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Opinions on Inside Higher Ed

Hurdles are by definition barriers. You clear them by leaping, or they will trip you up. Who has the freedom to change the types and placement of hurdles in doctoral programs, and on what basis?

Today, people in many disciplines are considering how time-honored hurdles that students must clear on the way to the Ph.D. may 1) threaten mental health, 2) disproportionately eliminate students from underrepresented groups, particularly students of color and 3) fail to substantively contribute to students’ development. As is often the case , the conventional wisdom about what makes a “good” Ph.D. program may be more convention than wisdom.

Qualifying exams are common to Ph.D. programs. They offer a perfect case study of a traditional hurdle that is up for reconsideration concerning its efficacy for student development and success. We have been studying those exams and the broader transition to candidacy in STEM. It’s part of our collective research agenda to analyze, deconstruct and reconstruct established academic practices — e.g., admissions, teaching and hiring — in order to advance racial equity in academe.

We conducted a survey to understand the range of exam structures in physics, chemistry and geosciences; then, we used the results to identify programs that recently […]

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