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Ph.D. Qualifying Exam

Qualifying Exam
  • Application Form: after receiving permission from your advisor to take the Qualifying Examination, pick up a copy of the "Request to take the Ph.D. Qualifying Examination" form from the Graduate School, located in Grace Ford Salvatori (GFS) 315. The top half of the form (contact information) should be filled out by the student prior to taking the form to the committee. The POST code for Electrical Engineering is "316". If EE is not your home department, check with your department for the appropriate POST code. On this form you must also note the semester during which you plan to take the examination.

    After filling out the top half of the form, consult with your advisor to decide on a tentative date (or a few potential dates) for your Qualifying Examination, as potential committee members will want to know when the examination is, as they may have a conflict with your chosen date. After your advisor signs the form as the "chair," put together a list of 4-6 additional faculty (beyond your advisor) that you might want on your committee, including 1-2 potential members outside the EE department, and approach them to ask if they will serve on your committee. When you approach these faculty members, make sure you let them know of the potential exam dates - it can be very difficult to find a day and time that all 5 faculty members can attend!

    When you have all 5 committee members established via their signatures (including one outside member), take the form to the department chair for their signature on line II, then return the form to the Graduate School for their signature on line I. You will receive the pink copy in the mail once the Graduate School has verified your eligibility for the Qualifying Examination and signed the form (usually in about 2 weeks). It is strongly suggested that you make a photocopy of the form prior to turning it in, in case there are any problems.

    If you need to make a change to your committee after it is established, for any reason, fill out the Change of Committee form, which you can download from the Graduate School here. Remember that the Application Form must be turned in a minimum of 30 days prior to your exam date! 

  • Suggestions for Writing Your Proposal: first, consult with your advisor as to how they prefer the proposal to be prepared. There are few "agreed-upon" guidelines for Qualifying Examination proposals, and the preferred format can vary from advisor to advisor. However, there are a few things to remember when writing the proposal:
    • Most of your committee members reading your proposal will not be experts in your field (or at least, not as much as you are!). Make sure you include sufficient background material in your introductory sections to ensure that readers will be able to understand the more in-depth subjects!
    • Consider what is and is not essential to your proposal. A research proposal that spans 100 pages is very difficult to read for a busy faculty member. Your dissertation can be as long as is necessary to showcase your research - your proposal should be clear and concise.
    • Figures tell the story. While you cannot have a proposal without text, it is much easier to show and/or explain a trend or concept with a figure than it is in words. It really is true what they say - a picture is worth a thousand words! The right figures, accompanied by appropriate sections in the text, will make your proposal much easier to understand for the reader.
    • Make sure you define all terms that you use somewhere in the text, even if they seem simple. In particular, acronyms should always be spelled out the first time they are used, and it should be clear what each variable/constant in the text, or in an equation, represents. If there is a standard (for example, n as the index of refraction), use it! Don't confuse the reader.
    • The amount of mathematics typically used in presentations varies significantly with research area. Regardless of the level of mathematical rigor in your work, be sure to give the meaning and significance of your devolopment in words as well as any mathematical formulas.
    • Finally, don't forget that this is a proposal for what research you will do to complete your Ph.D. as opposed to a report on what you have accomplished. One of the most difficult things to do is outline problems that you don't know the answer to yet. This is valuable experience because regardless of what you do after you graduate, you will need this proposal-writing skill. So, avoid attempting to teach your committee the details of everything that you have done. Give considerable effort to explaining the challenges of your future research, approaches you intend to take, possible contingency plans, etc.


