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The General Exam Defined

The General Examination is a formal requirement of the 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. Prior to taking the General Exam, you must successfully complete four post-quals courses and perform thesis-related research, as follows:

Process for general exams

In this department, the period of the General Exam itself is divided into two time intervals. The study period starts when you have found an advisor and formed a Supervisory Committee. This should begin as soon as possible after you have passed the Qualifying Evaluation. 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 Memo 13 details the rules for membership on the Ph.D. Supervisory Committee.
  3. Study for the exam: continue to develop the requisite skills.
  4. 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).
  5. Preparation of the written report (20 page maximum).
  6. 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 3 weeks in advance of exam date by determining a mutually agreeable day and time with the Supervisory Committee. Formal scheduling must be initiated by the student in MyGradProgram and approved by the Gradaute Program Advisor.
  7. Give written report (and copies of assigned papers) to committee (2 weeks in advance of exam).
  8. Examination (must be held within 2 months of step 4 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 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 Advisor of the committee member names, and they will submit them to the Graduate School. Graduate School Memo 13 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 Advisor).

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. Except when explicitly extended by petition to the Graduate Program Coordinator, 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. All petitions for extension shall usually be approved for one quarter at a time.

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. 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 twenty 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 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 two hours, 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 2 others).

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

If the exam is not scheduled by the deadline identified above, and the Graduate Program Coordinator has not approved a petition for extension, you are considered to have failed the exam. Furthermore, 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.