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
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
- When should I take Qualifiers? - You should probably think
about taking qualifiers towards the end of your 2nd year or no
later than the end of your 3rd year. This is a general
guideline. It really depends on your focus, your knowledge of the
area, and most important, whether your advisor thinks you should
take qualifiers or not.
- When are they offered? - Qualifiers are typically offered
twice per year. Currently, they are offered Fall and Spring
- When do they take place? - The written exams are scheduled
depending on when your area committee decides they should and can
be held. Typically, they will be scheduled towards the end of a
semester. The oral exam should be scheduled by you about a week
to a week and a half after the written. This gives your committee
and the exam writers a chance to look over the exam and your
- What's involved?- The requirements may change from year to
year so you should definitely check the Official
College of Computing Qualifier Requirements. The requirements
stated as of December 11, 2002 are as follows.
- A one-day written examination covering the pertinent research
area(s). It will typically be near the tenth week of the
semester. All students taking the exam at the same time in an
area take the same exam. This component evaluates the student's
depth of knowledge in his or her chosen areas.
- The submission of a high-quality research deliverable, as
evidenced by a portfolio consisting of an
exam-committee-reviewed and publishable article, and possibly
other work products as approved by the exam committee. This
component evaluates the student's creative and research
abilities, along with the potential to do dissertation
- An oral presentation and examination which also allows for
follow-up on the first two parts.
- What happens if I don't pass? - This happens every now and
then. Usually students are given conditional passes that require
them to write a publishable research paper because their
portfolio lacked sufficient depth. Once this deficiency is made
up, the student has passed the qualifier. Students can fail
because they demonstrated a deficiency of knowledge or lack of
clear thinking during the written or during the oral exam. In
rare instances, students have failed because of a basic
incompatibility with their advisor that was not revealed until
the qualifier. If you don't pass the first time for whatever
reason, you have a second chance. If you don't pass the second
time, then your committee will recommend that you finish a
Master's degree and try your luck in industry.
3. Preparing for the Qualifiers
- Determine your area - Hopefully this won't be a problem
by the time the qualifiers are an issue. However, some research
areas are ambiguous or not established and you may feel the
need to declare a secondary area. If you do, you will have to
read two sets of reading lists. For the written, you will be
given two exams and can choose questions from both. You may
answer up to 50% of the questions from your secondary area.
- Declare intent - Once you and your advisor have decided
that it's time to take qualifiers, you need to email The PhD
Program Coordinator, The Graduate Coordinator, and possibly the
Area Coordinator. As of January 5, 2004, the PhD Coordinator
is Barbara Binder (binder@cc) and the Graduate Coordinator is
Dr. Leo Mark (leomark@cc). Do this at the beginning of the
term that you will take qualifiers.
- Attend the Orientation Meeting - There will be an
orientation meeting at the beginning of the semester for all
students who intend to take qualifiers. It will be posted to
the phd-list mailing list so pay attention. It is very
important that you attend this meeting! Even if you're
undecided whether you're going to take qualifiers that
semester, you should still attend. In this meeting, you will
agree with other students in your area on the date you want to
take the written exam.
- Register to study for the qualifiers - Students may
register for one of two Qualifier prep courses during the term
they plan to take the Qualifier. Both of these courses are
permit only; contact the PhD Program Coordinator for a permit,
and make sure to indicate which class you will be taking.
- CS 7999PHD - Register for between 3-6 audit hours. Note that
these hours may not count toward the 12 required for your
- CS 8902PHD - Register for between 3-6 pass/fail hours.
- Start Early!! - If you haven't started reading from your
area's reading list from Day 1 of graduate school, you should
start as early as the term before the term of the qualifying
- Make sure your area advisors update and finalize the reading
list by the beginning of the semester. - Reading lists can
fall out of date really fast and you want to ensure that you're
spending your time well. Try and get your area coordinator to
update the reading list quickly. If you're really organized,
you did this the semester before!! With any luck, the faculty
have finally responded to your request. You should follow up on
this constantly until the area advisor has formally confirmed
that the reading list is finalized. The last thing you want is
to be surprised in the 11th hour with a new set of readings.
- Find a study group - Try and coordinate with other
students in your area so that you're all taking the exam at the
same time. There's nothing like group studying when it comes
to sharing ideas, finding readings, and reinforcing morale.
- Develop a plan of study - Don't concentrate solely on
getting all the readings out of the way like a checklist of
chores. This isn't an exam for a class, this is a
qualifier. You need to be able to speak intelligently about
your area, not just regurgitate names, dates, and
facts. Develop a schedule for presenting papers, emphasizing or
de-emphasizing topics as needed, depending on your strengths
and weaknesses in the area. Make sure to allow for schedule
snafus and to determine your studying resources, including
library and faculty access.
- Check the reading list - The reading lists for all the
areas can be found on
the CoC body of knowledge section.
