The Qualifying Examination (Qual) is an important checkpoint meant to show that you are on a promising research track for the Ph.D. It is a University examination, administered by the Graduate Council, with the specific purpose of demonstrating that students are “clearly an expert in those areas of the discipline that have been specified for the examination, and that they can, in all likelihood, design and produce an acceptable dissertation.” Despite such rigid criteria, faculty examiners recognize that the level of expertise expected is that appropriate for a 3rd year graduate student who may be only in the early stages of a research project.

The EE Division has recently restructured the Qualifying Exam process in order to help students through the Ph.D. in a timeframe closer to that expected by the University, and to ensure that students get feedback from a group of faculty earlier in their research, when it can have the most impact on the direction of their work.

In the past, the Qualifying Exam in EECS doubled as a Thesis Proposal. Under the new system, students, in consultation with their advisors, are given the option of taking a single exam (Format B) as before, or splitting the process in two (Format A): a research area summary as a Qualifying Exam, followed (typically semesters later) by a Thesis Proposal.

The intent of the current Qual system is that very few students should fail; with proper preparation, the examination should not be overly stressful. Rather, it is an opportunity for you to get feedback and constructive criticism on your research ideas from four professors at a time when such criticism can potentially help your research. In the unfortunate case that a student does fail the qualifying exam twice, per the Graduate Division’s policy, a third attempt is not permissible. The student will not be eligible to continue in the doctoral program and may be dismissed.

Qual Deadlines

For EE students entering Fall 2003 or later, the  Qualifying Examination must be taken within 6 semesters of starting the program,  and if the Qual is not a Thesis Proposal, then a satisfactory Thesis Proposal should be presented by the end of 10 semesters. CS students usually take the Format B (see below) Qual by the end of their fourth year; you should consult with your research advisor. In some cases, it may be necessary to delay these deadlines depending on the format of the exam (please see the Qual Format section for more details). Significant delays, however, will be brought to the attention of the research advisor and to the faculty at large at the EE and CS Student Review meetings. The exam is meant to demonstrate readiness to do research; it is not intended as a defense of an all-but-completed dissertation. An inability to successfully pass or take the Qualifying Exam may result in probationary status, and eventual ineligibility to complete the Ph.D. program.

Qual Eligibility

Since the Qualifying Exam is a University requirement, it can be taken only with the approval of, and at a time approved by, the Graduate Division. Eligibility requirements for taking the exam are as follows:

  • You must be registered for the semester in which the exam is taken (an exam may be taken during the summer or winter break if the student paid fees for the semester immediately preceding the exam or intends to pay fees for the semester immediately following the exam).
  • You must have completed at least one semester of academic residence at Berkeley.
  • You must have passed the Preliminary oral exam and met the breadth course requirements.
  • You must have a GPA of at least 3.5 in your major subject area, at least 3.0 in each of your minor areas (298 and 299 not included), and have no more than 2 “Incomplete”. grades.

Qual Committee

In consultation with your research advisor, you should choose an appropriate examination committee. Your committee must consist of 4 members, all regular faculty members at Berkeley. Your advisor or co-advisors are usually members of the committee, but cannot be the chair. Another committee member must be from outside the EECS Department, representing some area of expertise relevant to your research area, and usually from one of the areas declared as the outside minor in your Ph.D. program. All members of the Quals Committee must be able to examine the student on at least one of the 3 subjects of the examination. The outside minor need not be one of the 3 subject areas.

Qual Format

Format for Students Who Began the Program Fall 2003 or Later

Qual may be in format A or B below, at the choice of the examinee, after consultation with his/her advisor.

Format A

  • Prepare a write-up and presentation summarizing a specific research area, preferably the one in which you intend to do your dissertation work. Your summary should survey that area and describe open and interesting research problems.
  • Describe why you chose these problems and indicate what direction your research may take in the future.
  • Prepare to display expertise on both the topic presented and on any related material that the committee thinks is relevant.
  • You should talk (at least briefly) about any research progress to date (e.g. M.S. project, Ph.D. research, class project etc.). Some evidence of your ability to do research is expected.
  • The committee will evaluate you on the basis of your comprehension of the fundamental facts and principles that apply within your research area, and your ability to think incisively and critically about the theoretical and practical aspects of this field.
  • You must demonstrate sufficient command of the content and the ability to design and produce an acceptable dissertation.

