As a PhD student in CS I will have advancement to candidacy soon. I am looking for information which helps me on the advancement exam. Particularly:

  1. What does a committee expecting to hear from me?
  2. What should I focus on during me presentation: should I tell them about work I have done or what I am planning to do?
  3. If I need tell them what I am planning to do, then how to do that? I mean, research is vague, there is no clear guidance, and you don't know what will be in the end.

Any comments that help better understand what to expect and how to prepare are very welcome!

  • 2
    It's different for every institution, do you have an advisor? Usually your advisor would be helping you to plan what you're going to present.
    – Zai
    Jan 13, 2013 at 3:15

3 Answers 3


The only goal of the candidacy/qualifying/preliminary exam is to convince the committee that you deserve to pass the candidacy/qualifying/preliminary exam. The passing criteria differ, sometimes radically, from one university to the next, from department to the next, from one research area to the next, and even from one committee member to the next. It's the academic equivalent of Calvinball, only you don't get to make up the rules. Do not question the mask.

The only way to determine how to prepare for the candidacy/qualifying/preliminary exam is to ask your committee members directly. Individually. In person. I strongly recommend scheduling a one-on-one meeting with each committee member at least a month in advance of the actual exam.

Same goes for the thesis defense.

  • 1
    "Ask committee members directly": That's not always possible—in my department, the exams used to be conducted by random panels of faculty members that weren't chosen until a few days before the exam—for exactly the reason of preventing students from "gaming" the system. Also, in some disciplines, including many engineering fields, the qualifying exam is usually completed before the thesis committee is selected!
    – aeismail
    Jan 13, 2013 at 10:36
  • the exams used to be conducted by random panels of faculty members — Well, then to be safe, I guess you have to talk to the entire faculty one by one. And yes, quals are usually held well before the student selects their their committee, but there's a separate qualifying exam committee (sometimes called a "panel", but yeah, it's a committee).
    – JeffE
    Jan 13, 2013 at 20:17
  • 1
    It's disturbing how many academic processes can be adequately described as a game of Calvinball. Jan 14, 2013 at 11:54

Have a solid research proposal and present it well. There is no other way to convince your assessors.

In my case, I had to do a public presentation with the assessors sitting in the audience. It was not an easy exercise but I took on the challenge head-on (really, there was no other option). And I prepared, prepared and prepared.

I asked my supervisor what the likely questions would be and how can I make my proposal better. I attended presentations by other students and studied the vibes.

Just be aware that not everything always goes to plan. I had chosen a concept that was highly contested in the literature so had several question on how I would handle it. (One of my assessors was an expert in that area!)

Most importantly, show a willingness to learn. If you cannot answer a question, be honest about it. Say something like "Thats an interesting angle and I will certainly take your comments on board". And mean it. Be honest and polite.

Confirmation of candidature is to show you are ready to do advanced research. Your assessors would most likely overlook a few flaws in your proposal (no research is perfect) but may not be that generous if they realise you are not ready. Believe me, they are amazingly quick at the latter.

  • 1
    +1 For I prepared, prepared and prepared. All you can do is to do your best.
    – Nobody
    Apr 4, 2013 at 7:19

Ask your advisor and the program coordinator. Usually, each institute has a guide for the candidacy exam. The guide lists some general requirements and the method of examining. The answers to your questions depends upon your department regulations and policies.

What does a committee expecting to hear from me?

They expect you to be expert in your field and answer their tough questions. Also, they expect you to agree with their opinions and not try to be too smart.

  • To say that they expect you to agree with their opinions is very bizarre. I'm looking for independent thought and the willingness to go out on a limb.
    – Suresh
    Jan 13, 2013 at 8:13

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