Graduate Exams Ph.D.

Qualifying Exams

The MatSE Ph.D. qualifying examinations is an oral exam consisting of a scientific discussion between the student and two examiners. For a detailed description of rules and procedures, especially, the additional requirements concerning thermodynamics, please review the MatSE graduate student handbook.

List of Qualifying Exams and Examiners

To Sign-Up

Qualifying Exam Sign-Up Form

The form must be completed and approved with a signature from your advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies (Moonsub Shim) before returning it to the Graduate Programs Coordinator in 203 MSEB. Once you turn in the form, you will be added to the list of students taking the exams. This must be done at least one month prior to the exam dates. After signing up, please contact the lead examiner for the exams you have chosen. The exams are given based on the availability of the examiners. You will be contacted with the time and date of the exam. If examiners have not been assigned, please see Moonsub Shim.

After successfully completing the qualifying examinations, the student is formally admitted to the Ph.D. program. The next major requirement is to prepare and pass the Preliminary Examination. This exam must be completed by the end of the sixth semester (counting fall and spring terms) after admission to the Department. Please see the MatSE graduate student handbook for a complete description of rules and procedures.


The MatSE department has adopted the system of oral qualifying examinations because this form of communication occurs every day in the career of a Ph.D. scientist or engineer. The underlying purpose of the qualifying examinations is to inspire the student in two ways: (i) to master the core knowledge in his/her chosen areas of specialization within MatSE; and (ii) to develop the essential professional skill of having a clear, concise and informative scientific dialogue with colleagues. Specifically, the student must have the ability to understand spoken questions from the examiners and to give responses, both in words and by writing equations and figures on the blackboard.

A useful analogy is fluency in a foreign language. A student can extensively study a foreign language in class and perform well in tests. But is the student fluent when he/she steps off the airplane in a country where that is the native language? The usual response to this question is "not really"—the background provided by classwork needs to be combined with active experience in the language. This is equally true for the MatSE qualifying examinations: the student needs to be "fluent" in the subject matter involved in the exam.


The oral Ph.D. qualifying examination consists of two examinations based on two topics that are selected by the student in consultation with his/her advisor from the list shown on this site. Each exam is usually 1 - 1.5 hours in length and is conducted by two examiners who are professors of MatSE or, occasionally, professors of related disciplines.


The qualifying examinations will be held approximately the first week of classes at the beginning of the fall and spring semesters, and approximately one week after the final exam period at the end of the spring semester. Students are required to submit their topics for examination—i.e., sign up—with the MatSE Graduate Programs Coordinator one month prior to these times. Once a student has signed up, he/she may not cancel or postpone taking the exam unless dire circumstances occur; these circumstances should be discussed with the Director of Graduate Studies.

Students are required to take the qualifying examination for the first time no later than the beginning of their fourth semester (counting fall and spring terms) after entering the program and must complete the qualifying examination, including any retakes, by the end of their fourth semester. If the student does not pass an examination, he/she must retake it on the next occasion it is offered. Only one retake is allowed, for a total of two opportunities to pass each exam.

Study Suggestions

The list of qualifying examination topics on this site has links to detailed study suggestions for each topic, including reading lists. The student is strongly advised to form a study group, consisting of classmates in MatSE, and to hold practice oral examinations in which one student stands at the blackboard and his/her study partners pose questions chosen from the subject area. This form of practice should be done throughout the period of preparation before taking the qualifying examinations, not left to the end. Such practice is especially important for non-native English speakers and for all students who are unaccustomed to speaking in front of a group. To learn who is taking the qualifying exam, speak with Erica Malloch in 201 MSEB.

Special circumstances

You should consult with the Director of Graduate Studies if you anticipate any problem in taking the qualifying examinations as required, e.g., you would like to take a qualifying examination in a topic for which you have not taken suitable coursework or your classwork has been interrupted.

Prelim and Final Exam

Prelim Exam: The "prelim" is your opportunity to

  1. Define, in a written document of 4000 words or less, the goals and methods of your Ph.D. dissertation, in the form of a proposal that is well grounded in the scientific literature and contains data and analyses which you have acquired. (This document is to be delivered to each member of the committee at least two weeks before the examination);
  2. Determine, in consultation with your advisor, the four or five faculty members who will serve as your Ph.D. committee; one of these must be from outside your area of specialization, and typically a professor is chosen from another department;
  3. Present your proposal to the members of your committee in the form of a short talk, normally 30 minutes in length;
  4. Discuss your proposal with your committee, and to gain valuable feedback on ways in which it can be improved.
  5. Following a successful preliminary exam:
    you should use your committee members as a resource—consult with them periodically over the years about the progress, problems, and plans in your work.

To Sign Up

A final unbound copy of the Ph.D. thesis must be presented to each member of the committee at least 2 weeks prior to the examination.

Please note, to request preliminary or final exam, you are required to complete both steps below:

Step 1. Department Approval 

Download and complete the appropriate form below. Once complete with requested documents, you are required to meet with the Director of Graduate Studies for department review/approval and signature on your exam request, before submission to department grad office.

Step 2. Graduate College Approval 

Once you have received approval from the DGS, you must log in here to initiate the exam request for Graduate College approval of the exam committee. Department approval will then be confirmed to Graduate College. This second step is required by Graduate College for approval of your exam committee and issuance of exam result forms before taking the exam. 




Once Graduate College approves the exam committee, you will receive official notification. Your issued exam result forms should be taken to the exam.

The astute definition of your proposal is the most challenging and important single aspect of the Ph.D. process: your goals should advance the leading edge of knowledge in a significant aspect of materials science and engineering, and your methods should be calculated to achieve those goals.

The faculty members in MatSE clearly recognize that you cannot spell out a proposal which anticipates every detail of your future work. (Neither can we, when we write grant proposals to obtain research funding; i.e., each faculty member writes the equivalent of several prelim proposals every year of his/her career!) But as you go through the process of defining and redefining your proposal, you will cast aside many lesser goals and insufficient methods, become thoroughly versed in the literature and be obliged to take a stand on what is important to pursue.

Although your actual work will by necessity evolve from this starting point, the experience of the preliminary exam is guaranteed to shorten the time necessary for you to complete an excellent Ph.D. dissertation.

At least three of the voting members must be members of the Graduate Faculty and at least two must be tenured. A majority of the committee must be members of the Department faculty with greater than 50% appointments. The members of the committee must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies.

MatSE Graduate Programs Office

Graduate Programs Office
106 MSEB
1304 W. Green St.
Urbana, IL 61801

Ashley Phillips Smith
Assistant Director of Graduate Programs 
1304 W. Green St.
Urbana, IL 61801
P: (217) 300-6668

Katie M. Burke
Graduate Programs Coordinator
1304 W. Green St.
Urbana, IL 61801
P: (217) 244-1379