Diversity Leadership Committee Column

December 2023

As fall quarter ends, many students in our department are gearing up for advancement to candidacy in the new year. Qualifying exams represent a pivotal milestone in the Ph.D. lifecycle, and the likelihood of obtaining the degree often hinges on a successful qualifying exam. This month, we are summarizing the paper “Rethinking doctoral qualifying exams and candidacy in the physical sciences: Learning toward scientific legitimacy,” which explores pitfalls and future directions of doctoral qualifying exams from a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion in physical sciences.

The authors conduct a comparative case study of two physical science Ph.D. programs that reconstructed their educational training to align with discipline-specific expectations for the qualities of scientists whom they hope to develop and to improve equity and transparency. One university was regarded as highly prestigious, and the other university was regarded as more “accessible” to admissions, retention, and graduation. The key findings observed from collected student and faculty surveys were:

  • Acknowledging learning outcomes of the candidacy exam significantly boosted students’ passing rates.
  • Stating clear objectives about what is expected to be learned through candidacy exams, along with rationales for how and why significantly boosted student passing rates and retention.
  • Participants in both Ph.D. programs emphasized the importance of informal learning environments in their pre-candidacy courses for providing a sense of equity and inclusion.
  • Directly intertwining training and candidacy practices with preparation of scientific rigor and readiness that is expected of Ph.D. programs boosted students’ morale and confidence on passing the candidacy exam.

If you are a second-year graduate student who is not sure of the learning objectives (both the how and the why) of your candidacy exam, please discuss this with your thesis advisor and/or with the area advisor when you get your topic approved. Get help from our community by giving practice presentations to your peers and to older graduate student. If you are an older graduate student or a faculty member, be a part of the community support structure!

AJ Addae, Professor Abby Doyle, Professor Sarah Tolbert