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I failed my written PhD qualifying exam twice in Computer Science from a middle-ranked university. Instead of kicking me out, I can get a terminal master's degree. Please note that this will be my second master's degree.

Now I am planning to re-apply to PhD programs at other Universities. My questions are:

  1. Since I am getting a master's degree, is it okay not to mention about failing in the PhD qualifying exam in statement of purpose (SOP)? Please note that the Graduate committee informed that it will not be reflected in the transcript.

  2. If the answer is yes for the previous question, then my advisor is ready to give a strong recommendation, so can I ask him not to mention about failing in the PhD qualifying exam in his recommendation letter?

Please note that the written qualifying exam is about getting good grades in 4 subject areas of Computer Science, it has nothing to do with research. This is one of the main reasons I do not want to mention in SOP, I wanted to highlight my research potential saying that I submitted a 10-page research paper in a top tier conference in one year. I have industry experience of more than 5 years.

Please help, since my goal is to get into academics, help students and do independent research. I want to pursue my dream irrespective of this setback.

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    Institutions to which you apply are going to want to see your transcript. Attempting to conceal that you were in a Ph.D. program will likely be viewed as misconduct. – Bob Brown Nov 21 '17 at 23:57
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    @BobBrown Not necessarily. In many schools you are not considered to be in the PhD program until you have passed the appropriate exams, especially those with Master's-only admissions. In this case, the question mentions that the attempt is not recorded in the transcript. – user71659 Nov 22 '17 at 0:01
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    What country is your school in? Be aware that in the US, many schools will not kick somebody out of the PhD program unless their advisor implicitly agrees. – user71659 Nov 22 '17 at 0:39
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    @user71659 OK. Suppose OP was admitted only to a master's program, his transcript, as he says, does not show failure of the qual, and he was awarded the master's degree. He's still being dishonest in asking his advisor not to mention his failing the qualifying exam. – Bob Brown Nov 22 '17 at 1:06
  • @BobBrown How is that different from applying to a school and getting rejected? Also, depending on the country, failing the exam may be considered protected educational information which he has the right to withhold. If it is dishonest, then the school should have put it on the transcript. Regardless, my other point above was that people will figure it out and ask his advisor questions, which may be better in writing or better left for a phone call. – user71659 Nov 22 '17 at 1:26
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I would argue that this would not be the right content for the statement of purpose. This is where you write about what you will research and your academic interests. What you will do as a Ph. D student and how you will contribute to the greater body of knowledge.

Instead, and if the application allows for it, discuss this in your personal statement. What has happened and most importantly, why it happened. Just like a background check, you have the opportunity to explain past setbacks and what you will do to not repeat those mistakes.

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    Even more important than "Why" but impossible to answer without knowing why: What will the OP do differently this time around that can reasonably be expected to lead to exam success? – Patricia Shanahan Nov 22 '17 at 8:41
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    -1: Very often, STEM programs ask for only a statement of purpose and not a personal statement. See application page. In this case, the statement of purpose is exactly the place that applicants should explain possible red flags, such as bad grades as an undergrad or why they left a different graduate program prematurely, as well as their research interests and goals, (I'm not saying the OP should discuss it there; I don't know the right answer to that question.) – Peter Shor Nov 22 '17 at 14:40
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    @PeterShor; @PatriciaShanahan; @Frank FYC Thanks for your discussions. Just to give more context, I am in US school and the administration informed me that failing PhD qualifying exam is a confidential information. Moreover, the written qualifying exam is about getting good grades in 4 subject areas of Computer science, it has nothing to do with research. This is one of the main reason I do not want to mention in SOP, I wanted to highlight my research potential saying that I submitted a 10 page research paper in a top tier conference in one year. – BB3 Nov 22 '17 at 18:25
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The issue is that schools know about other programs in their field. If you are applying to another school while you are still enrolled, the obvious assumption is that something has gone wrong at your current school. This will act as a potentially big problem—particularly if the other school is known not to have a separate master's program, but instead admits directly to a PhD program.

I would recommend not hiding this from schools to which you apply; doing so would be sufficient grounds to revoke your admission, if it were to come to light, since you are lying by omission in your application.

Moreover, if you have done good research, and your advisor is willing to testify to that, and your only significant issue is that you struggled with the qualifying exam, then you should be able to find a new department. (Perhaps you should look for departments where you won't have to take a qualifying exam—there may be some in your discipline, and more and more schools are dropping them.)

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