Requirements for the Doctoral Degree

The PhD and EngScD Degrees

Doctoral students should follow the guidelines as outlined by the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and in the SEAS Bulletin. In addition, the specific guidelines of the Electrical Engineering Department are outlined below. 

PhD students should also follow the guidelines outlined in the Graduate School of Arts and Science (GSAS) website and bulletin; for PhD students, the SEAS and GSAS requirements along with the department’s requirements are summarized in the checklist.

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Scholastic Average

A candidate is required to maintain a grade-point average of at least 3.5 at any time in the program. Students with an unsatisfactory average may be asked to withdraw.

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Program of Study

A prospective doctoral candidate follows a program of study formulated in consultation with his/her faculty adviser. The program must include the following:

  • Courses used to satisfy the 30-point minimum beyond the MS degree will usually be at the 6000 level or higher.
  • Not more than 6 points of seminar.
  • At most 12 points of doctoral research (ELEN E9001, E9002, E9011, E9012, E6001, and E6002) may be credited toward the degree. However, in exceptional cases, in recognition of a student's advanced standing and professional proficiency, this 12-point limitation may be waived at the discretion of the chair of the doctoral committee.
  • Courses must satisfy the Breadth Course Requirement described below.
  • Check List

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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 (of the six areas covered by the written breadth exam, which are listed above), 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.

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Declaration of a Research Adviser

Students who are admitted to the PhD program and pass the DQE must still find an adviser willing to supervise their work in order to continue in the PhD program. Those who pass the DQE exam and do not yet have an adviser should speak to potential research advisers and identify one willing to supervise them as soon as possible. Once the name of the adviser is known, it should be reported to the Graduate Student Coordinator in the EE office. Students are expected to find and declare a research adviser within three semesters (not including summer) after passing their qualifying exam.

Students who pass the qualifying exam but cannot find an adviser in the area of their choice willing to supervise them and/or support them, are allowed to change to a different area without having to retake any portion of the qualifying exam. Students who are receiving financial support but fail the qualifying exam in January will generally continue to be supported through the spring; however, support beyond that point is not automatic.

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Thesis Proposal Examination

Doctoral students must pass the doctoral thesis-proposal exam within two years after they have passed the DQE Students who want to take this exam will be expected to have a grade point average of at least 3.5 for courses taken at Columbia. The thesis proposal exam is oral, and its topic is chosen in coordination with the student's research adviser. The exam is administered by a committee of at least three faculty members, including the student's research adviser, and can last up to two hours. The student makes an oral presentation of the state of the art and his/her proposed research, possibly with new results. This oral presentation typically lasts no more than twenty minutes, and is followed by a period of questions by the committee. These can be any questions the committee feels are necessary to judge the candidate's knowledge and readiness for doctoral research in his/her chosen field, and are not limited to the topic of the presentation. The student is notified of the outcome shortly after the exam.

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Breadth Course Requirement

Doctoral students must complete a breadth requirement through course work in a technical area clearly outside their main area of interest. This course work should normally be outside the EE department, or even outside the SEAS. In special cases, some of the courses can be inside the EE department if it is clear that, together with the courses outside the department, they form a cohesive whole in an area clearly distinct from the main area of interest. In such cases, the student may use up to two courses inside the EE department to fulfill the Breadth Course Requirement, subject to the approval of the student’s adviser. This course work should be planned in consultation with the student's research or academic adviser in such a way as to expose the student to concepts in a different discipline, and especially to different approaches and ways of thinking than those prevalent in the student's main area of research. This program should consist of at least three graduate courses (4000- or 6000-level) in one area (these courses can also be taken while studying towards the MS). If the area chosen is truly far removed from the student's main area, the student may be allowed to replace one of the graduate courses with an undergraduate course although such a course will not count toward the 60-point graduate course requirement. The courses should be selected so that they form a cohesive whole.

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Progress Review

The performance of each student in the doctoral program will be reviewed regularly, at least once a semester, to ensure satisfactory progress towards completion of study. When necessary, students failing the requirements may be placed on probation or asked to withdraw from the doctoral program.

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Master of Philosophy Degree

The degree of master of philosophy is conferred upon a PhD student who has successfully fulfilled all of the following requirements of GSAS and our department:

When the above requirements are met, students should see the Graduate Student Coordinator to apply for this degree.

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Location of Research

The research should be conducted on the Columbia University campus. In unusual cases the thesis work may be performed at the student's place of employment subject to the following conditions:

  • The research must be unclassified.
  • The dissertation must represent the student's own efforts.
  • The employer must have full cognizance that the student is using company facilities and possibly company time to carry out doctoral research.
  • The employer must have no objections to the publication of results.
  • Supervisory committee members must be free to visit the location where the research is being conducted whenever they wish to do so.
  • The student must be prepared to consult with his/her thesis adviser on the campus as often as two half-days per week, if the adviser so requires.
  • At the time the research program is submitted for approval, the student must obtain a letter from a responsive member of his/her firm, addressed to the chair of the doctoral committee, stating that the company will abide by the conditions set forth in this section.

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Application for Final Thesis Defense Examination

Upon completion of a thesis acceptable to the candidate's thesis adviser, the candidate should file application for the final oral thesis defense examination in the office of the appropriate dean. Examinations will not be scheduled during the summer except in unusual cases. Seven copies of the dissertation are required for use by the members of the final examination committee. The examination committee is approved by the Dean and must consist of at least two faculty members from departments other than electrical engineering as well as at least three regular members of the Electrical Engineering Department. It may also include scientists or engineers from outside the University who are interested in the research problem. The candidate must distribute thesis copies to each member of the final examination committee at least three weeks before the date of the examination. EngScD candidates should consult the academic calendar of the School of Engineering and Applied Science for pertinent deadlines.

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Thesis Defense

The candidate stands for examination before the final examination committee on the date agreed upon by all members of the committee. It is customary for the candidate to present initially a brief and concise summary of his/her research with emphasis on original contributions to the particular area. The oral presentation part is typically not more than forty minutes. The examination is either passed, passed with revision required, or failed. (NOTE: Candidates must be registered at the time of the thesis defense.)

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Thesis Deposit and Publication

Two copies of the accepted dissertation must be submitted to the dissertation secretary in the dean's office of the Graduate School of Arts of Sciences after the defense. Rules governing the form and deposit of the dissertation can be found in a number of booklets available from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, as well as in mimeographed information available from the dean's office of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, or the dissertation secretary of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. It is absolutely essential to secure these rules and to prepare the dissertation in accordance with them. Acknowledgement should be made to indicate that the work was carried out in the Department of Electrical Engineering.

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Time Limit

All degree requirements must be completed within seven full-time-equivalent years from the beginning of the first course credited toward the doctoral degree. Students who do not meet this time limit will no longer be considered degree candidates.

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Leave of Absence

A student who must interrupt studies for a compelling reason, for example, sustained ill health, may be granted a leave of absence for a stated period, usually not to exceed one year. If a leave is granted, the fact is entered on the student's permanent academic record. The period of leave of absence is not counted as part of the time allowed for the completion of degree requirements. A student who leaves the University without securing a leave of absence must apply for readmission, which is not easily granted.

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