The Design area PhD Qualifying Exam (also known as the Qualifier or the Written Comprehensive Examination as discussed here) is a necessary step in the process of completing a PhD. In the mechanical engineering design area, the exam consists of: 1) a written report, 2) a 30 minute presentation, and 3) a 30 minute question and answer session. These three together fulfill the Written Comprehensive Exam.

The PhD Preliminary Exam (also known as the Oral Preliminary Examination (as discussed here); the PhD prelim's; or the PhD proposal) is separate from the Qualifier and should follow within a year of passing the Qualifier. In the design area (as in other ME areas), the prelim is a presentation of your work to date and your detailed plans for finishing your degree in which your entire PhD committee must be present including the Graduate Committee Representative (GCR). This requires the involvement of the Graduate School and passing this exam makes you a PhD candidate (see for more details). It should be noted that your completed report, slides, and final assessment sheet of the qualifier needs to be obtained and shared with your entire PhD committee.

The remainder of this document will cover the Qualifying Exam.

In the Qualifying Exam, students are assessed on three criteria to determine if they are ready for PhD level research. The criteria are:

  1. communication ability,
  2. understanding of the fundamentals,
  3. research ability.

The communication ability is assessed based on the inherent quality of your report and presentation. Your understanding of the fundamentals is mostly based on the Q&A related to the relevant coursework. Finally, the research ability here is focused on how well you perform a literature review and identify gaps for potential research. One should not perform new research or propose a methodology for solving new problems as this is essentially addressed in your PhD prelim.

Attempting the design area Qualifying Exam may happen during either the fall or spring terms. The process begins with the student discussing with his/her advisor their larger PhD plan (why is the degree being pursued?, what is the target timeline?, what is the student's eventual goals?) and determining an appropriate literature review topic. The student should be able to identify the state-of-the-art in a given area and synthesize theoretical contributions that can be defined. The literature review is the focus of the written report and the 30 minute presentation. Additionally, the student is to choose two ME or IME classes that are closest to the literature review. Following the agreement of the committee, the student prepares and submits a literature review paper to the committee. This report is to be written without instruction from any of the committee members. If any questions or concerns arise, they must be shared with the entire committee via email so that feedback to the student is clearly documented and considered during final assessment. At an agreed upon 60-minute meeting, the student will give a 30-minute presentation on the details of the literature review paper and the committee will use the remaining 30 minutes to ask questions about the paper and the fundamentals of the two classes listed prior. The members of the committee will each fill out an assessment form (form in word format) and the student will be provided access to the final summary form at the end of the examination period. The following table summarizes these actions and provides deadlines for the two periods. One of the reasons for offering two exam periods is for cases in which a student fails the exam. In such situations, the student should do their second attempt in the next period. If the student fails a second time, they are ineligible to complete the PhD degree. 

Actions / Deliverables Fall Dates* Spring Dates*
Student meets with his/her advisor to determine an appropriate literature review, and two ME or IME classes September 21st to October 5th March 24th to
April 9th
1. Student emails intention to take qualifiers with the above info to the design faculty. October 5th April 9th
2. Deadline for the student to show the current design area lead (via emails or signatures) that a majority of design faculty have agreed that the topic and related courses are appropriate. October 15th April 19rd
Research Phase (student is not allowed to receive advice during this period) October 15th to November 26th April 19th to
May 31st
3. Written literature review paper due to all design faculty November 26th

May 31st

Presentation preparation November 26th to December 3rd May 31st to
June 7th
4. Presentation period December 3rd to December 17th June 7th to
June 21st
Last date for completing assessments and communicating results to student December 20th June 24th

* if the proposed date falls on the weekend, the deadline is shifted to the next business day 


For #1 above, email of intention should include the following within one printed page:

  • a) title
  • b) name
  • c) date
  • d) abstract
  • e) two related Graduate-level courses in Engineering Design (one of which cannot be taught by your thesis advisor)
  • f) PhD advisor(s)

For #3 above, written report should include:

  • a) cover sheet, which is basically the details from#1 (e.g. title, abstract, two related courses, etc.)
  • b) report text and figures in 10 pages or less
  • c) references to papers in report.
    Be aware that the committee may request that the student provide more information or a copy of any of your references at any time up until the presentation.