The necessity to rethink qualifying exams for Ph.D. candidacy (opinion)

Hurdles are by definition limitations. You clear them by leaping, or they are going to journey you up. Who has the liberty to vary the categories and placement of hurdles in doctoral packages, and on what foundation?

Right this moment, individuals in lots of disciplines are contemplating how time-honored hurdles that college students should clear on the way in which to the Ph.D. could 1) threaten psychological well being, 2) disproportionately remove college students from underrepresented teams, significantly college students of colour and three) fail to substantively contribute to college students’ growth. As is often the case, the standard knowledge about what makes a “good” Ph.D. program could also be extra conference than knowledge.

Qualifying exams are frequent to Ph.D. packages. They provide an ideal case research of a conventional hurdle that’s up for reconsideration regarding its efficacy for pupil growth and success. We’ve got been studying those exams and the broader transition to candidacy in STEM. It’s a part of our collective analysis agenda to research, deconstruct and reconstruct established tutorial practices — e.g., admissions, instructing and hiring — as a way to advance racial fairness in academe.

We carried out a survey to know the vary of examination constructions in physics, chemistry and geosciences; then, we used the outcomes to establish packages that just lately modified their exams. We carried out in-depth case research of two packages’ change processes and the outcomes. The case research examined the cultural significance of the transition to candidacy and what number of school members take into consideration altering standard exams in favor of extra developmental, lower-stakes assessments.

Analysis individuals shared tales about rethinking exams as a part of broader Ph.D. program enchancment efforts. Again and again, they informed us that packages “removed” the GRE and a conventional qualifying examination as a result of they considered the prices to fairness and well-being as outweighing advantages for choice and studying.

Central to these cost-benefit calculations is evolution within the rules that information such gatekeeping processes and coaching. As packages prioritize range, fairness and inclusion and maintain themselves accountable for outcomes and processes that embody these rules, the adequacy of conventional processes comes into query — particularly of their means to serve college students with minoritized racial and gender identities.

The adjustments that packages imagined, nonetheless, depended upon their standing within the self-discipline. In a top-ranked physics program, confidence that their selective admissions course of and dissertation prospectus protection have been ample gatekeeping instruments led them to remove the high-stakes examination altogether. As one pupil described to us, “This was already a tough program to get into, and I believe the rationale they lower the superhard candidacy examination was that they have been letting most children via, however it was simply an infinite psychological value. It was completely pointless. Why have two bottlenecks the place the second is not bottleneck, however it’s extraordinarily aggravating?”

Instead of the candidacy examination “bottleneck,” the establishment carried out optionally available diagnostic exams in core content material areas for all college students upon coming into. Those that go transfer on to candidacy and impartial analysis, whereas others earn candidacy by passing core programs within the first two years of their diploma program.

Decrease-ranked packages are much less selective on the admissions stage, and so they could use the examination to sign the standard of this system, their college students and their coaching. Once they make change, they might design the brand new construction to align with field-approved norms. For instance, the middle-ranked chemistry program we studied eradicated its standard sit-down take a look at, however it tied the brand new candidacy course of to producing and defending a dissertation proposal aligned to Nationwide Science Basis or Nationwide Institutes of Well being proposal pointers. They then created a scientific writing course the place college students collectively be taught, follow and mannequin the craft of proposal writing. They educated college students to compete for grants — to turn into gamers within the tutorial recreation.

Our findings are in step with a U-shaped pattern in organizations’ perceived freedom to innovate based mostly on their positioning in standing hierarchies. Excessive-status organizations really feel assured to experiment — to deviate from standard expectations. Low-status organizations may additionally be happy to defy conventions as a result of they’ve little to lose. However middle-ranked organizations in search of to guard or elevate their standing have a tendency to adapt to field-level norms.

This sample makes it all of the extra necessary that extremely ranked Ph.D. packages and useful resource suppliers like NSF and NIH use their affect to take away hurdles and set equitable requirements for what counts as authentic follow. They create the ladders that others are attempting to climb.


Many individuals who write about candidacy exams use metaphors to capture their difficulty — they in contrast their ceremony of passage to “an impediment course and ritual gauntlet,” a “hurdle,” or ambiguous terrain. The necessity for a extra sturdy gatekeeping device than the dissertation protection impressed the qualifying examination a century in the past, however what’s the depth shopping for us in the present day — significantly for college students from underrepresented teams who already face further hurdles in pursuing doctorates? For packages prepared to revamp their transition to candidacy, we provide the next suggestions.

  • Have interaction in some introspection. These of us who direct packages should first replicate on and focus on the underlying assumptions of present fashions. We must always ask questions like “Whom can we think about when picturing or elite scientist?” “Who’s excluded from this characterization?” “What considerations do we’ve about change?” “Who or what are we defending by not altering?” Solely after reckoning with these tensions can we ask and act on the query “What actions will create a extra inclusive, expansive understanding of who could develop to turn into a ‘good’ scientist?”
  • (Re)outline studying outcomes. The definition of reform is to vary by eradicating faults or abuses. And, certainly, our remark is that Ph.D. packages making change are sometimes extra centered on what to do away with, and why, moderately than what they’re turning towards. A transformational method makes area for each. School and doctoral packages ought to anchor restructuring efforts in particular studying outcomes associated to the follow of analysis and the profession trajectories that their college students search. For instance, doctoral college students could learn to use disciplinary analysis to advance the general public good. Advisers could actively assist such college students in relationships or internships with a small variety of nonprofit organizations, and even in together with a frontrunner from such a corporation on their dissertation committee.
  • Design for fairness. Relatedly, graduate packages in the present day should normalize numerous profession paths and validate learners numerous on a number of dimensions after which design equitable constructions to assist that range. Pointers for universal design for learning provide one framework; liberatory design thinking may also be utilized to larger training. Because the Affiliation of American Universities Ph.D. Education Initiative argues, many Ph.D. packages are merely not set as much as make seen or to worth the range of strengths that in the present day’s college students convey, nor the range of graduate college students’ skilled outcomes.

Insurance policies lengthy outlined as necessities for admission, candidacy or diploma attainment might not be stipulations to pupil success. And relying upon how we outline success, these very necessities may very well intervene with it by compromising alternatives, well-being or the sense of belonging of scholars from already marginalized backgrounds.

Necessities have been set at a time limit. As in the present day’s inhabitants and the profession paths of Ph.D. recipients change, this can be a time when necessities deserve reconsideration.

Is your doctoral program revisiting its transition to candidacy or qualifying examination? Share your story with the Fairness in Graduate Schooling Useful resource Heart at or on Twitter @inclusivegraded.

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