PhD Qualifying Exam: Tips For Success 

by Paperpal
PhD qualifying Exam

Embarking on a PhD program is a significant milestone in your academic journey, and the PhD qualifying exam determines your progression in this journey. Despite its name, this exam takes place after you’ve been accepted and pursuing a PhD program. This might come as a surprise, but it’s a strategic move that benefits both you and the academic institution. 

Table of Contents

What is a PhD Qualifying Exam?

The PhD qualifying exam ensures that students have a good grasp of their subject and the necessary knowledge in their chosen research area to move ahead with their PhD in a timely manner. It is typically taken in the second year of the PhD program, and students are expected to finish most of their specific courses before attempting the exam.  

Successfully passing the exam signifies that you’re prepared to transition to the independent research phase of your graduate training. In simpler terms, the PhD qualifying exam is a checkpoint that verifies if you’ve completed the initial phase of the program and are now ready to be recommended for the PhD candidacy. It’s often considered one of the most challenging periods for doctoral students. 1,2  

Format of a PhD Qualifying Exam

The PhD qualifying exam typically consists of two sections, written and oral, which demand versatile skills. Here’s a detailed overview of both the sections:  

  1. Written Exam   

The written phase of the PhD qualifying exam is designed to test the depth of the candidate’s knowledge within their chosen field and assess their analytical abilities. Answering these written questions requires more than just remembering and writing down facts and details. It involves having a strong grasp of the subject and the skill to express complex ideas clearly and coherently. 

  1. Oral Exam  

The oral phase of the PhD qualifying exam introduces a different dimension to the evaluation process. In this phase, candidates must explain their written answers to the examination committee. The oral part is an opportunity for candidates to share their views, clarify points, and show a deep understanding of their research area in a scholarly discussion with the exam committee. 2,3

Tips for Preparing for a PhD Qualifying Exam

Being well-prepared for the exam can increase your chances of success and make the process less stressful. Here are a feuw preparation tips for a PhD qualification exam:  

  1. Understand the Exam Format: Learn about the exam format, what is expected, and how the exam is structured, including written and oral parts. Be aware of the specific requirements set by the committee.   
  1. Develop a Strategic Study Plan: Break your study sessions into smaller parts, focusing on understanding key concepts, theories, and methods. Make sure to set aside specific time for both written and oral preparation.   
  1. Review past exam papers: Practice with old test papers to understand the types of questions asked before so you know what to expect. This will help you improve your ability to answer different kinds of questions and boost your confidence for the actual exam.  
  1. Remember, you’re not alone in this journey. Your advisor is a valuable resource who can help you structure your study plan, refine your research focus, and understand the examiners’ expectations. Regular communication with your advisor is essential, and their support can significantly contribute to your success in the PhD qualifying exam. 
  1. Stay Motivated and Organized: Set realistic goals, celebrate small achievements, and visualize the successful completion of your exam. Keep your study materials organized, making it easier to review and revise. 2,3,4

Common Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Procrastination: Start your preparation early to avoid last-minute cramming, which can lead to stress and inadequate preparation.  
  • Isolation: Engage with fellow candidates, share experiences, and form study groups. Collaborative learning can enhance your understanding and offer diverse perspectives.  
  • Overemphasis on Memorization: While factual knowledge is essential, focus on understanding and critically analyzing concepts rather than rote memorization.  
  • Ignoring Feedback: Utilize feedback from your practice sessions and mock exams. Address weaknesses and refine your responses accordingly. 

Facing the PhD qualifying exam might feel challenging on your journey to a PhD, but careful preparation and a smart approach can lead to success. Understand the exam structure, create a strong study plan, stay motivated, and avoid common mistakes. Remember, the exam isn’t just about testing your knowledge; it’s an opportunity to show your ability to contribute meaningfully to your field of study. 2,3,4


  1. Ph.D. Qualifying Examination – Berkeley 
  1. Qualifying Examination Policies and Guidelines – Albert Einstein College of Medicine 
  1. What is a PhD Test / PhD qualifying exam? – Academia Insider 
  1. PhD Qualifying Exam: 5 Steps to Success – Beyond PhD Coaching 

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