The MAT qualifying exam is a rigorous comprehensive exam, with both written and oral components. It typically takes place at the end of the second year of the PhD program (assuming the student already has a master’s degree); however, in some cases (with the approval of a student’s advisor(s) and committee), it may be taken earlier.
The qualifying examination is administered by at least three ladder faculty (i.e., Assistant, Associate, or full Professor), at least two of whom must be MAT-affiliated faculty (0% or greater).
Recommendation of the appointment of additional committee members is at the discretion of the department. You need to have all members of the committee sign a form in which they accept to serve on the qualifying exam committee.
The MAT qualifying exam is not standardized; it is different for each student. I recommend that students write a proposal for their own qualifying exam and discuss it with their faculty advisor. Together with your committee you negotiate the specifics of your qualifying exam. I usually assign readings, like articles or chapters in a book. The exam typically takes place on a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with the student in a room with a non-networked computer, answering questions. There is also a take-home part that you do over the weekend. This can include a technical and/or creative project. A week or so later you schedule your oral exam, which is usually based on your answers to the questions, but can also including anything else your committee would like to examine you on.
Here is a typical schedule for a PhD qualifying examination:
Day 1, two parts:
Day 2, two parts:
Day 3, two parts:
Plus, take home project over the weekend, due the following Monday at noon.
Note that there are typically 18 questions total, of which a student must answer 12. This limits the scope of the readings. Each question would typically correspond to one chapter in a book or one article.
MAT allows flexibility in the above-stated format, but this must be negotiated between the student and the Chair of the qualifying examination committee. Such negotiations need to be settled long in advance of the examination itself.
In general, students should be proactive in organizing their qualifying examination and negotiating the reading list with the Chair of their committee, typically months in advance of the examination. This includes coordinating with staff to schedule a room, time, and non-networked computer for their exams several weeks in advance.
Problems will inevitably arise if the student tries to organize a last-minute qualifying examination and does not actively work with the Chair of the committee in the weeks prior.
The result of a qualifying exam may be pass, conditional pass (some deficiency must be corrected as determined by the committee), or fail (the exam must be retaken within six months). A second failure will result in a recommendation for dismissal from the PhD program.
Passing the qualifying exam and the basic course requirements advances the student to candidacy. "Advanced to candidacy" lowers fees and means that you are "all but dissertation" (ABD). No further coursework is required except as recommended by your dissertation advisor. Students who have qualified are eligible for a number of dissertation fellowships.
The next step after the qualifying exam is the dissertation proposal. The dissertation proposal consists of a document and a public presentation. The dissertation proposal should be substantial enough to already reflect your engagement in the research, and demonstrate its feasibility. There is no set time after the qualifying exam to present the dissertation proposal, but it usually takes from a few months to a year to prepare.
Notice that Dissertation Proposal presentations are public events, so the student must notify the Graduate Assistant three (3) weeks in advance in order that that the public can be notified two (2) weeks in advance.
Once advanced to candidacy, students are typically expected to complete the PhD degree within four years. Some students who have a clear idea of their dissertation topic and a focused plan can finish in substantially less time.
Many MAT students have a good knowledge of how to write an academic research paper that is up to publication standards. Indeed, writing such a paper is one of the requirements of the MAT Masters degree. However, an MAT PhD dissertation is typically much longer than a typical academic paper. It documents and analyzes the results of many experiments, projects, and innovations over a period of years. By definition, an MAT PhD student has never written a dissertation before. Thus we have prepared this guide.
An "original (novel), rigorous, and significant contribution to knowledge" is not a merely contribution to a student’s personal knowledge, but a contribution to the knowledge of a field, as constituted by a worldwide research community, its work, its history, and its state-of-the-art. The contribution to knowledge needs to be verified on an objective evidentiary basis. While several kinds of evidence exist (empirical, logical, mathematical, scholarly, etc), students still have to select the particular form(s) of evidence by which they substantiate their claim to having contributed to knowledge. It is important to stipulate this early in the research process, since the form of evidence depends on the contribution to knowledge being claimed.
One suggested strategy is to design a map of the research effort: a graphic depiction of the field, their precursors, landmark works, milestone developments, extant theories, key practitioners, fundamental references, state-of-the-art, and so on, and of the locus of the intended contribution. This can help to focus discussions on a student’s progress.
The question of significance, and how to establish it, can also be a source of confusion. Considering the diversity of our interests, publication, technical demonstration, exhibition, performance, or other forms of dissemination may be appropriate. The point is that a high standard needs to be met in any case.
It is sometimes difficult to reconcile creative work with the scientific method, even though the two are not incompatible. Many artistic advances arose out of recognizing problems, formulating theories, positing hypotheses, and testing these hypotheses through the creation of works.
Students need to plan their overall trajectory through the PhD program. A possible outline is shown below for a student entering with an MAT Masters degree or equivalent. Note that the actual timetable may be shorter or longer depending on many factors, including the preparation of the student and the clarity of the research objectives. Financial and family issues often intersect with academic progress, hastening some students while slowing others. A few students have completed their PhD in less than three years, while others have taken six years or more. Always be aware of UCSB’s time-to-degree or normative time rules as outlined on the Graduate Division web site:
Use the first year (or more) to become acquainted with MAT and take important courses as recommended by your degree advisor.
Select a topic and assemble a qualifying exam committee six months to a year before the qualifying exam. Develop a proposed list of readings and negotiate with your committee as to the exact list. Use this time to become qualified to undertake the research implied by the chosen topic. Become familiar with the bibliography, skills, methods, techniques, etc, implied by their chosen topic. Consult with your committee on which topics they will likely test you.
End of Year Two or Beginning of Year Three
Demonstrate adequate mastery of topics and skills required for research in order to pass the qualifying exam and proceed to candidacy. The qualifying exam should, in effect, check that the student understands the nature of the effort they are about to undertake and is indeed both knowledgeable and skilled enough to work in the chosen area.
Conduct initial round of research in preparation for the dissertation proposal; refine (and state explicitly) the choice of methods and standard of evidence. In consultation with your PhD advisor, prepare the dissertation proposal. The dissertation proposal consists of a document and a public presentation. The dissertation proposal should be substantial enough to already reflect your engagement in the research and demonstrate its feasibility. There is no set time after the qualifying exam to present the dissertation proposal, but it usually takes from a few months to a year to prepare.
It is wise to study dissertations from MAT and elsewhere that can be used as examples. Ask the MAT Graduate Assistant for copies of successful MAT dissertations.
Year Four or Five
Conduct dissertation research. Prepare and submit the dissertation, allowing time for revisions and corrections after their defense, if necessary.
This is merely a hypothetical timeline, and could vary widely depending on the preparation of each candidate. The main point is that the dissertation requirements have an impact of everything that precedes the dissertation, and need to be factored in at the start, even while the candidate is trying to select a topic. What constitutes a “contribution to knowledge" and how it is to be established needs to be clarified as early as possible in the process.