Rethinking qualifying exams and doctoral candidacy in the physical sciences

Abstract: There is growing awareness that established structures of higher education are often predicated on problematic assumptions about merit, excellence, and rigor. Doctoral qualifying exams, for example, are required to advance to candidacy in many Ph.D. programs despite decades of documented concerns about the implications of standard modes for student equity and well-being. As more Ph.D. programs move to reform these exams and candidacy requirements, it is important to understand how Ph.D. programs, as academic organizations, construct the significance of the qualifying exam. A sociocultural lens suggests qualifying exams and the learning that enables their passage are symbolic rituals that move doctoral students from legitimate peripheral participation toward full membership and belonging in academic communities of practice. We conducted a comparative case study to understand how two Ph.D. programs in the physical sciences that have reformed their candidacy requirements—one elite and one middle ranked but striving for respect—constructed the significance and purpose of their qualifying exam and the broader transition to candidacy. Our inquiry included the contexts and mechanisms that mediated student learning. Through interviews with faculty, staff, and students, we found that the Ph.D. programs’ recognition of their status within their respective disciplines emerged as a crucial component in constructions about the significance of exams and candidacy. The middle-ranked Ph.D. program changed the exam and candidacy structure to reflect legitimate practices in their discipline. The elite Ph.D. program created multiple pathways toward candidacy to mitigate long-standing concerns about gender equity and student well-being. Despite the structural changes, the Ph.D. programs left intact cultural understandings of merit, excellence, and rigor that maintain inequity in doctoral socialization. Our findings suggest that researchers and practitioners should pay more attention to designing and implementing structures that facilitate faculty assessments of doctoral student learning.

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Physical Review Physics Education Research
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