Format B

This option includes the presentation and defense of a thesis proposal in addition to the requirements of option A.  This will include a summary of research to date and plans for future work (or at least the next stage thereof). The committee shall not only evaluate the student’s thesis proposal and his/her progress to date, but shall also evaluate according to option A. As in option A, the student should prepare a single document and presentation, but in this case additional emphasis must be placed on research completed to date and plans for the remainder of the dissertation research.

Thesis Proposal Defense

Students not presenting a satisfactory thesis proposal defense, either because they took option A for the Qual, or because the material presented in an option B exam was not deemed a satisfactory proposal defense (although it may have sufficed to pass the Qual), must write up and present a thesis proposal which should include a summary of the research to date and plans for the remainder of the dissertation research. They should be prepared to discuss background and related areas, but the focus of the proposal should be on the progress made so far, and detailed plans for completing the thesis. The standard for continuing on with Ph.D. research is that the proposal has sufficient merit to lead to a satisfactory Ph.D. dissertation. Another purpose of this presentation is to provide feedback on the quality of work to date. For this step, the committee should consist of at least 3 members from EECS familiar with the research area, preferably including those on the dissertation committee.The Departmental Thesis Proposal Application can be found online. This form should be submitted to the Staff Graduate Advisor before your Thesis Proposal Defense.

Qual Application & Scheduling

On the Graduate Division Qualifying Exam Application and the Departmental Qualifying Exam Application, indicate the names of the proposed examination committee members, as well as the date, time, and location of the examination. (It is your responsibility to find a date and time when all the members of your exam committee are available.) The applications must be approved by your advisor and submitted to the EECS Graduate Office  at least one month before  the proposed date of the exam. Once again, EE students should take the exam before the end of the 6th semester of graduate study. Failure to do so may result in probationary status, and eventual ineligibility to complete the Ph.D. program.

The Vice Chair reviews and signs the applications which will then be sent to Graduate Division. Graduate Division then officially appoints the exam committee and approves your admission to the exam. Students must not take the Qual exam without prior receipt of an approval notice from Graduate Division. One week before the exam date, the Graduate Office sends a reminder about the exam to each member of the committee, so be sure to keep your Staff Graduate Advisor updated about any change of time, location, etc.

If a student wishes to change the membership of the exam committee after the application has been approved by Graduate Division, the committee must be “reconstituted” by petition. The petition, signed by your advisor, must be submitted to the EECS Graduate Office for department approval and forwarding to Graduate Division. Fill out a Request for Change in Higher Degree Committee petition form and take it to your staff Graduate Advisor for processing.

Meeting with the Qual Chair

Since research areas differ, the format of the exam may vary somewhat.  It is most important to meet with the Chair of your examination committee well in advance of the exam to be sure you share common understanding of the structure and format.  You will prepare a written research proposal or short summary of your research area according to your exam chair’s direction. Distribute the proposal to the committee in advance of the exam. In some cases, the committee may request a 2nd proposal. Occasionally, one or more of the committee members may give some feedback prior to the exam, but the aim of the written proposal/summary is to provide appropriate background so that the discussion during the exam can move more quickly.

Qual Structure

The exam begins with a formal presentation of a summary of your research area or a research proposal, typically following the write-up submitted to your committee in advance of the exam. In planning the length of the presentation, you should think in terms of giving 45 minute seminar if there were no interruptions.

The committee will listen, interrupt, and ask questions. It is almost certain that not all committee members will be expert in all aspects of your research area, so you should give clear definitions and explanations, and be prepared to answer questions of a fundamental nature. Graduate Division instructs outside examiners that their responsibilities include ensuring “that the student’s mastery of the subject matter is both broad and comprehensive.”

As the exam develops, the questions may range further from the specific topic of research, especially if the questions posed by the research do not appear to be interesting and challenging or if there appear to be gaps or misconceptions in your understanding of the issues. Any and all questions which address the fundamental purpose of the exam should be expected.

Normally, at the conclusion of the exam you will be asked to leave the room while the committee discusses the result of the exam. You will be invited back once the committee has reached an agreement.

