I'm a first year student and twice now I have been unable to finish all the problems during the exam, which had never happened before I became a PhD student. And to be fair, even if I had been writing without stop, I might still have failed to finish the exam questions. Is this common? I believe my professors are trying to push us beyond the limit, but it is frustrating.

P.S. I'm not complaining, I just try to cope with it with right attitude.

  • Are your exams graded on a curve?
    – Superbest
    Feb 12, 2016 at 3:22
  • Remember that your professors are aware of grad students needing to maintain a certain GPA to stay in the program and aren't in the business of throwing people out. As long as you're putting forth a decent level of effort they tend to adjust grades so that most people will pass.
    – user137
    Feb 12, 2016 at 5:02
  • @Superbest no it's not. Feb 12, 2016 at 5:03
  • @user137 I don't worry about passing, I just hope to do better because that way faculty would like to spend more effort in advising me in the future. Feb 12, 2016 at 5:04

6 Answers 6


This is completely dependent on the course and instructor.

Yes, I have taken exams where it definitely wasn't possible for anyone to finish. The professors either gave us more time or only graded the problems we attempted.

Talk to the instructor about your concerns!

  • I have taken such exams as well (and as I recall, usually came out near the top of the class). The point was that the exams were supposed to be open-ended, and also test judgement in picking which questions to answer.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 12, 2016 at 4:23

Depending on the situation and the exam designer, it may well be that to "finish all the questions" is to prove oneself exceptional, at least in quickness and/or cleverness. The idea, which I don't necessarily endorse, is that it is worthwhile to give "impossible" exams, to give exceptional individuals the chance to show how far they transcend the merely-very-able, or something like that. So, instead of being a diagnostic of whether students have picked up the usual, standard ideas, such exams may pretend/aim to be detecting "geniuses". Based on observation, facility with timed exams is not a bad thing at all, but it is of limited significance in the larger scheme of things (where, for example, there is no real time limit...)

So, you have discovered that you are not ultra-fast in getting what you know onto paper. Doesn't matter much.

... tho', still, being fast is generally a good thing, if it is combined with competence. In fact, sometimes very-quick people are misled by their own successes in exams on low-level material, that is, thinking that quickness and cleverness is all there is, and not believing that the vast accumulated technique is of much significance in the face of that quickness and cleverness. (I think that is an unfortunate error of perception.)


I'm a first year student and it has been the second time I can't finish all problems during the exam, which had never happened before I became a PhD student. I believe my professors are trying to push us beyond the limit, but frustrations come with it.

As others said, this is common and you shouldn't worry about it. Especially if this is a PhD-level course (as seems implicit, though I'm not sure).

But generally, to thrive in a PhD you'll need to tolerate setbacks better than you seem to be doing — they'll be normal, simply because being a PhD is harder (and must be). In non-graduate school you face carefully restricted problems that you should be able to solve — in a sense, if you can always finish an exam, it means the exam was too easy for you. Instead, a researcher pushes the boundary of human knowledge; while advisors help pick problems that are approachable, they'll still be hard.

So "feeling stupid" for no good reason is a common danger — almost an occupational disease, called impostor syndrome, common among PhD students and other professions. If you read up a bit on it, IMHO you should see you shouldn't be frustrated at not finishing an exam. BTW, I'm not implying at all that you actually suffer from it; I've seen it a lot, on myself too, so if anything I'm biased to mention it too often ;-).


I failed to finish my Master comprehensive exams. None of my cohorts did either. No one in previous or subsequent classes did either. It was not a good feeling, but I passed. It may be normal and expected.


I think it really depends. On the one hand, I've never personally had that issue. On the other, I know there every single first year student taking a particular stats course at my university this quarter who have yet to be able to finish one of the professor's tests. I definitely agree that if you're having concerns, that you talk to your professor. They may be able to better tell you if that's normal or not for their classes.


Some courses even have exams in which you are only supposed to be able to solve a certain percentage of questions (and this percentage suffices for full marks). There is a name for this in German - "Auswahlklausur". This fact is generally announced before the actual exam, though.

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