Before the end of a student’s 12th quarter in residence, they must pass an oral exam. This is not quite what it sounds like; the “exam” is really more accurately described as a research proposal. It is your job to prepare an organized and thoughtful presentation of exactly what you plan to do for your thesis. The audience will include your doctoral committee, which consists of your thesis advisor, two or three other faculty members from the math department, and one or two faculty members from a department other than math (five members total). Of course, other people are certainly allowed to come watch and cheer you on.

Before you can prepare this presentation, you need to have a research topic. Different students find these in different ways. Some students come up with their own topic, others are given a topic by their advisor. One thing that some students fail to realize is that your research plans are allowed to change after you advance!

That is if your advancement talk is about topic X, but later you decide you are more interested in topic Y, you can write your thesis on topic Y. The main purpose of the advancement talk is for your committee to be able to see that you are able to elucidate a statement of a math problem and outline some kind of rudimentary plan of attack.

It’s certainly advantageous not to change research topics – for the simple reason that you will save time by not having to start over – but you should not feel that you are locked in once you advance to candidacy.

After finding a research topic, make sure you have a clear understanding of the problem you want to solve. More specifically, how does your problem fit in the landscape of other research in your field? Are there other problems (solved or unsolved) that are similar in nature to yours? What consequences will solving your problem have? You should also make sure that your advisor believes that your problem is tractable.

We’ve all seen incredibly simply stated math problems that take the world’s best mathematicians decades (or even centuries) to solve. While no one can ever be completely certain that any given problem is tractable, your advisor will likely have a good idea of whether he or she thinks you have a reasonable chance of finishing a given problem in a reasonable amount of time.

Keep in mind that the talks are only about an hour long. The people on your committee may not have ever even heard of your particular research topic. Remember that one or two of your five committee members must be from departments other than math. If you assume too much background, they will be left completely in the dark. Of course, you will probably have too little time to give complete and careful definitions of everything related to your research. Striking the right balance will take some thought.

As you might have guessed, there is also a fair amount of paperwork that goes along with advancing. It’s important to get all of the paperwork completed correctly and submitted because it’s the paperwork that documents the fact that you actually did your talk and advanced. Here are the departmental and Graduate Division requirements to keep in mind:

  1. Committee Members:  Committee members are usually chosen with the help of your dissertation advisor.  The committee must consist of no less than five (5) members, three or four from our department and one or two from outside the department (one of whom must be tenured).  Please note that asking faculty members to serve on your committee is clearly your responsibility, with the assistance of your faculty advisor. No less than two weeks prior to your Oral Qualifying Examination you must submit your committee to the PhD staff advisor.  The official policy on doctoral committees can be found here:
  2. It is your responsibility to make arrangements with each committee member for the date and time of your examination.     Room reservations should be made at the Front Desk (in person or email to

Please carefully review these guidelines regarding committee attendance:

The preferred means to conduct these examinations is when all members of the doctoral committee are physically present. The Council recognizes, however, that practical exigencies do not always make this possible. Therefore, the Council approves the following rules for conducting PhD qualifying exams and defenses:

  • A doctoral committee member can participate in one of three ways: physically present (meaning they are in the room), telepresent (meaning they participate by live video teleconference), or in advance (if they must be absent on the exam date, it is permissible to examine the candidate in advance of the exam date).
  • More than half of the doctoral committee must be physically present. No more than two members may be telepresent.
  • The committee chair, or one co-chair, must be physically present.
  • The outside tenured member must be physically present or telepresent.
  • If an emergency situation arises that affects the number of committee members present, the committee chair (or co-chairs) may decide how to proceed. There must be sufficient expertise among present members (either physically or telepresent) to examine the student.
  • Departments and programs may impose more restrictive requirements regarding how to conduct these exams, as they deem appropriate.

Make sure to inform the PhD staff advisor in advance if any of your committee members will not be physically present.

  1. Send an email to with the date, time and location of your oral examination so that the information can be posted on our bulletin boards.  It is your responsibility to remind the committee members close to the time of your exam.
  2. A few days before your examination, go to the PhD staff advisor and pick up the “Report of the Qualifying Examination and Advancement to Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy” form (which requires the signatures of all your committee members). After your examination return this form to the Graduate Advisor, who will check for errors, obtain the Graduate Vice Chair’s signature, and then make copies for departmental records. Please note: original signatures are required on this form (no scanned or electronic signatures allowed).
  3. Before you take this form to Graduate Division, you must first stop by the Cashier’s Office and pay a filing fee. They will validate your “Report of the Qualifying Examination and Advancement to Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy” form, and you can then take it to Graduate Division for processing.
  4. Quarterly Deadline: The deadline to submit the advancement paperwork is the last day of the quarter.  This will be the Friday of Finals week. If you reached the last quarter to advance please do not schedule your advancement on this Friday, as it will be unlikely for the department to process the forms in time for you to submit your forms to Graduate Division.

If you have any questions or concerns about the above step, the PhD staff advisor can assist you.

While you are not required to advance until the end of your 12th quarter, it is not a bad idea to advance earlier if you are ready. After you have advanced, you are eligible to teach your own course as an Associate Instructor. This is not only good experience but can be very helpful when putting together a teaching portfolio for job applications.