Home » Grad school » I failed my PhD qualifying exam … and I still obtained my degree

I failed my PhD qualifying exam … and I still obtained my degree

Welcome to my blog!

Hello there, awesome reader. My name is Dr. 27. I'm older than that now, but I'm staying faithful to the origins of the blog.

This blog started 2 months before completing my PhD in a pretty southern university back in 2009. It was a way to practice my writing and take a break from all things thesis. My PhD is in a branch of structural biology where I studied some rather impressive stuff.

After completing the degree, I packed my life of 6 years in 3 days and moved to Canada to do a postdoc in a completely different field. Two years later, and after attending a lot of seminars, workshops and doing some much-needed soul-searching, I ended up getting out and looking for an alternative path to academia and industry.

The blog chronicles my mishaps, ideas, musings and tips on entering, staying and finishing grad school. It also talks about some (or a lot) of personal stuff. For a while, the blog became a place to talk about the frustrations of not knowing what to do after PhD. I wanted to explore alternatives to the traditional paths of research (academia, industry and goverment) whilst going back to my field of training (if at all possible). Eventually a job materialized. Follow my quest as I navigate the waters of being a staff scientist at a core facility.

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A big stepping stone while doing your PhD is the time when you change your status from being simply known as a grad student, to becoming a PhD trainee (or senior graduate student). To achieve that glorious state means that you have successfully gone through the qualifying exam(s) period, and essentially, your last examination will be your thesis defense. Quals, or comps (comprehensive exams) were the big thing. And I mean BIG … you hear stories about X or Y department, that have the worst reputation, or Prof. W, who’s an ass and could be in your examination committee, and finally those people, those students who nobody knows why, but they failed, were kicked out and never heard of again.

Well …. I’m sort of one of those. And not at the same time. I failed my qualifying exam, as the title clearly states. I had a second chance to take it, and passed it with flying colours, but it was not easy …. thus, here I share my story, and some of the things I learned from that process.

Some aspects of quals remain similar across different higher ed institutions. I’ve heard of people who need to read X amount of articles or books, then write long essays to answer questions on the topics they read. My guess is that this would be a more traditional approach to taking the quals. In my case the department in which I did the PhD did things differently. You had to find a topic, similar (but not identical) to something that was being done by your group, then write and defend a proposal in front of a committee. To me it was similar to presenting your thesis proposal, but you didn’t have the “freedom” or input in choosing the members of your exam committee and being helped by the boss was discouraged (but not totally frowned upon).

People, I tell you …. it was HARD. Now, one problem in my field (biochemistry and biophysics) is that not all the research starts from a traditional hypothesis. Yes, indeed we formulate hypotheses, once we have investigated/determined structures of the biological molecules we studied. But because my former department had mostly “traditional” labs, I had to follow the majority, and do a hypothesis-driven proposal.

The first complicating factor for me was choosing a topic. I went through probably 50 scientific papers before narrowing it down to 1 specific topic. Secondly, I could not have any input from my PhD mentor for topic selection, thus asking any kind of question (for instance, does this make for a sound project, or am I too ambitious?) was not allowed. Thirdly, you only had 1 month to write the proposal, and after handing it, you could be examined almost immediately. Lucky me …. I took the exam just days after handing the proposal. I was FREAKING out.

The way my qual worked out was that I stood in front of the examination committee for 2 hours, answering questions about any and all possible things that could be said about the topic. I killed the biological questions (after all, my college degree was in biological sciences, I should have been able to ace something), but when the hardcore questions came, those that were based on extrapolating knowledge, and concepts, that was the killer for me. I could not answer those well, and for it I failed.

It. Was. Though. I mean, I felt like the most stupid, idiotic, worthless piece of crap. EVER. I was devastated. I cried, I felt like I did not want to show my face around the professors from my department. I was a failure, and that’s all they would remember about me. Utter failure. Also, I felt like I was bringing shame to my group.

I thought failing this exam would define me for the rest of my life, but alas! Life does not have to be that dramatic.

I realized that there were things, knowledge I lacked. Specifically the parts of formulating a hypothesis and writing the proposal. See, during my first year of grad school all I did was try to get answers to lab related questions … basically from my sleeve (I always thought that the questions I got were from PI’s that had those same questions and wanted to get a clever answer which they had failed to come up for years … but this is just pure speculation of a bitter grad student). I came directly to grad school from an undergrad program. I had no counseling regarding the big change that involves going from spitting out memorized facts, to sitting down, ANALYZING a problem and attempt to give a sound answer in an orderly fashion just with scientific experiments.

I guess college is supposed to prepare you for that. And while you do lab work, you supposedly learn these tips, tricks and procedures. But I can honestly say that I went through my college experience without paying attention to that. All I was focused on was getting the highest grades possible, to get into a good medical or graduate program. It was never clear to me that the concepts and problems you learned in chemistry 101 would be useful some day, and could be applied to life in general. The only time I remember something like that happening was when I was taking Physics 2 and we had to solve a couple of problems using the soh-cah-toa method (good thing I remembered, I scored a 90+ in that one). Other than that, I felt like I was just memorizing facts, and nothing more.

