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Computer Engineering Qualifiers FAQ

What is the objective of the qualifying exam?
When is the exam typically scheduled?
When should I take the exam?
What are the topics for the exam?
What is the format of the oral exam?
What is the written part of the exam?
What are the important dates to consider?
Do I have to pass all three parts?
What if I do not pass the first time?
How will I know the outcome?
Does my adviser participate in the qualifying exam?
Can students work together in studying the papers?
What outside help is allowed? What sources are permitted?
Are students expected to have taken the courses in the areas in which they are tested?
Can students get their reports or presentations reviewed by others (faculty or other students) before submission?
What should I bring to the exam?
Are students responsible for arranging laptops for their presentation?

What is the objective of the qualifying exam?

The objective of the qualifying examination is to assess the student’s potential to begin doctoral-level research. Specifically, the student is expected to demonstrate, for a primary and two secondary research areas:an ability to state a problem clearly, provide its motivation, and the requirements for a solution.

  1. an ability to understand and explain a solution to the problem.
  2. an understanding of the broader research context in which this work appears.
  3. an ability to summarize and present the major points of the work.
  4. an ability to recognize the limitations and implications of the work.
  5. working knowledge of the field.
  6. an ability to communicate effectively, both in writing and in speaking and to answer questions relating to the problem, its solution and the field.

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When is the exam typically scheduled?

 The qualifying exams are administered twice a year, generally in January and August, in the week before classes begin.

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When should I take the exam?

Students desiring a PhD should take the qualifying examination as soon as possible. Students entering with a master's degree should take the exam no later than the end of their first year of study. Students entering with a bachelor's degree should ideally take the exam by the end of their first year, but no later than the middle of their second year.

Students must pass the qualifying exam before beginning their fourth academic semester after admission to the graduate program, unless approved by the CpE graduate committee.

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What are the topics for the exam?

Listed below is a set of six research areas from which each candidate will be required to select a primary research area and two secondary areas for the examination.

1. Computer Architecture

2. VLSI, Switching Theory

3. Operating Systems, Real-Time and Embedded Systems

4. Compilers, Software Systems and Software Engineering

5. Dependable Computing and Reliability Engineering

6. Networks , Distributed Systems & Security

The CPE qualifying exam committee will select one research paper in each of the six areas about 2 months before each offering of the exam. The candidate selects a primary research area and two secondary areas for the examination. The paper for the primary area is expected to be studied in depth. Students will be required to read and understand papers cited by the paper in the primary area as well as follow-on work and related topics in the field. The committee will ask questions to gauge the students' detailed understanding of the primary paper and related work.

For the secondary areas, students should study the selected papers and be prepared to answer general questions on these papers and the associated field of study. Our goal for testing the student on these secondary areas is to determine the students' multi-disciplinary abilities, a key factor that is becoming increasingly important in today’s research environment.

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What is the format of the oral exam?

The exam is a 2-hour oral exam, in three parts. There is also a written component due 2 weeks before the exam.

Part I: Primary area test

This is a 1-hour examination, which will start with the student's 20-minute presentation on the paper selected by the student in their primary research area. The committee will then ask in-depth questions on the presentation, the assigned paper, related papers and other topics in the selected primary area.

Part II: Secondary areas test

This is a 1-hour examination, in two parts. Each part starts with the student's 10-minute presentation on one of two secondary papers selected by the student. The committee will then ask broad questions on the presentation, the assigned papers and other topics in the selected secondary areas.

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What is the written part of the exam?

Two weeks before the oral exam date, the student will submit a written report (max 3 pages in IEEE standard format *) on the paper in the primary area to the head of the CpE qualifiers committee (electronically, in pdf). This report should demonstrate the abilities listed under the “objectives” section of this FAQ. The report is expected to cover relevant work: both too little and too much will be considered negatively. The paper should include the student’s analysis of the work, not simply a summary.

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What are the important dates to consider?

2 months before the exam
The CpE qualifiers committee announces the 6 selected papers, one paper for each area.

One month before the exam
Students provide the CpE administrative coordinator their selections for the primary and secondary areas. Please note if your adviser is on the committee so that a substitution for can be made.

2 weeks before the exam
Students submit a written report (max 3 pages in IEEE standard format *) on the paper in the primary area to the head of the CpE qualifiers committee (electronically, as a pdf file).

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Do I have to pass all three parts?

Yes. Students will be evaluated on the combined written submission and oral examination. The result will be a clear-cut pass or fail for the entire exam; no remedial work will be allowed to alter the outcome.

What if I do not pass the first time?

A student who fails the qualifying exam on the first try must retake it at the next offering. A student who fails the examination twice may lose support and leave the program at the end of that semester.

How will I know the outcome?

Each student will meet with the CpE Program Director within a few days of the exam. At this meeting, the student will be told the outcome, will receive a copy of the completed assessment form, and will be provided with feedback from the committee. The CpE Program Director will also communicate the results and feedback to the student’s research adviser and the Graduate Dean’s Office. The results are made available only after all students have taken the exam and are not made available to the student by email.

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Does my adviser participate in the qualifying exam?

Research advisors are invited to observe the examination in order to witness their student’s performance and provide moral support. Advisors do not otherwise participate in the examination or evaluation of the student. If a student’s adviser is on the qualifying exam committee, a substitute examiner will administer the appropriate part of the exam and participate in the evaluation.

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Can students work together in studying the papers?

Yes, students are allowed to study together. Clearly there should be no collaboration while writing the report.

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What outside help is allowed? What sources are permitted?

No sources are barred but significant sources must be cited. An annotated list of citations will help the committee gauge the student’s ability to perform research. Each student should prepare an annotated list of up to 20 relevant published works that were consulted as well as a list of all non published sources (people, internet sources, etc) that were consulted.

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Are students expected to have taken the courses in the areas in which they are tested?

Examinees are expected to demonstrate a solid understanding of th foundational topics in the areas, and the ability to understand and evaluate the content and context of a chosen publication. Students are expected to demonstrate understanding of the material covered in these courses, regardless if whether, when and where they took the course. Further, since a course in architecture is required by the program, it is expected that examinees would have taken this course before taking the qualifying exam. This is required even for secondary areas, but on a "lighter" scale than for the primary area.

A list of courses for the six areas:

1. Computer Architecture (CS 654 or 6354 or ECE 635 or 6435)
2. VLSI, Switching Theory (ECE 563 or 5630, ECE 631 or 6331)
3. Operating Systems, Real-Time and Embedded Systems (CS 414 or 4414, CS 656 or 6456, CS 586 or 5487)
4. Compilers, Software Systems and Software Engineering (CS 771 or 7620, CS 685 or 6240)
5. Fault-tolerant Computing and Reliability Engineering (ECE 634 or 6434, ECE 738 or 7438)
6. Networks, Distributed Systems & Security (CS/ECE 757 or 7457, CS 551 or 5501)

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Can students get their reports or presentations reviewed by others (faculty or other students) before submission?

Reviews of technical content is not allowed. Students are allowed to seek assistance from the writing center.

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What should I bring to the exam?

No Recording devices are allowed!

Each student should bring a partially completed G107 and associated assessment form to the exam, along with a recent transcript (showing your graduate coursework). These should be given to the committee chair at the beginning of your exam. Also bring a copy of your presentation slides (printed 4 to a page) for each member of the examining committee.

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Are students responsible for arranging laptops for their presentation?

Yes, students may use their own laptops or arrange to borrow one from either the CS administration or the ECE administration.

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rev. 6/09