How easy is it, practically, to flunk out of graduate school?

From casual conversations I’ve had, it seems that, at least in the US, grad school is generally a piece of cake as long as you put in decent effort. I know someone personally who seemed to sail through, almost getting all A grades, with the occasional B (meaning that their grad school GPA came out to something like 3.8). Their undergrad GPA (in the same discipline) had been seriously lower, 2 point something. Is this really the way it is? To what extent do graduate students struggle and worry about whether or not they will pass the midterm or the final in the same way that undergraduate students do? If there is a difference, is it more based on how lenient the grading is or the level of individualized help provided by faculty, or is it more because most people who would would have ended up struggling are refused admission to the program (selection bias), and thus never have the opportunity to crash and burn on the term paper and final?

Definitely not, in my experience. I found graduate school significantly more difficult than undergrad. This was in mathematics; for all I know, the experience may be completely different in “softer” subjects.

Interesting. Were there literally problems with people failing exams and losing sleep over whether or not they could ever make it through Differential Equations 530, or was it more a matter of needing to put in more hours of study, but as long as you did, there was little to worry about?

From personal experience, the grad students seem to have it all together and are calm and composed - the undergrad students are the harried ones rushing here and there and wondering where their next “A” is coming from. I’m suspecting that at least some of it is selection bias - the ones who barely hacked their BS or BA generally aren’t the ones going immediately into grad school. They come back years later after gaining a lot more maturity. What are your experiences?

Pretty darn easy if you fail your qualifying exam. And people do fail the qualifying exam.

In my experience, grad school is just a totally different kind of beast.

It’s A LOT of work. I work and am in a challenging program, and probably 80% of my spare time is spend on school. This means on weekends I don’t sleep in or spend time doing other things. I wake up at 8:00 AM and sit down at my desk and work until dinner time. After work, I usually go straight home and read/write/do homework. I even make my computer read my notes and readings to me while I’m at work. It’s literally the most effort I’ve ever put into anything, and it requires an incredible amount of discipline and time management. And the material I’m tackling is hard- sometimes I’ll have 2,000 pages of dense technical reading to analyze and be prepared to talk about a week.

At the same time, grad students have a lot of intrinsic motivation. Grad students generally get their degree for a very specific life-goal, not just because it is the thing to do. Grad students have probably been in the work force, so they have a better understanding of what their tuition and loans mean, and exactly how much they are investing in their degree. So it’d be rare to find a grad student who slacks off. That’d just be a huge waste of money and effort.

So am I working my butt of to make sure I don’t fail? No. Honestly you’d have to really slack off to get a C. But I am working my butt off to make sure I get my money’s worth out of this huge investment that will hopefully change my life infinitely for the better- but that won’t happen if I just coast through. So yeah, nobody fails, but nobody slacks off either.

People are much more likely to drop out/go on a break than fail. It’s just too much work and money to try to fake it through. I imagine the people who don’t cut it intellectually drop out pretty quickly, but I don’t think people really go to grad school unless they are motivated and intellectually prepared.

There was a lot of worry, but there was also a lot of support. There were a number of study groups for various classes. It didn’t hurt that there were a lot fewer in-class exams than as an undergrad - homework was the primary determiner of grades. I’d be shocked if some of my first year class exams didn’t have the occasional student failing however.

As to putting in more hours of study, there was definitely that - I kept track for a couple weeks and found that I was putting in more than 30 hrs/week for my 1st year Algebra class. Other classes went more smoothly, but I was essentially working a full-time job just trying to keep up. Throw on teaching duties and an attempt at a social life and you obtain a student who is a nervous wreck for several years.

Everyone was stressed out, let me tell you. It’s just not so much over grades, which didn’t really matter in grad school. All that mattered was progressing toward the final goal of defending. This meant to pass the preliminary written exams by the end of the second year, the preliminary oral exams by the end of fourth. They cut off aid after six if you hadn’t yet defended - this was an issue for several students. Math students were fully supported (tuition waiver + stipend) for six years based on sufficient academic progress.

The writtens were offered twice a year, so you had four chances to pass. There were students who didn’t clear this hurdle. I believe that you could only take the preliminary orals once, but proceedings could be suspended for a couple weeks if you were in danger of failing. You could also be passed with reservations if your major area was strong enough but your minor areas were weak. You only had one chance to defend though.

As to grades, it seemed that the only grades given in grad school are “A” and “B”. Students were required to maintain a “B” average to stay in the program, so a “C” was essentially failing, and professors reserved that grade for exceptional cases. I never knew anyone who admitted to earning a “C” or below in any class.

In fact, any class beyond the 2nd year level was pretty much automatically an “A”, as they were all extremely specialized topics classes, and students had to show an intense interest and preparation to even understand the classes.