I could go around blaming people for the things I didn’t learn in college, or how it seems like the system failed to prepare me for grad school. Ultimately, situations like failing your quals bring you back to the reality that you are in grad school, and like my PI from the PhD used to say, you’re here because you have the capacity to teach yourself, and then apply those concepts to help answer scientific questions.

At this point, my boyfriend, who’d taken at least a gazillion classes related to methodology sat me down, helped me organize my tasks and checked that my hypothesis seemed sound (now, I must tell you, the BF does not work in the “hardcore” sciences, yet his knowledge of methodology was superb and he provided support and tools that were much needed at the time). Equipped with readings the BF provided and lots of patience I reformulated my hypothesis, re-wrote the proposal and a month after failing my qual the 1st time, I took it again (with the same committee) and passed with flying colours.

It was my moment of glory. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. I don’t think I was this happy, not even when my committee approved my thesis and granted me degree after the defense.

The exam committee met with me, and said they were super proud and that it was beyond clear to them that I had taken the time, studied and put in the effort to make things clear, for me and for them, and for that I was worthy of passing.

All in all, I would not have it any other way. Whenever I tell this story I say it proudly, because my efforts (and a very patient and competent boyfriend) got me through the process. It is not the end of the world. And after all this, doing the research to complete the PhD seemed like a piece of cake. I can honestly say that I can probably teach myself many things, and that even if I didn’t learn some things in grad school or college, I can always look for a good book, sit down, teach myself and practice.

So there you have it. Do not feel discouraged. It is not the end of the world, and better times are ahead. Trust me … I am now a doctor :-)

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95 Comments

  1. [...] was happening. When the foul mood and increase tardiness at my lab started getting out of control (and the time of the qualifying exam was approaching),  I knew I HAD to do something. I thought I was going crazy!!!!!!!! I was on the verge of losing [...]

  2. [...] material. Some of those words came to my mind at very special times during my graduate career (here) and [...]

  3. [...] January – came back from a vacay at my parent’s house, in my lovely hometown with my vision settled on finishing the damned thesis. BF and I didn’t get to spend too much time together as he was studying for his version of hell qualifying exams. [...]

  4. [...] take courses for part (or all) of the second year. At this time you might be preparing for the qualifying exam. It will be a lot of hard work because by now you’ve completed rotations and are ready to [...]

  5. [...] all the breathing I still felt like I could fail, like failure was an REAL option (especially after what had happened at my qual). My boss, my family and I were in the room for a little while before people started showing up. At [...]

  6. [...] handy when it’s time for your to consider going to grad school, get into grad school and scary things happen, or are almost out the door and have little to no counseling, or are afraid to ask [...]

  7. [...] free to check some of my entries about grad school and my experience here and here. And as always, if there’s a question, just leave a comment and I’ll reply [...]

  8. [...] school only had one. You can read more about it here. My BF’s school (where I currently work as a postdoc) has 2 for his discipline, a general [...]

  9. [...] I get a question about quals I direct readers to my entry on how my own qual went on. Check it out here. The qual exam basically serves to test the knowledge acquired over the 1st year or two of grad [...]

  10. [...] I’ve chronicled before, it has not been an easy path. And what’s worse, all those promises of a great job, doing what I loved never really [...]

  11. [...] true . But I saw it as a time to explore options. After all, there was that pesky thing called qualifying exam, so if half way through the grad school adventures I found myself liking something else I’d [...]

  12. Maria H says:

    Great to read your story! Well done! Do you have any advice to give anyone who is about to start a PhD? I’m planning to ahead in Physiology and I have no idea how to prepare myself for it! Thanks!

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Hi There Maria H! I sent you an email with some links to some posts I wrote a while ago. Basically, it depends one your department and program. I was in a multi-discipline program, so I did rotations during my 1st year, then I chose a lab during my second year. If you entered thru a direct program, I’d probably start off by checking out the profs interests, talking to them (there might be open houses or seminars in which different faculty members show what they do and how they do it). If something catches your attention, don’t be shy and approach said prof or profs. If you have a lab already, a good point to start is by not only reading their articles (to get a feel for how they do science) but also read reviews which tend to give you an overview of the field, and possibly approach. That way when you get to your first lab meeting you won’t feel lost (I did, a lot, especially when I joined the lab where I did my PhD, everything seemed so foreign). Mingle, make friends and enjoy every second. Ask questions, don’t be shy, it’s the only way to learn. Oh, and read instructions … it may save you a lot of time. You may experience some ups and downs, and that’s perfectly fine. You may have doubts, we all do (if you don’t believe check out my last 2 or 3 entries). My email has more details,, but basically read, ask questions, and network. I think those are some of the very basic “rules” to follow not only in your 1st year, but throughout your life as a scientist. Congrats on starting soon! Best of luck and many thanks for reading :-)

  13. Nadia H says:

    Your blog is awesome and I read the advice you left to Maria H and it sounds great! Could you please send me the same email you sent her with those links too because I’m also prepping to start my PhD in Physiology within a couple of months and I am so lost! Your writing is great! Thanks!

  14. Nadia H says:

    I think I entered the wrong email: its nadiahaider at gmail dot com only! Thanks!

  15. [...] of data for my thesis, or made figures and calculations in a matter of seconds when I was taking my qualifying exam or defending my thesis. The internet and textbooks were there, just not a my reach, and had I relied [...]

