Quals! What are they good for? Absolutely…

… nothing? So sayeth some in the business. Bill Gasarch wrote a post up last week about the “point” of the qualifying exam in which he says the two points of the process are to get students out of the program who may not be able to finish, and to make sure students are “well rounded.” While this is nice from an administrative/pedagogical point of view, I think they first question to ask is “what can you measure with a qualifying process?”

At Berkeley we had an exam after your first year — the “prelim” in your subject area. In CS (theory, at least, not sure about other areas) this was a presentation of a paper (or so I recall). You had to know it cold and be able to provide context, answer questions etc. In EE it was a 1 hour oral exam on 3 topics — two undergrad and one grad-ish related to your general sub-area. I took mine in DSP so I had to know basic DSP, more advanced DSP (filter banks etc), and stochastic processes. We spent a good part of the summer studying and in the end a little more than half of us passed, and the others had to retake the exam or got a conditional pass (meaning they had to take or TA some course). In EE, the prelim process is designed to make you learn the basics at certain level — if you can answer these questions correctly under some performance pressure and seem comfortable/fluent, then you pass. It measures how “comfortable” you are with basic (undergraduate) material.

In the Rutgers ECE department we have a 4-part exam — three oral 1-hour exams on different subjects (I got to do one exam in Communications with my colleague David Daut) and a written math exam. Students have to meet an average score threshold to pass, otherwise they have to retake some (or all) of the exams. Many take the exam in their third year, and the result of this intensive assay is that many students basically don’t do much research for the semester before their exams. In general, the material is a little more advanced, I think, than the Berkeley prelim, and focuses a but more on concepts encountered in graduate school. The exam also measure how “comfortable” you are with basic graduate material, but in a much more drawn-out manner, and later in graduate school.

Neither exam particularly measures your ability to do research, and instead focuses on core competence. The first criterion of Gasarch’s is really about whether someone will be able to complete a PhD in a reasonable amount of time; this is, in fact, a very difficult thing to measure. One approach is to say that it’s all up to the advisor, but some oversight is necessary, and having the other faculty in the department also evaluate students outside the classroom is desirable from an academic community standpoint. The CS theory exam of presenting a paper actually seems better in this regard, but then its entirely about research. Furthermore, I think that for many students, reading and understanding a paper (not of their choosing) might be a tall order very early in their career. How can we really assess whether someone would be best served getting an MS vs. a PhD?

I do think core competence is important. Getting a PhD in Electrical Engineering should mean that you have basic knowledge about some topic within EE. The alternative is that you can do research on anything, as long as the committee signs off on it, and it counts as EE. I’m not a fan of boundary drawing, but there is a value to getting students to integrate some of their undergraduate knowledge across classes (as opposed to taking the final and forgetting it), because this process of integration is also an important research skill. But the shifting nature of research areas means the cluster of topics most relevant for a solid foundation may not slot neatly into DSP/Comm/Solid State, etc. Is the problem only our disciplinary boundaries?

How does the qualifying process work in your department? Is it good, bad, or ugly?

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