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General Examination

The Area Exam

The area exam is meant to show that the student is actively engaged in a program of research and has acquired all the appropriate technical background. This exam constitutes the official general examination. It consists of a research seminar (open to the public and advertised in advance), followed by an oral examination. The oral tests the student's knowledge in a number of topics relevant to the student's research area. These topics are specified beforehand by an Examining Committee in consultation with the student.

The committee must be comprised of three Princeton faculty members, all of whom must be either appointed to or associated with the Computer Science department. At least two of these faculty must be fully or jointly appointed in COS; the third member can be either Department Faculty or Associated Faculty in COS. The committee must include the student's adviser. Of the other two faculty members, one is suggested by the student, the other is chosen by the adviser.   In the rare cases when the student's primary adviser is neither appointed in COS nor associated faculty, the committee shall have 3 members from COS in addition to the adviser.

The committeee and the student agree upon a reading list for the exam (see below for more on this). This document is to be made available to anyone present in the oral examination, and only questions pertaining to either the material described in the document or presented during the research seminar can be asked during the oral.

The area exam must be scheduled during the fall, winter, or spring periods set by the Graduate School. It may be taken as early as the fall of the second year.  Students are expected to pass by the end of their second year.  With rare exception, for a compelling reason, and with DGS approval, students may delay their area exam to the fifth semester.

The area exam may be taken twice. Failing the exam a second time implies automatic termination of degree candidacy, but conditional passes are possible. The precise outcome of a conditional pass is determined by the student's performance in the exam as well as any other information the faculty might have to help identify the student's strengths and weaknesses.

Guidelines to Students Preparing for this Exam

The purpose of the exam is to verify your ability to carry out your doctoral research. You will be tested on the following.

  1. General knowledge of your broad area (systems, theory, etc.)
  2. Detailed knowledge of your chosen specialization (architecture, compiler design, computational geometry etc.)
  3. Research-level knowledge of a small subarea within your specialization (typically this subarea would be defined by 10-12 research papers)
  4. Ability to do a project in this subarea and to present the results in a scholarly way.

Your reading list:

Start thinking about your reading list very early and talk to your adviser about it. Keep the above four goals in mind. Include a textbook or two (such as Cormen-Leiserson-Rivest or the dragon book or Hennessy-Patterson), so that goals (1) and (2) are met. Among the 10-12 papers for your subarea, choose at least a few "classic" papers. (Identifying such papers-- with the help of your adviser---and reading them will be a learning experience in itself.)

Make a draft of your reading list and give it to your committee members at least one month before the exam. They may suggest alterations, after which the reading list will become official. In addition, give them a one page statement of what your research subarea is. Spend some time and thought on preparing this statement. It will later evolve as you receive feedback from your committee and work on your project. In its final form it will serve (along with your reading list) as the abstract for the anouncement of your area exam.

In the months leading to the exam, spend plenty of time reading and understanding the materials on your reading list. (In other words, don't make the mistake of spending all your time on your project.)

The presentation:

During your presentation, spend at least a third of your time talking about your subarea (defined by the 10-12 papers) and where your project fits in it. Practice your talk at least twice, and try to get feedback from others.

Scheduling the Exam:

About two months before the beginning of each exam period the Graduate Coordinator will send a notice to all students eligible to take the exam. It will specify the time period in which the exam must be taken, and will set up a timeline for submission of all materials and scheduling the exam. Detailed instructions on scheduling your general exam can be found here.

Your exam will be announced publicly one week in advance, along with your final abstract and reading list.

All results will be reviewed by faculty at a meeting at the close of the exam period. Results will be announced following this meeting.


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