CSE Comprehensive and Research Examinations (Prior to Fall 2001)

November 9, 1992
(Revised October 14, 1995 for new MS program; June 24, 1996 for exam access rules; April 28, 1998 for incorporation UQE into research exam)

PhD Program

PhD students are required to pass a series of four exams in addition to the CSE course requirements as given in the catalog. The last two exams are the advancement to candidacy exam and the final thesis defense. These are both university requirements and are described elsewhere (UCSD general catalog). Prior to the candidacy exam, PhD students will be required to take a written and a research comprehensive examinations which are described below. Successful completion of these two exams is prerequisite for continuing in the Ph.D. program.

Master's Program

Master's Program MS students have two exclusive options: the thesis option and the comprehensive examination option. Once a student has officially committed to an option, the student cannot change options. The written comprehensive exam contains three of the five offered exams: Operating Systems, Architecture, and Algorithms. The passing criteria are different as well, as discussed below. Note: students admitted in Fall 1995 have the option of remaining on the old program. Students admitted prior to Fall 1995 must remain on the old program.

Written Comprehensive Exam

This exam will test the students' knowledge of Basic computer science material. It is based on the five core graduate courses (three for MS) together with suitable undergraduate material. A precise description of the material is given by the syllabus provided.

Written comprehensive exam will be offered at least once every year. It will always be given in the first few weeks of the Fall quarter and usually in the first weeks of the Spring quarter. If fewer than seven people sign up, then the department may cancel the examination in the spring quarter.

All students (MS, Ph.D., part-time, leave of absence) should complete their written examination requirement successfully within 2 years following the quarter in which they are admitted to the graduate program. For example, students entering the graduate program in the Fall of 1995 should complete their written comprehensive exam successfully by the Fall of 1997.

We strongly encourage students to take the exam as soon as possible. Each student has three chances to take the exam. When taking the exam, the student is required to take all sections that the student has not yet passed.

Students who have an incomplete background in computer science when they enter the graduate program may apply for a delay to the Graduate Committee. Delays will only be granted to students who have a large numbers of courses to make up.

Format of the Written Exam

The comprehensive exam will be given over two consecutive days. Each of the five core areas covered in the graduate core curriculum (three for MS) will have a separate 90 minute examination. However, astudent's final grade will be based on the aggregate performance in all the exams.
The comprehensive examination committee will announce the exact times well in advance of the examination.

The Core Areas

  • Algorithms
  • Computability, Complexity and Logic (Ph.D. only)
  • Programming Languages (Ph.D. only)
  • Operating Systems
  • Computer Architecture and Digital Logic Design


The faculty will provide a syllabus of the material to be covered by the exam. They will use the ACM curriculum recommendations for an undergraduate computer science program as a guide in selecting the suitable undergraduate material, although they will not necessarily adhere rigidly to that program. The graduate part of the syllabus is based on the graduate core courses as given in the catalog. A detailed syllabus is provided with this document.


Grading criteria for the Comprehensive exam are provided below. The outcome of the written comprehensive examination will be one of the following:

  • Ph. D. Pass. When (and only when) the student obtains a Ph. D. level pass, a Ph.D. student will be allowed to take the research comprehensive examination.
    Note: An M.S. student receiving a Ph. D. pass is not automatically admitted to the Ph.D. program. However, if such a student is admitted as a Ph.D. student by the department's admissions committee, s/he will be considered to have completed the Ph.D. written comprehensive requirement.
  • Conditional Ph. D. Pass.A student may receive Ph. D. pass conditional to fulfilling certain requirements, usually retaking the failed exams to obtain the equivalent of a pass at the Ph. D. level when combined with the prior passed exams.
  • MS Pass.A student obtaining an MS pass will be eligible to receive an M.S. degree subject to fulfilling the other M.S. requirements. Ph. D. students receiving an MS pass can retake the exam subject to the time limits described in this document.
  • Conditional MS Pass.A student may receive an MS pass conditional to fulfilling certain requirements, usually retaking the failed exams to obtain the equivalent of a pass at the Masters level when combined with the prior passed exams.
  • Fail.If the Fail grade is obtained, the student will be allowed to retake the exam subject to the time limits.

A Note to Students

In borderline cases, several other factors, in addition to performance on the written exam, may enter into the decision of a student's comprehensive exam pass level. The following gives a list of likely additional factors:

  • Performance in courses
  • Research activities
  • Recommendations of faculty members

Exam Access and Regrades

A student has two ways to see his/her exams. One, the student can look over the exams in the Graduate Coordinator's office. In this case, if the student finds egregious grading errors (e.g., the key part of a question was overlooked) that would seem to change the outcome of the faculty's decision, a regrade may be requested. The student must be aware, however, that the faculty's decision is based on the above-cited criteria as well as the exam, so a change in exam grade does not guarantee a change in the faculty's decision. Two, the student can take the exams into his/her permanent possession. In this case, the student surrenders all rights to request a regrade.

