Qualifying Examinations

The qualifying examinations, sometimes called prelims, consist of two basic sections: a computational part and a specialty part. The qualifying exams serve to show that CSE students have

  1. the intellectual potential to do doctoral research,
  2. the computational background to do CSE doctoral research, and
  3. the special area background to do doctoral research in the chosen specialty area.

Items one and two are verified by the computational exams and items one and three are verified by the specialty exams.

To ensure some uniformity while allowing for meaningful variations the format of the computational examination must be approved by the CSE Program Director and the CSE faculty committee.

Computational Examinations

The computational part of the exam covers the computational background needed to do research in the area chosen by the student and advisor. It will usually consist of at least one exam that covers coursework. The Advisory Committee will determine the specific courses to be covered in the exam(s). The Advisory Committee working with the faculty writing and grading the exam(s) will determine if the computational exam(s) will cover only the course materials or also extra materials. Typically, each exam is three hours long and covers only course material. If extra materials are covered, they should be explicitly known to the student at least eight weeks in advance of the exam.

It is often the case that a computational exam corresponds to a prelim exam given in the home department. For example, many CSE students take a computational exam that covers the algorithms course offered in the Department of Computer Science. In this case, the corresponding CSE exam must be taken at the same time as the departmental exam. Usually it will be the case that the faculty who prepare the departmental exam will prepare and grade the corresponding CSE exam. The Advisor should coordinate with the respective departments to arrange for a reasonable exam schedule for the CSE student. After all parts of the computational exams are taken and graded, the Advisory Committee will meet to decide which of the following three possible exam outcomes is appropriate.

Exam Outcome

Specialty Examinations

The Advisory Committee determines the format and makeup of the specialty exam. This exam tests the student’s intellectual potential and knowledge in her/his chosen area of research. Possible formats for this exam are a written or oral exam on selected research papers or the writing of a critical summary of selected research papers. The specialty exam is often combined with the dissertation proposal. In this case, the student makes a public presentation of the proposed dissertation research, followed by a closed session in which the Advisory Committee administers the exam and provides detailed comments on plans for the dissertation.

As with the computational exam, the Advisory Committee will review specialty exam results to determine pass, conditional pass, or fail, and again a vote of 75 percent is required for a pass or conditional pass. In the case of a conditional pass, the actions of the Advisory Committee parallel those outlined above for the computational exam.

The computational exam should be taken by the end of the second year of residence; the specialty exam should be taken within one academic year of passing the computational exam. Though a CSE student is not required, for example, to take the computational exam until the end of the second year, s/he is advised to take it as soon as feasible.

Each exam—the computational and the specialty—may be taken twice. If either is not passed by the second try, the student will be dismissed from the CSE program. A student may take the specialty exam before the computational exam. However, the computational exam should still be taken by the end of the second year of residency in the program.

After each part of the qualifying examinations, the Advisory Committee may, if it wishes, meet with the student to discuss the results and/or contents of the examination. The Advisory Committee may wish to meet with the student before determining the outcome, i.e., pass, fail, or conditional pass, of an exam. Follow the timeline to submit exam results.

When a student completes both their qualifying and dissertation proposal exams, as well as all courses required for their degree, they may enter Candidacy.