6

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. – gnometorule Oct 16 '15 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. – O. R. Mapper Oct 16 '15 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. – Andreas Blass Oct 16 '15 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 ... – O. R. Mapper Oct 16 '15 at 9:01
  • 1
    ... for Master + PhD is not administratively the same during the Masters phase. – O. R. Mapper Oct 16 '15 at 9:02
5

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. – aparente001 Oct 17 '15 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.) – Peter Shor Nov 23 '17 at 18:49

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.