The qualifying exams, or quals for short, fulfill several important functions for the career of a graduate student. The quals allow the quals committee to assess whether the student is fit to do research on their own and should be allowed to proceed to the dissertation. For the student, the quals provide the opportunity to read, think about, and organize a large amount of research on topics of interest to them. Consequently, it can also function as a lit review for publication/grant writing and thus can be an excellent launching site for future research, including the dissertation. The discussions with the committee before and after are also an important moment for mentoring.
Each quals is different. Each student’s individual quals committee can clarify expectations and decide about specifics that are left open by the official Bulletin text above.
1) Timing. Generally, the students, in consultation with advisors/committees, decide about the timing of the start of the quals. The recommended time for the quals is when students are finished with most classwork and the direction of the dissertation research for the student is fairly clear. At that point, the quals are most productive to launch future research. Summers are recommended for writing the quals, as they provide an extended period of time without coursework or teaching responsibilities to focus on the extensive reading and thinking involved, but it can happen during a semester if the student has minimal other ongoing tasks during that time.
Generally, single-degree students can tackle the quals as early as the summer after their second year (or during one of the semesters of their third year), or they can wait until the summer after their third year. Students who are enrolled in a dual-degree program are usually best advised to do the quals in the summer after their third year (or during their sixth semester). It must be passed before the end of September of the fourth year.
2) Prior to starting the quals. Before the quals can start, the quals advising committee needs to be in place. It is not the same as other committees, though usually the quals committee morphs into the dissertation committee, with the addition of other members (including one who represents the minor) and possible change of members.
Before the start of the quals period (e.g., by April for quals being taken during the summer starting in May), the committee and the candidate agree about the specific questions the student will answer. Questions will be proposed by the student, according to the rules established by the Bulletin text above. Typically one quals committee member will be the “expert” on one of the questions, and the student should work with that committee member to shape an appropriate question that is specific and focused, but not too narrow, so that there is a good body of literature to review. Students should develop an initial reading list for each question, in consultation with the associated committee member. The set of proposed questions and the initial reading list for each should be sent around by the student to the entire committee, with the opportunity for further amendment and suggestion by the committee, to create the final agreed-upon set of questions and initial readings. This helps to prevent cases where students neglect a core text or body of work of relevance for a question. The proposed initial reading lists typically include 20-30 texts (mostly primary source papers, review papers, and possibly books depending on the field), and do not need to be exhaustive. The expectation is that students will read the initial list of texts first and find other texts to explore and include in their quals as they proceed.
There is no required meeting of all committee members before the quals. The student can work with the advisor to facilitate the committee discussions, and discussions can happen via email.
3) During the quals. Students are not allowed to seek the help of others during the exam. The use of AI-based resources should be discussed with the committee before the exam. If agreement is reached and students use AI-based resources, they should also indicate this to the committee, including where in each paper they made use of such resources. They should also not seek feedback from their committee on the quals papers they are writing, unless it concerns general clarifications or necessary changes. They should though check in periodically with their advisor to indicate how the process is going and when they are finishing each of the papers, to help maintain the appropriate pace to finish all the papers during the allotted time.
4) Length, structure, and content of answers. Typically, the answers to the questions provide a review of the literature of what is known or speculated about the topic. Hence, the key point of the quals is not to test whether the student can offer a hypothetical answer to the question on their own, but whether they can show the lay of the land of established research on that topic. Nevertheless, the overview of existing research should reveal paths for future research. Good exams typically do not merely list sources and summarize them but organize them into a meaningful whole, for example by grouping them into camps and by evaluating their strengths and weaknesses. On that basis, the student can explain where they see missing research and where they would or will start their own research. In some cases, students have also included some initial research in their quals papers, or experiment designs or outlines of new simulation models. The length per question also varies, but around 30 pages, double-spaced, is common, including bibliography.
5) Students deliver their written papers to their committee by the date specified at the beginning of the quals process. The committee then has 1-2 weeks to read the quals papers before the oral defense meeting between the student and quals committee, which is usually around 90 minutes long. At this defense, students should present summaries of their answers (which could be short slide presentations), answer questions posed by their committee members for the majority of the defense, react to any written comments by the committee, and also briefly indicate how they wish to proceed with their research, building perhaps on the quals. Often, the defense is forward looking toward the dissertation.