- Gather the readings - If your fellow students haven't
already done so, designate a filing cabinet or some sort of
library space and begin storing readings there. The Software
Engineering Group has one such library that has proved to be
extremely valuable. During one qualifier, someone had misplaced
a critical reading and was able to go to the SE library and get
the reading that he needed. It not only provides a central
location for everyone to store and collect readings, it also
saves future generations the hard and pointless labor of having
to find these readings the hard way. Also, some of the seminal
papers can be extremely difficult to find, if not impossible.
- Gather the past exams - If you haven't noticed, the past
exams are also located with the Body of Knowledge readings.
Try and get in touch with students who have taken the exam
before to get a sense of their answers. This is actually more
useful right before the qualifiers than it will be when you're
- Talk to old students - You're not the first person to
ever take this exam. In fact, there's probably at least one
student who has taken the exam within the last year. They will
have in-depth advice about preparing for and taking the exam
from the student perspective. If you are lucky, these students
will also recommend additional papers to read that are not on
the reading list.
- Start developing your committee - The committee consists
of your advisor and 3-4 other faculty members in your
area. You're not required to but it helps to have a committee
with people that may be at your proposal and eventual research
defense. This way you begin developing a committee that will be
familiar with your work by the time you're ready to defend your
- Study, Study, Study - As someone pointed out, there's
only one proven method for passing the qualifier - hard
work. Be prepared to do lots and lots of studying. By the end,
you should be dreaming about the exam (these are typically
unpleasant but make for fun storytelling).
- Build in time for reflection - Don't forget to schedule
time to reflect on what you've learned. Remember that this
isn't a memorization game. You need to understand the readings
at a deep level. This means that you should be able to
construct an example given a model, algorithm, or method that
you've read and understand how the authors arrived at their
findings. Your understanding of the research process used to
generate those results is, in many ways, more important than
the knowledge of the results themselves.
- Ask the faculty in the area about the readings - The
faculty assemble the reading lists and devise the exam
questions. They have made some very specific decisions about
what to include. It would be a good idea to meet with each of
them and ask them what they wanted you to learn from the
readings and what kind of questions do they expect you to be
able to answer.
- Hold weekly group meetings - If you're meeting in a
group, split the reading list. Organize it around the study
plan that you have developed. This allows a little bit of
breathing room and also encourages some good discussions with
one person as the primary "expert" in that area presenting and
the rest contributing questions, contention, or answers.
- Read outside of the reading list - Scour the journals,
books, and associated research in your area. The reading list
should be considered a bare minimum for knowing your
field. Chances are, it's not as current as it needs to be and
you need to fix that. But be picky! Your advisors will
occasionally complain about the volume of reading that they
have to do. Your problem won't be finding readings to add to
the list but keeping the number at a manageable level. Make
sure that you select good papers to present and share with your
- Aim for frameworks and patterns - Remember that as PhD
students, you will be expected to make a contribution to your
field. By the end of the qualifiers, you should be able to
articulate a detailed picture of your field and your opinion of
where you think it's going. While you're doing the readings,
ask yourself 'why', 'how', and 'what' questions:
- Why is this reading important?
- What did it contribute to the area?
- How has it influenced other research (if it's a seminal paper)?
- Why is research being done in this area?
- In what directions is the field headed? Where will it be in a
year, five years, or a decade?
- Be skeptical - As a PhD student, you can't afford to be
passive about your study and learning. You need to be critical
about the papers that you read. Just because someone put it on
the reading list doesn't mean that it's the best work in that
area. Very few papers present a brilliant idea, support it in a
solid manner, and describe these two things clearly. Most good
papers have at least two out of three of those qualities. Ask
- Do you believe what you are reading?
- Do you know who wrote the paper and where they are coming from?
- Did they support it well?
- How did the paper extend the knowledge of the field, or did it?
- Has there been a more recent development in this area?
4. Taking the Written Exam
- Basic Questions
- How long is the written exam? - The written exam is
typically scheduled from 9 am to 5 pm.
- How do I get the test? - The PhD Program Coordinator is
responsible for handing out the exam. The current coordinator
is Barbara Binder, and she is located in Room 122 of the CCB.
The test should include an instruction sheet for reurning the
- Where do I take the test? - You can take the test
anywhere you want. It's open note and open book. You should use
some kind of word processor to take and print the exam. This
not only makes it easier on the graders but gives you better
throughput for answering the questions. Equations and diagrams
can be hand drawn if needed.
- What is the format of the exam? - You will probably be
given N questions and be required to answer some fraction of
those questions (e.g. 6 out of 9, 8 out of 12).
- What about diagrams, references, and tables? - You may
need to write equations or cite papers during your exam to
support your answer. For this reason, make sure you're using
either a good word processor or a reliable text editor.
