Description: Near the end of the coursework specified on a student's graduate program of courses and after the student has established her/his doctoral committee and identified a research topic, the student must pass a comprehensive examination.

The exam is administrated by the student's doctoral committee and scheduled by this committee and the student. The student must inform the Ph.D. advisor and doctoral committee about the intention of taking the exam in written format (e.g. by e-mail) at least two months before the desired examination date.

To be eligible to take the Comprehensive, a student must have:

  1. Passed the Qualifying Exam.
  2. Passed all six 5xx courses that have been specified in the student's program of study from the areas of Theoretical Foundations and Applications and Systems.
  3. Completed at least two-thirds (2/3) of the coursework required for the degree.

The Comprehensive Exam consists of the following:

  1. A written thesis proposal, due to the student's doctoral committee at least two weeks before the public presentation discussed next.
  2. A public presentation of the proposal. The student's doctoral committee members must attend this presentation. This presentation must be scheduled immediately prior to the closed-door oral clarification described next.
  3. An oral clarification of the proposed research during a closed meeting with the student's doctoral committee.

The logistics of the Comprehensive Exam are as follows:

  1. At least two weeks before the exam, a candidate must submit a written thesis proposal to the Ph.D. committee. It is to the student's advantage to have the advisor check and approve the preliminary version of the proposal before the Comprehensive Exam.
  2. A public presentation of the proposal must be given after submitting the prospectus. The candidate, with oversight from his or her advisor, is responsible for ensuring that the public presentation is advertised.  Contact the CS Department's administrative staff to send an e-mail to all CS graduate students and faculty at least one week prior to the presentation.
  3. The oral component (i.e. clarification of the proposed research) will be conducted immediately following the public presentation of the proposal. 


The written thesis proposal should be a clear presentation of the research plan. The proposal's organization and formatting should follow the format specified for a Ph.D. doctoral dissertation (see guidelines at The proposal should include a clear problem statement, an explanation of why the problem is important, an overview of related background knowledge, a clear description of the approach to be taken to solve the problem, an overview of preliminary work and results, a timeline that explains the future work to be done, and a bibliography. The student should work closely with the advisor to produce a high quality proposal.

Oral Clarification

During this part of the exam, the student will be asked questions regarding the proposal. The student may also be asked to present the research topic, identify specific problems to be examined during the research, and discuss possible approaches to solve them (such as presenting important literature related to the proposed research). While questions will focus on topics related to the intended research, relevant questions on computer science background may be asked as well.

If the student has received a grade lower than a B in any courses taken since passing the Qualifier, questions will be asked during the oral component of the exam to ensure that these subjects are now better understood.

Timeline: The Comprehensive Exam must be taken within four years of being fully admitted to the Ph.D. program, regardless of the student's course load. Typically, this exam will be taken within two years of passing the Qualifying Exam.

The Comprehensive Exam should be taken at least two semesters before the planned date of the Thesis Defense. This is a minimal time interval allowed only for exceptional students. Typically, the Comprehensive Exam will be taken 2-3 years before the Thesis Defense.

Outcomes: There are four possible outcomes for the Comprehensive Exam

  • The student passes and continues with his or her studies.
  • The student passes conditionally, but must satisfy provisions specified by the doctoral committee.
  • The student fails, but is given the opportunity to retake the exam. A minimum of six months and a maximum of 12 months must elapse before the exam can be repeated. A student may take the Comprehensive exam at most twice.
  • The student fails and is dropped from the Ph.D. program.

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