Preliminary Written and Oral Examinations

The Written Preliminary Examination (WPE) and Oral Preliminary Examination (OPE) are the first department-wide evaluation of a student's research ability in the Ph.D. program. Students are encouraged to take the Written and Oral Preliminary Examination by the end of their second year in the Ph.D. program and are expected to pass the two exams by the end of their third year in the program. 

To become eligible for these exams a student must have an approved GPAS Planner on file. Prior to taking the OPE/WPE students are expected to have satisfied background and breadth knowledge requirements, however, this is not required. 

Doctoral students in the Computer Science Ph.D. program must complete both the WPE and OPE to become eligible for CSCI 8888 (Doctoral Thesis Credits). The department does not have the authority to grant exceptions to this policy.

Things to remember

  • Satisfy background knowledge requirements. The department expects students to complete any needed background knowledge courses during the first year.
  • The department also encourages students to satisfy the breadth requirement prior to taking the WPE, but this is not a requirement. These include five (5) courses with at least one in each of three (3) subject areas.
  • Submit the GPAS Planner. It is a University requirement that students have an approved GPAS Planner on file before they can take the WPE. This form outlines the courses a student has already completed, and plans to take, that will count towards the 31 coursework credits required for a Ph.D. degree. For more information on required course credit check our overview page.

Best Practices

The written report and oral exam must demonstrate the ability of a student to do research. Each area and advisor have a different set of expectations regarding how a student demonstrates research ability. Because of this, we cannot specify precisely what a written report or oral presentation must include. We can, however, offer a few “best practice” examples that are considered to be acceptable in most or all research areas. 

  • Completed research project. A report on a research project completed while a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Since the written report serves as a test of the student’s own research capabilities, including the ability to communicate clearly and effectively in written English, we require that the report consist wholly of material independently written by the student. The length of the report must be sufficient to demonstrate the student’s own research knowledge and their independent writing capabilities.
  • Literature review. A careful and insightful review of research in the student's specialty area. This review should demonstrate a student's understanding of key research topics and methods in the area and show that he or she can identify interesting and open research problems as well as an appropriate means to address such problems.

Taking the WPE

The Preliminary Written Exam (WPE) is facilitated by the Graduate Program Coordinator. When you are ready to take the exam, send a single email message to that includes the following information:

  • List the names and titles of the three committee members that you have chosen, their role (advisor, second CSCI faculty, outside the department committee member), and their email address.
  • Attach your WPE report as a single PDF document.

Once received, the Graduate Program Coordinator will confirm that your report is ready to be reviewed and inform you of the department assigned committee member. We will do our best to distribute your WPE submission to your committee within one business day. 

The committee will have two weeks to return a vote of pass, pass with reservations, or not pass. Three pass votes are required for the WPE to be considered successfully completed. A result cannot be recorded until all votes are received; it is your responsibility to ensure that your chosen committee members are available to serve in this capacity. 

During the review period, any member of the committee can request additional information, documentation, or clarification on any aspect of your WPE report. This will be communicated to your email address.

If your final result is a pass, you will be notified and given instructions on your next steps and for scheduling the Preliminary Oral Exam (OPE). 

Written and Oral Preliminary Examination Committee

The written and oral preliminary examination committee consists of four (4) individuals:

  • The student's advisor (note: your advisor can't serve as the committee chair. Any other member of the committee below can serve as chair. This change is effective June 2018.)
  • One faculty member from the Computer Science & Engineering department.
  • One faculty member from outside of the Computer Science & Engineering department. This member is typically from your minor field of study or someone who has some knowledge of your research.
  • One committee member appointed by the Director of Graduate Studies from a pool of departmental faculty with departmental representative duties.

All members serving on a committee must have graduate education responsibilities. Occasionally, an individual from an outside university or from industry with whom you have been collaborating may serve on your committee. In this case, the department requires the following material to approve the outside committee member:

  • A short narrative regarding why this individual would be a good addition to your committee.
  • A copy of that person’s CV.

