Qualifying Examination Process

The purpose of the qualifying examination is to determine the fitness of students to proceed in the Ph.D. program and to identify and develop a plan to remedy any deficiencies they may have that will impair their future progress and success. Students are evaluated in terms of seven key skills that are essential to be successful in doctoral studies:

  1. Planning and process management
  2. Scientific communication
  3. Ability to perform scientific inquiry
  4. Critical thinking
  5. Ability to defend scientific arguments
  6. Ability to perform under constraints
  7. Ability to manage time and deadlines


  • Ph.D. students are required to take and pass the qualifying examination during their second semester of study. They should plan to be present on campus during this time period to complete the written exam.
  • Students will be assigned to the Qualifying Exam Course on Canvas by the Graduate Coordinator in their second semester.
  • Students are responsible for initiating the exam process by notifying their primary advisor and the graduate program committee (bc-grad-admin-g@vt.edu) two weeks in advance of their intended date to start taking the qualifying exam in a given semester. 
  • The graduate coordinator will then solicit questions from the examining committee, which includes the student’s primary advisor. The questions will be entered into the Canvas question bank and remain locked until the student is scheduled to to begin the exam.
  • The student will have the opportunity to identify their three top choices of questions in the question bank by 9:30 am on the starting day of the exam.
  • The student will be notified no later than 12 noon that day regarding the set of questions to answer, which will be released on Canvas. 
  • The student will then have 14 calendar days to prepare a response for both questions. 
  • The response is due by COB (5pm) on the last day of the scheduled exam period.
  • Following submission of the exam responses to Canvas, the student is required to schedule an oral defense of their exam with the examining committee no sooner than 2 weeks after submitting the exam response to Canvas. This will provide the committee with sufficient time to review the exam response and prepare for the oral defense. The oral defense should be scheduled for 30 minutes.
  • No more than 2 weeks after the oral defense, the Graduate Program chair will indicate the student’s grade on the exam (i.e. pass, conditional pass, fail), summarize committee feedback and provide the student with any required actions in case of a conditional pass.

Structure and Process

  • The examining committee is composed of the Graduate Program Chair, the student’s primary advisor, and one other MLSoC faculty member who serves on a rotating basis.
  • The qualifying exam consists of two essay questions:
    • Question 1) written by the student’s primary advisor and within the student’s area of research interest, and
    • Question 2) written by a different member of the examining committee and outside of the student’s area of interest but within the broader EDP context.
  • Each of the questions has the following three components:
    • Breadth
      This part requires the definition of the given topic in an informative way. The description does not have to be comprehensive, but should present the general context of the topic and identify influential (key) references.

    • Depth 
      This part of the question requires the student to illustrate skills in researching, defining, synthesizing, and discussing a specific detailed issue in the field

    • Application
      In this component, the student will articulate and apply the detailed knowledge that has been developed in the depth component to a problem in a given context, and propose possible approaches to address the problem

  • The student must submit the written response to each question separately as a PDF document including the respective references in Canvas. 
  • The answer to each of the two questions must not exceed five pages, not including references. 
  • Late submittals will be considered non-responsive and will not be accepted.
  • The oral examination will consist of a series of questions posed to the student by the examining committee with regard to the received written answers.


  • Three possible outcomes exist for the qualifying examination:
    • Unconditional Pass – the student has met all requirements for the exam and can proceed in the doctoral program.
      The committee may elect to provide additional recommendations to the student on how to improve, but these are optional.
    • Conditional Pass – the student is deemed capable of meeting the minimum requirements to complete doctoral study, but specific remedial actions need to be taken to improve their skills to successfully meet those requirements.
      The committee will specify what must be done in its recommendations. The committee may elect to request a follow-up meeting with the student after a designated period of time to re-examine the student and assure that minimum requirements are met.
    • Fail – the student does currently not meet the minimum requirements for doctoral study and requires extensive remediation of the observed deficiencies using available resources.
      The committee will provide feedback to the student to identify areas of critical weakness.
  • Students are permitted to fail their qualifying exam only once.
  • Two failed exams will result in dismissal from the program.
  • Any second attempt must be undertaken no later than in the third semester of study.
  • Students who do not submit their exam responses by COB (5pm) within 14 days (as indicated on Canvas) will be assigned a failing grade.
  • The Graduate Program Chair will provide the student with any required actions in case of a conditional pass.
  • Feedback may be provided in the form of an “Exam Report Card” representative of the seven core skills listed above. 


The most useful preparation for the exam is to become facile with the variety of available information resources . Awareness of access and functionality of resources such as the library, major search engines, and publications in the broader EDP research domain are essential. Since the student will be expected to communicate effectively in written and oral form, familiarity with a word processing application of choice, including any software to manage your references and convert documents into the required PDF format are critical.