Doctoral Qualifying Exam

The Doctoral Qualifying Examination (QE)

Qualifying Exam Topics

Return to In-Person QE's

The graduate community is transitioning back to in-person QE's in phases during Summer and Fall 2021.  Information about in-person/remote format is available on the Return to In-Person Qualifying Exams page.  

The Qualifying Exam Application

Purpose of the Qualifying Exam

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 no more than two opportunities to pass the QE.  

The QE evaluates the student’s preparation and potential for doctoral study, including:

Strategies for Success

Review proven QE tips, gathered by students in Professors of the Future, on Acing Your Qualifying Exam.

  • Academic preparation in the field, and sufficient understanding of the areas related to the dissertation research.
  • Knowledge and understanding of the literature in the field, and the ability to evaluate and integrate those concepts.
  • Knowledge and understanding of relevant research methods and applications.
  • The viability and originality of the research proposal, and the ability to communicate those topics.

QE Format

Information below is included in the Doctoral Qualifying Examination policy.  The QE must be an oral exam, 2-3 hours in length, and may include a written component covering both breadth and depth of knowledge.  Specific format is determined by the graduate program degree requirements which have been approved by Graduate Council.  Graduate Council specifies that Qualifying Exams must also have the following essential characteristics:

  • Be Interactive
  • The examiners must be able to ask questions, hear the answers, and then follow up with another question or comment in response to the student's initial reply. Committee members, individually and collectively, must be able to engage in a discourse with the candidate on topics relevant to the candidate’s area of competence.
  • Be a Group Activity
  • In addition to the ability to follow up to one's own questions, it is also very important for all examiners to hear all of the questions and all of the student's responses, plus have the ability to interject an alternate follow-up question. The collective wisdom of a group is generally greater than that of the individual. Further having other examiners present serves to moderate the group, to ensure that one examiner does not ask questions that are either trivial or too difficult, and that any one examiner is neither too friendly nor too obstreperous. Thus, to optimize the examination process and evaluation of the candidate, the committee as a whole must collectively: 1) experience the discourse with a candidate, 2) evaluate the candidate’s performance, 3) determine the length and content of the examination, and 4) moderate the demeanor of the candidate and the members of the committee.
  • Be Broadly Structured
  • Based on the candidate’s past academic, research, and scholarly record and the performance on the examination, the candidate must broadly demonstrate sufficient competence in the selected disciplinary area, which must go beyond the limited area of scholarship associated with a dissertation topic. Further, the candidate must demonstrate the capability for integration and utilization of knowledge and skills that are critical for independent and creative research, thereby qualifying them for advancement to the research-intensive phase of doctoral education.

Student QE Eligibility

To be eligible to take the exam, a student must:

  • Be enrolled in the quarter in which the exam will be 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.  
  • Maintain a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 in all course work completed.
  • Have completed all required coursework with the possible exception of 1-2 courses in which the student is enrolled at the time of taking the QE.  Language requirements may be completed following the QE, but must be completed prior to advancing to candidacy.

QE Application

The exam may not be held until a QE application has been approved by Graduate Studies.  QE applications are due to Graduate Studies at least 30 days prior to the expected 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 the UC), complete an External Member Request and obtain the member's CV (document, not web-based).
    • If requesting a committee member participate remotely, complete the QE Remote Member Request.  
    • If you are 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 Senior Academic Advisors (SAA’s) email a notification to the student, the Graduate Coordinator, and the QE Chair.
    • External and Remote Member Requests are determined by the Associate Dean for Students, and require additional review time.

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.  The eligibility of the committee will be re-evaluated according to the standards listed below.  
  • 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.  

The QE Committee

QE committee selection and recommendation vary from program to program, and students should discuss the membership with their Graduate Advisor and major professor.  Graduate Studies evaluates the eligibility of the committee and individual members using the regulations included in the Service on Advanced Degree Committee and Doctoral Qualifying Examination policies.  The QE Chair and committee members should be selected to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest.

