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The Qualifying Exam (PhD)

The purpose of the Qualifying Examination (QE), called the "preliminary exam" by Rackham, is to evaluate the student’s research progress to date, the student's abilities, background knowledge, and potential to complete a PhD degree. The QE is held either in the student's third (3rd) or fourth (4th) term in residence. For graduate students who matriculated in the Fall term these terms are, respectively, the Fall and the Winter terms of their Year 2 in EARTH. Students take the QE in the

  • 3rd term if they entered the program with a MS degree. They have the option to take the QE in the 2nd term.
  • 4th term if they entered the program with a BS/BA degree. 

Students who earned a MS from EARTH and continue toward the PhD degree take the QE after they have completed the MS thesis, usually in the following academic term.

Advisors can request to postpone the QE by sending a formal request and justification to the Grad Chair. 

Students "advance to candidacy" after passing the QE and completing at least 18 hours of non-research graduate credit on the Ann Arbor campus. Candidacy requirements are explained on Rackham's Candidacy Requirements web site. The Academic Program Manager will submit the Recommendation for Candidacy Form to Rackham Graduate School.

Students who did not complete their undergraduate degree or MS degree at an English-language university should pass the OET exam or obtain an English Language Institute (ELI) waiver before taking the QE. This is required for candidacy.

The QE has two components: the writing exam and the oral exam. They are held in the same term roughly one month apart.

The QE involves five steps described below.

1. Forming the QE Committee

The QE Committee consists of four U-M faculty members, all of whom must be tenure-track or tenured faculty with an appointment in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

  1. Chair of the Committee – a faculty member on the Qualifying Examination Standing Committee
  2. Adviser – the student's research adviser
  3. Academic Mentor – the student's mentor (see the MS program or PhD program pages)
  4. Member – a faculty member with expertise in the student's field of research.

Students must suggest their preferred choices for the Chair and the Member using this form.

The Chair must be a faculty member on the Qualifying Examination Standing Committee. However, the Grad Chair must distribute the workload of the QE Standing Committee members and ensure breadth on the Committee, so students often do not get their first choice. The final decision about the members of the QE committee rests with the Graduate Chair and research advisor. 

2. Writing Exam

The writing exam contains three pieces:

  1. Writing sample,
  2. Public facing summary,
  3. Adviser statement.

They must be uploaded to a folder that is shared by the student, QE Committee members, the Grad Chair, and the Academic Program Manager. The Academic Program Manager will provide the link for upload before the due date for the writing sample and will make sure that the materials are complete.

The writing sample must represent the student’s original work and cannot be a previously used thesis or class assignment, unless approved by the Grad Chair. The length of the writing sample is roughly 5,000 words, excluding references and figure captions. If a longer journal article is being prepared for submission, then the student must provide an “abridged version” as the writing sample.

Effective writing samples

  • include an introductory section that is comprehensible to QE Committee members from different sub-disciplines within EARTH,
  • relates the work to big-picture topics in earth and environmental science,
  • include new data, models, or techniques that are generated by the student,
  • have high-quality graphics,
  • have appropriate referencing, following customary scientific journal formats.

and have the IMRaD form and style of a journal manuscript or a research prospectus with the following sections

  1. Abstract/Summary
  2. Introduction
  3. Methods and Data
  4. Results
  5. Discussion and Conclusions
  6. References

The Public facing summary has a length of 400–700 words. It should be written independently of the adviser. It should not be the same as the “Abstract/Summary” of the writing sample but written for a broad audience of earth or environmental scientists, outside the field of the student's specialization.

The adviser statement, written by the adviser, describes the role of the faculty adviser in the student's writing sample. This can include, but is not limited to, project conception, development, and degree of editing of paper drafts.

All materials are due on either January 15 (for a QE in the Winter term) or October 15 (for a QE in the Fall term). Send them by email to the Academic Program Manager.

To request an extension of the deadline for the writing materials or to postpone the QE to the following term, the research advisor must contact the Grad Chair with a justification.

3. Evaluation of the writing exam

Committee members must evaluate the writing sample and return comments within two weeks of submission using the QE Writing Sample Grading Rubric. They should email this rubric to the  Program Manager (

After studying the evaluations and before the oral exam, students should meet with each of the committee members to discuss the writing sample and to learn how they can prepare for the oral exam. Ideally, students hear from the Committee the strengths and weaknesses of their preliminary research and the writing sample, how well they communicated broadly their work in the independent abstract, and what topics for questions they should expect in the oral exam.

If the average score is below a PASS (3) (see the Grading Rubric), the QE Committee Chair

  • reviews the Grading Rubrics.
  • sets up a Committee meeting to discuss the nature of the “low pass” evaluation.

The committee may decide to

  1. proceed to the oral exam,
  2. ask student to correct and resubmit the writing sample,
  3. postpone the oral exam,
  4. discontinue the student in the program,

and consult with the Grad Chair on these four options.

4. Oral Exam

The oral exam is about three (3) hours long and has the following format (typically there will be a short break after an hour or so):

  • 10 minutes – Without the student present, the QE committee members discuss the student’s record and the strengths and weaknesses of the writing sample. They decide the order in which committee members ask questions.
  • 15 minutes – The student gives a (powerpoint) presentation of the research based on the writing sample and the committee’s evaluation of the writing sample.
  • 4 x 20 minutes – Each committee member asks the student questions on the research, including research goals, the broader context, theoretical background, methods, data, modeling, and preliminary results.
  • 5 minutes – Without the student present, the committee discusses whether a second round of questions is necessary.
  • 4 x 10 minutes (optional) – Second round of questions not necessarily by all committee members and those who ask questions may not take the same amount of time.
  • 10 minutes – Without the student present, the committee members share views on the student’s overall exam performance and identify strengths and weaknesses.
  • 10 minutes – Discussion with student on strengths and weaknesses.
  • 10 minutes (optional) – Without the student present, the committee members discuss the student’s potential to succeed in the PhD program.

