Carnegie Mellon University

Qualifying Exam

Students working toward a PhD degree are required to take the PhD Qualifying Examination. The PhD Qualifying Examination tests students' 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 and orally present it to a faculty examining committee. This committee includes three faculty from the ECE Department, whose research focuses on 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 important dates and deadlines.

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

For students entering the PhD program in or after Fall 2015, they must take the PhD Qualifying Exam for the first time no later than the fourth semester after program admission 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 PhD prior to Fall 2015, they must take the PhD Qualifying Exam for the first time no later than the fifth semester after program admission and must pass the exam no later than the sixth semester. Summer semesters are not included in this qualifying exam timetable. Students are encouraged to take the PhD Qualifying Exam as soon as possible. Each student should determine with their 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 program admission. 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 the student's area of focus. They help describe what the student's work is about and why it matters. They describe the chosen research field's history and motivations.

The student selects these three papers with input from their advisor. The Graduate Student Committee reviews the paper choices and assigns a three-faculty examining committee. These papers can include conference papers, journal papers, book chapters, thesis chapters, and the student's own papers or technical reports.

Restriction on background papers

The student may choose no more than two papers with authors who are currently faculty at Carnegie Mellon. The student can choose no more than one paper they have coauthored. The total length of all three papers should not exceed 50 pages.

Written review paper

The Qualifying Examination tests the student's written communication skills through a short review paper. This paper defines the focus of the student's Qualifying Examination topic. It should explain the student's technical area, their work, and the relationship of their work to the background provided in the three background papers. This paper should not exceed more than four pages and should be in a two-column format. Use of the standard template is encouraged.

Oral presentation

The Qualifying Examination tests the student's oral communication skills by having them present a short talk during the first 30 minutes of the Qualifying Examination, which is scheduled for three hours. The student should consider this oral presentation to be like a conference presentation, as the research of the three faculty in their Qualifying Examination committee relates to the focus of their presentation. The examining faculty will typically ask the student questions to help clarify their presentation immediately after.

Questions and answers

Once the clarification questions and answers are completed, the examining committee will ask the student questions about their research area, reference papers, review paper, and relevant electrical and computer engineering fundamentals.

These question and answer sessions are part of the three-hour Qualifying Examination. Following these sessions, 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).

Spring 2024 important Qualifying Exam dates & deadlines

  • Monday, April 29: Official Qualifying Exam results and feedback issued to students