Coursework Requirements (2020)

Committee Requirements

  • Chair (your advisor or co-advisors)
  • CSE faculty from inside your area (co-advisor counts)
  • CSE faculty from outside your area
  • Graduate School Representative from outside CSE
  • Credit Requirements

    • 60 total credits, at least 18 of which are graded.
  1. Review the "The Generals Defined" page. Click the "process" tab on this page to begin. Learn about the purpose of Generals, your role, your advisor's role and more!
  2. Email grad-advising@cs to establish your committee. The Allen School requires one advisor and two additional CSE members, with at least one outside of the student's principal area (as defined by your chair). The Graduate School also requires a GSR that does not have a budgetary, personal, or research/publication relationship with you or your chair. You can determine eligibility by visiting this page. The GSR must be outside CSE and serves to make sure the exam is fair and valid as well as ensuring that you're treated in an unbiased manner. Graduate School Policy 4.2 describes the role of each member of the committee in detail. Work with your faculty advisor on this step.
  3. Schedule the exam via MyGrad Program. Once logged in, navigate to "Request Degree" followed by "Doctoral (General Exam)" to schedule your General Exam. You'll need to check with your committee early to ensure they have a shared time available. Be sure to include a self-hosted Zoom link in the location field if you have a virtual or hybrid presentation. Don't forget to reserve a room if you're presenting in person! You cannot schedule or take a general exam in the Summer without being enrolled. No exceptions.
  4. Arrange accomodations. The University of Washington & the Paul G. Allen School is committed to providing access and reasonable accommodation in its services, programs, and activities. For currently enrolled UW students, accommodation requests related to a disability should be made through myDRS at least 10 days ahead of a scheduled talk. Accommodation requests on behalf of other guests should be sent to Graduate Program Adviser Joe Eckert (jeckert1) at least 10 days ahead of the scheduled talk.
  5. Get the charge from your advisor. Make sure each member of your committee has a copy as well! Your exam must be scheduled within eight (8) weeks of receiving the charge.
  6. Give your committee your exam document. This needs to happen no later than two (2) weeks prior to your exam in order to give the committee time to read and reflect on your work before the presentation.
  7. Enter your title and abstract on MyCSE. This also needs to happen no later than two (2) weeks prior to your exam in order to have notifications sent out to the school on your behalf. Any exam announcements without title and abstract will have placeholders in your announcement.
  8. Give your general examination presentation! You're going to do great.

    Allen School Policy on Food/Drink at Exams: It has been common practice in some programs for students to bring food and/or drinks to meetings with faculty (e.g. during annual committee meetings, general exam defenses, thesis/dissertation defenses). It is often an implicit expectation rather than an explicit requirement. However, the differential in power between the student and their faculty mentors means that this “voluntary” practice is actually far from voluntary. The Allen School, in consultation with the UW Graduate School, the Graduate and Professional Student Senate and the endorsement of the Faculty Senate, now prohibits this practice for formal milestone presentations such as qualifying project presentations, general exam, and final exams. The Allen School is deeply committed to educating the next generation of scholars, innovators, and difference-makers. Allowing students to focus on their studies facilitates that aim. We will continue to allow students to choose to bring snacks for other students to informal meetings such as a practice job talk for a conference paper.
  9. Upload your exam document to MyCSE after your exam. You will receive a promotion and subsequent pay raise after your exam is processed.
  1. Review the "The Generals Defined" page. Click the "process" tab on this page to begin. Learn about the purpose of Generals, your role, your advisor's role and more!
  2. Confirm you are on our mailing list. We send out generals information and reminders to faculty@cs and faculty-advisors@cs. If you're unsure if you're on an email list, please email grad-advising@cs and we'll get you set up.
  3. Assist your student in forming their committee. The Allen School requires one advisor and two additional CSE members, with at least one outside of the student's principal area (as defined by your chair). The Graduate School also requires a GSR that does not have a budgetary, personal, or research/publication relationship with you or your chair. You can determine eligibility by visiting this page. The GSR must be outside CSE and serves to make sure the exam is fair and valid as well as ensuring that the student is treated in an unbiased manner. Graduate School Policy 4.2 describes the role of each member of the committee in detail.
  4. Work with your student to schedule the exam via MyGrad Program. The entire committee needs to attend. The exam must be scheduled within 8 weeks of the date that you give your student the charge. The student must give you the Exam Document no later than two (2) weeks before the exam.
  5. Give your student the charge. After receiving the charge, your student must present the exam within 8 weeks.
  6. Send the charge to the rest of the committee and Grad Advising. Please cc:grad-advising@cs on this message so that we can file it.
  7. Receive your student's General Exam document. This should occur no more than 2 weeks before the scheduled exam, giving them six (6) weeks to write.
  8. Attend your student's general exam. Surprisingly important.
  9. If the student passes, sign the "Committee Approval Form" via Docusign. Keep an eye on your email! We are unable to process the student's exam without your electronic signature on the form. If the student doesn't pass, contact grad-advising@cs.

