How to Qual (MSE)

This page describes the process for taking the Berkeley MSE department's Qualifying Exam (QE) for the PhD program, which is a ~3hr oral presentation and Q&A on your dissertation topic.

Overview and timeline

Before starting the logistical steps of arranging for your QE, it is best to begin by consulting Kristin. Whether over the course of one or several meetings, you will want to have settled on your thesis project, discussed the state of your current work, and reviewed the plan for your proposed future work intended to complete your thesis. You may also want to to solicit feedback on suitable committee members and topics for your exam. Most MSE students plan to take their QE in their 2nd, 3rd (most common), or 4th year but the timing largely depends on when you feel "ready."

Below is a sample timeline for when you are ready to commit to a QE date and start the logistical scheduling phase. Note this timeline allows for amble preparation and can be condensed if needed. However, you will be doing yourself a favor by avoiding unnecessary stress if you avoid working under a compressed timeline by planning ahead!

5 months before: Read about the QE requirements in the MSE Graduate Student Manual. Email individual potential committee members asking if they are willing to serve for your QE and for their availability for scheduling.

4 months before: Confirm your scheduled exam date with your finalized committee. Fill out the "White Card" form and send it to your Major Field Advisor and the MSE ACC chair for approval. Complete the Higher Degree Committees eForm on Cal Central. Email Ariana your signed White Card and QE date & time. She will also make a room reservation for HMMB 314 and help submit your Cal Central eForm correctly.

3 months before: Meet with each of your committee members to introduce yourself, explain your research, and ask for their individual feedback and thoughts on your research. These meetings are typically 30 minutes long and you will want to prepare a short presentation (~15 mins long) describing your work.

2 months before: Work on first drafts of your QE presentation (~30 mins long) and written proposal (5-10 pages long). Start studying. Make a plan for scheduling your practice qualifying exams and collect the emails of who you intend to invite to participate.

4 weeks before: Start having practice qualifying exams (somewhere in the range of 2-5 is common). It can be helpful to have a few days to make revisions, follow-up on questions, and reflect on feedback after each practice QE.

2-3 weeks before: Email your committee your final written proposal and a reminder about your upcoming exam.

Submitting the White Card for approval

Ariana emails out a blank copy of the White Card form along with important academic deadlines each semester. You will need to specify your committee members and completed/planned courses on the form. In the past there have been reports of difficulties with getting minors approved so you may want to consider emailing your Major Field Advisor and the MSE ACC Chair much earlier to document approval of your minors after you have decided what classes you want to take.

Your White Card form must be approved by the Major Field Advisor and MSE ACC Chair. Send Ariana a copy of your approved form for your student records.

Choosing 3 topics

You get to set the 3 topics for your QE that must be approved by your committee chair. You want to select topics that are clearly related to your research and also represent knowledge areas that you find helpful to study to further your work. It can be challenging coming up with topics that have the right balance of specificity.

Too specific topic example: Magnesium intercalation cathodes

Too broad topic example: Batteries

Good topic example: Intercalation electrodes

Getting approval to take the exam

Complete the Higher Degree Committees Form on CalCentral at least 2 weeks before your scheduled exam date. Reach out to Ariana with any questions. She will also help ensure that you are submitting this form correctly.

Picking your committee members

The MSE Graduate Student Manual contains the official requirements for the composition of your qualifying exam committee. Your committee must have 4 members. 2 members must come from MSE. 1 member must come from outside MSE. You may have 1 committee member who is not a UC Berkeley professor (e.g. a LBNL staff scientist).

Generally you want to select committee members who will be able to give your helpful feedback on your research. The QE is a great opportunity to have the undivided attention of and feedback from experts in certain topics! In addition to research expertise, another common consideration is who will be a respectful examiner that you will enjoy interacting with.

Scheduling your exam

Start by emailing the professor you would like to chair the committee for your QE. Your message should contain a title or brief overview of your research area (if they are unfamiliar with your work), 3 proposed QE topics, and the timeframe in which your hope to hold your QE. Your committee chair may have feedback to help improve/refine your exam topics to consider before finalizing them.