What kind of grad school are you talking about? I’m working on an MBA now and compared to my engineering undergrad, yes it’s a breeze. For one, my classload is much lighter, only taking 2 classes per term. Also, I’m a completely different “student” now than I was at 20 years old. My work ethic is slightly better. All that said, I do not think it’s fair to compare an MBA program to other traditional, full time grad programs.

The phrase “graduate school” denotes at least two completely different things, and it’s really not useful to lump them together in discussions like this.

On the one hand, you have professional programs like business school, law school, medical school and the less well-known degrees of that type. even sven is right on here: it’s a lot of work, but the barriers to entry are such that the people who get in will almost always succeed. On a more cynical note, these programs tend to generate a lot of money for the schools that offer them, so you do have to wonder whether that influences the pass rate as well.

On the other hand, you have research programs like PhDs and some master’s degrees. The typical structure of a US PhD program is that you do a year or two of coursework, take a qualifying exam of some sort, and then begin working on a thesis. Programs vary, but in general, no one is going to fail out before their qualifying exams unless something really unusual happens. Once you get to the qualifying exams, though, it’s another story completely: some programs pass everyone, and some will cut over half of their students. After the qualifying exam, you begin research, with the eventual goal of producing something novel. While people do drop out here, it’s a little harder to describe it as failure, simply because this part of the experience is much more about motivation and personality than raw ability.

Edit: I should also mention that in my program, we don’t have GPAs. We still get letter grades in classes, but they’re so non-informative that there’s no point in assigning any numeric value to them. When I go on the job market, I don’t expect to discuss anything beyond my research; anyone who asks for my GPA is certainly not suggesting that they know exactly what I’m bringing to the table.

From my days in grad school, flunking out was very do-able, but you had to put some effort into it. The first bar to flunking out was the admissions process – it was a very competitive program. The courses were reasonably difficult (this was computer science) and (as I recall) anything less than a B was considered a fail for a grad student.

The qualifying exams were the big hurdle. You had exams in three different areas and you had two shots to pass all three. In very rare circumstances, you could appeal and get a third shot. If you fail the qualifying exams, you’re done. I think you could generally leave with a Master’s degree, although I’m not sure about that.

Then there’s the proposal process. That’s where a fair number of students just run out of wind. It’s hard to do the research and literature review on a topic only to have it rejected by your committee. Have this happen a couple of times and the will to live pretty much fades.

Finally there’s the eternal grad student – he/she has pass the quals, satisfied the course requirements, finished the proposal, but the thesis just never happens and the statute of limitations expires. Again, the deadlines can get extended in special cases, but after 8 or 10 years, even the most patient of committees wants to see some results.

Is it possible to work your butt off and still make C’s (which count as failing) in grad school? In Physics, and for me, that answer is yes.

By the time I finished teaching the labs and recitations and grading the lab reports and last week’s tests, it doesn’t leave me with a lot of time to study and do homework sets (that take me like 8 hours a piece). I couldn’t NOT be a TA because otherwise the school wouldn’t give me in-state tuition. It was kind of a low-cost labor racket that also provided REALLY hard classes to remind you how stupid you are.

No, of course I’m not bitter about that time in my life.

The analogy that comes to mind (at least for professional-type grad school programs) is “how hard is it to be a lawyer and not get fired?”

Now, very few lawyers are sweating bullets wondering if they are going to get fired. Lawyers usually aren’t working their ass off just to avoid being on the chopping block.

But they still generally work very hard. They’ve invested a lot into it, and generally want to make a return. They are aware that coasting will have long-term negative consequences. And, perhaps most importantly, if you are the type to become a lawyer you are probably the type who is going to work hard at it. Nobody goes through all that work just to laze around.

I’m sure there are some lawyers who are just coasting through on the bare minimum. But they probably aren’t going to get much out of what they are doing. There probably is some easy way out, but in practical terms it wouldn’t really yield any benefit.

I’m only a week into my second course, but so far, it’s a piece of cake. Last class, I just had to write some bullshit twice a week. This class, I just have three take-home tests and a single book to read. Yawn. The course is like an intro to my profession, so I’m pretty sure I can teach this class. Maybe that makes it easier for me.

My employer is paying for it all, so I’m not even necessarily trying to get my money out of it. I just want the B and I’ll move on with my life.

In other words, I’m the exact opposite of even sven so far.

It’s certainly possible to fail grad school, although, generally, if you’re headed that way, people will generally bail out first. But I have known at least one guy who was tossed out. I knew another who managed to fail his final oral exam(!), which i wouldn’t have thought possible.
From my experience, grad school is NOT “a breeze”.

