and let everyone part ways gracefully. Oct 17, 2015 at 16:03
  • Exactly. The purpose of qualifying exams is to screen out those students who are going to be unable to complete a PhD before they waste enormous amounts of their and their advisor's time. (Maybe it doesn't always succeed at this, but that's beside the point.) Nov 23, 2017 at 18:49

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .