Qualifying Exams II: How They Fail

In my last post, I wrote about my day-to-day experience taking the qualifying exam (“quals”) in September. As I worked through that blog post, my narrative got mixed up with commentary, recommendations, and half-hearted attempts at advice. Instead of doing a poor job of cramming everything into one post, I settled on a series of three:

In this post, I grapple with the purpose of qualifying exams, whether they fulfill that purpose, and whether they should still exist (at least in their current form).

Context

The format of qualifying exams, and even what they’re called (quals? comps? prelims?) varies widely. To reiterate, in my program, the qualifying exam is a written take-home exam that I like to describe in a nutshell as “30 pages, 3 questions, 3 days.” Students have three days (72 hours) to answer three questions in 30 pages.

After the Exams

The day after my exam ended, I ran into a faculty member who asked me how it went. I told her I was shocked that THAT was how we did qualifying exams. I avoided answering her actual question.

The answer was that the exam went fine. I thought I’d produced answers that were good enough. I’d probably covered enough of the readings. I’d spent time revising all three essays to make sure my writing wasn’t gibberish. And technically, I’d finished my exam early: just before midnight on Wednesday, instead of 9:00am Thursday morning. That had to count for something.

But did I get anything out of the exam?

No. It felt like all I’d gained from the past 72 hours was a strong sense of bitterness.

If the exam wasn’t useful to me, had I at least produced high-quality work that would give my committee a good sense of my knowledge, skill, and academic potential?

Absolutely not. My class papers, grant proposals, and MA thesis all would have been better reflections of my skills. Three weeks later, by the time I found out I’d passed quals, I couldn’t even remember what I’d written.

While I found value in parts of the overall process (reading, meeting with my first reader), it’s hard for me to see any redeeming qualities in the exam itself. And I’m not the only one. Student accounts like mine float around the internet and sites like Quora and Reddit provide entertaining threads questioning the value of quals, comps, and prelims. But what’s probably more compelling is the emerging research that suggests qualifying exams are damaging to graduate student mental health, can act as barriers to equity for underrepresented students, and simply aren’t useful.

At this point in the pandemic, I’m sick of discussing mental health. Specifically, I’m sick of incessant university emails about mental health resources, which seem to attribute all my problems to mental health and absolve administration of the need to consider any structural (or actual) changes that would improve the conditions of their employees. I’m sure quals impacts mental health. Someone else can write more about that.

The point about quals and equity is interesting but beyond the scope of what I can say, since I’m only drawing on my personal experience. Though I could make some cursory observations on who gets dedicated time to prepare for quals in my department and who is required to juggle multiple forms of work. A different topic.

However, I can talk extensively about how qualifying exams are not useful. In my view, qualifying exams fail in three areas: assessment, writing, and work practice.

1.) Poor Assessment

The qualifying exams are set up as a timed, high-pressure test. There are a few problems with this model. One, we know that stress hurts academic performance, and that regular, on-going assessment is more effective for student learning than a single, high-stakes test. Two, as I tried to make clear in my own account, factors that have nothing to do with skills or knowledge also influence performance, from lack of sleep to technology failures.

But maybe I’m wrong to assume that qualifying exams have anything to do with learning. If this is the case, the points I’ve made above are moot. I’ve also heard that quals are designed:

  • To weed out students not seen as capable of completing a PhD (Or succeeding in an academic job? It’s unclear.)
  • To enable to the student to teach a course in their exam subject area
  • To help the student identify gaps in the literature and determine their dissertation topic

In my case, all three of those purposes were irrelevant. 1) To my knowledge, my department does not use quals to weed out students. Generally, my sense is that this is an outdated way of viewing the qualifying exams anyway.

2) I’d already taught a course on race and ethnicity twice before taking my exam, and I didn’t find my readings particularly relevant for an undergraduate race class. Instead, I would say I have a better idea of what I would be expected to teach in a graduate student class. We can call that a half-win.

3) I had already settled on a dissertation topic before quals and what helped push my ideas forward the most was applying for grants and fellowships. Particularly after completing the monster of an application required for the NSF DDRIG (Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grants), and working my ideas out in a Ford Predoctoral Fellowship application the year before, I had a good set of writing distinct from my qualifying exam. In retrospect, I could have incorporated more of my own research ideas into my exam, but my own ideas felt a bit irrelevant, given that I was supposed to demonstrate how well I knew the existing literature.

Overall, I have a hard time seeing how the qualifying exams are a useful assessment. While quals may fulfill some of the other purposes I mentioned for some students, that wasn’t the case for me.

