Apr 19, 2024

Insights and Strategies: the PhD Reclassification/Qualification Exam Panel

Girl presenting to a group of people in front of here
By Saya Sedighi

The transition to a PhD program often involves a reclassification or qualification exam, which assesses a student's readiness and suitability for advancing their academic journey. Recently, a panel of PhD candidates—Amalia, Shanza, and Ryan—shared their experiences and advice on navigating this challenging phase. Their insights provide valuable guidance for prospective PhD candidates in our department.

This panel was organized through a joint effort by Jocelyn Nurtanto, the GSA's VP Internal, and Kyle Turner, the Learning Strategist. One of the main motivations behind these new GSA reclassification support initiatives is feedback from students in previous years. We want to emphasize that your feedback is important to us, and we are committed to enhancing your graduate school experience by incorporating your opinions and ideas.

In this article, we provide a summary of discussions by our panellists:

Exam Preparation Experience

The panellists compared their experience to regular committee meetings, noting similarities in format but a slower pace and more comprehensive questioning during the qualification/reclass exam. Amalia highlighted the usefulness of having a Designated Examiner as an external observer in pre-exam, while Ryan pointed out the value of the exam preparation in reaffirming his decision to pursue a PhD.

Studying for the Exam

All panelists agreed on the importance of dedicating significant time to study, with Shanza emphasizing the necessity to grasp the broader context of their research beyond daily experiments. Ryan shared his strategy of balancing research and study over an extended period rather than taking a complete pause from lab work.

Proposal Writing Tips

Writing a strong proposal is pivotal. Ryan advised simplifying complex ideas to make them accessible to those outside one's field. Amalia emphasized the importance of justifying why the research should be pursued at the PhD level rather than as a Master’s project. Shanza recommended consulting with senior students and having drafts reviewed by peers and postdocs.

Reading and Research Focus

The panellists shared different approaches to beginning their literature review, from starting with the most recent reviews to organizing readings around key terms mentioned in the proposal. Effective use of reference management tools like Mendeley and PaperPile was also discussed as essential for managing a large number of sources.

Handling the Examination

When facing the examination panel, Amalia recommended not relying on a scripted presentation, while Shanza stressed the importance of adhering to time limits and slide counts. Both highlighted the need to prepare for basic and complex questions alike, using supplementary slides for detailed explanations.

Navigating Difficult Questions

The ability to handle unexpected questions gracefully was noted as crucial. Ryan advised preparing supplemental slides that can help you answer the most common questions you might expect to be asked about your project. This can be a good study practice in addition to helping to guide your responses. Amalia mentioned the importance of honesty when unsure about an answer, suggesting a thoughtful but straightforward approach to such scenarios.

Audience Engagement and Presentation Structure

Understanding the audience's background and structuring the presentation to flow logically from what has been done to what is planned is key. Amalia and Shanza provided differing perspectives on whether to place the "Progress So Far" section before or after the "Aims" section, with Ryan highlighting the importance of making each slide's takeaway clear.


The PhD reclassification exam is a pivotal moment that can set the direction for the remainder of a doctoral journey. The insights from our panelists provide a roadmap for future candidates to prepare effectively, emphasizing thorough preparation, clear communication, and strategic study. Their shared experiences underscore the rigorous yet rewarding nature of PhD studies, encouraging a proactive and thoughtful approach to this challenging academic milestone.

On behalf of the GSA, we would like to thank Shanza, Ryan, and Amalia for volunteering their time to answer questions and guide the reclassification/ qualification panel discussions. We would also like to thank our highly creative VP Internal, Jocelyn, who went above and beyond to ensure the seamless organization of this event. Finally, we extend our gratitude to Kyle for his collaboration with the GSA and for consistently offering expert advice and support when needed.

Saya Sedighi is a MoGen graduate student in the lab of Anne-Claude Gingras at the LTRI. Saya serves as the co-president of the GSA and as the PSME committee representative for the MoGen Graduate Student Association. She is also the communications director for the Graduate Representation Committee (GRC).