When you are a Ph.D. student, it is quite typical that you have to take a Qualifying Exam to pass into candidacy. Typically this is just after completing your second year of school, or just after you finished your classes. There are a few reasons for taking such an exam:
1. To determine how well you can take the information that you have learned in your classes over the last couple of years and synthesize the information. Did you get the broad scope of the ideas? Can you take a piece of information from one class and apply it to another class?
2. To determine how well you think on your feet. If you are standing in front of a large crowd of people and they ask you a question that you many not know the answer to, can you work it out and survive?
3. To determine whether you can think critically about research. When someone shows you a result, can you tell whether you should trust it or not?
In our department, we have two parts to the Qualifying Exam: (1) a written part in which students have to answer a few questions based on classwork that they have completed; and (2) an oral part in which students have to present a talk to a committee on a paper that is assigned to them. Both parts of the exam are pretty informative, in that they test different aspects of a student’s abilities. The structure of the oral exam that we have now (i.e., assigning a paper to critically review) instituted about five years ago, and I think that it is very good. The written part could be tweaked a bit, but I won’t get into that here.
One question that I often have at this time of year is whether the Qualifying Exam actually helps to determine whether the student will turn out to be “successful”. Then, by extension, one has to wonder, what does “successful” imply? Does it mean that they will publish hundreds of papers or be referenced thousands of times? Does it mean that they will win huge grants or have large research groups? Does tenure mean that you have achieved success? In they get a job at a national lab and publish 1-2 papers a year over 30 years, is that success? I am sure that it is different to everyone. So, if we return to the question of whether passing a Qualifying Exam in your second year of graduate school implies that you will be successful, I would argue that it doesn’t forecast the success of a student at all. Conversely, one could argue that if you don’t pass the Qualifying Exam, then there is a good chance that you won’t be successful as a scientist either. I am not really even sure if this is true.
In some ways, the main purpose of the Qualifying Exam is for everyone to pause and ask, “Is this relationship working out?” By this, I mean the student’s relationship with their adviser and the school in general. By having a committee of people ask the student a bunch of questions, they are really trying to determine whether the student fits into the program. Some of these are quite quantitative, such as the student has to have a certain grade point average to even take the Qualifying Exam, or they have to pass the written part by answering some of the questions correctly. Some are more qualitative, like the oral exam and the adviser’s report on how well the student is doing on their research.
Through discussions with various faculty at different universities, it is clear that students sometimes really “click” with the school and the adviser, and sometimes they really don’t. Some of the students are unhappy enough to have their grades suffer or have their Qualifying Exam not go as well as planned. Sometimes failing the Qualifying Exam is a very good thing, since they are forced to think about what they really enjoy doing and what they are really good at.
One of my best friends went through the Qualifying Exam and did not do so well. He is an amazingly intelligent person, who just really wasn’t that interested in what he was working on. It forced him to figure out what he really did like, and he ended up with his dream job. He is one of the only people that I know who absolutely loves to go to work every day.
In conclusion, the Qualifying Exam serves many different purposes, but one of the most important maybe just figuring out if there is something wrong, and if there is, what is the best thing to do to correct it.