Ph.D. Qualifying Exam (Pre-Fall 2022)

During preparation for the doctoral degree, the student will be required to complete three examinations, including the final dissertation defense. These events are discussed below in the order in which they will occur during the student's program of study.

Qualifying Examination

  1. Purpose: To determine the readiness of the student to pursue a doctoral degree in computer science.
  2. To be taken:
    • Prior to the beginning of classes in the 4th Fall/Spring semester after entering the Ph.D. program with a previous master’s degree.
    • Prior to the beginning of classes in the 6th Fall/Spring semester after entering the Ph.D. program without a previous master’s degree.

    The student is allowed to attempt to pass the qualifying exam any time it is offered until the student’s deadline has passed. The first attempt may be after the student’s first semester or summer term. Students will declare in advance which exams will be attempted (about 3 or 4 months in advance of the exam).

  3. To be given: One business day prior to the first day of classes in the Fall and Spring semesters.
  4. Format: The Ph.D. Qualifying Exam consists of six hours divided into two-hour periods. A student shall take one subject exam in a given period.
  5. Contents: The student is required to pass both theory subject exams, listed in the table below, and subject exams in two competency areas of the student’s choice, listed in the table. The exam will cover material from various undergraduate and split-level courses as listed in the table. The questions will be constructed in such a manner as to require the student to demonstrate an ability to understand a problem or an issue and to synthesize concepts, theories, and practices to answer the question.
  6. Grading: The student's response to each of the subject exams attempted will be awarded one of the following grades.
    • PASS – indicating a response that clearly demonstrates the student is qualified for doctoral study; a grade of A earned at MSU in the course underlying a subject exam counts as a PASS as shown in the table below.
    • FAIL – indicating that the response was not of acceptable quality for a doctoral student.
    • The overall grade of the qualifying exam is either a PASS or a FAIL. To achieve an overall PASS, a student must gain a grade of PASS on all required subject exams. A student who has not achieved a PASS overall and whose deadline has passed will receive an overall FAIL grade.
    • A student who has not yet passed the exam overall may apply any grades of PASS received so far on subject exams toward passing the exam overall.
    • At the time that the student takes the exam, the graduate faculty will conduct a review of the student’s status in the program. Such a review could result in passing the exam without conditions, or could result in binding recommendations from the graduate faculty or could result in strong recommendations that the student address a problem within a certain time frame, or could even result in dismissal from the program. This review will include, as a minimum, the following:
      • performance on the qualifying exam
      • progress and performance in coursework
      • any serious impediments to further progress toward the doctorate
    • When the graduate faculty decides to recommend dismissal of the student from the Ph.D. program due to failing the Qualifying Exam overall, the recommendation will be sent to the Dean within one month of the grading of the exam.

Ph.D. Qualifying Exam Subject Examinations

Exam Subject (duration)Basis for Exam QuestionsAchieve A in MSU course(s)*
Theory (combined time period of 2 hours)
Formal LanguagesCSE 3813
CSE 3813 or
CSE 8813
Analysis of AlgorithmsCSE 4833/6833CSE 4833/6833 or
CSE 8833 or
CSE 8843
Competency Area (choose 2)
Artificial Intelligence (2 hours)CSE 4633/6633CSE 4633/6633
Computational Science (2 hours)CSE 4163/6163CSE 4163/6163
Graphics (2 hours)CSE 4413/6413CSE 4413/6413
Human-Centered Computing (2 hours)CSE 4663/6663CSE 4663/6663 or
PSY 4743/6743 or
PSY 4653/6653 or
CSE 8283 or
PSY 8214
Software Engineering (2 hours)CSE 4214/6214CSE 4214/6214
Systems (combined time period of 2 hours)2 exams out of 5
(see next column)
2 of 5 courses:
CSE 4153/6153
CSE 4733/6733
CSE 4243/6243
CSE 4273/6273
CSE 4383/6383
Subjects for Ph.D. Qualifying Exam
*4000-level and 6000-level courses count where applicable, irrespective of when the course was taken (e.g. during undergraduate, masters, or Ph.D. studies).

