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The Quals Defined

The Qualifying Evaluation is the first department-wide evaluation of students in the Ph.D. program. Students must pass the Qualifying Evaluation within 1.75 years of study or petition for an extension; the 1.75 years excludes any time a student may be on leave status. Before taking the Qualifying Evaluation, you are expected to successfully complete coursework and research project requirements, as follows:

Quals process

Note: The procedures and requirements described here apply to all students entering the program in Autumn 2009 or later. Technically, students who entered earlier may elect these requirements or the requirements 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 we list them here:

Student Requirements

There are two independent components of a student's requirements, the breadth requirement and the project requirement. Objectives, mechanics/guidelines, and evaluation criteria for each are discussed below.

Breadth Requirement


The primary objective of the breadth requirement is to ensure that each student obtains a breadth of knowledge of computer science. A second objective is to gather information on the student's potential to complete the Ph.D. program, collected over an extended period of interaction between the student and instructors. The latter information will be used in the Qualifying Evaluation described below.

Mechanics and Guidelines (updated Winter 2013)

The breadth requirement will be satisfied through courseworkYou are required to complete six courses for graded credit from the following lists, including at least one course in four of the following five areas:  

    1. Theory:  CSE 521, 525, 531
    2. Systems:  CSE 548, 550, 551, 552*, 561, 567
    3. Programming Systems:  CSE 501, 503, 505, 507, 544 
    4. Artificial Intelligence:  CSE 515, 546, 547/STAT 548*, 573
    5. Applications:  CSE 510, 512*, 517, 527, 557, 564, 571, 576

Non-CSE quals courses (do not satisfy distribution requirements): Genome 540, (HCDE 544 or INSC 570)

[*approved in Au 13]

Among these six graded Quals courses, students may include up to two courses from the following list of non-CSE graduate courses at the University of Washington that have been pre-approved by the CSE faculty. (These courses do not satisfy the area distribution requirement.)

Selection of courses from the above lists may be further guided and/or constrained by the requirements of the specific Ph.D. "tracks" in which students may wish to specialize.  See the Ph.D. specialized tracks for information.

It is expected in most cases that these courses will be taken during your first five academic year quarters, although there will be exceptions to this timetable due to variations in background or part-time status.

You are encouraged to complete more than the minimum number of courses, particularly if you have a weaker CSE undergraduate education or an interest in cross-disciplinary fertilization.

Upon entering the program, you may submit a petition (available from the graduate advisor) to waive courses equivalent in substance to any of the courses listed above that you have already taken at the graduate level, or in which you have comparable experience. Note that the prior course need not be equivalent in content to one of the courses listed above but rather in substance: a student who has done excellent work in an intellectually rigorous graduate course on a computer science topic that we happen not to teach may be granted a quals course waiver.

These petitions will be considered by the Quals Committee, a committee appointed by the department chair. The outcome of the petition process will be decided based on information the committee collects on the prior course and your performance in it. The Quals Committee may ask appropriate instructors for assistance in this decision. If appropriate, the Quals Committee may recommend a course substitution rather than outright waiver. All petition decisions go into your file for reference at the Qualifying Evaluation.

At least 4 graded graduate courses must be completed in our department prior to the Qualifying Evaluation in order to give us sufficient internal course experience for the purposes of the Qualifying Evaluation meeting. (One of these courses may be in progress; see Qualifying Evaluation section below.) These four courses may include any of the UW CSE courses from the six graded Quals courses that are not waived; any additional courses must consist of graded graduate UW CSE courses but will exclude ungraded CSE 590, 600, etc.

The distribution requirements in items 1-5 above must be satisfied, through some combination of waivers and our courses. Note that four additional courses are required for graduation beyond the six quals courses, for a total of ten courses taken for credit in our department or waived through the petition process. See Ph.D. Procedures and Deadlines for details. Note also that the Graduate School has a requirement of 18 graded UW credits for either an M.S. degree or to schedule the Ph.D. General Exam. These 18 credits need not be CSE courses.

In summary, the quals coursework requirement is 6 courses or waivers thereof, spread over at least 4 areas, and 4 UW CSE grades, at most one in progress. Additional coursework requirements exist for subsequent milestones.

Due to their distinct goals, courses offered in our Professional Master's Program (CSEP prefix) generally do not fulfill the above requirements but may be approved on petition in appropriate circumstances. (For example, exceptions might be made for CSEP courses that do not substantially overlap CSE courses or for students who were formerly enrolled in the PMP program.)


One goal of this program of study is for you to demonstrate both breadth and 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 your academic excellence, only one of which is your course grades. 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 who demonstrate academic excellence by their course grades, rather than other evaluative information described above, will have a grade of at least 3.4 in most of these courses. 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 across computer science. 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 adequate breadth plus potential to complete the degree.

If you are dissatisfied with your performance in a given course, seek advice from the course instructor, the academic advisor, 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.

Independent Project Requirement

Each student is required to complete an independent project under the supervision of a primary project advisor, which need not be the student's academic advisor. The project will be evaluated by the primary and a secondary faculty advisor.