Guidelines for Grading Comprehensive Exams

(Last updated on October 14, 1995) The representatives for each area will be responsible for having the corresponding area exams graded. The grading of area exams shall be done anonymously. Names of students will not be revealed to any faculty until the faculty meeting to discuss exam scores. Each exam should be assigned a numerical grade from 0 to 10. The representative should decide on tentative cut-off scores for Ph. D. and Master's level passes. These cut-offs will be used unless the faculty votes to change them.

A student's final grade for the comprehensive will normally be as stated below. However, the faculty can vote to change a student's grade or the penalty attached to a student's conditional Ph. D. or Master's pass. In making the above changes, the faculty may take into account the numerical scores and rank on this and previous comprehensives, and past performance of the student in course work and research and any special circumstances affecting the student's progress in the program.

  • Ph. D. Pass. A Ph. D. pass will be given for passing four of the area exams at the Ph. D. level and the fifth at the Master's level or better.
  • Conditional Ph. D. Pass. A conditional Ph. D. pass will be given to students receiving Ph. D. level passes in at least three of the area exams, but not qualifying for a Ph. D. pass as above. The usual penalty attached to such a conditional pass will be to retake all exam areas not passed at the Ph. D. level, and receive Ph. D. level passes in all but one, and at least a Master's level pass in that one.
  • Master's Pass. A Master's Pass will be given to students receiving Master's level passes in all three areas. A student may receive both a Master's level pass and a conditional Ph. D. pass simultaneously.
  • Conditional Master's Pass. A student not qualifying for a Master's Pass will be given a conditional Master's Pass when the student receives either:
       •   two passes at the Master's level or higher, or
       •   one PhD pass
    The usual recourse will be to retake the failed exams to obtain the level of a Master's Pass when combining the results of the conditional pass with the retakes.
  • Failure A student not included in any of the previous levels of passing has failed the exam.

Research Exam

(last updated on April 28, 1998 to reflect incorporation of the UQE)
The reserach exam is an oral exam designed to give an early indication of a students' research ability in some field of computer science. It also serves as the departmental UQE exam, otherwise known as the Advancement to Candidacy. As a consequence this exam also serves as a good-faith commitment by the student's advisor to advise the Ph.D. research.

The research exam must be taken by all Ph.D. students by the earliest of the following dates after passing the comprehensive exam:

  • The end of the student's third year.
  • If the student passes the comprehensive exam in the Spring, they must take (and file the paper work for) the Research/Advancement Exam by the first day of Fall quarter of the following academic year.
  • If the student passes the comprehensive exam in the Fall, they must take (and file the paperwork for) the Research/Advancement Exam by the first day of Winter quarter of the following academic year.

The exam explores a narrow research area that is more focused than the broad areas of Theory, Software, Artificial Intelligence, Hardware, etc., but still not so narrow as to constitute a thesis topic. However, the student's thesis topic likely falls within the general area covered by the research exam. The area is to be proposed by the student and finalized with the consultation and approval of the committee. The student is also expected to propose a reading list in consultation with the committee. The committees have much latitude in choosing questions, but are instructed to ask a broad range of questions that test the student's ability in a wider field than just the equivalent of one thesis topic.

One of the purposes of this exam is to spur a student to explore an area in sufficient depth and think about some of the research problems in that area. Hence, the students should take this exam constructively as it aids their search for a thesis topic.


For each student, a committee will be formed to administer this exam. The student's intended thesis advisor must be among the members of the committee.

The process of forming such a committee is cooperative. Once the student starts talking to faculty for this purpose, they would make suggestions about the make-up of the committee and work with the student in the formation of the committee. The initiative for forming the committee must be taken by the student.

The committee consists of at least five faculty members, and is subject to the committee rules for the UQE exam regarding internal and external members, as well as professorial rank, and must be approved by the department and the campus. At least two members must be from the CSE department.

The student will choose the area of study for the exam in consultation with the committee, and will prepare a description of the area and a reading list.

Once the committee is set up, the scheduling of the exam is up to the committee giving the exam; there will be no department-wide scheduling. The exam will be open to the public, unless the student requests that it be closed and the graduate committee approves such a request.

The committee must arrive at one of the following three outcomes:

  • Pass. The student will be officially admitted to the PhD program. Failed with permission to retake the research exam. The committee schedules another research exam for the student.
  • Failed and not given permission to retake the research exam. The student is not allowed to continue in the PhD program.

Hence, a student may be failed from the program after taking the exam only once, or might be allowed to take the exam two or more times. However, taking the exam more than twice should only happen under extraordinary circumstances. If a student changes thesis area, the Department's Graduate Committee will review the situation and make a determination of whether or not the student must take a second research exam that includes the new thesis area.

Transition Students

Transition students will be handled on a case by case basis.