Preliminary Examination

  1. Purpose: To assess the student's competence to complete the Ph.D.
  2. To be taken: This examination will be scheduled after the student has completed, or is within 6 hours of completing, all course work and has had a dissertation topic approved by members of his/her committee.
    • When a student is nearing the end of coursework, if the student's GPA is less than 3.0 at the end of the most recently completed term, then the Ph.D. Preliminary Examination must be postponed until the current GPA is at least 3.0. (The student must enroll for at least one hour during the term in which the Examination is given; this is normally the case for Ph.D. students.)
    • The dissertation topic should be a relatively short (2-3 page) description of the expected topic of research and should include a discussion of one or more specific research issues related to the topic that are promising areas for dissertation research. If a student's committee or research topic changes after the student has passed the preliminary examination, the student's committee will determine if the student must take another preliminary exam.
  3. To be offered: The examination will be scheduled by arrangement with the student's Graduate Committee.
  4. Format: The exam is closed to the public. The exam consists of two parts, the major exam and the minor exam.
    • Major Exam: The major examination will be administered by the student's Graduate Committee. The exam will consist of a written examination composed by the Committee and an oral examination. Each committee member other than the minor professor (but including the major professor) will contribute one question or set of questions for the written examination.
    • Minor Exam: If the student has a minor, the minor exam will be administered by the minor advisor. The minor professor will be invited to conduct the minor exam in combination with and using the same procedure as the major exam.
    • The major professor will collect the questions into a single examination that will be given to the student and Committee members. The time allotted for preparing written answers will be approximately 7 days. Written answers to the examination will be returned to the major professor who will distribute copies of all of the student's written answers to all of the Committee members.
    • The oral examination for the major exam will be scheduled approximately one week after the written answers have been completed by the student. The oral examination for the minor exam (if there is one) should be conducted separately from the oral portion of the major exam. During the oral portion of the major exam the student may give a short presentation to address any issues related to the examination that were raised by a Committee member or that the student has determined need clarification. Further questioning related to the written examination by the Committee is expected during the oral examination. If the student has a minor, the minor professor may choose to participate in the oral portion of the major examination.
  5. Contents: The exam will cover material from related course work and material in the major area and the minor area if the student has a minor. A primary intent of the examination is to determine if the student can explore relationships in materials taught in different courses and in the research topic. The student's answers should not be a simple summary of other people's ideas. Rather, the answers should reveal a depth of understanding and original thought that demonstrates that the student is prepared to perform original research in the dissertation topic area.
  6. Instructions: When the major professor gives the preliminary exam questions to the student, he/she should emphasize the depth of the answers expected. He/she should also inform the student as to which members of the Committee supplied which questions. During preparation of the written answers, the student may ask a particular committee member for clarification of a question. However, questions during the written portion of the exam must be limited to clarification of the interpretation of a question. Once the written responses have been submitted to the Committee, individual committee members must advise the major professor of serious deficiencies in the written answers. The major professor will communicate these concerns to the student with instructions that the student must be prepared to address these concerns during the oral portion of the exam.
    • The student may consult any published references he/she would like while answering the examination question. The same rules for citing references and avoiding plagiarism apply for the written portion of the examination that apply to a term paper, thesis, or dissertation.
  7. Grading: If the student has a minor, the grade received on the minor exam will be determined by the minor professor. The grade received on the major exam will be determined by the examining committee. The student will be permitted one retry for each examination. A second attempt to pass the examination must be accomplished within four to six months of failure. A second failure results in dismissal from the program.

Dissertation Defense

  1. Purpose: This examination is to permit the student to demonstrate a mastery of techniques of research in computer science and to demonstrate a distinct contribution to the field of investigation.
  2. To be taken: After all other examinations and the dissertation have been completed.
  3. To be offered: By arrangement with the Graduate Committee, before the deadline for final examinations established by the Office of Graduate Studies.
  4. Format: The final examination is an oral defense of the dissertation that is open to the public. There is an open question period that is open to the public, and a closed question period open only to the candidate and the Graduate Committee.
  5. Contents: The examination will cover the research attendant to the dissertation.
  6. Grading: The acceptability of the dissertation will be determined by the Graduate Committee. Action to be taken upon failure will be determined by the Graduate Committee.
  7. Report of results: The major professor reports the results of the examination to the Office of Graduate Studies.
    • The dissertation must follow the format specified in the Standards for Preparing Dissertations and Theses available from the Office of Graduate Studies and in the form and style outlined in the Departmental Guidelines for Preparing Dissertations, Theses, and Project Reports.
    • Approval of the dissertation proceeds from the committee, to the Graduate Coordinator of the Department, and thence to the Dean of Engineering. After all approvals are obtained, the student must submit a completed signature page on bond paper and an electronic copy of their dissertation to the Library following the directions given at in the Catalog. The electronic copy must conform to all regulations as outlined in the Graduate Studies Bulletin. In addition, the student must submit an additional signed approval page to the departmental office.