Preliminary and Qualifying Exam

Preliminary Exam

The purpose of this evaluation is to determine whether the student is able to integrate concepts covered in the Chemical Engineering core courses and apply this knowledge to critically evaluate the research literature. Mastery of the subjects covered in the Chemical Engineering core courses is a necessary prerequisite. Ph.D. Preliminary Examination is the first evaluation of prospective Ph.D. students by the graduate program faculty. 

  • Eligibility

  • A GPA of at least 3.25 in all core courses is required for all Chemical Engineering Ph.D. students to take the Preliminary Examination. 
  • Timeline 
  • Updated guidelines for the preliminary exam are usually discussed as a group during the winter quarter. Over the course of spring quarter, you should complete your program of study, identify and carefully read the papers you want to discuss, write an abstract that places the research papers and their findings in context, prepare your presentation, and practice your delivery several times. By mid-April, you will be notified of the date of your exam and the committee. Most exams occur in mid-to-late May, with notification of results by the beginning of June.
  • Exam Format

  • The goal of the preliminary exam is to assess the students’ ability to communicate a solid understanding of fundamental scientific and engineering concepts, focusing on the context of the student’s chosen research topic. The preliminary exam consists of two parts:

    I. A written 1-page abstract
    II. A 10 minute oral presentation, followed by 20 minutes of questions

    Both parts must clearly communicate three key components:

    1) A general overview of the research topic focusing on its technological relevance and/or scientific interest. This section should convince an audience of non-experts with a broad scientific training that the research topic is important and worth studying. Typically, 1 or 2 review articles or “classic” articles are cited in this section.

    2) A specific review of a particular aspect of the research topic. Depending on the research topic, this section will focus on recent experimental, theoretical and/or computational methodologies and will communicate how those observations were obtained and why they support the interpretations. Typically, 1 to 3 recent articles are described in this section. A maximum of 1 paper from the student’s research group may be discussed.

    3) A critical assessment of the strengths and shortcomings of those methodologies, observations, or interpretations. Of the three components, the critical assessment is by far the most important. The previous sections described what other people have already done; in the critical assessment, you provide your reasoning for why anyone should spend additional time and energy to continue investigating your research topic. There are many different types of critical assessments. For example, there might be conflicting interpretations in the literature; little might be known about how certain phenomena extend to unexplored but important physical regimes; the mechanism for observed phenomena might be unknown or poorly understood; previously used experimental or theoretical techniques might be based on faulty assumptions; theories might suggest physical phenomena that require experimentation to corroborate; etc... A cogent critical assessment will naturally lead into proposed research, but the emphasis should be on providing a convincing explanation of why research is needed rather than the details of what you will be doing.

    Abstract Format Requirements
    The 1-page abstract must clearly communicate the three components described above. It must be single-sided on a standard 8.5”x11” page with 1” margins in all directions using Arial 11 font. References must be included as footnotes at the bottom of the page (not in the margin). Complete citations (including titles) are required. A figure (optional) may be included.

    Oral Presentation Requirements
    Each student will give a 10 minute, uninterrupted oral presentation which clearly communicates the three required components. A typical presentation will involve 8-10 slides. No slide animation is allowed. Figures and graphics borrowed from articles must be clearly attributed on the same slide. Following the presentation, the faculty committee will have 20 minutes to ask questions. The time limit for both sections will be strictly enforced. The questions may be on any topic, but will focus on probing the students’ understanding of fundamental scientific and engineering principles (i.e. core course material) in the context of the chosen research topic.

    Cogent: 1. convincing or believable by virtue of forcible, clear, or incisive presentation; telling; 2. to the point; relevant; pertinent.
  • Faculty Committee

  • The committee will be composed of at least five faculty members who are members of the Chemical Engineering graduate faculty program. The Major Professor may be one of the committee members.
  • Preliminary Exam Results 

  • The committee members will determine whether the outcome of the exam is “Pass,” “Retake,” or “Fail.” This decision will be discussed and either confirmed or changed in a meeting of graduate program faculty members.

