Before the end of a student’s 11th 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 (four 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 four 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:

Committee Members must consist of: 

  • Minimum of 4 members with UC San Diego faculty appointments
  • At least 1 member must have a primary appointment in a different department than the chair's primary department
  • At least 2 members must be from the student's home department or program
  • At least 1 member must be tenured or emeritus
  • Proposed members from other UC campuses, other universities, or industry are exceptions and must be requested in writing

The official policy on Appointment of the Doctoral Committee can be found here: You can check the Doctoral Committee Membership Table here:[and-Master's]-Committ

  1. Committee members are usually chosen with the help of your dissertation advisor. 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 the PhD Form with your committee to the PhD staff advisor. 
  2. It is your responsibility to make arrangements with each committee member for the date and time of your examination. 
  3. Room reservations should be made at the Front Desk (in person or email to

Please carefully review these guidelines regarding committee attendance:

Department Policy on Graduate Examination Format:

Effective Fall 2022, the default format of a graduate examination in the Mathematics Department is in person, i.e., all the committee members and the student are physically present in the same room for a scheduled examination. (This is set by the Division of GEPA.) However, when an unexpected situation arises and affects a committee member’s ability to participate in the examination synchronously, and when the student agrees, a remote or hybrid examination is allowed and can be decided by the committee chair or co-chairs. The following guidelines should be followed to arrange a remote or hybrid, synchronous examination:

  1. In forming the committee, the student needs to provide different examination options, in person, remote, or hybrid, to potential faculty committee members, and based on the conversation, the student can decide whether or not they want the faculty member on their committee. If such conversation did not take place, and if an unexpected situation arises, the faculty committee member can request remote examination, and can be released from the committee duty should the student refuse the request.
  2. In general, the graduate student is not allowed to opt for a remote examination unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as illness, travel difficulties related to visa problems, or a graduation deadline. Under such circumstances, the committee chair can decide to reschedule an in-person examination, or have a remote or hybrid examination.
  3. According to the Division of GEPA, there must be sufficient expertise among present members to examine the student. If a committee member must be absent for the scheduled exam, it is permissible for one absent committee member to examine the candidate on a separate date. The committee chair, or one co-chair, must participate synchronously in the scheduled exam.

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. After your examination have the chair of your committee email confirming you passed the exam.
  3. An Advancement to Candidacy fee will be charged to the student's TritonLink financial account once the online Report of the Qualifying Exam form is received by the Graduate Division. 
  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.
  5. Advancement to Candidacy Date: Students may schedule their Qualifying / Advancement to Candidacy Examination between quarters (including summer) to accommodate their doctoral committee members' schedules; in order for any academic event to be recorded, a student must be registered. Advancement to Candidacy can only be posted to the academic record during a quarter of registration. The following information will be listed on an advanced students'' transcript:
    • The actual date of the exam (as listed on the Report of the Qualifying Examination).
    • For students who take the exam between quarters (including summer), the Advancement to Candidacy date will be listed as the first day of instruction of the next quarter of registration.
    • For students who take the exam during a registered quarter, the Advancement to Candidacy date will be listed as the date the form is received in the Graduate Division.
    • Students receiving a Candidate in Philosophy degree as part of the advancement will have the award date listed as the last day of the quarter. This is consistent with all other graduate degree posting.

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 11th 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.