Surviving the Qualifying Exam at the College of Computing

Last Modified: January 5, 2004


Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Basic Process
  3. Preparing for the Qualifiers
  4. Taking the Written Exam
  5. Taking for the Oral Exam
  6. Resources
  7. Author Information

1. Introduction
Getting a PhD has been compared to applying for membership to a very picky club that has a lot of hurdles for the applicants. The qualifying exam is the first of two very strenuous hoops that you must jump through to be recognized for PhD candidacy (Georgia Tech doesn't officially recognize you as a candidate until you pass your Proposal). Many students have been daunted by the prospect of the exam and with good reason. You shouldn't fear the process but should view it as a golden opportunity to become an expert in your particular area of knowledge. Once you graduate to either industry or academia, the demands of the work often hinders your ability to keep up with the field of research. The qualifying exam not only affords you the opportunity to really learn your field but to gain some valuable knowledge during the process that may contribute to your dissertation. The process (the stress, the pressure, and the intensity) of the written and the orals may lead you down some intellectual paths that you haven't yet explored.

The qualifiers are not designed to be easy (and if they were, no one would take them seriously). The faculty in each area design the exams to test basic knowledge of the area, creativity in thought, and thoroughness in problem-solving. Remember this: The ultimate purpose of the qualifiers is to assess your ability to do research. They are not testing your ability to regurgitate what you've read or how well you can crunch numbers in your head. Your advisor and committee members want to know whether you have the right skills and mental tools to be able to take a difficult problem, attack it correctly, and produce a range of solution directions. Whether you pass is contingent on your ability to convince them of this through your answers on the written exam, your research portfolio, and how you answer their questions during the oral exam.

The following document contains some tips for surviving the qualifier process with a minimal amount of stress and sleep loss. It explains what you need to do at each stage of the qualifier and one method for attacking it. Don't forget to check with the senior students in your area for more information as each area has their own quirks and peculiarities about how qualifiers are taken. There is also an older version of this document which you can check for additional information and perspective: http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gsc/old/PSH/#chapter9 (courtesy of former GT CoC grad student and current GT CoC Professor Tucker Balch).

2. The Basic Process

3. Preparing for the Qualifiers

4. Taking the Written Exam

5. Taking the Oral Exam

6. Resources

7. Author Information
This page is maintained by the Graduate Student Council as a whole, and monitored by the PhD program Coordinator. The GSC acknowledges Idris Hsi as the original creator of the document, and thank all of those who have contributed to it's evolving nature.

If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions concerning this document, please contact the current GSC Liaison. For more information on GSC, please visit our website: http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gsc.