The Ph.D. Qualifying Exam in ECE at Carnegie Mellon

(Revision 1.01)

Last updated 16 October 1997

Disclaimer: The contents of this page are merely the opinions of the author. They are not necessarily the opinions or policies of the ECE department. While generalizations about the exam can be made, each exam is unique, and the generalizations may not be true for a particular exam. While I think the advice offered will help you prepare for the exam, there can be no guarantee of success.

The Ph.D. qualifying exam consists of the student giving a 20 minute presentation to a qualifying committee of three professors, followed by the committee grilling the student for up to three hours. The committee is made up of one professor from the area of the student's presentation, one in an area closely related to the student's presentation, and one from an area unrelated to the presentation.

For example, if a student were talking about computer architecture, the first committee member would work in computer architecture, the second might be in CAD or signal processing, and the third in electromagnetic fields.

The committee is arranged in this fashion to test both the breadth and depth of the student's knowledge.

Dan's Qualisms

When I was preparing for the qual, my advisor, Dan Siewiorek, gave me a list of "qualisms", little nuggets of information on what can happen during the qual. Here are some of them with commentary from me on their meaning.

Dan's fundamentals for computer engineering students

Some of the fundamentals that CE students should know: My additions to the list:

My advice on studying

You do not want to be nervous during your qual. The best way to not be nervous is to know that you have prepared as well as possible and to be rested.

Form a qual study group about six months before you plan to take the qual. Use the qual group to study engineering fundamentals that you have probably forgotten through disuse: calculus, differential equations, probability and statistics, circuit analysis. The qual group will probably be made up of students from each area of ECE, but all of you will need to know these fundamentals. As the time for your qual grows nearer, have "mock quals" with your qual group: Let several of them act as your committee, give your talk, and answer their questions. Mock quals with students of your committee members is also a good idea.

About two or three months before the qual, decide what areas are related to your talk, pick the best textbooks in those areas, and work out a reasonable schedule to cover the material. Keep track of your progress so that you don't fall behind. One can easily get bogged down when working alone. If you get stuck trying to understand something, go on to another topic and come back to it later.

At about the same time, you'll have to write the abstract which gets submitted to the department. Write the abstract carefully: It determines who gets put on your committee and what questions they'll think of ahead of time.

It will be difficult to schedule a time for your exam. (An ECE folk saying: The hardest part of preparing for your qual is finding a time to have it.) As soon as you find out who your committee is, start trying to schedule the exam. The summer is an especially bad time for scheduling a qual because of travel. In my case, there were less than 10 days over the whole summer when all three members of the committee were in town. During the fall and spring semesters, don't count on having the exam during finals or the week or two before. Professors are very busy then and will usually ask that you not schedule it for that time. Don't forget to reserve a room for the exam.

Leave the last two weeks before the qual open for working problems and practicing your talk. Do not plan to cover new material in this time. Practice working problems at the chalkboard, and practice talking through the problem as if the committee were in the room. If possible, use the room where you'll be taking your exam.

Look up recent papers by your committee members to find out what their current research interests are. Think of questions someone with those research interests might have when seeing your talk.

The night before the exam is no time to be studying. If you haven't learned the material already, you won't learn it in the last 24 hours. Do something to unwind. I went out for beer and nachos. Another person I know went around test-driving sports cars at dealerships. Be adventurous in your unwinding. Then go home and get a good night's sleep.

Other qual links:


Many thanks to Dan, of course! Thanks to Chen Lee for writing down several new qualisms and the fundamentals for computer engineering students.

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