Skip to main content

Qualifying Examination


PhD students who enter the program with a General Credit transfer from a primary Master’s degree take the Qualifying Exam, consistent with university policy. 

Required examinations, including the Qualifying Exam, not be scheduled during University holidays, including Fall, Winter, and Spring Break. Note that most faculty are on a 9-month schedule so it is challenging to schedule an exam over the summer months. 

Qualifying Examination

The Qualifying Examination determines the student’s potential for completing doctoral study. Successful completion of the examination signifies the student’s potential and the faculty’s commitment to provide scholarly resources needed to complete continuing course work and the dissertation.

Students who do not take the Qualifying Exam and those who do not successfully pass the Qualifying Exam are not considered to be in good academic standing and may not continue in the doctoral program.


To be eligible to defend the Qualifying Exam, students must have successfully completed (grade of C or above) six courses (usually 2 full semesters) in the Penn PhD program. These courses must include the first year core courses: N7500, N8130, N7530, and N7540.

The exam cannot be taken if there is an incomplete in any course.



The deadline for defending the examination is October 15th (or March 15th for students in alternate sequences, such as part-time students) unless the student obtains written permission of the Graduate Group in Nursing Chair. This mid-semester deadline is to allow time for any possible remediation within the same semester.

If a student fails the Qualifying Exam, the second defense must be held prior to the last day of the Drop Period in the semester immediately following the semester in which the original exam was defended. For the exact date of this deadline, refer to the University’s Three Year Academic Calendar.



The Qualifying Examination consists of written and oral components. The focus of both elements of the examination is a substantive discussion of a concept with relevance to the student’s phenomenon of interest, within the perspective afforded by the discipline of nursing. Alternatively, the student may produce a substantive exposition of the state of the science in an area of inquiry and research of relevance to the discipline of nursing. Students are highly encouraged to work with their mentor(s) to develop their Qualifying Exam for publication. You can review previously published qualifying exams in the Resources section at the bottom if this page. 

Written Component

The written component of the examination is constituted by a scholarly paper.  The written examination may not exceed 20 double-spaced, typed pages of text (references not included) and should be prepared in keeping with the American Psychological Association standards unless permission has been received from the Chair for a different citation format.

Oral Component

The oral component of the examination is constituted by an oral defense of that paper by the student for the Examining Committee. The oral examination is scheduled for one hour and should consist of an introduction of how and why the student chose the topic and a brief summary of the paper.



All three members of the Examining Committee evaluate the written and oral examination.  The grading system for the Qualifying Examination is Pass/Fail, with a minimum of two out of the three Examining Committee members in agreement. The criteria for grading both the written and the oral examination are:

  • Form and organization of the written examination
  • Relevance, critique, and integration of the supporting literature, and the student’s synthesis and conclusion
  • The student’s ability to communicate both in writing and orally on an abstract level
  • The student’s ability to translate specifics to a higher level of generalization and develop ideas for future direction

If the grade is Fail for either or both parts of the examination, both portions of the Qualifying Examination must be retaken and a grade of Pass must be achieved, with at least two of the three Examining Committee members in agreement. The exam must be retaken by the drop deadline of the semester immediately following the semester in which the first exam was taken (if the first attempt occurs in the Fall semester, the second must be scheduled before the drop date of the Spring semester). Per procedural policy, the revised submission is not subject to review of the Chair prior to examination. The examination must be retaken with the same Examining Committee unless a substitute member is approved by the Graduate Group in Nursing Chair. The examination may be retaken only once with no extension of the deadlines mentioned above.

In the exceptional circumstances where a new Chair is appointed at the purview of the Graduate Group Chair, the new Chair may comment on no more than one draft of the revised examination.

Failure to pass both parts of the examination on the second attempt will result in the student being withdrawn from the program. 



Please start the scheduling process at least four weeks in advance of the potential exam date.

  1. Early in the PhD program but no later than May 1st of the first year of full time study (or before the completion of six courses for students in part time study), the student must identify the Standing Faculty member of the School of Nursing who will chair the student’s Qualifying Examination. This must be by mutual agreement between the student and the faculty member. This faculty member does not have to be the same person as the academic advisor. The student is to notify the Director of Advising and Student Affairs of the selection of Chair.
  2. After discussion and negotiation with his/her Chair the student selects the topic to be addressed. The topic usually will be a concept that contributes to the student’s understanding of a particular area of interest that will be pursued further in the dissertation. The student must identify the body of literature or primary and secondary data that will help explain, describe, and analyze the topic, and then focus the analysis on a deconstruction of the literature. This process, again negotiated with the Chair, could be in the form of a formal concept analysis, an examination of the state of the science for that topic, a historical case study, or various other methods of concept deconstruction appropriate for their area of interest. 
  3. The Chair guides the student in the preparation of the written examination by discussing the relevant literature, and the general structure and specific content of the paper. The Chair may review and comment on no more than one complete draft of the written examination. This review is at the discretion of the Chair; no other person will read the paper prior to formal submission of the examination to the Chair. With the Chair’s approval, students may receive writing assistance from one of the Penn writing centers for structure but not content of the examination. The Chair may also help the student to prepare for the oral examination.
  4. After the written examination has been approved by the Examining Committee Chair, the student should email the title of the paper and names of several suggested examiners by the Examining Chair, in priority order, to the Graduate Group Chair with a copy to the Examining Committee Chair and Director of Advising and Student Affairs. The suggested examiners must be members of the Graduate Group in Nursing. Several names of examiners should be suggested for scheduling purposes, but not contacted in advance for their availability.
  5. The Graduate Group Chair will review the list of suggested examiners and reply to the student, Examining Chair, and Director of Advising and Student Affairs with the approved names of potential examiners to contact in order.
  6. Then the student should contact the top two suggested examiners first to select an exam date and time, and move down the list until two examiners are available (see here for a suggested email template).
  7. Once the date and time are finalized, the student should request a small sized conference room on the Facilities Office intranet site. It is recommended that the student schedule the room for the required hour plus 15 minutes prep time and at least 15 minutes post-exam time in case additional discussion is needed. Once the student receives a confirmation email from the Facilities Office, the student should confirm the date, time, and room of the exam with the committee, with a copy to the Director of Advising and Student Affairs, who will note it for official records.
  8. The student must distribute a copy of the examination to each member of the Examining Committee at least 2 weeks prior to the scheduled oral defense.
  9. The student should distribute the Qualifying Exam form to the committee for signatures, and then email the form to the Office of Student Services.  



The Graduate Group has developed a Qualifying Exam Toolkit to help assist students in preparing for the examination.

Samples of published qualifying exams.