  16. [...] it was time for my qualifying exam, one of the main reasons I was scared out of my mind was the possibility of choosing a topic that [...]

  17. Diane Davis says:

    This was an encouraging post!!!! It has lifted my spirit. I failed the PhD exam two times. I am currently appealing an administrative withdrawal. The mentor informed me it was citations and grammer. But, like you I want to be a doctor. Please give me some advice.

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Thanks for stopping by. I hate doing this, but it’s grammar, not grammer. It is a very common mistake. That said, if you can successfully appeal your case, the first thing I’d recommend is to sit down with your boss and discuss the parts where you did well and those in which you didn’t do so well. I’d focus on those and read and practice on that, as much as possible. If it’s more about a matter of reading, you could ask your committee if they could appoint a person to check your grammar and how your document is worded. Back when I took my qual, several of the students weren’t native English speakers. The committee took this into account and made recommendations tailored to whatever “issues” they found, if any. You could potentially have a friend who’s not in school look over your document and see if it’s clear, the grammar is correct, etc. If the committee is asking that you submit your document and cite in a certain format, I’d try to meet with one of them, or whoever is in charge of graduate education in your department, and sit down and talk about how you can familiarize yourself with this style or if you can show your material to a centre for writing/reviewing, if such a place is available at your institution. A year before I started writing my thesis a new centre for consulting/evaluating documents was established at my school. Students, PIs, anyone who could benefit from it, was welcome to use it. I sent one of my first chapters there and it was a great way to familiarize myself with different document/citation styles and editing my documents and having someone from outside look at my material. I highly recommend that. Best of luck and keep me posted on what happens!

  18. [...] me, I’m a big wuss. I turn down the challenge and run away from it. That was one of my fears when I was taking the qualifying exam. I feared that I’d be cornered as soon as I got into the room and that I wouldn’t be [...]

  19. Anshul says:

    Hey Nadia…thanks for this awesome post. I am a foreign student studying in US. I just failed my first attempt at the quals and am preparing for the next attempt. I was wondering what are the options available if I fail both attempts. I still want to stick to science.

    Plz lemme know if you have any clue.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hi Anshul, and thank you for visiting. You can stay in science, even if you fail the qual both times. One of the options I’ve heard some programs or departments offer is that if you’ve conducted part of your thesis work, you can obtain a master’s and defend that work. Some options you could explore are industry (while i was job searching I saw many posts asking for people with master’s), government or tech-like positions. If you want to stay within an academic environment you could look for positions in core-labs or academic research labs and get a staff position, which is likely to give you some extra benefits which you may not have access to while being a student or a postdoc. It’s good that you want to stay in science and want to look into your options, but for now, try to stay focused on your exam, and if obtaining your PhD is what you really want, give it your all. All the best and do let me know what you end up deciding.

      • Anshul says:

        Thanks a lot Nadia. Believe me, I am trying my best. But I guess, I still cant help some negativity from creeping into my mind.
        Great advice though. Personally I would love to get a PhD.

      • Dr. 27 says:

        Then go for it. I know how you feel, trust me, it was so hard to get over the initial shock of not passing it the first time, then taking it again and passing. It is tough, but I think that if you give it your all, you can do it. Keep me posted :-), Dr. 27

    • Diane Davis says:

      Anshul,

      I am also a PhD student who failed the exam twice. Don’t worry, you can appeal your situation to the university’s review board for a third chance. I recommend that you hire an editor to assist you. Best wishes on your endeavor to pass your exam. Keep in contact and let me know the outcome.

      Diane

      • Diane Davis says:

        Best wishes, you can do it!!!!

      • Anshul says:

        Thanks Diane. Are you a foreign student too? Reason I ask is that I think the situation will be different for foreign students and so would love to get some perspective on the complications this fact creates.

        Thanks again.

      • Diane Davis says:

        No, I am not a foreign student, however if you have a situtation such as feelings of depression maybe due to a break up with your significant other this can be a reason that you did not do well on the exam. It is my belief that this is an example of a reason that distracted you from doing your best on the exam. You may have a different situation that interferred. Do you understand what I mean? There are situations that interfer with student’s ability to do well; given another opportunity when you have resolved the situation will give the university’s review board something to consider in allowing you another opportunity to re-take the exam. Best wishes!

        Diane

  20. BD says:

    It was a relief stumbling onto this blog. I just failed my first qual last week, and it’s been a rollercoaster of emotions. I, too, am going through the feelings where I’m terrified to run into my committee members, I feel like I’ve got a big F tattooed on my face, and I’m terrified to fail the second time. It’s been a very stressful experience, made worse so by the fact that all my friends passed their first try! So imagine how that makes me feel!

    But I’m being given a second shot next quarter, I believe, and it’s just really good to read success stories of people who buckled down, tried hard, and passed the second time. So thank you for sharing your story!

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hi BD. First of all, I’m so sorry about your qualifying exam. It’s such a tough time and yes, you go through the ups and downs of the process. I’m glad you found the blog and found some relief. That’s the whole reason I wrote it. I needed to get off my chest some of the frustration and I wanted to give a voice to people that go through the same experience and want the get back on the saddle and try it again. I’m glad you’re going to give it another shot. I’ll be sending you good vibes. Like you, a lot of my good friends passed it on their 1st try. I somehow felt like I was less able and capable than some of them … yet you may be surprised to know that out of 2 or 3 of my very best friends who took it and passed, only one of them, along with me ended up finishing the PhD! Do drop a line if you need to talk or something.

