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Planning for the Qualifying Exam and the Dissertation Proposal

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.

Dissertation Proposal

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.