- I can't type. Now what? - If you have a disability such
as Repetitive Stress Injury or something similar that requires
you to write the exam by hand, you should make arrangements to
either get some extra time or, preferably, to split the test
across two days. Eight hours of straight handwriting is not
very entertaining and may even exacerbate your injury. Your
committee will generally be sympathetic to these kinds of
- Before the Written Exam
- Organize your work area - You'll want a quiet place with
the computer that you will be writing the test on, all your
readings and books, and with the basic necessities nearby
(food, water, restrooms). Because of the immense volume of
readings that most of you will have, you'll often need to work
out of your office/cubicle for practical reasons. It's okay to
have music (with headphones) at the test if that's what makes
you happy. Some students have even made arrangements to have
the test emailed to them at home with on-line submission at 5
- Plan Ahead!! - For example, all tests are picked up from
the CCB. If you are in a distant building, you can ask for
additional time to travel between your home building and the
CCB. Typical allowances are 15 minutes (allowing a start of
8:45 and an end time of 5:15).
- Organize your computer - You can bring in your home
computer to your office for the purposes of taking the
exam. This leaves you free of potential system hang-ups and
- Organize your readings - I organized and alphabetized my
readings and papers by area groupings. This proved to be
incredibly helpful for finding something in a hurry. Avoid the
stack method of organizing readings.
- Type in your reference list before the exam - If you are
already using some kind of bibliography tool like EndNote, then
you're all set. Otherwise, you should copy the reading list and
add all the supplementary readings to a file using whatever
word processor you will be using. Because the questions tend to
be organized around areas, I recommend that you organize the
reading list the same way. This way, during the exam, you can
simply copy and paste the references you cite in your answers
into your exam, rather than having to type it in on the fly.
- Build Templates - Prior to the exam, I developed blank
test templates in my word processor that had page numbers,
questions, styles, and fonts. This is a minor time saver but it
was very helpful for getting started on the day of the
qualifier. The Software Engineering Group had also developed
templates for typing in equations and had some PowerPoint
slides from Sommerville with diagrams showing various software
engineering processes that could be copied into the
exam. Basically, make any preparations you can before the exam
to make your life easier. Also, get familiar with your word
processor (for example, shortcut keys) and if you use LaTeX, have
a LaTeX manual handy.
- Place signs up around the area that you're working -
Before my qualifiers, I posted 'Do Not Disturb' signs all
around the College. You may want to coordinate with the other
people taking the exam to do something similar.
- Plan your printing process - Some students bring their
computers into the test - printers and all. Consider where you
will be printing out your document. Make sure you have a backup
floppy disk or something that will allow you to transfer the
test to another computer in case something bad happens.
- Make sure you have food nearby - You won't have time to
get food. Make sure you're well supplied before you start or
that you have friends willing to supply you with snacks and
- Sleep - There's nothing else you can do at this point
except get a good night's sleep.
- During the Exam
- Use good test-taking techniques - Read all the questions
before you begin, answer the easy ones first, etc.
- Don't panic - The questions may look intimidating but
they're supposed to be tractable. If you find yourself in a
bind and are forced to answer a question you're not comfortable
with, recast the question into something that you understand
but without deviating from the original statement. "I believe
that the question is saying X. The answer to X is..."
- Watch your time - The average test is 6 questions over
about 8 hours. This leaves roughly 10-15 minutes to sketch out
an outline and 1 hour to write the question. Leave time for
- What if I turn the test in late? - You need to make one
copy of your answers and hand them in to the Graduate
Coordinator (currently Dr. H. Venkateswaran). Some allowance is
made for copier and printer snafus. In general, be prepared to
stop writing around 5 pm and concentrate on getting your test
and copies turned in. At this level, they won't say something
like "You're 15 minutes late, we're not accepting the
test. Better luck next time."
- After the Exam
- Go decompress somewhere - You can't do anything about
the test now. Go relax and party with your fellow victims.
- Wait - The faculty grade the questions that they
designed (assuming anyone answered them). This takes about a
5. Taking the Oral Exam
- Basic Questions
- When should I take my Orals? - Oral exams should take
place a week or more after the written exam. My advice is to
get it out of the way as soon as possible so that you can get
on with your life. Also, the sooner you give your orals, the
fresher the knowledge from the written.
- How long are they?- Again, this varies by area and
committee but you should schedule out a 2 hour block of time,
just in case.
- What do they involve? - You will have to give a
15-20 minute presentation on the area of research that you've
been working on and where your thesis might be headed. The
committee will spend the rest of the time asking you questions
about your written exam, your research area, and anything else
they feel like.