  • QE Committee Chair Requirements
  • • The Chair of the QE committee must be a member of the student’s graduate program.
    • The student’s major professor may be a member of the QE committee, but may not serve as the QE Chair.
  • QE Committee Membership Requirements
  • • The QE committee must include four or five members, as included in the graduate program degree requirements.
    • A student or program may petition Graduate Studies for one additional member beyond the number required by submitting a brief statement of explanation with the QE application.  Most often additional members are requested for students in a Designated Emphasis.
    • At least three of the members must be members of the student’s graduate program.
    • At least three members of the QE committee must be voting members of the Academic Senate of the University of California (Professors, Lecturers with Security of Employment, Professors in Residence and Professors of Clinical “ ”, or Acting Professors).
    • At most two members of a 5-person committee or one member of a 4-person committee may be from categories that include non-Senate faculty.
    • At least one committee member who is not a member of the student's graduate program, unless the program has an approved exception.  
  • Students in Designated Emphases
  • • In cases where a student is completing one or more Designated Emphases (DE), at least one committee member must be affiliated with each DE. 
    • Students must have an approved DE application prior to taking the Qualifying Exam.  The form can be included with the QE application.  
  • Optional External Member - not employed by a University of California
  • • At most one member may be a faculty member from another university outside the UC system or a scholar from outside academia.  External members must hold a doctoral degree, and may not be a postdoc currently or within two years.

Outcomes of the QE

QE Committees must inform the student of the result of their QE immediately following the exam.  QE Chairs report the results to Graduate Studies by submitting the Qualifying Examination Report to the student's Graduate Coordinator or to the SAA’s (gradservices@ucdavis.edu) with the Coordinator CC’d.  A memo of explanation from the QE Chair must be submitted along with the QE report for any result other than unanimous pass.  More information about the QE results is available on the QE Regulations.

  • 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.
  • Not Pass
  • The committee unanimously decides the student did not pass part or all of the exam, and the student must address deficiencies through a second QE.  The QE Chair and QE committee must provide the student with an explanation of the deficiencies, the format of the second QE, and a timeline to complete the second QE requirements.  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 Not Pass 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.  For more information on disqualification and the process to appeal, review the Disqualification webpage.  
  • Split QE
  • If the QE committee is unable to reach a unanimous decision on pass, not pass, 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

First QE Not Pass & the Second Exam

Students who receive a Not Pass in their first QE are permitted one additional opportunity to pass the exam.  The second exam may take a different format depending on which parts of the exam the student did not pass, and how the committee can best evaluate the clearing of the deficiencies noted in the first exam.  Committees may require students to submit a rewrite of their proposal or written response to committee concerns/questions.  They may require students to retake all or portions of the examination (e.g. the oral portion, but not the written, or the proposal portion, but not the field foundation knowledge portion).  Committees may combine requirements (e.g. a written response and retaking the oral exam), or include additional tasks as part of the requirements (e.g. taking a course).  

The written memo from the QE Chair will clarify the requirements of the second exam in full, how the student should carry these out, and provide a specific timeline for meeting the requirements.  Not Pass memos should indicate one or more contact member(s) if the student has questions about the deficiencies in the first exam or the requirements for the second exam. Graduate Studies will review the QE Not Pass memo, and may follow-up with QE Chairs for clarification if needed.  Once approved, the Associate Dean for Students will write a letter to the student confirming the second exam requirements.  Letters are sent by the Senior Academic Advisors (SAA’s) to the student, the Coordinator, the QE Chair, and the program Graduate Chair.

Following the second exam end date included in the Not Pass memo, the QE Chair will notify the student of the outcome and complete the Second QE Report.  The outcome of the second exam may only be Pass or Fail, and follow the guidelines included in the Outcomes section above.  The QE Chair may send the Second QE Report to the student’s Graduate Coordinator for submission to Graduate Studies or to the SAA’s (gradservices@ucdavis.edu) with the Graduate Coordinator CC’d.  

Advancing to Candidacy

After passing the QE, the student will complete the appropriate Candidacy Application (Plan A, B, or C), identifying their proposed dissertation committee and requesting signatures from their major professor, Graduate Advisor, and Graduate Coordinator. Graduate Coordinators will submit the Candidacy Application to Graduate Studies for review and advancement to candidacy.  

Forms, Policies, & Resources