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Questionable Qualifiers

Moshe Alamaro

The PhD qualifying exams at MIT vary from department to department in terms of scope, format, style and success rate. However, the spectacular failure of the system in the Department of Mechanical Engineering demands special attention from the administration -- and special scrutiny by potential applicants for the PhD program in Mechanical Engineering (ME).

The ME qualifying exams take place twice a year, in January and May. A doctoral student can take the qualifier up to three semesters from commencement of the PhD program. Most students wait the full three semesters, as familiarity with the MIT curriculum is necessary to pass. Those who fail the test can take it for the second -- and last -- time a semester later. Because a second failure is final, it is possible for a graduate student to find himself out on the street a full two years after beginning the program. In fact, it is not only possible, but also highly probable. The failure rate, guarded closely by the department, is estimated to be as high as 35 to 50 percent. Potential PhD applicants deserve to have more information about the qualifying process and their chances for success before applying for the ME doctoral program.

The secretive nature of this qualifying process has led to numerous conflicting -- and confusing -- rumors. Statistics on the qualifier in ME are not made available to students or to some of MIT’s deans. Written explanations for grading and pass/fail thresholds are not made public. Successful students are given no information on their passing grade. When a student fails, his advisor is not allowed to discuss the exam results with him. This “ritual” task is left to Professor Ian Sonin, Mechanical Engineering’s longtime qualifier “Don,” or graduate officer.

The most troubling aspect of this enigmatic process is that success on the exam is highly dependent on factors other than a student’s academic abilities. Professor Rohan Abeyaratne, the ME Department Head, frankly states that the working relationship between a student and his advisor is as important as passing the qualifier. (As will be shown in subsequent articles, a student’s advisor must also have a good relationship with his peers in order for a student to qualify). To pass, a student needs a faculty member to strongly advocate him/her in the faculty results meeting. (Apparently, the ME faculty meets immediately following the exams to review each student, identified by a photo flashed on a slide.)

The wildcard in the qualifying process is the thesis presentation, which is required in addition to oral and written exams on mechanical engineering subjects. The student presents a thesis, usually on the same subject as her PhD thesis, to faculty from her advisor’s specific division. Failing the thesis presentation results in failing the qualifier - regardless of the student’s performance on the objective tests. According to a faculty member who is disturbed by the process but wishes to remain anonymous, the failure rate is often close to 50%. For example, in January of 1998, 33 students took the qualifying exam. Only four students clearly passed, while another 13 were “negotiated.” Sixteen students failed the test altogether.

Let’s look at one way an exceptionally bright student could fail the qualifier as a result of the thesis presentation. Students do not normally have control over their thesis topic; his or her advisor almost always conceives it. In many cases, the chosen topic is highly speculative and sometimes even bizarre. A naÏve but daring student may be enticed by a professor’s promises and commence research on one of these topics before funding is available, particularly if the professor is initially enthusiastic.

That same enthusiastic professor may change his mind about the merit of a particular thesis idea. In some cases, a professor may become embarrassed by a topic that he introduced a year or two earlier. The easiest way to erase any reference to an ill-conceived topic is to get rid of the PhD thesis and its corresponding doctoral student -- thus eliminating any need for a professor to take responsibility for his ideas. The professor may simply fail to support the student at the faculty qualifier results meeting, regardless of the student’s performances on the objective tests.

Other students fall prey to the professional rivalries and disagreements that so typify the ME department. A professor may object to the research agenda of another professor, but he can’t do much about this. However, when this agenda is presented in the qualifying exam as a PhD thesis topic, it is simple to express objection by failing the student. This happened to Ashish Krupadanam, an exceptionally bright PhD student who presented his thesis topic in January 1988. Professor Hogan from the control division expressed his objection to the research agenda of Ashish’s advisor by failing Krupadanam.

There’s no question that doctoral students must possess both a grasp of scientific fundamentals and solid research skills to grow into a world-class scientist, academic, or research engineer. Presumably, a good correlation should exist between success on the PhD qualifying exam and eventual success in engineering. However, no such evidence exists, and neither the ME department nor Professor Sonin have requested a study to examine the relationship between the qualifier and subsequent career success. Obviously, failure on the qualifying exam becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for most students, no matter how bright.

Nevertheless, let’s take a look at two of the many students who failed the test. The first is Theo de Winter, who left MIT after failing the qualifying exam to start the Magnetic Corporation of America. At one point, his company had 200 employees, developing superconductors for the then-new MRI industry. De Winter sold his company to Johnson & Johnson and for the past 20 years has had a successful academic career as a professor at Boston University -- all without a PhD.

Even more spectacular is the case of Nam P. Suh, who received his SB and SM from the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering, but then twice failed the PhD qualifier. Suh left MIT to work for United Shoe Machinery Corporation, a struggling shoe manufacturer that could not compete with foreign imports. Suh single-handedly saved the company from oblivion by diverting its manufacturing to plastics. Eventually, Suh completed his PhD at Carnegie-Mellon. He subsequently became a professor at University of South Carolina, where he also “reorganized” the College of Engineering. In a twist of poetic justice, he returned to the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering, and was until recently the Department Head, a position he held for ten years.

While it’s nice to see that Suh rebounded from his initial rejection, it is profoundly troubling that as department head, he did not find it necessary to challenge the qualifier system that failed him earlier. Clearly, those who were hazed yesterday do not have problems hazing others today. Surprisingly, the strictest defenders of the ME qualifier system are those who have their PhD’s from other universities and never experienced this academic hazing themselves. It is time for the MIT administration to investigate the qualifying process in the ME department to ensure that it is fair, transparent and effective in educating and nurturing successful engineers.

Moshe Alamaro SM ’01 is a visiting scientist at the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. He can be reached at alamaro@alum.mit.edu.