    If a student receives a score of “Retake,” they are required to retake the examination once prior to the start of the following quarter (usually Fall). The retake committee will be comprised of as many members of the original faculty committee as are available for the time of the retake. Original members who are unable to participate in the retake will be replaced by other graduate program faculty members as availability allows.

    Students must receive a grade of “Pass” to pass the exam. Students receiving a “Fail” on the original exam, or failing to receive an “Pass” on the retake, will be recommended for disqualification from the Ph.D. program. If appropriate, the student may be allowed to transition to the M.Eng. or M.S. program.
  • Change from MS to PhD 
  • MS students who are interested in transitioning into the Ph.D. program will need to both complete the preliminary exam and have a letter of support from their major professor with a commitment for funding before the exam date.


Qualifying Examination

All UC Davis doctoral students must take a Qualifying Examination (QE) to demonstrate they are prepared to advance to candidacy, undertake independent research, and begin the dissertation. Doctoral students may have up to two opportunities to pass the QE.

  • Purpose

  • The QE evaluates the student’s preparation and potential for doctoral study, including:
    1. Academic preparation and sufficient understanding of areas related to the dissertation research.
    2. Understanding of the literature and the ability to explain the relevance of that literature.
    3. Sufficient knowledge of the intended research methods and applications.
    4. The ability to explain the motivation, originality and viability of the research proposal.
  • Eligibility

  • After a student has passed their Preliminary Examination, they are required to take the Qualifying Examination once they have completed all the coursework listed in the degree requirements (with the exception that they may be enrolled in up to two final courses during the exam quarter). Students must maintain a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 in all completed coursework. Students must also be enrolled in the quarter in which the exam is conducted, or if the exam is held during a break between quarters, the student must have been enrolled in the previous quarter and be enrolled in the subsequent quarter.
  • Timeline 
  • After passing the Preliminary Examination, the student should immediately begin preparing for the QE administered by a faculty committee appointed by the Office of the Graduate Studies. The QE is traditionally taken in the 5th or 6th quarter, and all Ph.D. students are expected to complete the QE before their 7th quarter.
  • Applying to take the QE
  • The exam may not be held until a QE application has been approved by Graduate Studies. QE applications must be submitted at least 30 days prior to the exam date. 
    1. The student completes the Qualifying Examination Application, including the names of their proposed QE chair and committee members, and requests signatures from their Graduate Advisor and Graduate Coordinator. 
    - If requesting an external committee member (employed outside of the UC), complete the External Member Request and obtain the member's CV (document, not electronic).
    - If requesting that a committee member participate remotely (limited to 1 member and not the chair), complete the QE Remote Member Request.
    - If participating in a Designated Emphasis and haven't yet submitted an application, complete the DE application.
    2. The Graduate Coordinator submits the QE Application and any supplemental documents to Graduate Studies for review of student and committee eligibility. 
    3. If approved, Graduate Studies will email a notification to the students, the Graduate Coordinator, and the QE Chair.
    - External and Remote Member Requests are determined by the Associate Dean of Students and require additional review time.
  • Exam Format
  • The qualifying exam contains both a written and an oral portion.

    The written portion consists of a 10-15 page dissertation research proposal and bibliography that follows a format similar to an NSF or NIH grant proposal. The document should contain the following sections: Objectives, Background, Proposed Work, Schedule of Work, Preliminary Results (If any), and References. The proposal and bibliography must be provided to members of the qualifying examination committee at least 10 days before the qualifying exam. Failure to do so may result in a postponement of the exam. 