Upon receipt of this information, the department will request approval of the committee member from the Associate Dean of Graduate Education in the College of Science and Engineering. Questions regarding this process should be directed to the Graduate Program Coordinator. Once a student's committee has been determined, they will fully assign their committee members via an online portal at the graduate school website (One Stop Site regarding committees). The committee assignment cannot be done until after you have received notification that your GPAS Planner has been approved and entered into a university-wide database. A student's committee must be approved by all committee members, the Director of Graduate Studies, and the College of Science and Engineering. 

Written Preliminary Report

The Written Preliminary Report serves as a test of the student’s own research capabilities, knowledge, and ability to communicate clearly and effectively in written English. The report must consist entirely of material that is independently written by the student and the student should be the sole author of the report. The report should be of a length similar to a medium-length conference publication, that is about 4,000-8,000 words not including references (equivalent to 6-10 pages following ACM’s SIG Proceedings format). A research paper can be attached as an appendix. The same committee will examine both the written report and the oral exam.

After the WPE has been initiated, the student should allow for at least two weeks for the paper to go through the review process. Once a decision has been rendered to the GPC, the student will be alerted to the outcome of the examination and be given next steps. A student who passes the WPE may continue on to schedule the Preliminary Oral Examination. A student who does not pass the WPE may or may not be given the opportunity to retake the examination depending on the decision of the WPE committee.

Taking the OPE

Scheduling the Preliminary Oral Exam

Following the satisfactory completion of the WPE, an email will go out to the student and their advisor alerting them to the pass status. A student may then establish a time and date for the Preliminary Oral Examination. The Graduate Student Services and Progress office has a link available to schedule the prelim oral, once this is complete the student will need to activate the Preliminary Oral Examination Reporting Form ( this is an electronic form to be completed by the committee chair on behalf of the committee at large). Upon passing the prelim oral the student is admitted to Ph.D. candidacy and able to register for thesis credits. Students must pass the Preliminary Oral Examination before the end of the second week of any given semester in order to register for thesis credits in that same semester; otherwise, the student must contact the Graduate Program Coordinator for next steps on how to enroll.

Oral Preliminary Exam scope and format

The student will present the material contained in the written report to their committee. The student's oral presentation should last for about 30 minutes but not exceed 40 min (not including questions), with an additional time of at least 60 minutes reserved beyond the presentation for questions and discussion from the committee. This question and discussion time may be reduced at the discretion of the committee chair. Students are advised to reserve two hours for the exam.The committee will question the student about the material in the report as well as directly related material. Questions may include subjects like methodology, alternative methods of research, ideas for future work, potential problems and obstacles. The committee is encouraged to probe the student's understanding of related material and concepts along with their understanding of the WPE material.

Possible outcomes of the exam

The committee may pass, pass with reservations or fail the student. A student must receive at minimum a 3-1 vote to pass the exam. If a student passes the examination " with reservation" the examination committee will provide in writing the conditions that must be met in order to remove the reservations within 7 days of the examination.  If the student fails, the committee may choose to terminate the student or vote unanimously to allow the student to retake the examination. A student can have at most two chances to pass the Oral Preliminary Examination. A student must pass the exam within three years of entry to the Ph.D. program.

Using the WPE/OPE for the Computer Science M.S.

Doctoral students can earn a Computer Science M.S. degree along the way to completing their Ph.D. by using the same coursework taken for the doctoral program. The Computer Science M.S. program has slightly different academic requirements, proper planning is required to ensure full completion of all academic requirements for both programs should a student choose to pursue this option. Doctoral students are allowed to pursue a M.S. Plan B and use the WPE/OPE exams as their Plan B project and defense. The same committee can be used for both the Plan B defense and the OPE, however, you must submit two separate GDP forms and two separate committees through the graduate school scheduling system. Please check with the Graduate Program Coordinator for additional information and guidance.