- How can I study for them? - You can't really
study for your orals except to think a lot about your research
and where you intend to go. You can meet with the other people
who took the written with you and go over your answers. If you
made any errors on the written, the committee will want you to
address them. Otherwise, the orals are designed to test your
creativity and your grasp of the field. In your career you may
be asked to respond to questions or issues that you haven't
thought of or have thought of but have never formally
addressed. You'll need to show that you can be thoughtful,
creative, and confidently articulate about your area of
- Schedule your oral exams. - You'll need to find a time
that your entire committee can meet. Schedule your exam at
least 2-3 weeks in advance!! Scheduling 4-5 faculty members
to meet for two hours is like herding cats so you'll need to
have scheduled this exam before you've even taken your written
exam. Don't forget to schedule a room.
- Distribute your portfolio- Your portfolio, assuming
that you haven't been given some kind of creative question to
answer in lieu of a publication portfolio, should consist on
any conference papers, journal articles, and technical reports
that you have published either alone or with your advisor or
research group. Make copies of these and give them to your
committee. If you don't have a portfolio, you may be asked to
spend a week answering some kind of creative question that
concerns your current research directions.
- Review the written exam - Sure, you never want to see it
again but you should look it over anyways. Make sure you can
answer the questions that you avoided or messed up. You have a
week to figure these out. It may not come up during the oral
but you never know...
- Prepare your talk - You will be asked to give a 10-15
minute talk that discusses your research history and your
directions. You're not required to have research that's at the
proposal stage but you should think of this talk as an
articulation of a pre-pre-proposal. Remember to use good
design heuristics in planning both the verbal and visual
presentations of your talk.
- Practice your talk - Get some of the friendly senior
students in and around your area to listen to your talk. They
will hopefully be very critical and this will be in your
- Remind your committee - Remind them what time and where
the oral will take place a week before. This may seem silly but
I did have the situation where the week before the orals, one
faculty member had written down the wrong time and was starting
to tell other faculty that time, generating lots of
confusion. This was remedied with some frantic scampering on my
part. (It had taken me three days of schedule consulting and
negotiating to get everyone to agree on a time slot. I wasn't
about to have to repeat the process.)
- Print out slides- You should not only print out slides
for your talk but backup copies to hand out to the committee
members. If you're not doing a multimedia presentation, make
sure that your committee members have an abstract and outline
for your presentation.
- Get food - Before your orals, get snacks and drinks for
your committee members. This is not bribery, it's part of the
culture. It also saves you time. (I didn't know about this for
my oral and I had to wait an extra 5-10 minutes while various
members went to get coffee, soft drinks, or
whatever). Doughnuts, bagels, cookies, milk, soft drinks,
etc. are nice. Remember that this is a two hour oral
examination so don't forget something for your own throat.
- Arrange the room- Make sure you have working AV
equipment and that the room is set up to your
- Taking the Orals
- What will they ask? - It depends on the committee but
some good questions that every graduate student should be
prepared to answer include:
- What will your contribution be to the field?
- What was the best research paper, researcher, or research
portfolio that you've seen and hope to emulate?
- Where do you think your academic area is going?
- How will you validate your research or findings?
- What do you consider to be good research?
- What do you think your weaknesses as a researcher are? What
about your strengths?
- Take notes - Your committee will ask you long and
difficult questions. Make sure you understand the question
completely and take notes on what they asked. I found myself
forgetting the original question halfway through my
answer. These notes will also be research directions that you
will need to examine after the orals.
- Whatever you do.... - Try to avoid saying that you
absolutely don't know something. Ideally, they wouldn't be
asking you unless they were sure that you could answer it. If
you're not sure of the question, get clarification or get them
to restate the problem. If you need to, you should recast the
problem yourself and answer it that way. At the very worst,
consider the relevance of the question to your research and
your area. It may be an issue that you haven't considered yet
and will pursue after the qualifiers and you should say it.
Definitely make a note of the questions that you couldn't
answer because they will haunt you later in your career.
- Be confident! - You have to believe that you know your
area. Granted, you don't have decades of working in the field
but you know what you've been working on. If you don't believe
your own work, who will? Project confidence and ability and
you'll be fine.
- Have questions for your committee - Did you think the
test was fair? Why was this question asked? Did you have
problems with the reading list? How about the courses that you
had to take? Do you want to know what they did in your
- After the Orals
- Standard Operating ProcedureIn theory, here's what
happens: you leave the room, your advisor and your committee
discuss some things, your advisor leaves the room, your
committee votes, your advisor finds you and tells you the
results. If you've passed, you'll need to thank everyone and
get their signatures on this piece
of paper and turn it back in to the PhD Program Coordinator.
- Leave a Record for those to follow - What extra readings
were a big help? Which readings were useless or outdated? Help
the faculty and future students out by making suggestions to
the reading list. Make sure that the library for your area
readings is brought up to date.
- Help to Update this Document - If there are things that
you learned during the process of preparing for and taking the
qualifiers or there have been changes to the procedures, please
help future generations of PhD students by updating this
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.