- The Quals Defined
- Course Requirements to Pass Quals
- Breadth at the Undergraduate Level
- Independent Project Requirements
- Qualifying Evaluation
- Applying for a Master's-level Pass
Note: The procedures and requirements described here apply to all students entering the program in Autumn 2020 or later. Technically, students who entered earlier may elect either to satisfy these requirements or to satisfy the requirements that were in force when they entered. In general, the newest requirements are the least restrictive so we see no advantage in electing the older rules, but for the sake of completeness you will find them at the following link:
The Quals Defined
The Qualifying Evaluation is the first School-wide evaluation of students in the Ph.D. program. Students must pass the Qualifying Evaluation by the end of their 6th quarter in the program (excluding summer) or have filed a deadline extension petition (Have two advisors? Try this form); this period excludes any time a student may be on leave status. Prior to the Qualifying Evaluation, students are expected to successfully complete coursework and research project requirements.
There are four objectives to our Qualifying requirements:
To gather information on the student's potential to successfully complete a Ph.D., collected over an extended period of interaction between the student, their advisor(s) and collaborators, and instructors in their courses.
To ensure that each student has demonstrated the academic excellence and research independence needed to get a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Engineering.
To make sure that each student has a permanent Ph.D. advisor.
To make sure that each student has breadth of knowledge in Computer Science and Engineering at least at the level of a rigorous Bachelors degree in Computer Science and Engineering (or equivalent).
As discussed in the coursework requirements section, the requirements for passing Quals are:
Successful completion of at least 3 UW CSE courses out of the required Breadth Course list.
The most common way to satisfy all of the above requirements will be for a student to complete all 5 Breadth courses, covering at least 3 of 4 Groups before passing Quals.
It is expected that these five courses will be taken during the first 5 quarters in the program (excluding summer).
Students may waive at most one of the Breadth and CSE++ Courses required to pass Quals. However, even with a waiver, they must complete at least 3 UW CSE Breadth Courses to pass Quals. See section on waivers.
Students are highly encouraged to consult with their advisor (and other faculty) as to the best plan for coursework. Keep in mind that each advisor has their own expectations vis a vis their student’s coursework. In most cases, prior to passing Quals, students will take Breadth courses from multiple buckets, ideally at least 3 buckets.
Students are also highly encouraged to take at least 18 graded 500-level credits by the end of the quarter in which they pass Quals. This will enable them to earn a Master’s Degree at the end of that quarter.
As already mentioned, additional coursework requirements exist for subsequent milestones.
Ph.D. Specialized Options
Selection of courses from the Breadth and CSE++ lists may be further guided and/or constrained by the requirements of the specific Ph.D. "options" in which students may wish to specialize. See the Ph.D. specialized options for information.
Evaluation of Coursework
One goal of this program of study is for each student to demonstrate academic excellence, which will be evaluated by the faculty during the Qualifying Evaluation described below. There are many ways that the faculty can be convinced of a student’s academic excellence, only one of which is their grades in courses. Toward this end, for each student for whom the instructor has more evaluative information than is represented in the final grade, the instructor is encouraged to write a short note summarizing this information to the student and the student's file, doing so in a timely manner after the completion of the course. Examples of such information might be course project performance, instances of innovativeness, and mitigating circumstances. Performance in all completed UW courses will be considered, including those in excess of the minimum number required.
It is expected that most students will have a grade of at least 3.4 in the coursework required to pass Quals and, typically, this will suffice to demonstrate academic excellence. However, there is no simple formula that the faculty applies to the grades (e.g., minimum grade at least 3.4, average grade at least 3.4, etc.) in order to decide whether the student has demonstrated academic excellence in their coursework. Poor performance in one course can be compensated by very good performance in a related course or project. What is important is the whole picture of academic excellence plus potential to complete the degree.
If a student is dissatisfied with their performance in a given course, we recommend that they seek advice from the course instructor, the graduate advising staff, and the Quals Committee. In rare instances, it may be beneficial to repeat the course, but in most cases it will be more useful to devote that energy to learning and improved performance in related courses.
The Qualifying Exam Requirements are designed to provide students with maximum flexibility in fulfilling their Ph.D. program course requirements and in getting started in research. However, at a minimum, each student must demonstrate breadth in CSE at the undergraduate level. As discussed above, this can be done in one of the following 3 ways:
By having completed a Bachelors degree comparable in rigor and focus to one of our own undergraduate degrees in Computer Science or Computer Engineering, or
By taking three additional 400 level courses in Computer Science and Engineering from a list provided to them by the Quals Committee based on their specific background (see next section).
