Equity & Wellbeing in Doctoral Qualifying Exams & the Transition to Candidacy

How can qualifying and prelim exams be re-imagined from tools of gatekeeping to tools of individualized development?


The Ph.D. curriculum typically consists of coursework, transition to candidacy examinations, dissertation proposal, and the dissertation. Through each of these steps, faculty evaluate whether students are ready to take the next step toward a doctoral degree -- and worthy of the material and symbolic resources associated with that degree. The transition into candidacy is a crux of the PhD process and one of two points in which many students are lost from doctoral education. As the midpoint between coursework, where students are learning about seminal work in the field, and dissertation work, where students design their studies to advance the field. Despite the significant role of the transitional phase in doctoral education, surprisingly little research exists on understanding the evaluation process to Ph.D. candidacy. Framing the transition into candidacy in doctoral education as an evaluation process allows practitioners and researchers to consider the relevance of equity in the development of scholars. How faculty members structure their doctoral program’s examinations to evaluate doctoral students is an entry point to understand the sociocultural processes faculty use to assign a value to doctoral candidacy. This project will use a sequential mixed-methods design to collect data on faculty and doctoral students in STEM and non-STEM fields at graduate programs.

Project Lead

Román Liera, Montclair State University

Project Lead

Julie Posselt, University of Southern California

Goals & Research Questions

1) How does the doctoral candidacy process mediate faculty judgement about who is legitimate, who belongs, and on what basis? 2) How does the doctoral candidacy process mediate student learning about scholarly expectations and culture?


We are conducting a sequential mixed-methods study.

The first stage consisted of a survey designed to collect data from administrative coordinators and/or faculty department chairs about the structure, organization, and purpose of their doctoral candidacy process.

The second stage includes interviews with doctoral students, staff, and faculty members to understand the cultural significance of the qualifying exam, processes of changing exams and the transition to candidacy, and the outcomes. We also conducted focus groups with doctoral candidates.

Finally, in 2021-2022, we are analyzing the experiences of Black students with qualifying exams, the transition to candidacy, and racialized notions of academic legitimacy broadly speaking. We will compare experiences of doctoral students in physical sciences and education who are enrolled in HBCU's compared to predominantly white research universities.

Contributions to project goals

This study will unpack another important moment of gatekeeping in doctoral education and how it can be reimagined to be more equitable. It extends research that examines how our ways of construing who is “qualified” in doctoral education may present disproportionate barriers to students from historically underrepresented backgrounds. We’ll identify from this work both problems inherent in common evaluation practices as well as cases of PhD programs that have moved to models of examination that center as much, if not more, on student development than on gatekeeping.

Focus area within graduate education

Doctoral candidacy, faculty evaluation, socialization


Julie R. Posselt, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Southern California, Pullias Center for Higher Education

Roman Liera, PhD, Assistant Professor, Montclair State University

Aireale Rodgers, Doctoral candidate, University of Southern California, Pullias Center for Higher Education

Lauren Irwin, Doctoral student, University of Iowa

Sarah Toutant, Doctoral student, University of Southern California

Isaiah Simmons, Doctoral student, University of Southern California

Jaymon Ortega, Doctoral student, University of Southern California