Ph-D- Qualifying Exam



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Ph.D. Qualifying Exam Guidelines  


The Ph.D. Qualifying Exam is the first in the series of three Ph.D exams and is followed by the preliminary exam (dissertation proposal) and final oral exam (completion of degree).  

While the option of a take-home exam still exists, for the past 6 years PhD students have opted to complete a qualifying exam paper to meet the requirement.

  1.  What is the purpose of the qualifying exam/paper requirement?  

The main purpose of the qualifying exam/paper requirement is to assess the extent to which each ELPA Ph.D. student has achieved mastery of core Departmental content, as related to strand and specialization, and to gauge students’ readiness for future doctoral study.  Evidence of mastery enables the student and dissertation committee to proceed with confidence to the dissertation phase of their program.  The results also inform faculty about features of the program that are satisfactory and that need attention.

  2.  What is the qualifying exam requirement?  

The qualifying exam is a two-week take home exam designed to assess a student’s ability to synthesize and communicate in writing the theoretical, conceptual and empirical knowledge base of the field as it applies to issues of leadership and policy in the student’s area of specialization in education.

In lieu of the written qualifying exam, Ph.D. students can prepare and submit a sole-authored, publishable-quality journal manuscript as evidence of their scholarly and professional competence in educational leadership and policy analysis. To meet the requirement, students can use or adapt sole-authored research papers developed throughout graduate courses, in research assistantships, as a result of writing the dissertation proposal, or other professional endeavors to meet this requirement.

To exercise this option, students should consult with their faculty advisor to

  • Review the core idea and extant paper(s) that reflect an initial conceptualization or framing of the manuscript;
  • Identify one or two refereed research journals published by leading professional organizations in the field (e.g., AERA, UCEA, or ASHE) that would be a suitable place to publish the paper;
  • Review articles in the target journal for examples of the journal’s publication standards; and
  • Review and discuss the manuscript submission guidelines and departmental expectations for a publishable quality paper.

In consultation with their advisor, Ph.D. students may choose either the qualifying exam or qualifying paper option, depending on their personal goals and career interests. Students should take the qualifying exam or develop and submit the qualifying paper after completing approximately 18-24 credits of coursework in the department.

  3.  How often is the qualifying exam/paper offered?   

The qualifying exam is offered twice a year, in approximately the 10th week of the semester. Students interested in taking the qualifying exam or submitting the qualifying paper should contact the ELPA student services coordinator early in the semester to submit an application to be eligible to take the exam/paper in that semester.

The qualifying exam requirement completed via the paper option can be completed at any time during the academic year including summer session with the exception of semester breaks.  

The Intent to complete the ELPA Qualifying Exam & Faculty Approval Form is available online.

  4.  How are exams assessed for the exam option?   

The Qualifying Exam Review (QER) Committee reviews exams using a rubric developed by the Department, which is provided to students when they register for the exam. All ELPA faculty members serve on the QER Committee on a rotating 2-semester appointment.

Assessment of qualifying exams is completed at a meeting of the QER committee toward the end of the fall and spring semesters. Subgroups of approximately 3 faculty members review each exam question and paper by content specialization. When possible, K-12, policy, and higher and postsecondary strands are represented on each content committee. The advisor either serves on the review team, or if the advisor is not available or not currently serving on the QER Committee, he/she is apprised of review team results and comments following the exam review process.

Performance is assessed using the attached rubric. The QER Committee provides a verbal report to the department on overall student performance and the review process at the next regular department meeting.


  5.  How are papers assessed for the paper option?   
When complete, the draft manuscript is distributed to the advisor and two members of the QER Committee. Each faculty member will complete and forward their reviews to the advisor within two weeks. Once a minimum of two reviewers deems the manuscript to be of publishable quality, the student will be notified that the written qualifying examination requirement has been met.


   6.  How do students register for the exam or paper option?   
To register for the exam or paper option, students submit a form provided by the department that indicates that they have met with their advisor regarding the preparation and timing of exam/paper submission, and are requesting to take the exam during the next scheduled exam administration or submit the paper.  The decision to register for the exam/paper option occurs when the Ph.D. student and adviser conclude that sufficient course preparation has been demonstrated regarding the core ELPA knowledge base for dissertation proposal development.


  7.  What is the focus of the exam?   

The qualifying exam consists of responding to 3 questions from across the 4 major ELPA program areas:

  • Organizations and Planning
  • Program and Instructional Leadership and Management
  • Politics, Policy and Finance
  • Learning and Diversity

ELPA faculty members develop the questions and revise them for each offering of the exam.  The questions ask students to show mastery of the theoretical and empirical knowledge base informing the question, and an ability to connect research to address problems of practice in the student’s program strand (K-12, policy, or higher education).  Responses should be well written (clear and without grammatical or spelling errors), original, and appropriately cited.  Students are expected to complete the exam question without consulting others.


  8.  How should I prepare for the exam?   

Preparation for the exam begins when a student begins to develop a program of graduate study. Each area of the exam is associated with required and elective courses described in the Ph.D. Program of Study. Be sure that as you build your Ph.D. program, you select courses from each of the areas identified in the program of study relevant to your program strand (K-12, policy, or higher education), including:

  • Organizations and Planning (730, 750, 860, and/or 875)
  • Program and Instructional Leadership and Management (705, 715, 811, and/or 847)
  • Politics, Policy and Finance (830, 831, 840, and/or 870)
  • Learning and Diversity (735, 736, 746, 880, and/or 848)

Students do not need to take all of the courses in each strand, but their program should provide them with background knowledge in each of the strands.