Process for Reviewing Undergraduate Breadth
Prior to starting in the program, every student who does not have an undergraduate degree in Computer Science or Computer Engineering must submit a verification of Undergraduate Breadth request via the following steps:
Submit final undergraduate transcripts via this form (if you do not have an undergraduate degree in Computer Science or Computer Engineering). Students who have earned an undergraduate degree in Computer Science or Computer Engineering will have automatically satisfied the undergraduate breath requirement and therefore do not need to submit the verification request.
In the form, each student will provide the list of “400-level” undergraduate courses that they have taken.
The Quals Committee will review this list and provide feedback to the incoming student and their advisor prior to the start of their first quarter in the program. This feedback will either indicate that the student has already fulfilled the undergraduate-level breadth requirement after the closer review or will provide details on how to satisfy the requirement with additional coursework at the undergraduate or graduate-level.
If opting to use UW CSE undergraduate coursework to fufill the undergraduate breadth requirement, the guidance will come in the form of a set of 6 groups of courses from which three 400-level courses (at most one from each group), will suffice to satisfy undergraduate level breadth.
The 6 groups of courses will be a subset of the following:
Programming Languages/Software Engineering: CSE 401, 402, 403
Theory: CSE 421, 422, 431, 490C (Crypto).
HCI/Visualization: CSE 440, 442
Systems: CSE 444, 451, 452, 461, 469, 470, 474, 484
Machine learning and applications: CSE 446, 447, 473, 478
Graphics/Vision: CSE 455, 457
The 6 groups of courses the Quals committee specifies will be designed to ensure that the student has breadth in computer science. Therefore, for example, a student whose undergraduate degree is in Mathematics, will not be offered the option of fulfilling the undergraduate-level breadth requirement by taking a Theory class.
A few of these 400-level courses (e.g. 446 and 447) are very similar to their counterparts at the 500 level (e.g. 546 and 547). Since the latter courses satisfy the graduate-level Breadth requirement which will ultimately need to be fulfilled anyway, it may not make sense for a student to take the 400 level course rather than the 500 level course. Please check with the instructors to understand the differences between corresponding undergraduate and graduate level courses.
Recall that rather than taking any 400 level courses, a student has the option of simply fulfilling the graduate-level 5-course Breadth requirement before passing Quals.
Each student is required to complete an independent project under the supervision of a primary project advisor. The project will be evaluated by the primary and a secondary faculty advisor. (The latter is selected jointly by the student and the primary advisor).
The objective of the project requirement is early involvement in research-related activity, in part to make sure that the student wants to continue in research and the Ph.D. program, and in part to gather information on the student’s potential to complete the Ph.D. program, collected over an extended period of individual interaction between the student and one or more advisors. The latter information will be used in the Qualifying Evaluation described below.
Mechanics and Guidelines
The scale of the project will be roughly that of a Master's project. Upon mutual agreement, each student will register for one or two quarters of CSE 600 with their primary project advisor, during which the project will be performed. It is expected that the student’s commitment to the project during those quarters will be approximately 3-6 credits per quarter, and that they will meet frequently with their primary advisor(s) to discuss progress. Early in this period, the student and their primary advisor(s) will agree on a project and jointly select a secondary advisor. It is recommended at this point that the student clear the project idea with the secondary advisor.
Although the project usually represents original research, this is not required. Rather, the project must demonstrate the ability to work independently. The project may grow from a good course project, but even in the case of an exceptional individual course project, it is expected that there will be sufficient project interaction after the course is over that the primary advisor can evaluate the student’s abilities accurately. Group projects can lead to successful qualifying projects provided that the student’s contribution can be assessed; there is no need for a student to work "alone".
Each student will write up the results of their project in a short document (approximately 10 pages) written so as to be accessible to all faculty members in the department and read at least by the primary and secondary advisors. The project results will also be presented in an oral presentation open to all members of the department and attended at least by the primary and secondary advisors. Each student can expect to be asked questions directly related to the project by those in attendance. Since this oral presentation is not an examination, no closed session is necessary. At least two weeks before the oral presentation, the student must distribute the project writeup to the project advisors and distribute the presentation announcement to the department. The final project write-up will also be added to the student’s file.
This requirement should be completed by the end of a student’s 5th quarter in the program (excluding summer). Typically, the project takes about two quarters, although there may be exceptions to this timetable due to variations in background.
The project may be supervised by a remote researcher (e.g., as part of a summer job) if: (1) it is cleared in advance with a CSE faculty person, (2) IP issues are settled to allow publication of results, and (3) a UW CSE faculty member agrees in advance to be the local advisor to ensure that:
The process works smoothly
The work is of sufficient scope
The student’s performance can be evaluated sufficiently for the purpose of the Qualifying Evaluation
A report on the student’s performance is written
The project is explained during the faculty meeting discussion
An evaluation of the project will be written by the primary and secondary advisors and will be used in the Qualifying Evaluation described below. This project evaluation should discuss the following aspects of the student’s performance:
Demonstration of the ability to work independently and think creatively
Demonstration of mastery of the project area
The quality of the written document
The quality of the presentation
The suggested quals report format follows:
Brief description of the quals project.
