PhD preliminary exams are complicated beasts. Following my post on the topic yesterday, a number of commenters mentioned the political aspects of the exams, an excellent example of the complexity (and potential unfairness to the student) of this type of gatekeeping exam.
Why have these exams? There are negative reasons (we need ways to purge the graduate program of students who are unable to do PhD research) and positive reasons (students interact with faculty and get input about their research) and lots of room for politics, irrational decisions, and stress. (see comments from yesterday for further details and rants)
My experiences as an Examining Professor in oral prelims this year have so far been very positive, but some of my colleagues report traumatic experiences for all concerned, raising a troubling question: Should issues other than the student's intellectual skills be considered in whether the student passes or fails?
Such as: Should the advisor's tenure status affect the outcome of a preliminary exam?
The simple answer is of course no. Most people would probably answer that ethics and fairness and standards and so on require that the advisor's professorial rank not affect the outcome of an exam, so perhaps the more interesting question is:
Does the advisor's tenure status affect the outcome of a preliminary exam?
I am not talking about the obvious cases in which of course the student is going to pass because the abilities they exhibit in the preliminary exam, in whatever format it is given, are so awesome that there is no question whatsoever that the student will pass.
It's the marginal and even the terribly bad cases that are tricky. I use the term marginal to denote a situation in which the student has either obviously or very likely failed the exam in the 'objective' view of the committee, using traditional measures by which knowledge and intellectual potential are assessed.
In a case for which I have only secondhand information, the fact that the advisor was a tenure-track faculty member who needed to have some PhD students graduated or almost-graduated when coming up for tenure was discussed during deliberations about whether to pass or fail a student who had not done well in a preliminary exam. In that department/university, it is apparently an important element of the tenure evaluation that a faculty member have successfully advised or co-advised a PhD student.
In the physical sciences, it is difficult for an assistant professor to recruit, advise, and graduate a PhD student in 6 years. It can be done of course, but you have to be lucky in terms of funding, projects, and students.
I don't actually believe that the tenure hopes of an assistant professor who is otherwise doing well would be derailed by a lack of graduated PhD students, but I can see how it would not look good to have a student fail and/or not have any students on track for getting a PhD in the near future. I can also understand being anxious to avoid a perceived weakness in the tenure file, especially if one is a perfectionist. And assistant professors with only a few students need to keep making progress on funded research projects; failing a student on an exam has consequences beyond the impact on the student.
If marginal or failing students pass their prelims because the advisor is an assistant professor, that is clearly unfair to students with tenured advisors who enjoy no such advantage. On the other hand, if we assume for the sake of argument that the advisor's future would be imperiled by a failed student (and also assume that the student's failure was despite the advisor's best efforts in advising the student), is the impact on the advisor a fair consideration?
I have been thinking about this situation ever since I heard about it. If the prelims were really bad, I think the student should fail but be given a lot of feedback and a chance for a re-take in the near future. Perhaps the student could get back on track in time for all concerned to benefit. And if it still didn't work out, the department chair and/or department promotion & tenure committee can surely find some nice words to say about the advisor's heroic efforts with struggling students, giving him the advising credentials he needs for his tenure file. That doesn't help the student and it doesn't solve the problem of what to do about the research project that is in progress, but I guess I've had enough students and projects crater in the course of my career to know that life and research go on, and it's best if they go on without dysfunctional students.
6 years ago