Carnegie Mellon University
Comprehensive Examination

Comprehensive Examination

This examination is designed to evaluate the student's general knowledge and preparation for undertaking a doctoral program in his or her chosen area of study. The examination is customized for each student. 

The Comprehensive Examination consists of two parts:

  • written examination appropriate to the academic background and research focus area of the students is developed by the Comprehensive Exam Committee. The committee is responsible for preparing the examination questions and evaluating the results.
  • An oral examination administered by the Comprehensive Exam Committee. The oral examination generally consists of follow-up questions on the responses provided by the students in the written examination. It may include questions on other topics related to the academic background and research focus area of the student. 

Time Frame

The Comprehensive Examination will be scheduled immediately following the end of the fall semester. The written examinations will be open book and will involve four days of work. The oral examination will take place following review of the written parts of the Comprehensive Examination.

A student should plan to take the first-scheduled Comprehensive Examination following one semester of full-time residence in the PhD program or after three semesters for direct-entry PhD students.

The oral examination should be scheduled within one month after the written examination. In the interim period, students may not communicate or discuss with others the content of the written examination or their responses, but they may (and should) review their written responses prior to the oral examination and be prepared to defend their responses. 

Prior to Oral Examination

The Committee Signature Sheet must be completed prior to the oral exam by the student and presented by the student to the Committee Chair at the oral exam.  This sheet will be signed by the Exam Committee at the completion of the oral exam and returned to the Director of Graduate Programs by the Committee Chair.

Grading and Evaluation

The grading and evaluation of the Comprehensive Examination will not be announced until a review has been conducted by the entire faculty of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Possible examination outcomes are as follows:

  • Unconditional pass: the student performs satisfactorily in both written and oral portions of the Comprehensive Exam.
  • Conditional pass: the student must satisfy a set of conditions before s/he can be considered as being deemed to have passed the exam. The committee should be specific on the timeframe for completion of the conditions. A conditional pass should not be awarded when a portion of the exam is to be retaken. A conditional pass does not require another review by the committee. 
  • No decision: the committee has agreed and decided that the student should re-take all or a portion of the exam at a time specified by the committee and agreed upon by the examinee. It is recommended that retakes are scheduled the following May, but no later than the traditional scheduled exam period the following January. New questions must be written for partial or full retakes. 
  • Fail: the student did not perform satisfactorily in the exam. When a student fails, there is no option for that student to retake the exam.

Comprehensive Exam outcomes, whether official or unofficial, will not be communicated to the examinee until after the faculty as a whole have discussed the outcome and agreed on the decision. 

There should be NO discussion of the exam amongst examinees until after the final oral exam is held and the outcome communicated.

After Completion

The Comprehensive Exam outcome will be communicated to the student after the CEE Faculty have reviewed the committee recommendation.