The General Exam Defined

The General Examination is a formal requirement of the UW Graduate School. Successful completion of the Exam culminates in your Candidacy of Philosophy. The University thereby recognizes that you have developed the necessary skills to pursue doctoral research.

In the Allen School, the period of the General Exam itself is divided into two time intervals. The study period starts when a student passes the Qualifying Evaluation at the Ph.D.-level At this point, they will already have a permanent Ph.D. advisor and will have already completed at least three (3) of the five (5) required Breadth Courses. As soon as possible thereafter, students should form a Doctoral Supervisory Committee. In addition, if they have not already done so, they should complete at least five (5) courses from the Breadth list, covering at least three (3) of four (4) Groups.This coursework must be completed by the end of the third year and prior to the start of the exam period discussed below. For details on the required coursework see the page on post-quals coursework. Students who began in the program Autumn 2020 or earlier may elect to use the prior course requirements and therefore will already have met Breadth requirments through their coursework. If you qualify to use the older requirements, please email grad-advising@cs to find out if they're the right fit for you!

The exam period begins with the "charge," suggesting a format and some questions in the context of a set of papers within a research subarea; this should happen no later than the end of your third year. Guided by the charge, you write a report on the papers. At the end of the exam period, the Supervisory Committee orally examines your progress and judges the report. These steps are intended to facilitate and gauge your preparation and maturity for dissertation work.

For many students, the General Exam is an important exercise in moving along the continuum from uncritical learning to independent research. Uncritical learning is characterized by assimilation of existing knowledge (facts, proof techniques, etc.) and later reproduction/utilization. In contrast, original research is an activity altogether different. The General Exam does not merely measure your capacity to store specific knowledge; neither does it demand original contribution. You are expected to demonstrate preparation to do research in an area.

Even for students who have already begun to do independent research, the General Exam measures aspects of the research process that are necessary for making fully rounded research contributions required of a doctoral dissertation. The skills include assimilation (reading), expression (writing and speaking), evaluation of others' and one's own work, etc. -- all at a level of maturity indicative of potential for independent research. This maturity includes individual initiative, interaction with other researchers, and strong reasoning/correlating skills.

You are expected to develop these skills prior to and during the study period. During the exam period, you are expected to demonstrate the necessary maturity and mastery of the required skills.

In summary, the steps in completing the General Exam are:

  1. Find a willing General Exam Advisor (should be done right after passing quals).
  2. Selection of remainder of Examining Committee. Graduate School Policy 4.2 details the rules for membership on the Ph.D. Supervisory Committee.
  3. Email grad-advising@cs with the names of your committee members and their roles on your committee to have them added to MyGrad. You won't be able to schedule your exam without this step.
  4. Scheduling of the exam date (by University rules, you must complete 60 credits, 18 of which are graded, before scheduling the exam. Scheduling should be done before receiving the charge by determining a mutually agreeable day and time with the Supervisory Committee. The date you receive the charge is dependent on the date you schedule for your exam. Formal scheduling must be initiated by the student in MyGradProgram and approved by the Graduate Program Advisor.
  5. Study for the exam: continue to develop the requisite skills.
  6. Assignment of papers and preparation of the "charge" (at the latest, must be assigned by 3rd week of 10th regular quarter of enrollment, i.e., beginning of the 4th year).
  7. Preparation of the written report (20 page maximum).
  8. Give written report (and copies of assigned papers) to committee (two (2) weeks in advance of exam).
  9. Examination (must be held within 2 months of step 6 and usually by the end of the three years of enrollment or within 1.25 years of passing quals, whichever is later). A University requirement states that the exam may not be scheduled until you have satisfied a two (2) year minimum residency requirement, including one year of full-time study.

