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Preliminary Exam and Qualification

Your goal is to identify a directed research project, a project that is yours from start to finish.  This gives you the opportunity to identify a research topic of interest and, fundamentally, to understand what research is and what the thesis process will be like.  

The Preliminary Examination (Prelim) is a major component of the Ph.D. qualification process.  The goal is to assess research readiness and is evaluated through a written report of a project done in a research-oriented directed study, followed by a 80 minute oral exam by three faculty members not including your research advisor.  

For more information on the preliminary exams, please review the Student Guide for CSE Preliminary Exams.

Deadlines for CSE registration:
September 1, 2023 for September 2023 Qualifying Exam
December 15, 2023 for January 2024 Qualifying Exam
April 12, 2024 for May 2024 Qualifying Exam

Exam dates:
September 2023 Qualifying Exam:  September 18 – 29, 2023 (may be extended to Oct. 6, depending on how many students register)
January 2024 Qualifying Exam:  January 22 – February 2, 2024 (may be extended to Feb. 9, depending on how many students register)
May 2024 Qualifying Exam:  May 6 – May 17, 2024 (may be extended to May 24, depending on how many students register)

Prelim Eligibility
Generally students have completed most of their qualification requirements (see below) by the time they take prelims, but it is not necessary to have completed all of these requirements before you take the prelim exam. To be eligible, students must have a 3.5 GPA as a Rackham graduate student, have completed their directed study requirements and have the approval of their research advisor.

Students may petition to waive a particular requirement.

Each student will be given an oral examination on the student’s directed study project and on material directly related to the student’s research area. This examination will be administered during the qualification examination period in January, May, or September. The specific dates are posted each summer on CSE’s website for the upcoming academic year. Students sign up via a link provided by the Graduate Programs Office (prelim registration link will be sent out 2-3 weeks ahead of the posted registration deadline), upload the prelim paper five business days before the start of prelims, and wait to receive an email with the prelim details. Once all the above requirements for Qualification have been met, a decision whether the student is qualified to continue in the Ph.D. program is made by vote of the CSE faculty.

Paper requirements
The paper is expected to be a formal report that demonstrates the research process and should be comparable in length, scope, and style to a journal or conference paper in your research field. It is not required for this paper to be published, accepted, or under review by a conference or journal at the time of your prelim. While your advisor should help you with research and writing, it is required that the vast majority of the paper’s research and writing is conducted by you, and that you are the paper’s primary author.

Papers co-authored with other students may be submitted, however, these are still subject to the requirement that you have conducted the vast majority of the paper’s research and writing, and that you are the paper’s primary author. In such a case, you must outline your contribution by uploading a one- page description (as the first page of your prelim paper) that clarifies what you, versus your co-authors, have done (with regard to both the writing and research).

Oral presentation
On the day of your prelim, you will present your research in the form of a talk, and answer questions from three assigned CSE faculty (none of whom are your advisor/s) about your research and closely related work. 80 minutes is the allotted time for the preliminary exam. You should aim for a talk that is approximately 40 minutes, with the remaining time being allocated for questions. 

What happens next?
After the conclusion of the prelim, each faculty examiner will submit a report on the examination to the graduate committee. Based on these reports, the graduate committee makes recommendations to the entire CSE faculty regarding each student completing their prelims. Then the entire faculty votes on your prelim and qualification. After the meeting where the discussion and voting take place, you will receive word from your advisor regarding the outcome. Thereafter, you will receive the results via email.

Qualification is the combination of: completing your breadth coursework (B+ or better), depth coursework (A- or better), directed study coursework (three credits of EECS 699 are required for students admitted prior to FA 2023; two credits of EECS 699, and taking EECS 601 are required for students admitted for FA 2023 and afterwards), passed your preliminary exam, and have a reciprocal working relationship with an EECS faculty member (research advisor). 

Advancing to candidacy
Advancing to candidacy is not an automatic process. Candidacy qualification is the combination of:

  • Qualification
  • Fulfilling your cognate course requirement (at least 3 credits, approved by advisor)
  • Completing your Responsible Conduct of Research and Scholarship (RCRS) Training (please note that these are 4 in-person workshops, not an online module)
  • Completing your CSE Candidacy Checklist (see the Forms & Processes page: form must be signed by advisor and submitted to the Graduate Programs Office).  You must submit the form to the GPO in order for us to start the process on you advancing to candidacy. Once Rackham has processed the request, you are a PhD candidate!

Additional information
In case you have additional questions, concerns, or need further clarifications on the above requirements, please contact your advisor or the CSE Graduate Programs Office.