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Triage at the student stage

Hannah Dvorak-Carbone hdvorak at cns.caltech.edu
Mon Aug 18 19:22:16 EST 1997

In article <1997Aug18.134321 at opal.tufts.edu>, matkisso at opal.tufts.edu says...

>Seriously, what percentage of people at your institution fail the qualifier?

In biology at Caltech, that percentage is very small.  In my year, one
(out of twelve) did poorly on one of his two exams (we have a major
and a minor subject exam) and ended up switching into chemistry and
passing the quals there instead.  In other years, certain people have
been given "conditional" passes, the condition generally being something
like having to write an essay in a subject or being assigned to TA a 
certain class.  

Of course, we do have some attrition, but it doesn't happen at quals
time; unfortunately, it often happens later.  It varies a lot from
year to year.  One class, a few years ahead of mine, had about half
its members leave, many in their third or fourth year.  Our class is
doing pretty well, I think.  We had two switch into chemistry (including
the one mentioned above) and one left before quals (and last I heard,
he was very happy doing web-site design or some such).  Three have
defended within the past few months, and the remaining nine of us 
are now entering our sixth year.  However, there's still going to be
a huge spread in how long it will take the rest of us to finish up.

Other fields at Caltech have very different approaches to quals. 
In physics there are multiple exams and nobody passes them all 
the first time, though I think most people get through them eventually.
In engineering, there seems to be a lot more weeding out, though 
I'm not sure it's via the quals - rather, there's competition for
lab space, and if you can't find someone to take you in, you're out.

Although it would be nice to weed people out sooner rather than later,
I'm not sure quals are the way to do it.  Our quals, at least, certainly
don't measure the same skills that are necessary for success as a 

- Hannah

Hannah Dvorak-Carbone
Division of Biology 216-76
California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125

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