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Just Two Weeks to Study for My Qualifying Exam?!

Dear Dora: Two weeks to study for qualifying examDear Dora,

One of my friends got to take off 6 weeks to study for their qualifying exam, but my PI says I should be in the lab until 2 weeks before it.  I’m not sure that’s enough time and I’m getting stressed out. Is there any kind of rule that says how much time we should get to study for it?

– D, grad student


Dear D,

The first step is to check whether your department has any guidelines regarding a reading period for qualifying exams. Senior students and your department’s program administrator will probably know if there are any rules in this case.

Most universities leave this situation up to the individual PI’s.  If this is the case for you, it is best to look over the course material and make a study plan before talking with your PI. It might also be useful to talk with one of your classmates to talk about the major topics in your course material, and to work out a study plan together.

Once you have a plan, you will have a better idea of how much time you need to study. You might find that 4 weeks will be enough for you, or perhaps you will also need 6 weeks like your friend. If your PI does not like the idea of taking more time off, see if you can reach a reasonable compromise. For example, you could negotiate working half-days starting 6 weeks beforehand, and then take off completely 2 weeks before.

Show your study plan to your PI, and explain how much time you need to prepare well. Remember that it is in your PI’s interest that you pass on your first try, so do not be shy about explaining your needs during this busy time.


Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to [email protected] and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!


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4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. George Aranjuez

    wrote on November 5, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Second only to your actual dissertation, the qualifiers is the single event that can "make or break" your PhD. I agree with the post that it is in the best interest of the PI (and of the student, of course) that you pass this on the first try.

    As we all know, there are different formats to the qualifiers and each style demands longer or shorter preparation. Of course, the student's own judgement of his/her ability will also factor in.

    I've never heard of a situation where the PI would knowingly restrict your time for preparing for the qualifiers. It sounds unreasonable, in my opinion, especially knowing what's at stake.

  2. LabLibs: The Qualifying Exam Courtesy Note | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on November 12, 2010 at 5:22 am

    […] pay the piper, students take studying seriously.  In fact, they often leave the lab altogether for 2-6 weeks, leaving an empty (and vulnerable) […]

  3. Am I Stuck With This Boring Project? | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on December 8, 2010 at 5:46 am

    […] Just Two Weeks to Study for My Qualifying Exam?! […]

  4. NMF

    wrote on January 10, 2011 at 8:54 am

    In my program I saw both amongst my cohort. Some were expected to still be doing work all the way through. "Study on your own time" kind of mentality. Then, I've seen a student who wasn't expected to do any lab work until after the qualifiers- that is, a full year of just focusing on the first year of classes and then the qualifier. There is of course the happy medium. Sure, you need time to study, and it is in the best interests of your PI to have you pass, but looking ahead you also want that research chugging along. It might seem great to spend the first year just taking classes and studying, but then after your qualifier, you're a year behind in the lab.

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