Re-post - I failed my PhD qualifying exam … and I still obtained my degree

Feb 11 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

*** Today (and possibly tomorrow) I'm resting. It's been an intense week and yesterday was a killer day. For that reason I decided to re-post my (probably) most popular entry from the blog. It's about failing the qualifying (or comprehensive) exam on my second year in grad school. Enjoy! Originally posted on 09-29-2009.

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 meant that you had successfully gone through the qualifying exam(s) period, and essentially, your last examination would 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 colors, 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 short proposal in front of a committee. To me it was similar to presenting your thesis project’s proposal, but you didn’t have the “freedom” or input in choosing the members of your exam committee or 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, right?), 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). I came directly to grad school from undergrad. I had no counseling regarding the big change that involves going from spitting out memorized facts, to sitting down, ANALIZING a (scientific) problem and attempt to give a sound answer in an orderly fashion just with scientific experiments and reason.

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. The analysis and critical thinking skills weren't there.

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 (it did in a way). 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 colors.

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 the degree after my defense.

The exam committee met with me, they 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 :-)

17 responses so far

  • scicurious says:

    So inspiring! We had to take a three day written test on all the classes we took our first two years, and then present our dissertation proposal, in NRSA format (preferably already submitted for funding) to our committee for grilling. Only then could we pass. Broke the spirits of many a student I'm sure. I can't imagine having to pick a topic not related to your work.

    • 27andaphd says:

      Hi Sci!! You're so lovely, I hope I get to meet you in the flesh to give you a big, big hug.

      Yes, it was tough, and at times it seemed unfair. I should check if my department ever changed the rules of the qual. Our director of grad education changed after my qual and the new guy in charge was very open to suggestions to improve the exam. He met with both senior and new students after starting and wanted to get our feedback and what and why we felt it was unfair in the exam and how to make it better (if at all possible). I do have to say that a proposal, preferably sent for funding, sounds like a lot of work, but also a great primer for the future. We did something similar a few months after, in which we described our official thesis project(s) with the committee to get approval and go forward. I was so scared they'd say no because at that time I was already halfway through my first aim. Eeeps! Luckily they liked it. Phewww. Thanks for your comment!

      • scicurious says:

        Yeah, I felt like I almost cheated on my official qual, I'd already submitted it and been told the NRSA would be funded, so it's not like they could have said nooooo. At least, I hoped not.

        Totally hope we get to meet up sometime!

  • O.R. Pagan says:

    Ah, the memories..... A distinguishing feature of QEs is that you feel like the dumbest person in the whole universe.... UNIVERSE!!!!

    My grad committee consisted of a physical chemist (a.k.a. my advisor), a neurobiologist, a biochemist and a biophysicist.... Meeeeeeeemoriesssssss....

    Nice post!


  • arrzey says:

    Good for you.

    For my part, back in the dark ages, I was on academic probation for bad grades (failed something important). But I had an thesis mentor who didn't think that classes mattered. I passed, I published, I got funded, I got tenure, and I got to be an OldeFart.

    There are lots of flaming hoops, and keeping them in perspective can be tough, but remember success in the field is not the same as jumping through them.

    • 27andaphd says:

      Thanks for your comment Arrzey. I thought my PI would be all worked up when I got a B in one of my courses, to what she replied that I had to focus on the truly important stuff: running experiments, getting results, getting published and out the door. All I had to do was the bare minimum to keep my department happy. It didn't matter to her if I had a perfect 4.0 score or a B-, so long as the department didn't complain.

      You're also right about the flaming hoops ... which is related (I believe) my why I didn't succeed in my postdoc, but am now that I'm back on my field of training.

  • Stacey says:

    Ah, the memories of the qualifying exam. I remember being equally unprepared for moving from the memorization and understanding to the synthesis and analysis of information. Thanks for posting this!

  • Anthony C. says:

    Ahhh, yea my girlfriend just recently failed her first qaul...shes pretty broken up about it, and i am too, i had so much hope that she would pass and i was really disappointed (for her not, in her). She practiced her presentation on me as she always had all her other ones. Now im not a grad student or phd or anything, so i didnt have much in the way of help for her, i wanted to do anything i could to help her. She was the ONLY one who passed the written part, everyone else had to re-write theirs in her class. she was also the first to hear anything back. Her Committee Unainmously approved her written portion, then when she did the oral defense, they told her they started finding things wrong with it, now i feel that if they had graded properly they would have found these things and she would have the chance to rewrite like everyone else i just being biased and bitter? or did she get a little cheated?....also shes not sure if she wants to continue, cuz at her university (UTMB) she has to wait a whole year to redo her qual....and she really upset and is prob wanting to quit right now....but i know if she does she will regret it....but yea whats ur thoughts on this?

  • Dr 27 says:

    Hi Anthony. I'm so sorry for what you and your girlfriend must be going through right now. I can certainly empathize and I'm sure my boyfriend would relate to how you're feeling. My experience with the qual was somewhat similar in the sense that, much like it happened to your girlfriend, I got a "seal" of approval to move forward, only to have the committee find issues with the oral part and my way of defending it. At first I was really bummed out and I thought it was unfair, but the truth is that even when a committee gives a "seal of approval" sometimes, as the oral defense goes on, issues start arising. Part of the stuff they want to make sure we know how to do is think on our own feet and be able to defend a point and think critically about how to approach those problems. This isn't to say that if they indeed found red flags before, they shouldn't have said anything, they should.

    When I failed my qual, I had a fellow student approach me and sit down and talk. We talked about how I was feeling and she shared some of the shortcomings she had when she took hers. She didn't fail, but she had a tough time. She's one of the smartest people I've met and she told me that if she'd failed, she would have just quit right then and there. I was puzzled. She then shared that as she was approaching the end of her PhD, she wasn't sure of where to look for work or if she'd even stay in academia and that she would have used that opportunity as a way to get out of the tenure-track. My guess is that she continued because a) she passed and b) she'd invested a bunch of time.

    Last year, when I had my grueling job search I wished I hadn't finished my PhD. It was really tough. I've made my peace with it, but occasionally I've had these ideas that maybe things would have resulted differently (and that I'd be working in something completely different now). I don't mean to share this as an excuse to say that sure, if your girlfriend feels like she should quit she should, no. I'm saying that she should see this as a chance to examine who she is and her motives to be in the program and evaluate whether passing the qual would have made a difference in her continuing in the PhD program. She could use this year to do a lot of soul-searching and see what are her motivations to be in the PhD program and if her dreams of a career align with what getting a PhD degree offers, then by all means, go on. I too felt like quitting, but I didn't. It's a normal feeling.

    Hugs and thanks for stopping by.

  • bobby says:

    i was told i failed both exam twice, both the first and second attempts

  • bobby says:

    i was told i failed the exam twice, both the first and second attempts

  • bobby says:

    i was told i failed the exam twice, both the first and second attempt

  • Eliza says:

    THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS!!! I have just learned that I too have failed my qualifying exam after the first attempt...and I have to retake in January. Its nice to know there is hope, and I am not the only one. Thanks for the happy thoughts during my time of absolute woe.

    • Dr 27 says:

      My pleasure Eliza! I'm still in shock at the amount of people who comment, even months after posting this. I know that failing the qual is a PITA, but hang in there. You can do it!!! Hugs and best wishes.

  • Abby says:

    I just failed my comps for the first time, and I was told not to retake it. I am not sure what to do right now. But this is definitely inspiring. Thanks!!