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Oral Exam/Thesis Proposal

Rules and Regulations for the AMCS Ph.D. Oral Exam and Thesis Committee

Students who have satisfied the oral exam/thesis proposal requirement are officially admitted to candidacy for the PhD degree.  As such, you are allowed to take further courses, but you are not required to do so. The AMCS oral exam is normally be taken by the end of a student's fifth semester of study, and in any case no later than the summer after the sixth semester. Exceptions may only be granted by the AMCS Graduate Group Chair.

The purpose of the oral exam is to assess a student's readiness to transition into full-time research and eventually write his or her dissertation.  It is something of a hybrid between the subject-oriented oral exam administered by the Math department and the thesis proposal used in many fields of science and engineering.

Preparation for the oral exam provides the student with the opportunity to get a strong grasp on the background needed for his/her research program, and to formulate a clear plan for his/her overall research. The student, and his/her thesis advisor should agree upon an outline for the background material to be mastered as part of the oral exam process. This should be done approximately six months before the exam (usually by the start of the second summer), and a copy of the outline signed by the student and his/her advisor must be provided to the Graduate Group Chair at the time it is completed.

As part of this process the student will select a Thesis Committee. The Thesis Committee will consist of at least two AMCS-affiliated faculty members, including the student's primary supervisor, as well as, at least one other member, who is not required to be a member of the AMCS affiliated faculty.  The primary supervisor may not serve as the Chair of the committee. The composition of the Thesis Committee must be approved by the Graduate Group Chair.

The exam itself affords the student with a chance to demonstrate his/her knowledge of the subjects in which they plan to work, and explain to the committee their overall research plans. The committee should provide constructive suggestions regarding these plans. If a student fails to demonstrate adequate working knowledge of the field in which they plan to work, or lacks a novel problem, with significant mathematical content for their research, then the student risks failing the exam. A student who fails will be given a chance to retake the exam, within six months, and will be asked to leave the program if his or her performance on this second exam is not satisfactory.

Detailed descriptions of various aspects of the process:

Scheduling the exam: 

Once the thesis committee has been assembled, the student should schedule his/her exam. The Graduate Chair shall then be advised of the time and date of the Thesis Committee meeting and oral examination. Ideally, the exam should take place by the end of the  Fall semester of the third year, but in any case, no later than the summer after the third year.  One week prior to the meeting, a student will submit his/her thesis proposal to the members of his/her Thesis Committee, along with an outline of the topics that he or she has studied in the process of preparing his/her thesis proposal.

The thesis proposal should: 

  • begin with a 250 word abstract emphasizing the main objectives of the research, its broad significance and its relationship to Mathematics.
  • provide an introduction to the general area of the research project, including a thorough literature review on the topic of study. This section will help the committee assess if student has sufficient background in the math and the subject-specific topics.
  • describe the overall objectives of the proposed research.
  • contain preliminary results and a general research plan for achieving the research objectives.
  • not exceed 20 double-spaced typed pages.

Conduct and outcome of the exam: 

At the time of the Oral Exam, the Thesis Committee will meet with the student and his/her advisor individually for a few minutes prior to the student’s presentation. After presentation of the research project, the Thesis Committee will orally examine the student on the background material and their proposed research. The committee may "pass" the student, "conditionally pass" the student, with a written list of conditions to be fulfilled for the grade to be converted to a "pass," or "fail" the student. 

The Thesis Committee Chair should report the result of the Oral exam to the Graduate Chair, in writing, as soon as possible. An Oral Exam Thesis Committee Report Form will be provided to the Committee for this purpose. The written evaluation by Thesis Committee will be given to student for their review and will become part of the student's record. If the project is approved, the student has passed the oral examination. The appropriate form will then be submitted to the Graduate Division of the School of Arts and Sciences for notation on the student's transcript.

Following a successful oral exam, the student must meet with his or her Thesis Committee at least once a year. These committee meetings are designed to facilitate communication and provide guidance during the research process. The Thesis Committee may require meetings every six months. The Graduate Chair will remind the student and thesis advisor when a meeting should be scheduled. It is important to note that it takes some time to organize these meetings, thus it is wise to start the planning process early.

The Chair of the Thesis Committee will submit a written evaluation of each meeting to the Graduate Chair and the student for his/her review. This report will become part of the student's record. At these meetings, students must show satisfactory progress towards completion of their dissertation research as judged by the thesis committee. If not, the thesis committee can recommend dismissal from the program.


Consequence of two failures: 

If a student twice fails the oral exam, then they will not be permitted to continue in the AMCS Ph.D. program. If they have fulfilled all the requirements, and have not already received the degree, then they may be awarded a Masters degree.