Within the context of a Psychology MS/PhD program, the coursework would likely not be the hardest part. However, the less “externally structured” components like the oral qualifying examination, comprehensive examination, clerkships/practicums, and thesis/dissertation are quite easy to become an immovable obstacle. The term “ABD” (All But Dissertation) exists for a reason, and many “fail out” by allowing the maximum allowable to pass without successfully completing/defending/revising their dissertation.

My degree is in library science (MLS) and flunking out was rare. There was one class that was quite difficult (I believe it was a second level cataloging/metadata seminar, which is not my area), but the others basically required work but were not difficult that is, if a student read the materials, wrote the assignments, and made an effort that way, then passing was not a concern. If someone chose not to do the work, sure, they’d fail, but this is rare for grad students. Most all tend to be motivated, either by passion for the subject or real desire to get the degree for their career. My program did have a comprehensive exam at the end of the program, which most students were scared of failing, however I don’t know anyone who actually failed it. I think students had 2 tries to pass the exam, then they were no longer eligible for the degree. I passed it the first time, like most of my class, and didn’t find it overly hard. Of course, reviewing 2 years worth of material was challenging, but the questions were more about overall themes and topics of relevance than minutiae from old textbooks.

In my graduate program (a well-ranked one in the sciences), it was pretty hard to flunk out of classes or even make lower than a B. No one worried about the classes. The classes were a necessary evil, a hoop you had to jump through. The classes had almost nothing to do with what we considered to be the real reason we were in grad school: research.

But yeah, the research part was hard. People worried about getting an advisor, their experiment not working, someone else scooping their research, their advisor thinking their research was trivial, their hypothesis not turning out to be true, the equipment malfunctioning, the integrals not converging, the numerical simulations coming up with answers that clearly indicated something was totally wrong with the code, etc.

It was also possible to flunk the qualifying exams, which were taken way more seriously than the classes; this is the one where people would study for weeks and months beforehand, many hours a day. (Indeed, the classes were often taken simply to help with the qualifying exams.) In my program (this is not true for all programs even in my field), they did give you several chances, so the fact that about half our class flunked at least one the first time wasn’t so bad, all things considered. I only knew one person who left grad school over the qualifier.

Interesting responses. Does flunking a qualifying exam (written or oral), or failing to complete your dissertation count as an “F” on your transcript? My understanding from the undergraduate world is that failing to complete an exam for credit opportunity (e.g. you wanted to challenge Mathematics for Business Majors and registered for the credit by exam but you failed it) did not drag down your GPA (you just didn’t get the credit on your transcript), but it may be different in grad school.

E.g. if you get all A’s in your classes, but you fail the first qualifying exam twice, then pass it, and then fail the second qualifying exam once, and then pass it, do you end up with a transcript with mostly A’s but three F’s?

And this shows that grad programs are different. We didn’t have quals at all, just wicked hard classes. By the time I left, I was the 7th to leave out of the original 15 that I started with.

I administer a master’s program and serve as a faculty member and adviser in a Ph.D. program.

The premise is a little odd, because graduate school is quite competitive. Nobody is in grad school because they just ended up there. They had to apply and be accepted, so there tends to be considerable intrinsic motivation to do well. In fact, my students tend to care too much about their grades. I literally want them to master the content of the courses and apply this knowledge to their comprehensive and qualifying exams. You might earn an A or B in my course, but the real test comes much later, which is what they should be worried about.

The messed up things that happen which can stall out undergraduate students happen to people who are more mature. So if students have financial concerns, they’ll tend to tell their adviser instead of covering it up. Faculty also tend to be more relational (at least in my field) - there are considerable resources wrapped up in each student, so there is a much greater investment and a desire to see them succeed.

That having been said, I’ll echo what others have said about students not passing comps or qualifying exams. In our program you get two shots at both. If you fail twice, you can be dismissed. Has this ever happened? Not to my knowledge, but it’s on the books. What’s far more common is that folks limp past the qualifying exam, and remain ABD for years until the program faculty votes to dismiss them after 10 years.

True story: we just dismissed a doctoral student who started his program 2 years after I finished my undergraduate degree. In the time he was in the program, I managed to earn a master’s and doctorate, plus work professionally for six years. And I didn’t particularly speed through my grad program either!

Well, if you get a PhD, nobody cares about grades. Anyone hiring you is going to want to know about your thesis any other publications, and whether your adviser’s recommendation is glowing or lukewarm. Nothing else really matters, including whether you barely passed or triumphantly flew through various early classes and qualifiers.
For the OP, I’ll also note that generally, (PhD, as opposed to professional) graduate schools don’t like failing students. They kind of feel like it reflects poorly on their ability to select and support students, and is just kind of unpleasant and distasteful for the chummy academic world. Which doesn’t mean that grad schools don’t get rid of poor students; it’s just that a grad school is more likely to convince a bad student to take a consolation Master’s degree and go away quietly, rather than formally kick them out.