Qualifying Examination

The Qualifying Examination (QE or orals) in Mathematics is an oral examination that covers three principal topics, two of which are designated as major topics, and one as a minor topic; the minor topic is examined in less depth than the major topics. The intent of the QE is to ascertain the breadth of the student's comprehension in the selected subject areas, and to determine whether the student has the ability to think incisively and critically about the theoretical and practical aspects of the topics. The exam is administered by a faculty committee of four members and lasts approximately 3 hours. The result of the exam is decided via a committee vote. Possible results include, pass, partial fail, and total fail. Students who receive a partial or total fail may be granted, by the committee, a second opportunity to take the exam on some or all of the topics covered, or may be recommended for dismissal from the Ph.D. program.  

For Current Students

Students in the Mathematics Ph.D. program are required to attempt the QE before the start of their third year in the program (within 24 months of matriculation). The Graduate Office has accommodated requests for short extensions of this time frame so that students may take their orals in the fall term of their third year. Such requests must be made in advance to and approved by the Vice Chair for Graduate Studies. Any further request for an extension must be approved by Committee Omega.

Most QE exams take place over the fall or spring terms as faculty are often away from campus during the summer months.

***For international students, it is quite crucial that students pass their orals and advance to candidacy before the start of the fall term of their third year. Advancing to candidacy initiates a 3-year (calendar year) Nonresident Supplemental Tuition (NRST) reduction. In most circumstances, the program only agrees to pay NRST for international students for 4 semesters, so to avoid paying NRST on one's own in the third year, students must advance to candidacy and trigger the NRST reduction.***

Steps to Scheduling the Qualifying Examination

  1. Identify a Faculty Advisor (Dissertation Chair): To arrange the QE, you must first settle on an area of concentration, and identify and secure a prospective Dissertation Chair (Faculty Advisor) — someone who agrees to supervise your dissertation research if the examination is passed.
  2. Committee Formation: Two months before the date of the exam, you must constitute the QE committee. Students should seek advice from their prospective dissertation chair (faculty advisor) when putting together their exam committee. All committee members can be faculty in the Mathematics Department and the chair must be in the Mathematics Department. The Math member least likely to serve as the dissertation advisor should be selected as chair of the qualifying exam committee.
  3. Create an Exam Syllabus: In consultation with the Chair of the QE committee, you will write up an exam syllabus. Sample syllabi and a list of faculty who have served as outside members (formally called Academic Senate Representatives (ASR)) in the past are all available in the QE Resource Folder linked below. The syllabus must indicate the departmental sections for which you will be examined and must be approved by the QE Committee. To properly format your syllabus, please use the template provided in the QE Resource Folder linked below.
  4. Distribution of Exam Syllabus to Faculty: 6 weeks before the exam, you should send a PDF copy of the QE syllabus to the Graduate Advisor who will distribute it to all faculty in the two (or three) sections in which you will be examined. You should allow two weeks for a response from the faculty. If feedback on the syllabus content is received, the student must then consult the Chair of the QE Committee and their prospective advisor before proceeding with changes to the syllabus.
  5. Exam Logistics: 4 weeks before the date of the exam, the student should reserve a room using the room reservation calendar or schedule a remote meeting via Zoom. Any department space with chalk or whiteboard (aside from 1015 Evans Hall) should be suitable for the exam. If a room in the department is not available you can ask Main Office staff to reserve a room in Evans from the central Scheduling Office. If you are taking the QE on Zoom, please review these Best Practices for Zoom Qualifying Exams.

Four weeks before the exam you should submit the Graduate Division Application for the QE which is an eForm housed in CalCentral. The eForm is called the “Higher Degrees Committees Form.” Once your QE is formally approved at the Graduate Division level you will see a notice of approval on the My Academics tab of your CalCentral account. Please note that the QE will not be valid until approved at the Graduate Division level. Failure to submit the application four weeks prior to your QE may require you to reschedule the exam!

Two or three days before the exam date, the student should send a reminder to all committee members with all exam details (date, location, time) and a copy of the syllabus.

Other Details

At the conclusion of the exam, the QE Committee submits the exam results to the Graduate Office, which is then submitted to the Graduate Division.

Once you have passed the QE you are required to advance to candidacy by the end of the following semester. Students who fail to advance to candidacy in the stated time will have an enrollment hold placed on their account.

QE Resources

The QE Post-Exam Survey: Students are sent the survey via email by the advising staff shortly after completing any exam attempt. Responses include data on a student's advisor, committee members, topics examined, questions asked, and general exam experience. The response sheet is viewable by all current students here. Students may sort by creating a filtered view in the "Data" drop-down menu. You must be logged into your @berkeley.edu account to access this resource.


QE Resource Folder: The QE Resource Folder has been replaced by the post-exam questionnaire, but will remain active and accessible. The folder includes copies of past student syllabi, a QE syllabus template, a list of faculty from outside of the Math Department who have served as Academic Senate Representatives (Outside Member), and other useful documents.  You must be logged into your @berkeley.edu email account to access this folder. 


CalCentral eForm Support Resources

Having trouble with the CalCentral Higher Degrees Committee eForm? Use the guides below for assistance.

  • Click here for a YouTube tutorial on how to apply for the QE
  • Click here for a step-by-step guide for completing the Higher Degrees Committee eForm