Ph.D. students must pass Ph.D. qualifying exams to prove knowledge in their field and readiness to conduct research. Once the student has passed the qualifying exams, then their primary and only focus can be research. Ph. D. students that have completed all the coursework and examinations and are just focused on their research are usually referred to as Ph.D. candidates or doctoral candidates.
Each institution has a different strategy for the qualifying examinations. Ph.D. students start their studies with several courses. In most cases, a Ph.D. student finishes up their course work in two to three years. During that time, they learn fundamental knowledge and prepare for the examination and their future research projects. The students might be able to take the qualifying examinations at different points of their coursework completion. Some qualifying exams include oral or written problem solving; others include proposals or research.
What if you fail a Ph.D. qualifying exam?
Most schools allow you to take the Ph.D. qualifying exams twice. If you fail once and you still want to pursue a Ph.D., do not get discouraged. Take it as a learning opportunity and make sure you have prepared carefully for the second time around. If possible, ask the department for feedback on your performance during the qualifying exam you failed. Perhaps you can pinpoint the main knowledge gaps you have.
Once you have failed a qualifying exam twice, then it is time to think about other possibilities. Unfortunately, your institution won’t let you proceed and become a Ph.D. candidate, but you still have many excellent career options.
Graduate with a master’s degree
You have officially completed all the coursework, even if you did not pass the Ph.D. qualifying exams. You can go ahead and graduate with a master’s degree. It is a valuable degree to have, and by not completing a doctorate, you will have more time to gain years of experience.
Also, if you have been involved in research heavily, you can ask about graduating with a master’s degree with a thesis. Some universities offer those types of programs. It is a master’s degree, but it shows that you have a research acumen and that you might be well suited for a research position in the industry.
It is very difficult or even impossible to have a research position in academia without a Ph.D. On the contrary, the industry can be more permissive. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science a few years back. When I was job searching, I found several research positions in the industry. Many of those research positions did not require anything beyond a master’s degree. The companies were interested in prior research experience, but they did not require a Ph.D.
Graduate with a master’s degree and something else
When working on my master’s degree, I was surprised to learn about so many combined programs. Some business students interested in business law completed an MBA and a Juris Doctor (JD) degree within four years. Engineers interested in engineering management completed a combined master’s degreed in engineering and management.
If you love the academic world and had your heart set in a Ph.D., perhaps you consider continuing your education in a related field. Since you are already at the university, you can do some research on combined programs and maybe end up graduating with another master’s degree by committing to an extra year. It is always so difficult to go back to school after you graduate. If you have any interest in a particular field, consider expanding your knowledge while you can.
Build experience at the university
Do you have a good contact at the university? Maybe a professor that might be willing to hire you fulltime to conduct research or lecture undergraduate level courses. Staying some extra months or a year in an academic environment won’t hurt you; it might even help you build your resume. Especially if you are not ready to go to the industry or start your own company. You can use the job at the university as a transitioning period to job search and build your skillset.
Are you still deciding ina Ph.D. program? This article gives you a list of steps to get into the right Ph.D. program.