Professors vary in email responsiveness and how they handle scheduling (for example, some professors have administrative staff to help manage their calendar). It can be helpful to ask around to find out the best way to approach a specific professor.

One strategy for scheduling is to start with your committee member with the worst availability. If you request 3 hour windows of availability in a 4-6 week period, there may only be a handful of options for a busy professor. If you use this as a starting point, you can request for these time periods to be held while you check for the availability of all your committee members. If in the end you wind up with multiple options, that's great! While uncommon, keep in mind that it can be helpful to have a back-up date in case rescheduling becomes necessary.

Note that scheduling can be the biggest logistical challenge for the QE. If your priority is having certain committee members, it helps to plan far in advance (3-4+ months) to ensure you can find a time when everyone is available. If your priority is having your exam in a certain timeframe, you may need to compromise on who serves on your committee due to availability restrictions.

Writing the Written Proposal

Read the Graduate Student Manual for its recommendations on the written proposal. The recommended length is 5-10 pages and your proposal should include citations. The written proposal may not be reviewed very thoroughly by your committee but the process of creating it can be helpful for you in preparing for your exam. Overall spend the time putting it together that is helpful for you but do not stress about obtaining publication quality work. Examples of QE materials from group members who have previously passed are available in the Persson Group google drive.

Preparing the presentation

Your QE presentation should take about 30 minutes uninterrupted. Some common sections for your QE presentation are background, the research you have completed so far, your research goals, and your proposed future work. Examples of QE materials from group members who have previously passed are available in the Persson Group google drive.

Studying for the exam (Q&A section)

Effectively studying can be a challenge in preparing for the exam. Common approaches are reviewing textbooks, relevant literature (particularly anything you are citing in your materials), code documentation, informative reviews, or notes from classes. Questions from your practice quals can also be very helpful for providing direction on what topics you need to brush up on. Overall remember to stay focused on materials that are relevant to your research and QE topics. This is a good opportunity to review fundamentals or clear up confusions you haven't been able to resolve previously that will help you feel like an expert in your research area.

Taking the exam

The exam is scheduled for a 3 hour period but typically it will take less than 2 hours. The QE will start by your committee chair asking you to briefly introduce yourself. After your introduction, the committee will privately meet to prepare before starting your presentation. You will then be invited to give your presentation and your committee will ask you questions throughout. Interruptions may be requesting clarifications, asking questions about your research, comments offering feedback, or questions intended to test your on your topic areas. At the end of your presentation there may be an additional questioning period to ensure the committee has all the information needed for their deliberation. Once satisfied, the committee will meet privately to decide whether or not you pass so you should expect to wait alone 5-10+ minutes alone. After their deliberation is complete, your chair will announce the results of your exam and share any feedback from the committee.

The QE is a big milestone during graduate school! It can be nice to have a plan to treat yourself or meet with friends after completing it. Regardless of outcome, you put in significant work to prepare for your QE so some rest and relaxation afterwards is well deserved!

After the exam

You will be notified by your committee Chair at the conclusion of your exam if you have passed the QE. If you passed -- congratulations!!! Make sure to submit the Higher Degree Committees Advancement to Candidacy form. You will have to specify 3 members of your new dissertation committee. According to the MSE department (as written by Ariana Castro):

"The form asks you to propose your dissertation committee. Please consult with your advisor to obtain nominees for your dissertation committee. This committee consists of the research supervisor, a second MSE faculty member (normally one of your research guidance committee members), and one member from outside MSE (ASR). All must be members of the Berkeley Academic Senate. You can change your committee members later if needed. If you are ready to advance to candidacy, please submit the form online, a $90 charge will be reflected in your CalCentral account."

If you did not pass your exam, you will be provided with some feedback and will be asked to reattempt the exam. Do not fret; with some further preparation, you will get it this time!

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