      Wishing you a happy thanksgiving and the best in your qual, Dr 27

      • BD says:

        Thanks for the good wishes; I’ll be needing them! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

      • Dr. 27 says:

        You’re most welcomed. All the best :-)

      • BD says:

        I just wanted to update and let you know that after a few months of hand-wringing and stressing and wallowing in my insecurities, I, too, finally advanced to candidacy at the beginning of the month. :)

        Thanks so much for having this blog available, and giving the rest of us a glimmer of hope when that light at the end of the tunnel momentarily disappears. Now… I just need my research to work… so I can graduate… But one step at a time.

      • Dr. 27 says:

        Congratulations!!!! Oh how good. I’m so very happy for you :-D

      • Diane Davis says:

        Congradulation on your success. I can relate to you because of this website I also was encouraged with good advise and I have passed my exam and now I am in the dissertation process. Again, congradulation!

        Diane

  21. Anshul says:

    Hi BD (and Nadia):
    I am glad to know that you are being given a second chance to make amends. As nadia mentions above, the first failure is often like a wake up call. I had posted on this blog a while back about my unfavorable result in the first attempt. But after reading Nadia’s inspirational text and with a lot of support from friends and family, I passed my 2nd attempt just last week. Sure it seemed like a difficult journey (and it was), but ultimately I think that even the academic program that you are undertaking does not “want” you to fail. They just want to make sure that you are headed in the right direction in terms of your thinking about the research. Another think I feel is very important is to follow the prescribed the format (of the presentation/document) to the t. They want to make sure that you know what it takes to apply for a grant from sponsors and thus want you to religiously adhere to the instructions.

    Thanks Nadia. The blog was a great help

  22. [...] After entering grad school I wrote to him a few times. I asked for his help with a question for my qualifying exam, and he was more than happy when I said, "hey Prof R, I joined a lab that uses XYZ to study ABC and [...]

  23. [...] All that brings me to answer a question someone posted on the my blog. A commenter asked why I'd started blogging. The 'about' section of my blog used to say that I wanted the blog to be a place where I could write down my thoughts on everything grad school related, but that I also wanted it to be a window into the life of a grad student (later postdoc) and that I'd share my struggles because as much as I thought they were unique, I was sure I wasn't alone (something I've come to see a lot in the comments, tweets and emails I get on my entry on failing the qualifying exam). [...]

  24. Katie says:

    Just wanted to stop by and tell you that this post something I came back to read and re-read frequently on my journey. I too failed my generals exam (what we call it) and then rewrote, under guidance, one of the written questions and then passed with flying colors nearly 9 months later. Last week I successfully defended my dissertation and am now a doctor as well! I don’t think any of my committee members think of me that way anymore, and while I was a little superstitious and nervous – the rest of the process (writing and presenting the dissertation research) was easy in comparison. Thank you for being so open an honest in your blog (I also read your current posts too) and know that you have an influence on your readers.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Awww thank you so much Katie!! I really, really appreciate your comment. How sweet of you. I’m so happy you’re done with the thesis already. Congrats on that achievement. Here’s for many more to come! I was just reading on another blog something along these lines “write the kind of book (in my case, blog) that you would like to read.” I think that’s what keeps me going and should keep us all going. You’re so very welcome and thanks again for stopping by :-)

  25. Diane Davis says:

    I have gratitude for this blog, it helps learners who have either failed or need help to obtain graduate status. I am personal thankful for this blog, I receive excellent advice. I took it and passed my comprehensive exam. I am most grateful!!!!!

    • Dr. 27 says:

      awww thanks Diane. I’m so happy you also passed the test. It is a stressful time indeed, but we can, we all can. Thanks for sharing the wonderful news :-D

  26. [...] of “I’ve been there, and it can be overcome, or at least minimized to a manageable level.” When I posted my story on how I failed (and then passed) my qualifying exam, I got many emails and comments on people looking for guidance and sharing their stories. It was [...]

  27. Mushfiq says:

    Really thrilling ! Thanks for sharing. I will apply for graduate school this year. Ready to feel the heat ! :P

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Thanks for visiting Mushfiq! Best to you during the application period, it can get crazy looking for all the transcripts and letters, but you can do it :-)

  28. Uma Shankar says:

    Hi Dr 29, its very Motivational Story from you. I am Right now 28 years old, Unmarried, doing Full time PhD. I have Successfully Completed my Pre PhD Exam. Now i have Started my Second year of Research. My Supervisor is not Guiding me Properly, He says me to do on my own. I am Really Frustrated.can you give me some Suggestions.

