Thoughts on Ph.D. Qualifiers

Phil Koopman
Carnegie Mellon ECE Dept.
last update: November 5, 2004

The official ECE department qualifier exam policy is at: Anything in that policy supercedes anything I say here.

Here are some thoughts about what you should know for the CMU ECE Ph.D. qualifiers, especially if I am on your committee. Keep in mind that understanding the facts is only half of it -- the other half is being about to think given that you know the facts.

Note that these thoughts should not be considered binding, but rather a general guideline of what I look for. Also, they are not an expression of policy for ECE, but rather a list of the types of topics I personally expect a Ph.D. student to understand. Finally, other faculty no doubt have differing ideas about how this all works, and I can't speak for them.

Areas which you ought to understand

Don't run over on the talk!

Every Ph.D. student should understand how to give a concise, high-quality presentation. An important part is not running on for an hour about a 20-minute idea. The official ECE policy is that the talk should last no more than 30 minutes, but I recommend you shoot for 25 minutes to give yourself some buffer time. If I'm your committee chair, I'll probably tell you to skip to the conclusions slide after 28 minutes. This is already the length of a long conference presentation, so it ought to be plenty. By about 30 minutes, if you haven't said what you need to say and finished the talk, then that will reflect very poorly upon your abilities (and by 35 minutes I'll probably just ask you to stop talking and sit down regardless of whether you've "finished" your talk or not). Since during the talk the questions are kept to an absolute minimum and we only have 2 hours total, keeping on time is essential. It should be straightforward to plan ahead and practice to meet a set time requirement. Running too long both ticks off your committee members and reduces the time available for you to answer the questions we're going to ask you.

You picked the papers, so we expect you to understand them!

The new qual format focusses on relevant skills for your general research area rather than breadth (breadth is largely handled by a course requirement instead). So what you're expected to know is a function of what your self-selected examination topic area is. Expect to be grilled to make sure you understand the big ideas behind the papers you selected. I realize that there is some degree of leeway in terms of what "related" and "area" mean in the phrase "related to your area." I attempt to interpet these fairly narrowly, and try to stick closely to the topic you are covering.

I consider it completely fair game to pick anything out of the papers you've picked and ask you to explain what it means to a degree consistent with the depth of understanding you'd need to be conducting research in the area you've selected. It's also fair game to ask you to combine ideas from your papers and interpolate or extrapolate.

There can also be questions on the talk that correspond to more or less "standard" questions you might hear about any talk. See the list below for some ideas about what those might be.

It's OK to say you don' t know

If I ask you a question that you don't know, then just say you don't know so we don't waste time with you trying to tapdance. One "don't know" won't sink you on the quals, especially if you can explain why you didn't think that was a central topic to your research.

General-purpose questions

There are some basic questions that can be asked about almost any topic. Think about how they might be applied to the area you give your talk on:

The above questions are also widely used on job interview talks for technical positions. If you go to a faculty candidate talk, you'll probably hear several of these questions asked in one form or another.

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Other qual links: