Preliminary Written and Oral Examinations

The Written and Oral Preliminary Examination(s) is considered the first department-wide evaluation of a student's research ability in the Ph.D. program. Students are expected to take the Written and Oral Preliminary Examination by the end of their second year in the Ph.D. program  (however, with the support of their advisor, students may petition the Director of Graduate Studies for an extension). Prior to taking the OPE/WPE students are expected to have satisfied Background and Breadth Knowledge Requirements. Students are expected to pass the two exams by the end of their third year in the program. 

Things to remember:

  • Satisfy background knowledge requirements. The department expects students to complete background knowledge courses during the first year.

  • Satisfy breadth requirements. These include 5 courses with at least one in each of 3 subject areas.

  • Submit the Graduate Degree Plan. This form outlines credit a student has taken and intends to take that will count towards the 31 coursework credits required for a PhD degree. For more information on required course credit check our overview page. 

Best Practices
The written report and oral exam must demonstrate the ability for a student to do research. Each area and advisor have a different set of expectations regarding how a student demonstrates research ability. Because of this we cannot specify precisely what a written report or oral presentation must include. We can however offer a few “best practice” examples that are considered to be acceptable in most or all research areas. 

  •  Completed research project. A report on a research project completed while a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Since the written report serves as a test of the student’s own research capabilities, including the ability to communicate clearly and effectively in written English, we require that the report consist wholly of material independently written by the student. The length of the report must be sufficient to demonstrate the student’s own research knowledge and their independent writing capabilities.

  •  Literature review. A careful and insightful review of research in the student's specialty area. This review should demonstrate a student's understanding of key research topics and methods in the area and show that he or she can identify interesting and open research problems as well as an appropriate means to address such problems.

Written and Oral Preliminary Examination Committee – The written and oral preliminary examination committee consists of  4 individuals:

  • The student's advisor who is also the chair of the committee.

  • One faculty member from the Computer Science and Engineering department. 

  • One faculty member from outside of the Computer Science and Engineering department. This member is typically from your minor field of study or someone who has some knowledge of your research.

  • One committee member appointed by the DGS from a pool of departmental faculty with departmental representative duties.

 All members serving on a committee must have Graduate Education Responsibilities. Occasionally an individual from an outside university or from industry with whom you have been collaborating may serve on your committee. In this case the department requires the following material to approve the outside committee member:

  • A short narrative regarding why this individual would be a good addition to your committee.

  • A copy of that person’s CV.

Upon receipt of this information, the department will request approval of the committee member from the Associate Dean of Graduate Education in the College of Science and Engineering. Questions regarding this process should be directed to the Graduate Program Administrator. Once a student's committee has been determined, they will fully assign their committee members via an online  portal at the gradate school website. The committee assignment cannot be done until after you have received notification that your Graduation Degree Plan has been approved and entered into a University wide database. A student's committee must be approved by all committee members, the Director of Graduate Studies and the College. 

The Written Preliminary Report
The Written Preliminary Report serves as a test of the student’s own research capabilities, knowledge, and ability to communicate clearly and effectively in written English. The report must consist entirely of material that is independently written by the student and the student should be the sole author of the report. The report must be between 6-10 pages following ACM’s SIG Proceedings format. A research paper can be attached as an appendix. The same committee will examine both the written report and the oral exam. The WPE paper must be sent to the members  of committee and allow for two weeks for the paper to go through the review process. Once a decision has been rendered to the DGS, the student will be alerted to the outcome of the examination. A student who passes the WPE may continue on to schedule the Preliminary Oral Examination A student who does not pass the WPE may or may not be given the opportunity to retake the examination depending on the decision of the WPE committee. 

Scheduling the Preliminary Oral Exam
Following the satisfactory completion of the WPE, an email will go out to the student’s committee alerting them to the pass status. A student may then establish a time and date for the Preliminary Oral Examination. The Graduate Student Services and Progress office has a link available to schedule the prelim oral, once this is complete the student  will receive a Preliminary Oral Examination form ( these are also available for pickup at the GSSP office, 160 Williamson Hall). This form must be taken to the examination and signed by all committee members indicating the result of the exam. Upon passing the prelim oral the student is admitted to PhD candidacy and able to register for thesis credits. Students must pass the Preliminary  Oral Examination before the end of the second week of any given semester in order to register for thesis credits in that same semester; otherwise the student must register for the following semester.

Oral Preliminary Exam Scope and Format
The student will present the material contained in the written report to their committee. The committee will question the student about material in the report as well as directly related material. Questions may include subjects like methodology, alternative methods of research, ideas for future work, potential problems and obstacles. The committee is encouraged to probe the student's understanding of related material and concepts along with their understanding of the WPE material.

Possible outcomes of the exam
The committee may pass, pass with reservations or fail the student. A student must receive at minimum a 3-1 vote to pass the exam. If a student passes the examination " with reservation" the examination committee will provide in writing the conditions that must be met in order to remove the reservations within 7 days of the examination.  If the student fails, the committee may choose to terminate the student or vote unanimously to allow the student to retake the examination . A student can have at most two chances to pass the Oral Preliminary Examination. A student must pass the exam within three years of entry to the PhD program.