    • Diane Davis says:

      Hi Uma, I can relate to your frustration. I am also in the research process of my PhD. For a year I have been working on my Scientific Merit Review form, a 32 page document, for a year. I spent more than $19,000 with the poor guidance of my mentor. I was told by another mentor it only take him and his learner about 4 weeks to complete this process. After speaking to the mentor, I notified the university and they appointed me a new mentor. I am so upset, because I was planning to graduate this past Spring. I mapped out the Scientific Merit Review process as one quarter (summer 2011), complete Chapters 1, 2 and 3 and complete the Institution Review Board process as the second quarter (fall 2011), complete my Research Project and complete chapters 4 and 5 (Winter, 2011) and finally graduate (Spring 2012).

      My suggestion to you is if you are not satisfied with your supervisor, speak to some one in a higher authority position to change your suprervisor. You need someone who is willing, able and ready to help to guide you. Someone who understands the process and want to see you succeed. I hope this help you. Sharing your story has helped motivate me. It lets me know I am not alone in this world with this most frustration process. Best wishes to you!!

      Diane

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hi Uma! I’m so sorry about the situation with your supervisor. I agree with Diane, if you’re feeling frustrated with your advisor, particularly if he’s too hands off at a time when you need to be guided through a process or taught a technique or approach, go to someone more senior. Is there anyone in the lab that may help you a bit technique-wise? I feel your pain, my postdoc was like that and I felt quite frustrated. I joined a lab in something completely foreign to me and I needed some guidance and sit-down time with my supervisor. He basically gave me a stack of papers, a grant of his and introduced me to the lab tech. I had to rely on almost everyone else in the lab to do everything. It was like being back to grad school year 1. I looked for mentorship in other professors and people and it sort of worked, but I wish I’d had more input and involvement from my boss.

      An advisor is supposed to guide you and provide help and direction, particularly in your first few years. If after seeking help from more senior people and even speaking directly with him things don’t resolve, then maybe consider switching labs if at all possible. It’s not unheard of and if you really want that PhD is better to switch early than continue suffering for 5 more years.

      Please keep me posted and congrats on passing your exam!

  29. Kevin says:

    Noniffense what so ever, and not sure if this is how you typed up; you may want to take a simple course on the English language and re-learn how to compose a paragraph and sentences, this may help you one day in your future as a doctor, especially of you should ever decide to publish a study, etc…
    Best of Everything in your career,

    Dr. K. Peters

    • Kelly says:

      This comment is incredibly unhelpful. What balls you have, to comment to someone on their written language! Your prose is not perfect either, Dr. Peters; your first sentence contains a nonsense word and the second phrase is missing a subject. After the word “sentences”, you should use a semicolon, not a comma. You also make the erroneous assumption that the blog author is not already a published scientific author. I know this assumption to be untrue, and so should you: no scientist can get to the stage of a successful postdoc without having contributed meaningfully to a publication.

      Take your own advice, Dr. Peters, and please don’t write unhelpful comments on other people’s blogs.

  30. Dr. 27 says:

    Indeed, this is how I intended to tell the story.

  31. [...] I mentioned on Twitter that I got a comment on the blog, on my most popular entry, about my writing/English. It shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did. I kept going back to [...]

  32. shilpa says:

    Thanks for posting this , it really helps to know that there are others in the same situation. I failed once and am preparing for my second attempt. For me, its written exam based on coursework. I am trying to do my best but I keep feeling depressed and think about how everything is at stake on this one exam. Does any one know what can help me relax and pass the exam ? I am so tensed and I feel worthless.

    • Diane Davis says:

      Hi Shilpa,

      I was in the same situation, and I understand the depressed feelings while going through this process. I failed the exam twice and through mediation, prayer and support from a mentor I finally passed the exam. Think positive and believe that your higher power has given you all that is needed for you to pass the exam. Then believe it! Thank your higher power in advance for granting you everything you need to pass your exam. You should find a mentor in your field and have him or her give you quizes to test your knowledge of your coursework. This will also help prepare you for the exam. Believe, Believe and you will passed the exam. There is power in positive thinking!

      Best wishes,
      Diane

      • Dr. 27 says:

        Thanks for your comment Diane, indeed, these are super useful tips to pass the qual and find ways to relax and re-charge prior to passing it.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hi Shilpa! I agree with Diane, think positive, do find ways to relaz, maybe take a few hours off from studying, pamper yourself, or go on a date, it’s definitely worth it when it comes to getting ready for the exam. Talk to your PI or supportive lab members. One strategy I tried was praying, it worked great. My boyfriend meditates. I can’t, I get too distracted, but I found some relaxing nature sounds on youtube (my fave is the sound of rain in a forest) and listening to that helps calm me down and re-charge. Do let us know how you do, ok? And best to you in your exam! You can do it!!!

      • shilpa says:

        Thank you soo much for all the help. It feels nice to talk to people who can relate to my situation. I will take the exams again next week, will keep you posted. Hope it goes better this time.

      • Dr. 27 says:

        No problem Shilpa! And best to you in your qual. You can do it!!!

      • shilpa says:

        Hi all , I cleared my qualifiers and apparently I did very well!!! It feels sooo good .. :) just wanna thnk everyone for the support .. im glad tht i found this blog n i hope it helps other aspiring phds’ in the future !!

      • Diane Davis says:

        CONGRADULATIONSO SHILPA!!!!!! I knew you could do it! When we beleive and have faith in something other than ourselves such as a higher power we will always succeed. In this world we will have trails and tribulations, these trail and tribulations are only test that test our faith in our higher power. When we give it over, we are guided by the higher power. Again, congradulations!

