About the Examination

The oral examination takes place with only the orals committee present and must not include the research advisor. Traditionally, the oral examination consists of two parts:

  1. The student is given 20-30 minutes to present the research proposal, during which time the student may be interrupted with questions.
  2. The committee continues to ask the student questions that are relevant to the proposal, which may include knowledge that would be necessary for the student to address the stated problem.

After questioning is over (approximately 1.5 hours including the project presentation time) the student is asked to leave the room so that the committee can discuss the student’s performance and take one of the following actions:

  1. Pass the student without further questioning
  2. Fail the student without further questioning
  3. Ask the student to return for further questioning

The third option is the most common. During this second phase of the examination, the committee members ask questions pertaining to subjects relevant to the student’s area of interest or questions related to material covered in the first-year courses. The student is again asked to leave, and the committee votes on the outcome. It is the responsibility of the chair of the committee to file the appropriate form indicating the outcome with the Graduate Division.


  • Full pass: A student who passes the examination is eligible for advancement to candidacy and thesis progression.
  • Conditional pass: A student who passes the examination but demonstrates weaknesses in specific fields may be asked to prepare further oral or written materials or take an additional course. The committee chair will send a letter stating the requirements to be met and a deadline date, with copies to the program director and the student’s research advisor. Upon timely completion of these tasks, the student will be eligible to advance to candidacy.
  • Fail: A student who fails the examination has the opportunity to retake it within six months. The committee chair will send notification in writing of subjects for re-examination and a suggested date for the second examination. A copy of the letter to the student is sent to the program director, program manager, and the student’s research advisor. The committee chair and the research advisor will assist in planning for the second examination. Your committee members must remain the same for the second examination. A student is provided two opportunities to pass the qualifying examination. Failure to pass the second examination will result in expulsion from the program.

Relevance of the oral examination format

Each of the activities required for the oral examination is important in learning to carry out independent research in academic or non-academic settings.

  • Developing a research plan or proposal is critical to productive work at all levels of research.
  • The ability to present these ideas to others knowledgeable in one’s field is essential in both oral and written undertakings.
  • Responding to questions and demonstrating relationships among different areas of knowledge are vital components of teaching and discovery.

Because a PhD is a general degree in the conduct of research rather than mastery of specific technical knowledge, the candidate should look upon completion of the oral qualifying examination as an important and relevant task in obtaining a doctoral degree.