Selection of Examining Committee

The program of study leading to the General Examination is designed by the student and three computer science faculty members with the hope that this arrangement will increase individual contacts between students and faculty as a side benefit. You choose a General Exam Advisor, who is responsible for supervising the examination process. You and the advisor jointly select at least two other members of the committee from the CSE faculty. At least one committee member must be a CSE faculty member chosen from outside your principal area. You and your advisor must also identify a Graduate School Representative (GSR); the Graduate School no longer makes this assignment. The chair of the supervisory committee may have an adjunct appointment in the home department of the GSR. The GSR and the supervisory committee chair cannot have a budgetary relationship. GSR Eligibility chart. Notify the Graduate Program Adviser of the committee member names, and they will submit them to the Graduate School. Graduate School Policy details the rules for membership on the Ph.D. Supervisory Committee.

IMPORTANT: Please keep your GSR apprised of your progress and of your expectations for your exam dates so that they can be sure to attend. You are responsible for finding a substitute for the GSR should they not be able to attend the examination.

Although the exam topic is often selected so as to generate thesis possibilities, it is to be noted that the designation of a supervisory committee for the General Examination does not necessarily mean that the chair of that committee will become your dissertation supervisor. This Ph.D. Supervisory Committee remains effective for your Ph.D. final defense unless you or the advisor requests changes (by contacting the Staff Graduate Adviser).

The Study Period for the General Exam

The study period for the General Exam should begin immediately after you have passed the Qualifying Evaluation.

Under the supervision of the General Exam Advisor, you investigate a subject area of mutual interest. This could consist of your reading and reporting on a series of papers. It also could involve doing original research in the area. The study period provides an opportunity for you to practice many of the skills necessary in the research process: planning a study, reading and comprehending papers, identifying background material related to the papers, placing work into technical context, assessing the significance of the results, extracting important concepts from the papers, unifying the ideas, proposing possible future research directions, and structuring and writing a report about the papers. In short, you learn to acquire knowledge in a specific area and develop the skills of comprehending, analyzing and criticizing the work of others.

When you and your advisor feel you are ready to take the exam, the study period ends. At that time the papers are selected for the written report and General Exam presentation. That is, the Exam period begins.

The Exam Period

The exam period begins with the assignment of papers and ends with the exam.The Exam period shall begin no later than the later of four academic-year quarters after a student has passed the Qualifying Evaluation, or the third week of the student's ninth academic-year quarter in the program.

The exam period is limited to a maximum length of two months; in extraordinary circumstances, a short extension is permitted upon petition to and approval of the committee. During the exam period, you conduct the analysis and synthesis described more fully below.

A. The Charge & Assignment of Papers

You will be given a number of papers that contain ideas that are distinct from each other but are related in some way. In some cases, some or all of papers should be new to you. The ultimate selection of the papers is the responsibility of the advisor and the examining committee in consultation with you. The papers should be research papers and not survey papers since your survey knowledge is already tested during coursework.

In addition to the papers, you will be given the "charge," a paragraph-long set of instructions directing you towards certain fruitful questions. Depending on your background and interests, this charge may take one of the forms listed below. The list of papers and the charge are sent in an email to the Graduate Program Advisor and to each faculty member on the Supervisory Committee.

B. Preparation of Report

Using the skills developed in the study period, you plan the study, read and comprehend the papers, identify the necessary additional background readings, place the papers into technical context, assesse the significance of the results, extract significant concepts, unify the ideas, propose possible future research directions, structure the written report, write and proofread the report, and deliver it to the committee at least two weeks prior to the exam.

