PhD candidate vs PhD student

At my institution (in the U.S.A.), you are considered a PhD student until you pass your qualifying exams. After passing, you are considered a PhD candidate.

The qualifying exam is usually taken around 2 years in the program, or after you have completed any required or recommended coursework. It consists of a written exam, which can be one or more questions from each of your committee members. The written exam at my institution is left up to the committee members discretion (the major adviser in reality), it can be open or closed book, very detailed, or more theoretical, 24 hour time period or maybe 1 month, even proctored by the committee member. The oral examination can also be anything. Committee members can ask very detailed questions or more theoretical questions. Preparing for the oral exam can be difficult, especially if you have members

from other departments and backgrounds. For example, I have a Soil Scientist, Biologist, Fire Ecologist, Landscape Modeler, and Remote Sensing Specialist on my committee. They all asked very different question specific to their fields.

Three of my written exams consisted of about 8 questions and I was given 8 hours to complete. It was open book and not proctored. I took the exam from home. One exam was 12 questions and I was given a month (yes I sweated for a month!). They all asked very broad questions for the written exam to figure out which areas I had a solid understanding in, and which areas I needed improvement. The oral exam was basically 4 PhD's questioning (read interrogating!) me. They started with a few easy questions, but then asked more difficult questions from the areas I was not as knowledgeable in.

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