Qualifying Exams

Guidelines for the Ph.D. Qualifying Examinations

The Ph.D. qualifying examination must be taken during the first term of the student’s second year of residency. This examination consists principally of oral and written defense of two research propositions, supplemented by a written description of one of them. Written abstracts must be submitted for both propositions. Fundamental questions derived from the ESE core courses may also be included in the qualifying examination. Students are encouraged to consult with others concerning their ideas on propositions, but the material submitted must be the work of the student. There must be a different faculty member associated with each of the two propositions. It is expected that the student’s research advisor will supervise the proposition for which the student prepares the written description. This written description will generally be in the form of a proposal but the student can submit a research paper instead. In preparation for the qualifying examination, students are encouraged register for nine units of research (ESE 100) in their second and third terms of residence.

Timing and Procedures

  1. Submission of proposition topics and supervisors. To ensure students have identified two research topics, titles of the proposed topics should be submitted to the Option Representative by the end of the Winter term of the first year of residency. By the last day of classes of the Spring term of the first year of residency, students should submit the two proposed topics (with a brief description) for their research projects and the names of the supervisors for these two projects to the ESE Option Representative. Students will be informed within one week whether their proposed topics are suitable.
  2. Scheduling of exams. Efforts will be made to schedule the qualifying exams at the beginning of the first term of the student’s second year of residency. Exams will be scheduled by the ESE Academic Assistant. The students should advise the Academic Assistant of any potential scheduling conflicts that they may have.
  3. Submission of abstracts and written report. The two abstracts and (one) written report must be submitted to the Academic Assistant 1 week before your scheduled exam.

The Examining Committee

The examining committee will include the supervisors of the two propositions and the two members of the ESE Core Committee; at least four committee members must be on the Caltech faculty. At the discretion of the Option Representative, professional scientists or engineers who are not members of the Caltech faculty may be invited to participate in the examination. The Option Representative is responsible for making the final committee assignments. The Chair of the examining committee will be chosen by the Option Representative from one of the committee members who is not supervising either of the student’s propositions.

The Examination Format

The student will present ten-minute summaries describing the objectives, results, conclusions, and implications that follow from the research carried out on each of the propositions. Each summary presentation by the student will be followed by detailed or general questions concerning the proposition itself and fundamental questions underlying the proposition or derived from the core ESE courses. The Chair will guide the questioning so that all major aspects of each proposition and the student’s general knowledge of the field are examined. The examination will be concluded within three hours. The student will be informed of the outcome of the examination immediately after its conclusion by the Chair. Students who do not pass the examination on their first attempt may retake it (usually within six months) at the discretion of the examining committee.

Choice of Proposition Topics

A student’s propositions are based on small research projects usually carried out during the first year of residence. The student must choose propositions dealing with subjects pertinent to more than one research area within ESE. The student should demonstrate versatility by endeavoring to choose proposition topics that will allow employment of different tools or methods. Overlap in specific topics or approaches in the two propositions should be avoided. It is essential that each student seek the advice of members of the faculty in developing successful propositions. Consultation with post-doctoral scholars and senior graduate students is also encouraged. A (different) supervising faculty member should be identified for each of the student’s two propositions.

Abstracts and the Written Report

The written (and oral) presentation of the student’s proposition research should demonstrate that the student has the ability to carry out meaningful research on a given topic, to place the work in the context of previous knowledge, and to recognize the implications and possible interpretations of the work. It is not necessary to have final results, a working computer model, a functioning piece of equipment, or fully analyzed data in order to have a successful proposition. More often, the proposition will consist of a carefully worded statement on what has been learned up to the time of the examination (supported by the available data or evidence) and a discussion of the implications that might be forthcoming with either more data or more sophisticated analysis.

The abstracts should convey to the examining committee the motivation behind the research project, the results of the investigation, and its broader implications. The abstract for the project accompanied by a written report is limited to 200 words. The other abstract is limited to 2 pages. One page should be used to describe the motivation and background for the project (i.e., an introduction) and the other to summarize the technical aspects of the project (i.e., experimental approach and results).

A written report must accompany one of the two propositions. This report will generally be in the form of a short proposal (e.g., to a funding agency such as the National Science Foundation). Alternatively, the report may be in the form of a short paper to a scientific journal. In either case, the length of the written report (excluding references) should not exceed 10 pages (single-spaced, 12 point font, 1 inch margins). Students are strongly encouraged to have their proposition supervisor read through and critique preliminary drafts of the report. Students should leave adequate time for such reviews. Students are also encouraged to seek advice from other Caltech faculty, postdoctoral scholars and graduate students. Appropriate acknowledgement should be given to these reviewers.