My son, 25, just got notified that he didn't pass his qualifier the second time around so he's been dropped from his PhD program.

As a parent, I only want my child to be successfully happy, both in his personal and social life. It's disheartening and heartbreaking to know that all his hard work and countless hours of studying and burying deep in papers can all fall apart just like that because a committee wills him not good enough for them. He wasn't even pursuing a PhD. He was working on his MS in EE and one of his professors saw potential in him so she encouraged him to pursue a PhD with full funding. He will leave the program with a terminal MS (which he had already earned before entering the PhD program).

On the exterior, he says he's fine with the outcome and can't wait to get into the real workforce. However, internally, I can sense he is battling with disappointment and alienation from his advisors and department, preferably the people he works with. I can only advise him to rethink his future 5 years from now where he'll be an accomplished Engineer with loads of work experience under his belt or a recent PhD graduate looking for a job. On the phone, I assured him, "you didn't fail, they failed you."

My son will remain with his department until the end of the academic school year. However, how will being dropped from his program affect his transcripts if he should want to reapply at another university?

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    At the moment, this seems to be about how this will look to non-academic employers, which we're not really qualified to answer as a bunch of academics - see the help center. Perhaps they may be able to help over on The Workplace? (But check their help center first to make sure it's on topic there.)
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 2:41
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    (If, however, your son was planning to apply to other PhD programs and wanted to know how this will affect his graduate admissions prospects - that would be something we could help you with. But it sounds like he wants to enter the workforce, so it seems not.)
    – ff524
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 2:43
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    He has a masters, and that's going to give him a leg up on the competition, whatever he does. He has no obligation to state 'tried for Phd' in his applications. Having this advanced degree will absolutely help. That being said - and I mean no disrespect - PhDs are very difficult. If they were easy, everyone would have one. At most universities, the system is set up to weed out individuals who, for whatever reason, are not cut out for the psychological, emotional, cognitive assault it requires. Is it not possible the system worked? Your heart and soul has to be bought in at every level.
    – HEITZ
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 2:46
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    Half to two-thirds of persons entering a PhD program do not end up graduating. Typically this is not because they can't handle the intellectual challenge of their degree - departments have a strong incentive to only admit people they think will succeed, because each student represents a large investment of time and energy that is "lost" if they leave early. It is well understood within academia that failing to achieve the PhD means little. The PhD is a very specific degree with a very specific utility, and lots of people rightly decide that it's just not for them.
    – David
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 3:12
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    He does not just have the master's. He has everything he learned while in the PhD program. Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 4:42

2 Answers 2


Just because your son failed a qualifying exam for university X doesn't mean he's not qualified to get a PhD at all.

The chances of this affecting future PhD admissions are slim as they would only consider the current qualification and skill-set of the candidate.

...you didn't fail, they failed you.

This reminds me about Thomas Edison Mother's Letter. You said the right thing to your son! Because, more than anything else, he shouldn't lose his self-confidence.

You believe in your son and so does his MS advisor. However, whether he has the potential or not, talk to him and find out whether he has the passion for research. PhD requires more of perseverance than skill.

If he still got the interest, then by all means encourage him to apply again to another university.

My best wishes!


As mentioned in the comments, the official transcript will not give any hints about the failed exams, so future grad school admissions should not be affected.

Your son would do well to speak frankly with his references. Probably their own good judgment would lead them not to mention the false start to a PhD in their letters of recommendation (for either PhD or employment). But it wouldn't hurt to verify that they will take this approach.

With academic references, my impression is that there is generally no follow-up phone call. But for employment, which I believe was originally one of your concerns, it is fairly common for the potential employer to phone a reference for follow-up.

Thus, it is possible that in such a conversation, the failed exams might come up... although I would guess that the probability of this occurring would be about 10%. (This really is just a guess.)

Now, typically, the sequence goes like this: you send your CV to a promising job announcement, they ask you to interview, maybe there is a second interview, if they like you they check your references, and then they make you an offer. This means that if the false start is discovered in the reference check step, and you didn't mention it in the interview, that might raise a small red flag for someone in the company.

Therefore, it might be a good idea to mention the false start in the interview, to be on the safe side.

It is nothing to be ashamed about, however. I'm only suggesting this because companies sometimes get a little uncomfortable when something that comes up in a reference check wasn't mentioned in the interview.

I have a parent-to-parent comment (this may already be obvious to you, but just in case it hadn't occurred to you already): the conclusion you came to, that great sentence about who failed whom -- very well put! And now, having found the perfect bon mot, and having shared it once with your son, you'll want to relegate the failed exams to the role of the elephant in the room that you don't talk about. You should also be careful not to talk to others about them in your son's hearing. That's probably the most helpful thing you can do at this stage.

It will be easier for you to stay away from that topic if you consciously steer your thoughts elsewhere every time the thought of those exams starts to creep toward the front of your mind.

(Of course, if your son introduces the topic, then it's okay to talk about it with him.)

Do you know the joke about the mother on the ocean liner who needs to sound the "Man Overboard" alert as quickly as possible, but she is so bursting with pride that she sacrifices speedy action because of her need to brag? "Help, help! My son, the doctor, fell overboard!"

Okay, so maybe you won't be the mother of a "my son the doctor." But here's the silver lining: chances are, you'll become a grandmother that much quicker now! (A PhD can really slow you down with other aspects of life.)

  • I had a hard time negotiating the "speak to your references" advice. Many will say what they will say. Trying to coach them on that just seems to backfire. Commented Jul 26, 2022 at 16:02
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    @JosephDoggie - Knowledge is power. If I know a particular person will not write a super strong letter, then I might move that person down on my list, and move someone else up. Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 6:22
  • All I know is that it didn't work for me when I tried this many years ago .... Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 11:59
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    @JosephDoggie - sorry to hear it. It can be tricky to find out how weak/strong a reference will be, so as to choose one's references strategically. Commented Jul 29, 2022 at 2:11

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