  • Suggestions for Preparing Your Presentation: your oral presentation is your opportunity to to convice your committee that you are ready for begin you rdissertation research in earnest. A strong oral presentation is vital to passing the Qualifying Examination. While it is up to you, along with your advisor, how you shape your presentation, keep a few things in mind while preparing your presentation:
    • As with your written proposal, most of your committee members are not experts in your work. Keep things simple, and make sure you explain clearly any difficult concepts, even if they are explained in your written proposal as well. Do not assume that your audience has a full understanding of your written proposal. Instead of trying to teach everything that you learned, work on explaining what it is that you learned. Instead of "Here is how I solved this differential equation..." try "I solved this differential equation using these methods and this is why this is important..."
    • Do not fill your slides with text. Figures, along with your words, will tell the story. The text on most slides should be kept to a minimum, a few clear concepts. Avoid long sentences when possible, save in summary-type slides.
    • Make sure you use few slides at the start of your presentation to show the motivation behind your work. What is the problem? Why is this a big problem? What can happen if we solve it? Don't go straight into the details, start with the big picture. Convince your committee that the work you are doing is important, and that the problems are significant, and they will pay greater attention to the details.
    • Only use equations on a slide when absolutely necessary to make your point. If you do need to use an equation, define all terms on the slide itself, and if possible, also use a figure with a sample case to show the "trends" of the equation.
    • Don't make your presentation too long. Remember that you will be interrupted for questions throughout your talk. Don't expect to have the full time for presenting. The worst that can happen if you are short a few slides is more time for discussion and questions, but if the presentation is too long, you will have to skip slides at the end, and those are usually the ones that best showcase your work


  • Suggestions as Your Presentation Day Nears: once you've submitted your written proposal to your committee (often a few days before your oral presentation) it helps to make sure of a few things before the big day comes:
    • Make sure you have the room reserved. Check with EEB 500 and make sure you have a room reserved for your talk. EEB 539 fills up quickly, reserve it early (once you know your exam date) to make sure you get the right time. If it isn't available, there are other conference rooms in EEB you can use.
    • Make sure you have all equipment necessary. If you need an LCD projector, make sure you reserve one in advance. Also, ask to borrow it in advance to make sure your laptop is compatible with the CSI LCD projector before your presentation day arrives.
    • Remind your committee of the examination time and room. Faculty are busy, and you never know what things may come up. Send a quick e-mail (or visit them in person) a few days to a week in advance to remind your committee of the date, time, and location of the oral examination.
    • Tell Mayumi (or Milly) your examination date. There is paperwork that must be prepared "behind-the-scenes" for exam day, and it must be requested by EEB 500. Make sure you let them know in advance of your examination date so it will be ready for your committee to sign when the day comes.
    • Have someone (or a few someones) you can trust to be critical take a last-minute look over your slides. If they make comments, address them. If you have to spend 5 minutes (or even 2 minutes) explaining a slide to someone, then the slide isn't any good. You won't have that 5 minutes to explain a confusing slide during your oral presentation.
    • Practice your presentation. This cannot be stressed enough. Have some colleagues in your research group (or in your office) sit down and listen to your presentation and ask them for critical comments. If there is any section that doesn't sound right, or anything they don't understand, fix it before exam day. If they don't understand something, your committee may not either.


  • Suggestions For Oral Presentation Day: it's time for the oral part of the Qualifying Examination! Remember a few key points: 
    • Get there early. You never know what can go wrong. The room may be locked, the LCD projector may be broken, your laptop may crash. Get everything together, set up, and tested early to make sure it will go right.
    • Dress properly. Make sure you're dressed for the occasion.
    • Remember the three key words: loudly, slowly, and clearly. Speak in a strong voice, don't speak too rapidly, and make sure your words are clear.
    • Remember that your committee is not there to fail you. Chances are, you chose your committee from professors that you have worked with, or whose classes you've taken. They want you to pass. Be calm, not nervous, and the exam will go smoothly.
    • Don't ignore questions. You're presenting a proposal - the research isn't completed yet, so you may not have all the answers. If you don't know an answer, say so - you need not be embarrassed - and tell them you will make finding the answer part of your research. If you want to speculate on an answer, tell your committee that you're doing so. But don't dance around a question.
    • Be confident and show pride in your work!. There is an amazing difference between a presentation by someone that is confident in themselves and their work, and one by someone who is not. The unique thing about the work you're proposing at the Ph.D. level is the fact that, chances are, no one else on the planet has ever done it! That's an amazing fact, and you should be proud of it.