Qual Information

About the Data & Information Systems (DAIS) Qual

1. Who should take the DAIS qual?

Students who plan to do a dissertation in the Data and Information Systems (DAIS) area should take the DAIS qual. The DAIS faculty (i.e., faculty whose primary area is DAIS) will, in general, expect their advisees to pass the DAIS qual. If you have questions about the DAIS qual after reading the remainder of this note, please talk to your research advisor, who is generally at a good position to help you assess which area you should be prepared to take the qual exam. 

2. When is the DAIS qual offered?

The DAIS qual is offered every semester, during the usual departmental qual period.

3. What is the DAIS qual format?

The DAIS qual consists of a written qual with questions based on a reading list with cutting-edge research papers in the broad area of DAIS and an oral qual that includes short one-on-one interview meetings between a student and three DAIS faculty members.

The reading list used for the written qual will undergo periodic revision. The reading list for a particular semester’s qual will be announced about one month before the written qual exam of the semester. Since the reading lists for previous semesters may also be available, please make sure that you use the correct version of the reading list, i.e., the reading list explicitly labeled with the semester when you will be taking the qual.

The qual is closed-book.

The qual reading list includes multiple sections with each section covering two to three papers about a broad topic in the general area of DAIS. The questions in the written exam are generally designed based on the papers in the reading list. An exam question is often designed based on one or multiple closely related papers and usually contains multiple parts that differ in difficulty to enable students to fully demonstrate their mastery of relevant knowledge and skills of understanding and extending the cutting-edge research work. To accommodate the diverse topic areas and research interests of the students, the questions will cover a wide range of research topics as reflected in the multiple sections of the reading list (there will be one to two questions in each of the sections).   A student is expected to answer k out of n questions, where k and n change from year to year. In the past, k is often set to 4 with n larger than 10. Since there will be no more than two questions from any single section, the students should be able to answer questions from multiple sections. Thus it would make sense for a student to pre-select a few sections with papers that they are most familiar with and focus on digesting the papers in those a few sections when preparing for the exam. 

The purpose of the oral interview is for the DAIS faculty to examine a student’s skills of technical communication and learn about the student’s research progress. The student is expected to prepare some slides for the meeting.

As described below, in borderline cases, the DAIS faculty may ask a student to take a follow-on exam shortly after the written test. The follow-on exam may be oral.

4. How do students sign up for the DAIS qual?

To sign up for the DAIS qual, students contact the academic office and follow the standard academic office procedure for signing up for a qual.

Before the written exam, the proctor of the qual exam will give each student a unique qual ID number to facilitate anonymous grading. On their exam pages, each student will be identified only by their ID number. Only the proctor who assigned numbers will know which students correspond to which ID numbers. Each question will be answered on a separate sheet of paper (or booklet). 

5. How are the exams graded?

Each question on the exam will generally be graded by one or two faculty members. All students’ answers to a particular question will be graded by the same faculty member(s). Final decisions on who passes or fails the exam will be made jointly by the DAIS faculty. Examinees will be notified of the qual results by the academic office, once all quals are completed.

If a student fails the qual, they may take the qual a second time, subject to the usual time limits for passing quals in the CS PhD program.

As mentioned above, in borderline cases, the DAIS faculty may ask the student to take a follow-on exam the same semester. If the student does not take and pass the follow-on exam, the qual result will be treated as an ordinary failure, subject to the usual rules for retaking the qual. Sometimes, a student may also receive a conditional pass where the condition can vary, including, e.g.,  taking a particular course with a satisfactory grade or submitting a first-author research paper by a particular deadline.

6. How should students prepare for the DAIS qual?

Obviously the DAIS course offerings will be helpful in preparing for the qual. However, a student must do more than taking DAIS courses to pass the qual. The particular papers on the qual reading list are not necessarily covered in any DAIS course. Further, the qual will require students to demonstrate significant depth of understanding, beyond what is needed to pass a course.  In particular, the exam questions often test a student’s ability of critical thinking and/or creative thinking. The students should thus be prepared to demonstrate ability to go beyond the understanding of the papers and show original thought, e.g., in analyzing, critiquing, and extending the research shown in the papers. 

In general, a student should prepare for the qual by taking courses, studying papers on the qual reading list, discussing the papers in depth with other students who are preparing for the same qual, and using those discussions as a way of learning to think beyond the scope and contributions of the assigned papers.  The DAIS faculty strongly encourage students to collaborate with each other in preparing for the qual exam and organize group discussion meetings. Students are also encouraged to take advantage of platforms such as Slack to organize online discussions.   

For more information, please check out the specific information about the qual exam in the current semester available under the tab “Qual Information”.