Triage at the student stage

Karen Allendoerfer ravena at
Mon Aug 18 16:45:31 EST 1997

In article <1997Aug18.134321 at>,  <matkisso at> wrote:
>Seriously, what percentage of people at your institution fail the qualifier?

Of 5 students (including me) who started my graduate program at Stanford
when I did (1987), 3 finished with PhD's.  One failed the qualifier and
one joined the Peace Corps.  Both of these people got masters' degrees,
and the one who "failed" makes more money than I do, currently, as a 
research technician.

What was more of a problem at the time was actually that the qualifiers
weren't on a rigid schedule.  There was a story about one student defending
and qualifying at the same time.  Other students took their qualifiers
in their third and fourth years.  This too led to some wasted time and
some bitter feelings, if they didn't make it through.

During my first year in graduate school I lived in student housing and
got to know other grad students from other fields.  I remember one friend
in computer science telling me about how it worked in his department.

The "quals" sounded like a very stressful experience.  They let in a lot
of people, but intended that most of them get masters' and only a few get
PhD's.  My friend was very smart, hard-working, etc., and really WANTED a
PhD.  He ended up being allowed to get one, but his first year seemed
crammed with coursework, evaluation, and stress.  Perhaps by now all that
has receded to a distant memory, and this might not be a bad way to do

On the other hand, in the field of computer science, a masters'
degree usually wields more respect and more job opportunities than it
does in Biology, so failing the quals may have seemed like less of a disaster
than it might to some of us.  My friend who got his PhD, for example,
STILL ended up working for Microsoft at the end of it--which he could have
done anyway, even if he'd failed the quals.  I know that when I was taking
my qualifying exam, it seemed to me that if I failed, my career in science
was over (I know better now, but back then it truly seemed like a life or
death matter, because as far as I knew, there just weren't any jobs for
biologists that enabled them to do "real science" without a PhD)

Which brings me back to my earlier point:  our field, including academia,
needs more jobs for scientists who aren't in training and who aren't PI's.


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