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Qualifying Exams for the Ph.D. Programs

To ensure that students in the Ph.D. programs are well-prepared for research in their chosen areas, Ph.D. qualification (also known as "admission to candidacy") must be earned by passing written and oral qualifying exams. The three written exams test the student's mastery of knowledge in the areas of Theory, Systems, and Programming Languages. The oral exam tests a student's research capabilities; to pass, a student must be judged capable in the academic elements that constitute the research process. A student is allowed only two attempts to pass an exam. Only failed areas need be retaken.

Written Qualifying Exams

The written qualifying exams cover three subject areas and are held during the 4th week of each spring and fall semester.  The Languages exam covers CS 440 and CS 536, the Systems exam cover CS 440 and CS 550, and the Theory exam covers CS 430 and CS 535.  There are study guides available: Languages Guide, Systems Guide, and Theory Guide.

The written exams will typically take place during the afternoon. Students who want to take any of the written exams should contact the Ph.D. coordinator for times and places. Once given, the results of the written exams will be available within ten days. A student who fails a subject area has ten days from the date of notification to submit a written request for re-scoring of the exam for that area. The request should be submitted to the Ph.D. coordinator and must include an explanation of why the student believes that the score of the exam is incorrect.

Ph.D. Qualifier Course Sections

Some graduate courses are allowed (but not required) to have special Ph.D. Qualifier sections:

  • CS 530: Theory
  • CS 535: Theory
  • CS 536: Languages
  • CS 550: Systems
  • Languages: CS 536
  • Systems: CS 550
  • Theory: CS 530 and CS 535

Students who earn an A when registered in a special PhD Qualifier section are deemed to have passed the corresponding area exam. Students in these sections may be required to do extra work and/or be graded in a different manner from students in the regular sections. These differences will be announced by the course instructor at the beginning of the semester. Earning less than an A in a special PhD Qualifier section of a course does not count as a written exam attempt. Note: For the Theory area, an A in either CS 530 or CS 535 suffices.

Oral Qualifying Exam

The purpose of the oral qualifying exam is to judge the research capabilities of a student — to determine whether or not the student is capable of the academic elements that constitute the research process. These elements may be categorized as:

  • Scholarly review of a topic.
  • Formal description of a problem.
  • Familiarity with techniques that may be useful in solving the problem.
  • Innovative ideas useful for solving the problem.
  • The capability to present the work above in written and oral form.

It is expected that the student address these requirement by presenting one or more research problems. The student should carefully review each problem, exhibit knowledge of techniques required to solve the problems, propose partial or full solutions, and show prospects for further research, if possible. While the student may address more than one problem, the student should guard against simply reviewing a number of problems. It is possible that the student has published results based on the presented research. This would be additional evidence of the student's research capabilities.

Students must present work mainly done by them and should not submit a paper where they are not the primary author. If parts of the work were done with others, the shared parts should be properly attributed. Not disclosing sources or taking credit for work done by others are grounds for failing the exam. The oral report should be approved by the advisor.

The following procedural rules applyDropped 2012-02-27: from Spring 2004 onward:

  • Oral exams will be held during the 5th week of each spring and fall semester, typically on Thursday or Friday. The exact day and time should be announced by the Ph.D. Coordinator at least two weeks in advance. (Please plan your schedule accordingly.)
  • The student will be examined by a faculty group that excludes the advisor. There are two examination formats:
    • A description of research of the student's choice (all students except for theory track).
    • A specific paper/topic assignment for the student (theory track).
  • A written report is required from all students except from students in the theory track.
  • The exam will be closed. The presentation should take 20 minutes; this is a general guideline that can be modified by the examination committee.
  • A review of the examination will be given to the student along with the result of the exam within a week of the exam.

Deadlines for the Qualifying Exams

The deadlines for attempting the written qualifying exams are shown in the table below. The deadline for passing the oral qualifying exam is the same as the deadline for the second attempt at the written qualifying exams.

Students who do not pass the three written exams and oral exam before the specified deadline are determined to have failed the qualifiers and must leave the PhD program.

Type of PhD StudentFirst AttemptSecond Attempt
Direct (Full- or Part-Time) By end of 5th semester By end of 6th semester
Post-Master's (Full-Time) By end of 3rd semester By end of 4th semester
Post-Master's (Part-Time) Before completing 27 credit hours Before completing 36 credit hours


  • Dropped 2012-02-27: Completing a special PhD Section of a course counts as a written exam attempt.
  • A student may not repeat a single written qualifier exam more than twice.
  • A student may not repeat more than a total of three written qualifier exams.
  • For these purposes, the semester following Spring is Fall (summer is ignored).

Last modified 4/26/2019