    The oral exam tests the student's level of preparation to pursue Ph.D. research. Students are expected to have a thorough understanding of (i) the context of the proposed research, (ii) the relevant literature, and (iii) theoretical and experimental approaches appropriate to the research problem. The format of the oral exam will consist of a 30 to 35-minute presentation by the student that will be interrupted by proposal-related questions, general questions in the exam areas as listed on the QE application, and feedback by the committee. The exam should be scheduled for 3 hours.
  • Proposal Font, Spacing, and Margin Recommendations
  • The proposal formatting should adhere to the following guidelines:
    - Times New Roman at a font size of 11 points or larger.
    - No more than six lines of text within a vertical space of one inch.
    - Margins, in all directions, must be at least an inch.
    - Paper size must be no larger than standard letter paper size (8 1/2 by 11").
  • Faculty Committee
  • The qualifying exam committee consists of five members with at least one member being appointed from outside of the Materials Science and Engineering Graduate program; the chair and two other members of the committee must be members of the Graduate Program. Major professors cannot serve on the QE Committee. Select your qualifying exam committee in consultation with your major professor. In rare cases, you may select one non-UC Davis member to serve on your committee pending approval from Graduate Studies. 
  • Scheduling & Booking a Room
  • Students are required to schedule both the exam and book their own room. Web based scheduling tools are great for collecting faculty availability. Details on booking an MSE control room can be found here: Other locations include Walker Hall ( or College of Engineering controlled rooms (Kemper 1002/1003/1007, or Academic Surge 2022/2050 which need to be requested via
  • Reconstituting & Rescheduling the QE
  • Students may change their QE Committee membership prior to the exam by submitting a Reconstitution of Committee Membership Request to their Graduate Coordinator for forwarding to Graduate Studies.
    Once the QE application has been approved, students and programs do not need to notify Graduate Studies if the exam date is changed - the date listed on the QE report will be recorded in the student's record. 
  • Exam Results
  • Once the Qualifying Exam Committee has reached a unanimous decision, they will inform the student of its decision as either:
    "Pass": The committee unanimously decides the student passed the examination and is prepared to advance to candidacy for the doctoral degree.  No conditions or additional requirements may accompany this decision.
    "Retake": The QE Report must specify whether the student is required to retake all or part of the examination, list any additional requirements, and state the expected timeline for completion of requirements before retaking all or part of the exam. The format of the second attempt may include a retake of all or a specific portion of the exam, a rewritten proposal, a paper addressing the areas of deficiency, or an alternate format determined by the QE committee and approved by the Dean of Graduate Studies.  The second QE may include multiple components (e.g. responding to committee questions in writing and then retaking the oral exam), but requirements must be stated in full on the QE Chair memo.  Requirements may not be added or determined necessary after submitting the memo to Graduate Studies.  
    "Fail": The committee unanimously determines the student failed the examination due to significant deficiencies, and the student is not currently prepared to continue in the doctoral program.  A unanimous fail on either the first or second exam is a recommendation of the student’s disqualification from the degree objective. 
    "Split QE": If the QE committee is unable to reach a unanimous decision on pass, retake, or fail, the QE chair will inform the student that the committee is divided, that the majority and minority are making recommendations subject to further review, and that the Administrative Committee of the Graduate Council or its designee will make the final decision with all available input.  In the Split QE memo, the QE Chair must include the number of committee members supporting each decision, and the recommendations from each side.  The QE Chair should not identify the names of committee members supporting each decision when discussing the results with the student or in the Split QE memo.
  • Retaking the Exam
  • Having received a "Retake", the student may attempt the qualifying exam one additional time. The format of the second attempt may include a retake of all or a specific portion of the exam, a rewritten proposal, a paper addressing the areas of deficiency, or an alternate format determined by the QE committee and approved by the Dean of Graduate Studies. The second QE may include multiple components (e.g. responding to committee questions in writing and then retaking the oral exam), but requirements must be stated in full on the QE No Pass memo. Requirements may not be added nor remove after submitting the memo to Graduate Studies. After a second exam, the only possible results are "Pass" or "Fail". A "Fail" results in a recommendation to the Dean of Graduate Studies for disqualification from the program.

Forms, Policies, & Resources

QE Forms

QE Policies & Resources

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