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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:
August 30, 2024 for September 2024 Qualifying Exam
December 13, 2024 for January 2025 Qualifying Exam
April 11, 2025 for May 2025 Qualifying Exam

Exam dates:
September 2024 Qualifying Exam:  September 16 – 27, 2024 (may be extended to Oct. 4, depending on how many students register)
January 2025 Qualifying Exam:  January 21 – 31, 2025 (may be extended to Feb. 7, depending on how many students register)
May 2025 Qualifying Exam:  May 5 – May 15, 2025 (may be extended to May 23, depending on how many students register)

*Students must be available to take the exam at any time during the listed exam dates, as exam scheduling is contingent on faculty scheduling and availability, and scheduling can continue up to the first week of exams.

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.


Students sign up via a link provided by the Graduate Programs Office. The prelim registration link will be sent out 2-3 weeks ahead of the posted registration deadline. When registering, students should indicate any equivalency courses in the notes section of the registration application.

Once registered, students will upload the prelim paper five business days before the start of prelims. The Graduate Programs Office will email the student with the date/time and examiners for their prelims. Please note that, due to the scheduling process and faculty availability, scheduling can take place up until the week before prelims are set to start, so students should be prepared to take their oral examination at any time during the exam date period outlined.


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 should be prepared to take their oral examination at any time during the exam date period outlined.

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/CSE 699 are required for students admitted prior to FA 2023; two credits of EECS/CSE 699, and taking EECS/CSE 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 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, as well as PEERRS online RCRS training on My LINC)
  • 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!

After you become a Candidate, you must register in EECS/CSE 995 (automatically enrolled in 8 credit hours). If you have successfully passed your preliminary examination but have not yet achieved candidacy, you may enroll in EECS/CSE 990 (you cannot enroll in EECS/CSE 995 until after you have achieved candidacy). 

Taking additional coursework as a Candidate: Candidates who wish to enroll in additional courses should review Rackham’s Candidacy Requirements page for more information on options for coursework and any effects on tuition.

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.