2.) Poor Writing

The qualifying exams require poor writing and encourage poor writing practices. Maybe it’s my previous experience working in a writing center and as an English teacher, but I found it incredibly frustrating that I would be evaluated on a first draft. Isn’t this exactly what we discourage our own students from doing?

The problem with first drafts is that they’re often terrible. We don’t usually have a perfect (or even good) idea of what we want to say before we begin writing. As multiple famous writers have said in some form, writing is also thinking. It’s perfectly fine (and normal) for first drafts to be terrible because you’re not supposed to turn in a first draft. But quals is – you guessed it – one long, drawn-out first draft.

I was often told that committee members don’t expect good writing. That’s a nice sentiment, but it depends on your definition of “good.” What’s interpreted as good varies a lot, but for me, it boils down to effectiveness, not elements like style, a good hook, or that ever evasive “flow.”

Good writing communicates your ideas effectively. No one can understand (or assess) your ideas if you can’t communicate them. In this sense, yes, you do need to produce “good” writing.

I’m harping on this idea because one implication of the “it doesn’t have to be good writing” sentiment is that this magically makes the writing process easier. But writing for clarity still isn’t easy, whether or not we consider it “good.”

Quals requires good (effective and clear) writing, but the conditions of quals don’t allow for good (rich, interesting, or unique) writing. Both are difficult to do when you’re trying to fill 30 pages in 72 hours.

3.) Poor Work Practice

It was harder to sum up this last point in a short phrase word, but what I mean by “poor work practice” is that quals encourages an unhealthy and unrealistic approach to work. I avoid calling it “work habits” because hopefully the way you do work for quals isn’t a habit. But for 72 hours, you have no choice but to conform to a very narrow, unhealthy work practice.

Maybe some people work naturally in intense sprints. I know I’ve done so before big deadlines. But being forced to do this for three days straight was particularly frustrating because for the past few years, I’ve been making an intentional effort to develop a healthier work routine.

I started seriously rethinking my work habits in my first year of graduate school, when stress began to make me physically sick. A year and a half later, at the start of the pandemic, I committed to actual changes, drawing strict boundaries between work and rest/leisure. With remote work blurring the lines between work and home, I needed to create this separation for my sanity. So I stopped working weekends and ended my workdays around 5-6pm.

Then I threw all my boundaries and healthy new work habits out the window for quals.

The labor of getting through quals was grueling. Perhaps it would have been easier to get through if I could see the point or if there was a clear benefit to the exam itself. But not only did the qualifying exams not help with my learning, teaching, or dissertation research, it also struck me as a very poor reflection of how research and deep thinking are done.

“Research is done in community,” repeated various members of my department in my first year. And I agree. Research depends on so many others outside of yourself, from participants in qualitative research; to friends, colleagues, and mentors who provide feedback on your ideas and writing; to anonymous reviewers and journal staff who put in free labor so that your work can be published. (Though the latter sounds less like “community,” and more like “exploitation.”)

The qualifying exam requires you to forget community. It follows a “lone genius” model, where you sit alone in a room and magically produce brilliant ideas. Sure, you should be able make your own arguments (something you would have done multiple times by this point in graduate school) and articulate your stance on debates in your field, but outside of quals, you never need to do this holed up, alone, and isolated from a scholarly community.

I’m never going to use the “skill” of doing qualifying exams again. To be honest, this experience did feel a bit familiar; it was the same “skill” of procrastination and poor time management I was so good at in college. I didn’t need graduate school to teach me that.

In short, the qualifying exam requires a poor, unrealistic work practice that is not at all a reflection of how you’ll ever have to do academic work again. Its conditions encourage, or even require, you to produce poor writing with poor writing practices. And it makes for a poor assessment of a student’s knowledge and skill, while the extent to which it can provide other benefits (like expertise for teaching or jumpstarting a dissertation) is questionable.

Redeeming Qualities?

While the qualifying exam itself feels like a defunct academic ritual that benefits no one involved, I did find value in parts of the process. Making my way through my reading list wasn’t nearly the blissful, romanticized experience that professors made it out to be, but dedicated time to reading was useful. My notes were even more useful, and I’ve already referenced them for my work (a paper in progress that requires new framing). Of course, I wish I’d been a little more systematic with some books and articles, but we always have limited time to do our work. Nothing is ever perfect.

I am also so grateful for the regular meetings I had with the first reader of my exam committee. While she initially framed these monthly meetings as miniature oral exams on each section of my list (jeez, intimidating much?), they grew into opportunities to talk through ideas and draw connections between theories and empirical studies. These meetings provided structure and dedicated mentoring in a system that guarantees neither. And of course, in the midst of an on-going pandemic, these meetings meant a little bit more.

Thank you, first reader.

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