Tips and Suggestions for Qualifying Exams

The following tips on preparing for your Qual are taken from the Graduate Division’s 1986 publication, The Graduate:

Studying for the Qualifying Exam

  • Find out about the format of the exam.   Talk to students who have recently passed their exams, especially students with whom you have committee members in common. Ask about the format of their exams. Did the exam begin with a short summary of the student’s academic career by either the chairperson or the candidate? If your department includes a talk as part of the exam, how long was it? Did the faculty members interrupt the talk with questions?
  • Talk to your committee.   Many students neglect this all-important resource, even though much of the intimidating mystery of the exam lies in what the faculty members will ask. Don’t fly blind. Find out what you’ll need to know for the exam. A suggestion: Prepare a brief outline of what you know about your 3 areas and take this with you when you talk to your committee members. Ask them what else you need to know. This outline will help you to organize your studying, and you can plug facts into this framework to illustrate your ideas. If the outline approach isn’t appropriate, present a bibliography for a particular area to your committee and ask what other sources you should study. Ask which publications the professor would read to review a certain area quickly and effectively.
  • Synthesize, not memorize.   As you study, keep in mind that part of your task during the qualifying exam is to be convincing, as well as accurate, in your arguments. Professors want to see how you’ve organized your knowledge and how you can use facts to bolster your arguments. Many questions will have no “right” answer; intelligent, informed conjecture is acceptable in many cases.
  • Begin studying early enough to permit rehearsal time.   Be sure to give yourself time to practice. Most students report that practicing for the exam was extremely helpful. Besides giving you a chance to review what you know about the subject matter, a mock exam gives you the experience of answering questions before a group and makes you more confident in that setting. Often major advisors, as well as other students and postdocs are glad to give you a mock exam. If an oral presentation will be part of your exam, practice it several times. Use a blackboard if you plan to use it during the actual exam.
  • Prepare for the occasional mistake.   Imagining a perfect exam in which you know every answer and are consistently brilliant for 2 or 3 hours simply is not realistic. Instead, rehearse saying that you don’t know and plan what you will say in case you draw a blank. You can gain time, for example, by saying, “Let me take some time to consider that question.” Your committee will understand and wait for you to recover.
  • Organize a mock examination administered by your fellow students.

During the Exams

  • If you are nervous, say so.   Keep in mind that the committee members are instructed by the Graduate Division to “try to humanize an inherently difficult examination” and that the chair should “do all in his/her power to put the student at ease.” It’s perfectly fine to say, “I’m a little nervous right now; I’ll have to get myself organized.” And it will give you time to think.
  • Take control of your exam as much as possible.   If you’ve talked to your committee and other students, you should have a good idea of what to expect. In some cases, you may be asked your preference about the order of topics. If you have prepared answers to questions you are fairly certain you will be asked, you will have well-organized responses with no unfortunate tangents that may lead to questions you can’t answer.
  • Take your time in answering questions.   Listen to the questions and give yourself time to think about them. Although the silence can be unnerving while you think about an answer, rushing in with a disorganized response is worse.
  • If you can’t answer a question, say so.   Don’t pretend that you know the answer. Going off on a tangent is a transparent attempt to avoid the question. Most committees will simply re-state the question. Say you don’t know.
  • If you can’t answer a question or feel you have given a poor or incorrect answer, don’t dwell on it.   Remember that no one expects you to know all the answers. Most likely, the very people who are examining you didn’t know all the answers on their qualifying exams. (Twenty years later, one Berkeley professor remembers the exact wording of a question he couldn’t answer on his exam. ) Instead of worrying about a wrong answer, concentrate on the next question, the one you will field with confidence.

Antidotes to Anxiety

  • If you’re worried about failing the exam, fortify yourself with the knowledge that your chances of passing are excellent. Since 1975, only 6 percent of Berkeley students have failed their 1st qualifying exam.
  • Recognize that your committee wants you to pass. These faculty members have a great interest in seeing you do well. They selected you for graduate study and trained you in courses. Most students report that their committee members were very cordial and gave them every opportunity to show what they knew during the exam. Often committee members would re-state questions of other committee members so that students would understand.
  • Finally, believe it or not, 83% of Berkeley doctoral candidates consider the qualifying exam to be a beneficial experience, according to the Graduate Division exit questionnaire. It is a rite of passage that can build your confidence and affirm your readiness to take the next step in becoming a scholar.