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Rethinking the Doctoral Qualifying Exam

Woman presents with a board.

The doctoral qualifying exam is probably the most stressful part of earning a Ph.D. In addition to the candidate being scrutinized by a panel of field experts with a vague scope of questions, a single poor performance on the exam could result in expulsion from your Ph.D. program, despite how hard you worked toward your Ph.D. already — although a more common outcome entails passing upon completion of an extra assignment, known as a condition. As someone who conditionally passed her qualifying exam, I was frustrated with the process, and I started questioning if the current structure is a good way of evaluating a student’s ability to conduct independent research. After speaking with other students at the school of medicine, I’m convinced that the current exam format leaves ample room for reform.

Problems with the Current Qualifying Exam Structure

The doctoral qualifying exam accentuates existing systemic problems in academia. Although the format varies slightly across the school of medicine, Ph.D. qualifying exams generally entail a short research presentation followed by oral questions from a panel of up to five faculty members over the course of about two hours. Because these exams usually do not have a pre-defined rubric or scope of questioning, perceived student performance is easily influenced by subjective bias. Some students have felt they couldn’t ask for disability accommodations for the exam because they were afraid it might impact the panel’s willingness to pass them. Those with speech impediments expressed a heightened sense of anxiety over the oral format, with no alternative option. And in a recent article in Science, Gabriela Lopez, an Afro-Latinx first-generation college graduate, describes an examination experience that expelled her from her program at Northwestern University (she was later reinstated) for what she suspects was related to her lack of generational experience in the expected “language of science” instead of her actual abilities.

The exam can also take a large toll on student mental health, even for those who perform well. Fears of expulsion, public speaking and imposter syndrome all build on one another while preparing for the exam. Undefined scopes of study leave students with no way to feel fully prepared. Isolation compounds this anxiety, as students often take weeks off from typical lab work to prepare for the exam. Some students experience their worst mental health state throughout their entire Ph.D. program in the period leading up to the exam. Others are even hospitalized for anxiety-induced symptoms related to their exam.

That being said, students can, and do, perform well on their qualifying exams. The main through line connecting the students I talked to who had a relatively good exam experience is that they all had strong informal networks in place to inform their preparation. They talked to students who previously had the same examiners and compiled lists of previous questions those examiners asked. They practiced oral questioning with senior students and advising faculty members. Some had previous working relationships with their examiners, and some met potential examiners to gauge their scope of questions. However, all of this requires students to have a strong informal network established ahead of the exam to reap the benefits of this type of preparation, and even then, the results are not consistent. Students with advisers new to the university are especially vulnerable in this system, as they are more likely to not have formed these informal networks. As an example of how these informal networks can fail, it is generally expected in my program that students will give a short presentation on their research before questioning begins. However, none of this is formalized in my program’s handbook. Even though I spoke with examiners and fellow students while preparing for the exam, no one told me this was an informal expectation. As a result, I showed up to my exam underprepared right off the bat.

Re-focusing on the Qualifying Exam’s Purpose

Just about every program states that the purpose of the qualifying exam is to make sure that students are ready to conduct independent research in their field of study. To me, this means students must (1) have a good grasp of the scientific background necessary for the field, (2) understand current literature in their area of interest and (3) be familiar with the methods of their research field. Finally, they should be able to synthesize information from 1, 2 and 3 to form a relevant research question, devise an experimental process to answer it, and respond thoughtfully and creatively to critique.

The current system doesn’t guarantee these goals will be reached — examiners seldom define their scope of questions ahead of time and often ask questions irrelevant to the student’s path of study. Furthermore, orally answering these questions in a single two-hour session does not necessarily demonstrate the student’s proficiency. We need to define a process that does.

Proposed Solutions

  1. A New Structure: Other exam formats have been developed to better assess students’ mastery of the areas outlined above. The structure proposed by Purdue University’s school of engineering education, termed the Readiness Assessment, is both written and oral, and is a source of inspiration for the reforms proposed below:
  • The student should meet with the committee ahead of time to review a proposed plan of study, which will show the student’s completed and anticipated coursework, research experience and ongoing projects, and a rough direction for the research dissertation. In discussion with the student, the committee will decide if the student is ready to take the qualifying exam, and will propose options to further prepare the student if not yet ready.
  • Once the student is ready, the thesis committee will outline a relevant topic or project that will be covered by the qualifying exam based on the student’s research goals. This topic will guide a student’s written exam, for which the committee assigns an expected length (e.g., 20 to 30 pages double spaced) and an expected time frame (e.g., to be completed within three weeks). The written exam would include a literature review of current research on that topic and a description of relevant methodology. The rest of the exam can describe additional theory, unexplored areas regarding the topic or additional applications of the research topic, depending on the committee’s direction. This could easily be adapted to include code books or other student work to establish student readiness in computational methods, which is often difficult to demonstrate orally.
  • A week after submission of the student’s written examination, an oral examination will be held. Students will have 30 minutes to present a summary of the written examination, and the committee will ask additional questions for an hour that are related to the topic to better assess the student’s readiness.
  • Students will be assessed with a rubric that specifically addresses (1) background scientific knowledge, (2) knowledge and understanding of research literature, (3) understanding of and competence in research methods, (4) ability to synthesize knowledge to solve a research problem and (5) oral and written communication skills.
  1. Remove Expulsion and Increase Opportunities for Remediation: The possible outcomes should be limited to pass, pass with minor revision and re-submission, and retake the exam. The option to expel students from the program after a single examination should be removed, since it is rarely used and only increases student anxiety. Students recommended to retake the exam could discuss the best ways to improve their skills and knowledge, and should return to take the exam once those goals are accomplished. Students who do not pass on the second examination will further discuss their skills, goals and support needs with their thesis committee and departmental administration to develop a solution that benefits the student.
  1. Enforce Faculty Members’ Administrative Responsibility: One major issue regarding qualifying exams that I have yet to address is faculty members’ lack of participation in exams. It has been made clear from student accounts that faculty members often disregard their responsibilities to serve as examiners. I have heard horror stories of faculty members committed to sit for an exam who do not show up, leaving students scrambling for alternates. I’ve heard of faculty members who serve as committee chairs not following the administrative rules or being unfamiliar with them, leaving students out to dry when it comes to filing official forms or accessing their results. These occurrences were reported by students from several departments. Once an examination committee is formed and submitted to departmental administration, the administration should make explicitly clear who is the committee chair, the policies for administering the exam and who is responsible for administrative follow-up on exam documents. This will help to rectify a power imbalance between students and faculty. Additionally, if the administration is clear on the process of each exam’s administration, it can mitigate the examiners’ scrutiny of student requests for accommodations. For example, if a student cannot stand for long periods of time due to a mobility impairment, the student can submit a request to the administrator that the exam be conducted virtually. The administrator can then relay that the exam will be conducted virtually to the committee and chair. Thus, the student is shielded from scrutiny, with the directions coming from administration.

There is no public data at the Johns Hopkins Office of Institutional Research on how many school of medicine students pass, conditionally pass or fail their qualifying exams. However, the anecdotes I’ve collected are enough to convince me that the current system hurts many students and inaccurately assesses their readiness to conduct thesis research. I believe that the changes I propose would raise the quality of the qualifying exam — in educational value to Ph.D. students and in assessment value for testing student readiness. These reforms would also improve student wellness and increase retention of underrepresented students. With a few thoughtful changes, Ph.D. programs could benefit from a more educational and inclusive qualifying exam process that supports students instead of discouraging them.

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