Thursday, June 14, 2012

To Qual or Not To Qual

One of my best students failed their qualifying exams for the second time, meaning that they must get a masters degree. I am upset because they are fantastic in the lab, and it is a disservice to deny them a chance at a Ph.D. The student made an "A" in the subject in which they failed their qual. I argued their case as much as a could before the faculty and the compromise was that the student could reapply to the Ph.D. program when they neared the completion of their masters.

This case led to the general agreement that our department needed to reevaluate how we do our qualifying exams. Apparently we didn't have them at all in the past, and now we do. I personally see quals as a mechanism to fail out students who perform really badly, and my student doesn't fit that criteria at all. I agree with the idea of quals, but not with our rules as they stand. A mechanism that siphons low-performing students to a masters degree is certainly needed. Others may disagree that quals should be black and white, but I think there should exist an in-between where the advisor can provide input on the student's lab performance to push the decision one way or the other.

I am especially upset because both students accepted into my group last fall have "failed out". The first one made D's in their grad class (!!!). And, now this.


Miss MSE said...

My department has a hybrid approach to quals (in part because we attract so many students changing disciplines). You can either take a written exam, or pass the corresponding subject class with a B+ or higher for the core material, and then there is an oral thesis proposal presentation. You're given two chances at the written exam, should you decide to take it instead of the class, and if your grade is low in the class, you can do the exam.

As a student, I really appreciate this setup, because it emphasizes the importance of research over being able to regurgitate information that may have nothing to do with your subfield. However, it still ensures all of the physics majors learn what a stress-strain curve looks like.

Anonymous said...

My old GradU Department had a three tier official scores on the qualifying exam. Pass, conditional pass, and fail. Conditional passes were common. They could be minor conditions (write a page about topic X, read papers and talk with professor SoNSo) or more major, reexamined on a portion of the exam. It would allow promising students to stay in the program and learn, while still ensuring students were qualified to focus on PhD level studies/research.

EarlyToBed said...

At our university (most universities?) passing a qualifying exam is a university requirement for a PhD. Did the student not know his/her stuff? Over-anxiety? Do your colleagues not understand your work? Are you as an advisor allowed to sit on your student's exam? If so, you can see why your student did not pass. If not, perhaps you can try to change the rules so that the advisor is allowed to at least sit-in on the qualifying exams.

Janus Professor said...

@ Anonymous - I like that idea, so I will bring it up this fall.