Is any of you aware of studies that show how a Qualifying examination affects things like success in an Academic career, publications, etc.

As many of you know, there are many countries that do not have Qualifying examinations in Graduate school. I just would like to know if there is solid research on this topic.

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    One question would be whether qualifying exams are a pedagogical tool or a management tool. In my graduate institute is was either pass and go on to PhD research, pass but write a Master's thesis (marginal pass) and if that was good proceed on, or fail and leave the program. The question being asked was basically if you currently had the tools the faculty thought necessary to be successful in a PhD, not a successful career necessarily. Certainly failing would impact success, but it was not set up to quantify future success.
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 15, 2015 at 18:28
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    I am not an applied statistician, but in my amateur opinion the effect of having qualifying exams on academic success could be hard to quantify. I can't think of two academic departments that are otherwise very close but one gives exams and one doesn't. (I am hindered by the fact that all departments at US institutions I am familiar with have these exams.) If you want to compare departments across different countries it seems...well, hard to compare. Dec 15, 2015 at 18:56
  • @PeteL.Clark UChicago doesn't have qualifying exams in their math PhD program, and most other top programs do. However, Chicago makes up for it by making their first-year graduate classes more challenging and labor-intensive than average, so it's still hard to compare because other comparable programs aren't really the same thing plus quals.
    – user37208
    Dec 15, 2015 at 20:05
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    I guess the only way to really do a fair assessment would be to have a control group and a group who doesn't make the Quals in the same institution, but I see all sorts of implications that prevent the school from doing that. Dec 15, 2015 at 20:16
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    Fascinating question. Perhaps you could start by backing up and looking at the role of exams in general in pedagogy. Dec 20, 2015 at 0:33

2 Answers 2


It seems that a project along these lines was proposed some time ago. The project website notes that "surprisingly little research exists on understanding the evaluation process to Ph.D. candidacy" and proposes to fill this gap. Some of the authors later published this article, perhaps the most interesting conclusion from which is that quals are U-shaped: the best and worst schools have been abandoning these exams (the top schools see no need for them given how competitive graduate admissions is, while the bottom schools have nothing to lose by dropping them), while the schools in the middle have generally retained them. The authors raise the concerns that these exams may be psychologically harmful, poorly correlated with long-term success, and may disproportionately weed out minority students.

Unfortunately, I don't see any published papers by these authors on this work, so they provide more questions than answers. Thus, the answer to your question seems to be no: grad schools have certainly been reexamining the role these exams should play, but there does not seem to be any published scholarship or other "hard data" that could inform this conversation, at least as of now.

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    The "article" you link to is recent enough that something might be forthcoming. And, good sleuthing.
    – Buffy
    Jan 7, 2022 at 15:08
  • That article is, at best, confusing. They start off talking about qualifying exams, and then talk about candidacy exams, and at many places these may be different sets of exams. And the only info about their sample size is n >= 2.
    – Kimball
    Jan 8, 2022 at 22:50
  • Agree, they seemed to jump straight from the problem statement to the recommendations; the only "finding" given is the U-shaped result I mentioned above. Hopefully they are preparing a manuscript with some actual data. Personally, I find it a bit ironic (and troubling) that grad schools have been giving quals for generations -- and are now changing the quals -- based only on opinions and speculations (such as those in the below answer). If anyone should be able to make data-based decisions, it should be grad schools....
    – cag51
    Jan 8, 2022 at 23:35

In the institutions that have qualifying exams, 0% who fail them go on to earn a degree. I joke, but it is true!

I can't speak for all disciplines, but for those that take an apprenticeship (as in the sciences), quals are less about the exam and more about the process. It is often (but not always) the case that quals are taken very well into the graduate process, and by the time you get there, your committee already has high confidence that you will pass. Rather, the quals are meant to force you into a period of intense scholarship, reading, and reflecting that will shape the rest of your career.

I don't know of any research on the relationship between qual exams and academic success, but I suspect that the process of having quals does at least two things: 1) provides for an objective system to weed out students who should not progress forward and 2) provides a platform for successful students to focus for an extended period.

Remember, the prestige (of the university) standing behind your degree is connected to the quality of people who hold it. Having high standards and a difficult process (quals) only strengthens the reputation of the institution and by association, your degree.

So perhaps the better question is whether or not places that do not require qualifying exams award degrees to less prepared students?

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    In the institutions that have qualifying exams, 0% who fail them go on to earn a degreeThis is an exaggeration. Some students switch to a different degree program at the same institution. Some students move to a different institution. Some students successfully appeal the failure decision.
    – JeffE
    May 7, 2016 at 16:20
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    @JeffE exactly, and many many MANY schools allow multiple tries at the exams... very much an exaggeration
    – Lopey Tall
    Sep 9, 2021 at 12:40

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