Student's role in the project.
Evaluation of student's work on the project.
Evaluation of the quals document: quality of writing, organization, clarity, etc.
Evaluation of the quals project presentation: quality of presentation skills, ability to answer questions, and appropriateness of slides.
Recommendation to pass/not pass the project component of the qualifying evaluation.
Commitment from a faculty member to continue as, or become, the student’s permanent advisor through the remainder of the Ph.D. program. Such a commitment is required for a Ph.D. pass and needs to be formalized before the Quals meeting. The form to update advisor(s) is available online.
The advisor will provide the project evaluation to the student, the Quals Committee, and for placement in the student's file, ideally shortly after the presentation. If the project evaluation recommends revising the written document or presentation, this should be done before coming up for Quals.
Upon completion of the required coursework and the independent project (both described above), and the identification of a permanent advisor, students may apply to pass the Qualifying Evaluation, a.k.a. “to come up for Quals”. In the event that a student is unable to come up for Quals by the end of their 6th quarter, they will need to submit a deadline extension petition (Have two advisors? Try this form).
As already discussed, the goal of the Qualifying Evaluation is for the faculty to determine which students have demonstrated the potential to complete the Ph.D. program and which have not. For each student, the faculty tries to look at the whole picture to determine whether the student has demonstrated adequate academic excellence and the research potential and independence needed to complete the degree successfully. This "whole picture" includes instances of innovativeness, any mitigating circumstances, etc. In addition, in order to pass Quals, it is expected that the identified permanent advisor(s) express an unequivocal commitment to seeing the student through to the completion of the Ph.D (barring unforeseen circumstances). Based on all of this information, the Qualifying Evaluation Committee will recommend a course of action to the faculty as a whole.
Note that this is just a recommendation to be presented at the faculty meeting: the full faculty will meet three times per year to act on the recommendations of the Quals Committee. (Specific deadlines and sign up procedures are announced each quarter.) At that faculty meeting, each student at the Qualifying Evaluation stage will be discussed in order to add input from the experiences of the entire faculty.
The possible outcomes of the Qualifying Evaluation are as follows:
Pass the Qualifying Evaluation at the Ph.D.-level.
Pass the Qualifying Evaluation at the Master’s-level. In some cases, the student will also be offered the option of performing remedial work towards earning a Ph.D.-level pass as in case 4 below.
Fail the Qualifying Evaluation.
Remedial Work: If a student’s performance in either the coursework or the research project is deemed inadequate, a student may be asked to do remedial work and go through the Qualifying Evaluation again. Typically, this remedial work will be:
Coursework, if the weakness was failure to demonstrate academic excellence, or
Another project (possibly with different advisors), if the weakness was in the project, or
Another writeup or presentation of the same project. (In the interest of timeliness, the project advisors should usually make this recommendation at the time of the presentation.)
For the Ph.D.-level evaluation, if the outcome is not a pass, then the student is automatically also considered for the Master’s-level evaluation.
If a student passes the Qualifying Evaluation at the Masters-level (case 2), but is not offered the option of remedial work towards a Ph.D.-level pass, or fails the Qualifying Evaluation outright (case 3), there are no retrials. It is important to note though, that most students that wish to pass at the Ph.D. level do so the first time they are evaluated (and it is the advisor’s responsibility to make sure it is clear to the student what their chances of passing at the Ph.D. level are).
If remedial work is suggested (case 4), to the extent possible, the faculty will try to ensure that it can be completed in a timely manner (e.g., not insisting on a course that is only offered a year later unless absolutely necessary).
Any student in the Ph.D. program who passes the Qualifying Evaluation will be eligible to receive an M.S. degree once the Graduate School requirement of 18 graded credits at the 500-level has been satisfied.
In some cases a student that does not pass Quals at the Ph.D. level is given a Master's Pass. A student may also choose to apply for a Master’s Pass, which, if granted, will lead to leaving the program with a terminal Master's degree. A student may also apply for a conditional Master’s-level pass if that student
Is close to finishing the project and/or
Is completing their last required course in that same quarter.
If a conditional pass is granted, at the end of the quarter the faculty member teaching any last required course will report the student's grade and any additional relevant information to the Quals Committee. If the student is completing a project and does so by the end of that quarter or very soon afterward, the student's two-person committee will report the result to the Quals Committee. The Quals Committee will decide if the requirements have been satisfied and a full Masters pass can be recorded, or if the student must still come up for discussion in a full faculty Qualifying Evaluation meeting. Students requesting a Master’s level pass are not required to have identified a permanent advisor.