The written report should reflect the critical reading of the papers you have just completed. It will present not only the material extracted from the papers but also your assessment of it. An ideal General Exam report should include, in roughly equal measure:

  • Summaries of the assigned papers and other background papers within a general framework.
  • A critical examination of the ideas, methods, and significance of the research described in the papers, addressing such questions as:
    1. What is the impact of the research?
    2. How widely applicable are the ideas and methods of the papers?
    3. Why were particular techniques used? Particular research choices made?
    4. Are there different contexts/ideas that would cause a change in those choices?
  • Discussion of open problems and future research directions within the area.

The body of the report will be no more than 20 pages (not counting bibliography), written in standard technical style with appropriate citations. Some discussion of the contents of the report with your advisor and colleagues is permitted, but the actual writing of the report shall be done independently of the advisor and colleagues. The oral presentation should summarize (but not recapitulate) the material of the paper; a rehearsal for colleagues is permissible.

Mechanics of the General Exam

By University rule, each student will schedule the oral examination three (3) weeks in advance. Typically, scheduling is done as your work on the written report is nearing completion. When you have determined a mutually agreed-upon date and time, contact the Graduate Program Advisor to schedule. Note: it is prudent to remind faculty of the exam date and location several days prior to the exam.

The oral portion of the General Examination should last approximately 90 minutes, beginning with a forty-minute presentation by the student. Faculty and students are invited to the presentation and are welcome to ask questions. Questions will then be asked in a closed session limited to the committee and possibly other faculty. By University rule, a minimum of 4 faculty members must attend the General (and Final) exams (the chairperson, the outside GSR, and two (2) others).

The examiners should ask questions designed to determine your preparedness and ability to pursue research.

If no examination is held within two months of the date of paper selection and the Chair of the Examining Committee has not accepted a petition for extension, then you are also considered to have failed the exam.

If an examination is held, there are three possible outcomes:

  1. Pass
  2. Conditional Pass
    • With rewriting of the report: this could happen if the examining committee feels that the student has shown sufficient mastery of the material, but has written an inadequate report. After the rewritten report is approved, you will pass the General Examination.
    • With adjournment of the examination. This could happen, for example, if the examining committee is satisfied with the written report but believes that additional work is needed. The mechanics of the completion of the examination (e.g., new exam, additional course work, a written report) are left to the discretion of the examining committee.
  3. Fail: You may retake the General Examination with permission of the department faculty. In this case, if you want to be reexamined, a new report on different papers will have to be written and another oral examination must be scheduled. A change in subjects and/or examining committee might be recommended.

After the exam, the warrant is signed by the examining committee, a copy placed in your file, and the result are delivered to the Graduate School.

Suggested Formats for Exam Papers

Within the structure of the Generals exam format described above, there are many possible emphases. Below, we list several recommended approaches; it is expected that over time these may evolve. The exam charge should clarify what is expected in each exam.

Research Preparation style
This approach focuses on the goals and questions described above. [Note: This is the way that Generals exams have typically been structured in the 1989-1999 period.]
Depth Exam style
This would have more emphasis on the broad context of the assigned papers than solely on the specific details of the individual papers, although demonstrated understanding of the assigned papers would still be critical. It would be expected to include much more about papers relevant to the area but not necessarily directly related to the assigned papers. There would be less emphasis on recapitulating the specific techniques of the assigned papers but more on their context and on the general techniques used within the area as a whole. This style would include discussion of avenues and methods that might be fruitful for future research in the context of the whole range of research in the area.
Thesis Proposal style
Unlike a formal thesis proposal, this would not be a contract -- which involves rounds of iteration with your advisor -- about what would constitute a satisfactory dissertation. The assigned papers would be starting points in the area planned for the dissertation. The focus of the paper and presentation would be on the open problems in the assigned and related papers, how one might go about addressing them, and how the techniques and ideas of those papers play a role in these directions.
View a Suggested Thesis Proposal Style Format.