        Diane

      • Dr. 27 says:

        Thank you SO much for sharing Shilpa. I’m SOOOOOOOOOOOOO happy for you. Congratulations. You worked hard and you deserve to enjoy it.

  33. [...] get a second chance, but if you fail again, you are banished from the program). You can find his tale here. It has a happy ending. But, needless to say, I felt a minor anxiety attack coming on when I [...]

  34. AshK says:

    Hi Nadia,
    I have just started my second year as a PhD student and quals are looming over my head. I am supposed to take my quals in the next 3 months or so. The way it works in my dept is that one has to pick a topic different from ones research and different from what ones lab group is doing. Some people say it has to be drastically different while some say it doesnt have to be too different. I work in cancer biology and my boss told me that it would be a good idea to still focus on some sort of cancer and to not deviate too much. Anyways my problem right now is to come up with a ‘novel’ proposal topic ; something that no one has ever done before. Believe me I am at a loss here. I have an idea in my head (although it is completely raw at this point) ; but I dont hink it’s so ground breaking that it would totally WOW my committee. Any suggestions would be much appreciated. How should I bring myself to ‘ focus ‘. I am so scared!

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hi AshK. The way your qual is is the same way my qual was. And trust me, I know that feeling. It was one of my greatest fears going into the qual. I was working with a pathogen and applying structural bio methods to it, so I chose a different pathogen and applied similar methods to those in my PhD lab plus a few others which were out of my comfort zone. I think the topic is important, but just as important is that you feel qualified and competent to discuss it at length and defend it in front of the exam committee. The novel means, IMO, that it’s something that hasn’t been well characterized or studied by different methods that possibly you know but someone else has not thought of. I know it sounds hard, and there’s a lot of reading ahead. But you can do it. I certainly did it, and funny enough, I’ve even met some of the people I mentioned as references and previous work in my qual! I even work with one of them now and then. Remember, you don’t need to wow your committee to the point that they think you’re the next Nobel winner, you just need to propose solid work, put a lot of thought in it, know it well, defend it well and be ready for some though questions. You can do it. Try not to get wrapped up in the novel, so much as in the learning how to think and get out of your comfort zone and think on your feet. That’s what I think was important in the end for my qual. Best of luck and please keep me posted, or send me an email if you need to talk.

  35. HRS70 says:

    Hello Dr. 27, that was an awesome read! I’m very glad to have just found this blog. I recently finished undergrad and have been debating whether or not I should enter a graduate program. As awkward as it may seem (considering I’m no where near this particular situation you were in), obstacles such as the one you presented here have been one of the many reasons I’ve been hesitant about applying. When you wrote “I could go around blaming…”, that paragraph really hit home. I have spoken to admissions counselors and directors of decent to top graduate programs and they have all encouraged me to apply after looking at my credentials. I work as an research tech, and even the PI has encouraged me to apply to their program which would be in a field VERY similar to what you received your PhD in. However at the moment, I feel that I do not possess the necessary skill set to succeed in a graduate program. I would say that I’m pretty hard working, but i will admit to having trouble understanding published papers, learning independently, and constantly feeling like my undergrad failed to prepare me in certain ways.

    Even as a research tech, sometimes I feel troubled by questions that are being asked about a field. Other times I feel intimidated by other researchers/grad students who are able to come up with questions/hypotheses and setup the experiments for testing without much help. Have you ever felt this way? Do you have any advice or tips? Am I over analyzing this or are those skills you learn in graduate school? Would be great if we could possibly communicate via email.

    Cant wait to read more of your posts =)!! Happy Holidays!

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hi there HRS70. Thanks for stopping by. I apologize for the length of time it took to answer. I was out for a few weeks.

      I think it’s normal to have some apprehension about grad school, especially when faced with one of the biggest tests we take during that time. I remember that I hadn’t heard about the qual before entering grad school and when I did I immediately panicked. I was freaking out since second week of classes in grad school. It was terrible. But besides the qual there are other instances where things are not smooth either, and that doesn’t mean that we can’t get through them and become better people and scientists as we go along.

      It’s somewhat normal to question whether we’d succeed in grad school. We all do it to some degree. But if you have people who are encouraging and know you and your work, I don’t see why not. That said, you have to determine whether grad school is something that you really, REALLY want. You don’t want to answer during the interviews that the reason you applied is because everyone around you (but you) thought it would be a great idea. That’s the wrong reason.

      I’ve met my share of lab techs that go through a few years of lab work followed by grad school. Most of them have been some of the best students I’ve ever met. The level of commitment, the understanding of techniques, and dedication are above that of some of the other classmates. That said, I’ve met my share of lab techs that slowly but surely go up the managerial ladder and become lab managers, lab co-directors, and many other roles. So it really depends on you and what you hope to achieve with your graduate education.

      And to answer your final questions, even to this day I still have a hard time reading some papers (depending specifically on how esoteric the journal is). I still have a hard time coming up with follow up questions of further studies, but, it’s definitely much easier than compared to 10 years ago when I was first in grad school.

      Please send me an email if you’d like to chat some more at stitchick at gmail dot com.