The objective of the project requirement is early involvement in research-related activity, in part to test whether you want to continue in research and the Ph.D. program, and in part to gather information on your potential to complete the Ph.D. program, collected over an extended period of individual interaction between you and 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, you will register for one or two quarters of CSE 600 with your primary project advisor, during which the project will be performed. It is expected that your commitment to the project during those quarters will be approximately 3-6 credits per quarter, and that you and your primary advisor will meet frequently to discuss progress. Early in this period, you and your primary advisor will agree on a project and jointly select a secondary advisor. It is recommended at this point that you clear the project idea with the secondary advisor.

The project typically will not include original research but 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 your abilities accurately. Group projects can lead to successful qualifying projects provided that your contribution can be assessed; there is no need for you to work "alone".

You will write up the results of the 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. You will also describe the results in an oral presentation open to all members of the department and attended at least by the primary and secondary advisors. You 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, you must distribute the project writeup to the project advisors and your file and distribute the presentation announcement to the department.

Typically, this requirement will be completed within 1.75 years in the program. Your academic advisor, the primary project advisor, and the review of progress committee will ensure that the project is begun sufficiently early (typically before or during your fourth academic year quarter) and is not dragged on too long (about two quarters or less), although there may be exceptions to this timetable due to variations in background or part-time status.

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
  • Your performance is evaluated sufficiently for the purpose of the Qualifying Evaluation
  • A report on your 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 your performance:

  1. Demonstration of the ability to work independently and think creatively
  2. Demonstration of mastery of the project area
  3. The quality of the written document
  4. 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.

The project evaluation should be distributed to the student, the Quals Committee, and the student's file. This should be done very shortly after the presentation, in fairness to you, and so that the Quals Committee has time to prepare for the Qualifying Evaluation. If the project evaluation recommends revising the written document or presentation, this may be arranged before the Qualifying Evaluation meeting, if appropriate.

Qualifying Evaluation

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 breadth of knowledge and the potential to complete the degree successfully. This "whole picture" includes performance in all courses taken, performance in the quals project, course projects, instances of innovativeness, any mitigating circumstances, etc.

This determination must necessarily be made on an absolute rather than relative scale. That is, a student will pass if he or she is perceived as being qualified, regardless of his or her rank among the other students who happen to be at the same point in the program.

In order to be considered at the Qualifying Evaluation, you should have completed all breadth courses and the independent project (both described above). The exceptions are:

  • A Ph.D. student who:
    • Has completed the project requirement and
    • Is completing his or her last required course during the quarter of the Qualifying Evaluation. At most, one of the student's six required breadth courses may be in progress at the time of Qualifying Evaluation.

    Such students may petition for a conditional Ph.D. pass. If a conditional pass is granted, at the end of the quarter the faculty member teaching this course will report the student's grade and any additional relevant information to the Quals Committee. The Quals Committee will decide if the condition has been satisfied and a full pass can be recorded, or if the student must still come up for discussion in a full faculty Qualifying Evaluation meeting.

    Except in extenuating circumstances, a student who wishes to take the Ph.D. Qualifying Evaluation in a given quarter must have completed the project requirement prior to the regular Qualifying Evaluation meeting in order to be considered. The student should consult the Quals Committee to determine if an exception is appropriate.

  • An M.S. student who:
    • Is close to finishing the project and/or
    • Is completing his/her last required course in that same quarter.

    Such students may petition for a conditional M.S. pass. 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 pass can be recorded, or if the student must still come up for discussion in a full faculty Qualifying Evaluation meeting.

When you notify the Quals Committee that you are ready for the Qualifying Evaluation, that committee will consider the project evaluation, performance in all courses taken, and any other relevant information that the faculty supplies in response to a solicitation by the committee and 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 deadline dates will be 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. Any course waiver granted by the Quals Committee will not bring a student's breadth into doubt.

The possible outcomes of the Qualifying Evaluation are as follows:

  1. Pass the Qualifying Evaluation.
  2. Fail the Qualifying Evaluation.
  3. Perform remedial work and go through the Qualifying Evaluation again. Typically, this remedial work will be:
    1. Coursework, if the weakness was failure to demonstrate breadth or academic excellence, or
    2. Another project (possibly with different advisors), if the weakness was in the project, or
    3. 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.)

Note: For the Ph.D. evaluation, if the outcome is not a pass, then the student is automatically also considered for the M.S. evaluation. 

In order to pass the Qualifying Evaluation (case 1), you must perform well in each of the breadth and project components individually. If you perform inadequate work in one of these, then remedial work is required. Thus, for example, a strong endorsement from the primary project advisor is insufficient to pass the Qualifying Evaluation if you have failed to demonstrate adequate breadth. The nature of the remedial work in general will depend on the individual and the perceived weaknesses.

If you fail the Qualifying Evaluation (case 2), there are no retrials. Thus, we expect this to be an unlikely outcome for your first evaluation but more likely for subsequent evaluations.

If remedial work is suggested (case 3), the faculty will try to ensure as far as possible 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 has been satisfied.


The content of this page was last updated on 8/29/2009.