Doctoral Qualifying Exam

Doctoral Qualifying Examination (DQE)

Students enrolled in the PhD, EngScD, or doctoral-track MS programs must pass the PhD qualifying examination, as part of the requirements for the doctoral degree. The exam is given each January, during the week before classes start. Students in the above programs must take this exam in their first year at Columbia. It is emphasized that research and academic advisers, or the student coordinator, are not empowered to allow a student to postpone taking this examination. A student who does not take the examination during his/her first year following admission, without an extraordinary legitimate excuse approved by the doctoral committee, will be assumed to have failed it. Students studying for their MS degree, not currently in the MS-PhD track, but who plan to apply for a position in the PhD program, can also take the exam with the permission of the chair of the doctoral committee. Passing the exam is not connected to PhD admissions (see Admission Requirements). However, if a student is admitted to the PhD program and has already passed the exam, he/she will not have to take it again.

The qualifying exam consists of two parts: a written part and an oral part.

The written part is a breadth exam, and is the same for all students. Its duration is four hours. Its purpose is to test:

  • Breadth of knowledge
  • Understanding of fundamentals
  • Ability to do research

The exam is based only on topics typically covered in undergraduate classes, but the types of questions asked in it assume graduate level maturity in terms of thinking ability and initiative. The examination consists of 18 problems, three from each of the following six areas:

  • Circuits and Electronics
  • Signals, Systems, and Communications
  • Solid-State Devices and Electromagnetics
  • Digital Computing Systems
  • Networking
  • Systems Biology and Neuroengineering

The exam is not tied to particular courses. A syllabus for the material is available here. Students must work out six and only six out of the 18 problems. If more than six problems are handed in, six of those problems will be picked at random for grading.

If a student comes from a department other than electrical engineering and computer science, and brings significant expertise in an area distinct from those covered in the EE written DQE examination, and that knowledge is expected to be usable in a fundamental manner in the student's PhD thesis, then the student may request from the department to only be responsible for four problems in the written DQE exam. If the student research adviser concurs with that request, then the student will have to make an oral presentation prior to the DQE, to a committee of three faculty members explaining the topic of his/her proposed research, and demonstrating the use of that knowledge in combination with a sufficiently broad area within electrical engineering. The student's performance in that oral examination will then be considered by the department in lieu of the additional problems in the written DQE exam.

No calculators will be allowed into the written examination.

The oral part is a depth exam in one area, selected by the student. This examination is not limited to the material of the written examination. The oral exam is given within three working days of the written exam. Each student is examined by several designated faculty members on a one-to-one basis. These exams take place in faculty offices, and each typically lasts no more than 15 minutes. The scheduling of the slots for the oral exam is done by the graduate student coordinator.

The evaluation of the results of the oral and written exams is made by the entire faculty, and students are judged on a department-wide basis. Faculty members are not empowered to discuss any aspect of the exam or its evaluation with the students. Questions concerning procedural matters are to be addressed to the graduate student coordinator in the Electrical Engineering Department office.

The department notifies the students of the results of the exam in writing, within two weeks of the date of the written part. Students who fail the exam the first time may take it once more in the following year. Under no circumstances will a student be allowed to take the exam more than twice.

Students who must take the qualifying exam in January are expected to have taken by that time at least 6 credits of graduate (6000-level) or senior/graduate (4000-level) courses at Columbia, and are expected to obtain an average score of A- or better in those courses. However, failure to meet this expectation is not a valid reason for postponing to take the examination.

Students who want to take the qualifying exam must file the required form by November 30. If they already have identified an adviser who is tentatively willing to supervise their research, they should indicate his/her name on the form. However, having a research adviser is not a requirement for taking the DQE; in many instances a research adviser will be identified after a student has passed the examination.