To demonstrate the depth of knowledge in their intended area of research, the students must pass a comprehensive exam. The comprehensive exam is administered by a committee consisting of four members: the research advisor, an additional faculty member selected by the student, and two tenured CS faculty members selected by the PhD program director. One of the members selected by the program director chairs the committee.

The comprehensive exam has both written and oral components.  

For the written component of the exam, the student prepares a critical review of research literature on a topic in the intended area of research. The report should synthesize the previous research in the target area with particular emphasis on open problems. The report should be 8-10 pages long, should contain a minimum of 20 references and should be prepared according to the IEEE or ACM conference templates. The written report must be received by the committee members at least one month before the oral exam date.

The scope of the oral exam is defined by a reading list that includes research articles selected by the student and advisor, as well as the textbooks and articles related to the intended broader research area of the student selected by the other members of the committee and the CS department.

At least four months prior to the target oral exam date, the student is required to submit a Comprehensive Exam Form to the CS department specifying the names of the advisor and another CS/VSE faculty member willing to be part of the comprehensive exam committee, the target oral exam date,  the critical review topic, the proposed broader research area in which the topic falls, and the proposed reading list. In general, the focus area of any reputable archival journal (such as IEEE or ACM Transactions) can be proposed as the broader research area. 

The complete reading list, as well as the members of the examination committee will be finalized and communicated to the student by the CS department within a month of the submission of the Comprehensive Exam Form.  The comprehensive exam reading list becomes part of the student’s record.

The oral exam includes a presentation by the student based on the written report. The duration of the oral exam is typically two hours with the presentation limited to 20 minutes.  The exam is public but only the members of the committee are permitted to ask questions.

After the examination committee and the reading list are finalized, students are expected to prepare for their comprehensive exams without the close involvement of their advisors.  The written report must reflect the student’s own writing and paper reading skills.

The student passes the comprehensive exam when at least three out of four committee members find the student’s performance satisfactory in both the written and oral components of the exam. Otherwise the student is allowed to re-take the exam only once (with both written and components) and no later than the next semester.   If the written report is found unsatisfactory by two or more committee members, the oral exam is not administered in that attempt.  

The student can form a dissertation committee only after successfully passing the comprehensive exam.