If your course of study takes you to more applied courses, you may want to meet with your professors to supplement course content with broader theoretical and empirical review of the literature related to that course content.  The exam is designed to assess knowledge of research in the field; ability to communicate in writing; and ability to synthesize, integrate, and apply knowledge to educational organizations, leadership and policy.  Foundational knowledge for success on the exam is provided in coursework in the ELPA program.  Thus, it is important from the beginning of the program to

  1. Read assigned coursework critically and carefully, and keep notes from classes as you go through the program
  2. Build an electronic bibliography of course and outside readings
  3. Build a personal library of key theoretical, conceptual and empirical research which is readily accessible to you (through organized electronic and/or paper files)
  4. Approach your studies as a scholar, such as by
    • Defining your areas of expertise and interest early in the program and building your knowledge base around these areas
    • Striving to understand and distinguish different perspectives and approaches to the work
    • Regularly reviewing current journals for research relevant to your area of interest
    • Identifying key theoretical or empirical research strands and reading beyond the work offered in classes to build your expertise in these areas
    • Attending sessions at professional conferences related to your areas of interest
    • Engaging faculty and other students in conversations about your areas of interest

The exam is not designed to require students to build their answer with a specific theoretical lens, but the student should take course content into account when developing their answer. While in some cases the department does accept transfer credits from other institutions, the student is still responsible for the content of courses as offered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the exam. Thus, students with transfer credits should review syllabi of associated UW-Madison courses and familiarize themselves with UW-Madison course content prior to taking the exam.

A final step in preparing for the exam is to clear the decks for the two-week administration period of the exam. This might include making arrangements in advance to clear work and personal calendars, making child care arrangements, talking with your professors in current courses or preparing current coursework in advance to avoid major deadlines during the exam administration period, or taking vacation days from work to focus on the exam. The exam is designed to enable working adults to have sufficient time aside from work commitments to successfully complete the requirement, but if you are currently employed, it will require you to identify blocks of time in the evenings and weekends to complete the work.


  9.  What is the focus of the qualifying paper?   
The qualifying paper should be relevant to educational leadership and policy in K-12, policy, or higher education and can include an empirical study, an integrated review of the literature on a topic (e.g., articles published in the Review of Education Research), or the development of a new theoretical or methodological perspective.


  10.  How should I prepare for the paper?   

If you plan to meet the qualifying exam requirement using the paper option, you should have a conversation about it with your advisor early in the program. Most students who choose the paper option are engaged in research as a project assistant or through their work, or have access to data or experiences conducive to data collection for research through their work or volunteer activities. The qualifying paper can be developed through elaboration of a course assignment, although the paper typically requires significantly more investment than a typical research paper for a course.

Some students develop a pilot study or significant literature review (such as is published in the Review of Educational Research) related to their dissertation for the qualifying paper. In any case, students interested in the paper option should talk to their advisor early in the program about pursuing this option, and should work with faculty in the program to define the parameters of the study and be sure to understand expectations for successful performance on the paper option.


  11.   What should a student do if he or she does not pass the qualifying exam/paper requirement?   
If a student is fails the qualifying exam because of their score on a single question, they will have an opportunity resubmit the question within two weeks of being informed of exam results. If the rewritten portion does not result in a successful pass, the student may retake the exam within one year.

If a student fails the qualifying paper requirement, they will have one year to respond to feedback from the committee, and resubmit the paper for approval.

If the student does not pass the exam or paper on their second attempt, they will be dismissed from the Ph.D. Program.


  12.  Do students who have a master’s degree need to complete the qualifying exam/paper requirement?   
Students who have a master’s degree still need to complete the qualifying exam/paper requirement.  However, if the student has written a significant research paper, they may use or modify that paper and submit it for the qualifying paper requirement. The paper will be assessed using the establishing qualifying paper review process. In addition, if a student has a master’s degree from ELPA and passed the qualifying exam as part of that degree requirement, they do not have to retake the qualifying exam.


  13.  Do students who have completed the requirements for an educational specialist certificate need to take the qualifying exam?    

Students seeking the Specialist Certificate are exempt from the qualifying exam/paper requirement. Students who have received a specialist certificate from UW-Madison are considered to have successfully completed the qualifying exam/paper requirement if they have completed and successfully defended a specialist paper, under the assumption that the quality and rigor of the specialist paper is consistent with the quality and rigor of the qualifying exam/paper requirement.

Students who have received a specialist certificate from another institution may submit their specialist paper or a similar significant research paper from that institution for the qualifying exam requirement. The paper will be reviewed by faculty according to the guidelines established for review of qualifying papers.


ELPA Qualifying Exam Rubric




Prior research. The answer will be situated in research relevant to the question. A passing answer will make clear links between the prior research and the answer. Prior research will be directly cited to appropriately support knowledge claims.




Theories and/or methods. A passing answer will demonstrate the author’s ability to select and apply the frameworks, concepts, theories or methods appropriate to their question.




Connection of theory to practice. If appropriate, the answer will demonstrate an effective application of theory to practice; or an insightful account of how practice contributes to theory.




Coherence. The answer will make a coherent argument that links research-based claims to appropriate conclusion.





Well-written. The answer will be grammatically correct. Paragraphs will have topic sentences and will flow together to guide the reader through the answer. The answer will use appropriate punctuation.




Original. The paper will contain original thinking. Any plagiarism will result in a failing score.




Total Score:




 Each student is required to answer a question in three of the four depth areas on the exam.   You must receive a passing or honors score on all three questions to pass the exam.  If you get one or two provisional scores on the exam and the rest passing or honors, you will be given an opportunity to rewrite the provisional scoring questions and resubmit the answer(s) within 2 weeks of notification of initial exam results to try to pass the exam.  If you receive 3 provisional scores or one or more failing scores in the first try on the exam, or fail to pass the resubmission, you will have one year to retake the exam.  If you do not receive at least a passing score on all three questions the following year, you may not take the exam again and you will be dismissed from the program.


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