Carnegie Mellon University

Qualifying exam

Students who are working towards a Ph.D. degree are required to take the Ph.D. Qualifying Examination. The Ph.D. Qualifying Examination tests the student's ability to think, speak and write. Students have to read and understand three technical papers that define the examination topical area. Students then write a review paper as well as orally present this review to a faculty examining committee. This committee includes 3 faculty from the ECE department whose research focus is in the area the student wants to be tested on. The student has to answer detailed questions from the faculty committee. These questions can be about the review paper and presentation, the reference papers, and obvious undergraduate-level technical background for the material in the review and reference papers.

Review the important dates and deadlines.

Unlike other Ph.D. programs, this is not a comprehensive examination or an open-ended examination of what the faculty feel you should know. Instead, it is a focused examination, scoped by the student's choice of reference papers and review paper and presentation. The exam stresses the student's understanding of ECE fundamentals within this scope as well as the students ability to understand and communicate the technical linkages to the topics chosen by the student.

For students entering the Ph.D. program in or after the Fall 2015 semester, students must take the Ph.D. qualifying exam for the first time no later than the fourth semester after being admitted to the Ph.D. program, and must pass the exam no later than the fifth semester. Summer semesters are not included in this qualifying exam timeline.

For students entering the Ph.D. prior to Fall 2015, Students must take the Ph.D. Qualifying Exam for the first time no later than the fifth semester after being admitted to the Ph.D. program, and must pass the exam no later than the sixth semester after being admitted to the Ph.D. program. Summer semesters are not included in this qualifying exam timetable. Students are encouraged to take the Ph.D. qualifying exam as soon as possible. Each student should determine with her or his advisor when to take the qualifying exam for the first time.

Students failing the qualifying exam the first time can take it a second time, no later than the sixth semester after being admitted to the Ph.D. program. One faculty member from the first exam committee will serve on the second committee. A student who fails the exam twice must leave the program at the end of that semester.

The time clock determining when a student must take the qualifying exam is stopped for one semester if the student is engaged in an industrial internship during an academic-year semester (fall or spring). This policy applies for only one semester of internship. Students engaged in internships for more than one academic-year semester may submit a petition to request a deferment of the qualifying exam timeline beyond one semester.

Three background papers

These three papers provide context to the faculty examining committee regarding your area of focus. They help describe what your work is about and why it matters. They describe the history in this research field and the motivations that are driving this research.

You select these three papers with input from your advisor. The Graduate Student Committee reviews the paper choices, and assigns a 3 faculty examining committee. These papers can include conference papers, journal papers, book chapters, thesis chapters, your own papers or technical reports.

Restriction on background papers

You can choose no more than two papers that may have authors who are currently faculty at Carnegie Mellon. You can choose no more than 1 paper that you have co-authored. The total length of all three papers should not exceed 50 pages.

Written review paper

The Qualifying Examination tests your written communication skills through a short review paper. This paper defines the focus of your Qualifying Examination topic. You should explain your technical area, your work and the relationship between your work to the background provided in the three background papers. This paper should not exceed more than 4 pages and should be in a 2-column format. You are encouraged to use the standard template.

Oral presentation

The Qualifying Examination tests your oral communication skills by having you present a short talk during the first 30 minutes of a Qualifying Examination that is scheduled for 3 hours. You should consider this oral presentation to be like a conference presentation, as the 3 faculty in your Qualifying Examination committee are in a research area that is related to the focus of your presentation. The examining faculty will typically ask you questions to help clarify your presentation immediately following your presentation.

Questions and answers

Once the clarification question and answers are completed, the examining committee will ask you questions about your research area, the reference papers, your review paper, and electrical and computer engineering fundamentals that relate to your research area.

These question and answer sessions are part of the 3 hour scheduled Qualifying Examination. Following the question/answer session, each of the examining faculty grade your performance. They do not decide if you passed or failed the Qualifying Examination. This pass/fail decision is made at the graduate progress review meeting (held on the Friday of the second week of Qualifying Examinations).

Fall 2023 important Qualifying Exams dates & deadlines

  • Monday, November 20th: Official Qualifying Exam results and feedback issued to students