5. Overall evaluation

Upon completion of both components of the qualifying examination, all members of the QE Committee will use the QE Oral Exam Grading Rubric to evaluate the examination and indicate whether the student passed, failed, or passed with stated conditions. They are encouraged to take a day or two to reflect on the exam and to articulate carefully the student's performance in the exam and whether and how weaknesses can be corrected. The members must send their Rubrics to the Grad Chair by email. Within a week after the Oral Exam, the Grad Chair, the QE Committee Chair, and the student's adviser discuss the committee evaluations and determine the exam outcome in light of the exam performance, the student's overall academic progress, and extenuating circumstances.

If the student fails any portion of the examination, the Committee must recommend whether and when the student will be permitted to take a second examination. If a second examination is granted, it must be taken in the subsequent academic semester and with the understanding that failure of any portion of the examination typically results in immediate termination from the graduate program.

The student, research advisor, and academic mentor are encouraged to discuss the exam outcome, to revise the mentoring plan, and to discuss the next steps.


Year I

As soon as the student enters the program (usually early September). The student and adviser identify the student's Academic Mentor.

Year 2

Fall Exam (Term III)

September – The student and adviser (with approval of the Grad Chair) identify the QE Committee Chair and a fourth member. The student schedules a three-hour block for the Oral Exam after checking the availability of all QE Committee members (using when2meet or a different survey tool). 
October 15 – Writing Exam materials are due.
October 29 – The evaluations by QE Committee members of the Writing Exam materials are due.
Early November – Students schedule individual meetings with committee members following the written exam and prior to the oral exam.
Middle November–December – The Oral Exam should be held before the end of the term (but scheduled as soon as the QE Committee is known).

Winter Exam (Term IV)

December – The student and adviser (with approval of the Grad Chair) identify the QE Committee Chair and a fourth member. The student schedules a three-hour block for the Oral Exam after checking the availability of all QE Committee members (using when2meet or a different survey tool). 
January 15 – Writing Exam materials are due.
January 29 – The evaluations by QE Committee members of the Writing Exam materials are due.
Early February – Students schedule individual meetings with committee members following the written exam and prior to the oral exam.
Middle Februrary–April – The Oral Exam should be held in the same term (but scheduled as soon as the QE Committee is known).

To request an extension of the deadline for the writing materials or to postpone the QE to the following term, the research advisor must contact the Grad Chair with a justification.

Tips for preparation for the QE

General comments

  1. Hopefully, you have begun your preparation on Day 1 of graduate school and are transitioning successfully into an independent scientist. Take advising and mentoring seriously. Attend group meetings, keep a research notebook, go to seminars and defense talks, proactively learn research tools outside the lab and classroom, keep up with the scientific literature, and ask critical questions.
  2. Consider the QE preparation time as a mini-retreat from the daily chores and dedicated to reading and thinking. Solidify your background in basic concepts and form connections between your research and the high-level research questions in your discipline. Focus on learning.
  3. The QE Committee is genuinely interested in a scientific conversation and exchange of ideas. You set the topics of the conversation in the writing sample and oral presentation. Expect "softball" questions to get the conversation going. Expect follow-up questions that get progressively deeper down to the nitty-gritty of your research methods or digress into aspects of science you may not know much about. The QE Committee is searching for the boundaries of your comfort zone and determining how well you can analyze and reason. Don't worry if you do not have answers to all questions asked. Neither do the Committee members.

Advice on the Writing Exam ...

  • Start early.
  • Explore resources on scientific writing such as Sweetland's Writing Guides. Almost all advise a good structure (e.g., IMRaD), a clear message, concise and precise language with an active voice and without fluff, and frequent editing.
  • Pay extra attention to the Introduction section. The QE Committee often identifies the inability to contextualize the research as a weakness.
  • Check the accuracy of your claims and make sure you understand in detail the topics you write about.
  • Ask your adviser, academic mentor, and people in your lab for feedback (not rigorous editing) on the style, organization, and clarity of your writing materials.
  • Turn in professional documents. Check the spelling of the text, the legibility of your figures and tables, and the formatting of your references.

... and the Public facing summary.

  • Do not use the Abstract/Summary of your writing sample as the Public facing summary.
  • Write the Public facing summary for a general earth and environmental science audience. To check whether you have succeeded, ask graduate students who are not in your lab for feedback.

Advice on what to do after the Writing Exam ...

  • Study the feedback on your writing example.
  • Schedule a meeting with each member of your Committee.
  • Ask the Committee to identify your strengths and weaknesses, topics they plan to raise during the oral exam, and advice on oral-exam preparation.
  • Follow up on these meetings. Study research articles and textbook chapters on topics you do not know well.

... before the Oral Exam ...

  • Prepare a (powerpoint) presentation with fewer than 15 slides.
  • Ensure that slides contain only essential information. Use bullets, avoid full sentences.
  • Ask students in your lab to help you rehearse your talk. Memorize the first two lines of your talk.
  • Study your Committee members' research pages and talk to students in the groups of the Committee members.
  • Ask students who have taken the QE (recently) about their experiences.

... and during the Oral Exam.

  • Come well rested.
  • Bring something to eat or drink for yourself. Do not bring refreshments for the Committee members.
  • Dress professionally but formal attire is not necessary.
  • Listen attentively to questions and answer the questions directly. If a question is unclear, ask for clarification.
  • If you don't know the answer to a question, say so. The Committee member will help you along.
  • If you use the whiteboard, allow yourself time to draw neatly. 
  • Ask for a break if you need one.