      Thanks for stopping by :-)

  36. passthequal says:

    Hi
    Glad to find this blog..so I’m now in the process of appealing after failing my qual exams. My question is do you know or have examples on what an appeal letter is? Do you think saying that I would take additional training somewhere and voluntarily helping the professors will help? I’m quite clueless – stress full :/ ..Thank you so much for your insights !

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hi there!! I’m so sorry about your qual.

      I don’t have examples of an appeals letter. But, perhaps asking your mentor or a professor you trust for insight will help. Overall, I think you want to be polite, firm and have a plan and be open for discussion.

      Hope this helps! And hugs!!

    • Diane Davis says:

      In your appeal lettern you may use have a plan of action that will show the university’s committee that you have carefully examined your mistakes. This will help the committee to make a positive decision in giving you another chance. Many times the committee want to know what you are going to do differently. Whatever comments were made on your exam, have a plan of action how you will correct those mistakes on the next exam.

      Best wishes!!!!
      Diane

  37. Daniel says:

    Glad I can find your article here, and know someone had the similar experience. I failed the exam, and just waiting for the final judgement of the committee. Hope there is a second chance.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hope there is a second chance indeed Daniel! Go you!!!!

      • Diane says:

        Daniel,

        Hold on to faith. You must have faith as small as a mustard seed. Most university’s policies allow a second chance. You need to find out the university’s policy and write an appeal letter requesting to re-take the exam with an explanation of how you will correct the mistakes you made on the first exam. Best wishes to you!! Diane

        that

      • Daniel says:

        Thank you Dr.27 and Diane. No miracle happened. They gave me a M.A and discontinued my program. It totally ruined my plan for a academic career, and there‘s a lot of pressure for the future now.

      • Dr. 27 says:

        Oh no Daniel. I’m so very sorry. Is there any way you can appeal? Would you want to? One thing that helped me sort out what I wanted to do during my crisis as a postdoc was talking to an academic counselor and sorting through my emotions. I know this seems too much right now, but if you can, take advantage of that resource in your institution. I know it looks confusing and overwhelming. But I promise you, it gets better. My email is in the contact section, feel free to drop a line if you want. I’m here for you.

  38. sunil says:

    i want to phd but i did’nt give any exam test. like ugc/gate.so please give me suggestion for phd.or any phd entrance exam will conduct in future for 2013 session

  39. Ahmad says:

    The first exam the asked me for re-examination, I repeated the exam 7 months later and I failed :(

    • Diane says:

      Hi Ahmad,

      Don’t get discouraged. I also failed the exam twice. On the third attempt, I passed!!! Study, study, and study. Ask the university for another chance to take the exam and put a plan of action together explaining how you will successfully make progress towards your exam goal to pass. I recommend that you get a mentor to help you with your writing or other areas you may need to work on. Again, don’t be discouraged. You can do it!!!!

      Diane

    • Dr. 27 says:

      I’m so sorry Ahmad :-( Can you retake the exam?

  40. alias says:

    Hello! I’d like to say how much your blog here has helped me endure the last few days before my quals retake. You’ve phrased it most perfectly: I felt like the biggest idiot in the world for not making it the first time. I could hardly hold up my head and face anyone during that 3 week period before my retake. I’m happy to report that I passed the second time around yesterday.

    The only thing that kept me going was work, nonstop work, to keep me from revisiting the emotionally traumatic feeling of failure. I constantly felt like I was on the brink of tears. It is absolutely true that determination and hard work are the only ways to get through the retake period and succeed.

    Funnily enough, I feel indebted to the dept. for giving me a second chance and the kick-in-the-butt kind of encouragement I needed to realize how much I wanted to get my PhD. Because for a long time I was feeling a lot of self-doubt and going through the inevitable grad school existential crises. Failing the quals certainly lit a fire under me. I felt like I was living my own work out montage to Eye of the Tiger. Though I must say I never want to go through that emotional roller coaster ever again.

  41. Itzia says:

    I’m super glad I found this little corner. I recently found out I failed my comprehensive exams in my Master’s program. Even though I say “it’s okay” when people try to comfort me, I’m on the brink of tears. This was my final semester, so I won’t get to graduate with my class (and friends). I’ve tried talking about it over and over thinking that I won’t feel like such an idiot nor a failure, but no such luck. Some of my professors tried to show me my answers and their feedback and I could barely look at the papers without fighting the urge to cry. They gave me the opportunity to re-take it, but if I fail it this time, I get kicked out of the program and the two years I have been kicking my butt will be for pretty much for nothing.

    I’m glad I’m not alone and thank you for the opportunity to vent.

    • Dr. Diane Davis says:

      Hi Itzia, I understand how what you are currently feeling. It is devastating to learn that we failed our comprehensive exam and have only one opportunity to pass it. I have been there, and with the support of this site and the wonderful suggestions I passed it and know I have my PhD. Itzia my suggestion to you is to first make sure you understand all the areas on the test you did poor on. Study, study, study. Find a study group in school. Believe in your ability to pass the comprehensive exam. Believe and you will achieve. There is no such thing as failure. There is something we must work on so that we can improve it. So, stop thinking about if you fail it again and getting kicked out of the program. It will not happen. Remember we achieve our goals with a strong desire (Master’s Degree), positive action (find out from your professors what you need to work on, study independently) and find a study group to study with) and then allowing the universe to give the passing grade and the Master’s Degree.

      YOU CAN DO IT!!!!!!
      Dr. Diane Davis

      • Itzia says:

        Thank you SO much for those kind words, I really needed it. I spoke to all my professors about my questions, the material I have to study for next time and the date of the exam (the retake is in October). I can’t do a study group because I’m moving to another city so I have to study alone. However, a friend of mine offered to read my practice answer essays even though she’s starting a PhD program in the Fall. My family has also being supportive and my boyfriend wants to help my study as well. I am very lucky I am surrounded by people who wish me well :)

        I’m just trying to finish all of my coursework so I can move and study until October. Sometimes the thought “if I don’t pass this test I can’t graduate” goes through my head, but I try to keep myself distracted.

        Thank you so much again, I really needed it.

  42. FFruitus says:

    I’m so glad I found this blog. Thanks for putting it together. I got a conditional pass on my qualifying exam so that means I have to write-up a couple of two page papers on topics that the committee didn’t think I was able to explain very well. I know it’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things but I can’t help but feel like I’m a fraud and shouldn’t even be in the program in the first place. I won’t have to retake the exam and the conditions that I have to address shouldn’t take very much time, but I’m not sure how to stop beating myself up over the results. I know that I have to put it behind me and move on but I am embarrassed that I didn’t perform better. I know I’m not the first one to every get a conditional pass but the feelings of failure persist.

    Anyway, thanks for putting this forum together!

    • Dr. Diane Davis says:

      Congrats! The committee gave you a conditional pass to write up a couple of pages on your topic without having to re-take the total exam. That is success. Success requires no apologies, failure permits no alibis. In this world there will be failures, but failure are not to prevent you from moving forward. It is so that you may learn something. Take this opportunity to learn whatever it is you need to learn and move forward to successfully earn you degree. Keep up the great work!

      • FFruitus says:

        Thanks so much for the encouragement! It’s greatly appreciated. I’ll try to forget about what happened and move forward to complete the degree.

      • You are most welcome. Now is the time to review the information needed to prepare for your exam. Believe that you can achieve and you will!!!! Best wishes

  43. GehrigSteinmahninChicago says:

    Going through the same thing now. Did great in my classes and then only passed 2/4 sections of my quals on my second try. I had a lot of devastating personal stuff happening at the time of the exams, which contributed to my lack of focus. That didn’t stop the depression or self-blame or the feeling that I was doomed from the beginning, that I had just confirmed how much of a loser I was.

    I petitioned school to try for a 3rd time with a letter of support from a professor in the program, but no luck. Now I am applying to other schools trying to figure out how exactly to explain the incomplete work in my doctoral program in the letter of intent.

    I am smarter this time in looking at schools. I learned that I am looking for a school that will support me as a student, not just have me show up and do work and hope they give me a degree, if I follow all of the rules. In a way starting over at a new school will do me good. The school where I ‘left’ was not very supportive. My first meeting with the department chair after being accepted I was told by him that I was lucky to have gotten in at all and that he had doubts about me, but that my letters of rec were so good that they got me through. He then assigned me an advisor who I met with the next day and who, before even speaking with me started off by saying that no one should get into academics and that he hoped that was not my aspiration that there were no opportunities at this school for tenure positions etc. Then after asking me a single question about my interests he told me to keep looking for other advisors. None of the students or professors could tell me much about the qual exams and no old exams were posted anywhere like many other schools do. Neither the chair nor my ‘advisor’ could tell me anything about the exams other than to go over the reading list. The one thing they told me was that there may be more material covered on the exam than there are in the classes that were suggested in the study guide. So the bottom line was that the school too no responsibility for providing classes that cover material on the exams, nor did they offer any information on the exams. They could not offer support in any way to students and would not offer any encouragement. Like a bad relationship, I didn’t see it for what it was at the time. I do now and just like a failed relationship I come away from this having learned about what I want from this experience. I also learned a lot about what kind of difference I would like to make when I find and get through a program. I would never treat a student like that.

    Tough times, very hard to deal with. It is good however to see that one is not alone in these things.

  44. tiernansg says:

    Hi, thanks for sharing. Do you think you could also share some of those articles on methodology please..? I am headed for my qualifyings and very worried. You don’t have to provide the whole article, I’d be eternally grateful for the references. Thanks a bunch!!

  45. […] exams: NCSU, PhD(isabled), Chronicle of Higher Education, Unofficial Grad School Survival Guide, 27 and a PhD, and […]

  46. Gentille R says:

    Hello Dr. 27,
    What an Amazing and encouragement post! I am an undergrad college student, and I am struggling badly in some of my nursing classes. Sometimes I feel that I am just a failure, and not meant to be what I want to be. Recently I failed one of my exam, and I you mentioned in your post, I also felt worthless, shameful, and I did not want to show my face to the faculties in the nursing department. But reading coming at this blog, that is what I wanted to hear; I am not a failure and failure shall not define me at all! THE BEST IS YET TO COME. “HE’S not finished with me yet”.
    Please, is it possible to be in touch with you by e-mail? I have a lot of personal questions to ask, and I believe you are a great resource for that.

    Much much blessings,
    Gentille

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