Carnegie Mellon University

The Ph.D. Program in Mathematical Sciences Requirements

The requirements are admission to doctoral candidacy, submission of a thesis, and fulfillment of teaching and language requirements.

A student entering the doctoral program will be assigned an academic advisor, who will assist the student in meeting the requirements for admission to candidacy. Once the student has found a thesis advisor, they will assume the role of the academic advisor.

A full-time student must be enrolled for at least 36 units each semester. To remain in the program a student must show sufficient progress. The progress of every student is reviewed twice a year by the Graduate Student Retention Committee. Students who are making satisfactory progress towards completion of their doctoral degree, and whose performance in teaching is satisfactory, can expect their support to continue for a total of five years. Support for a sixth year is decided on a case-by-case basis.

A. Admission to Candidacy

There are three requirements for admission to candidacy (note that the ACO program has its own requirements for admission to candidacy, which are slightly different from those given here. Details can be found at the ACO program page)

Basic Examinations

A student must take and pass four basic examinations from the following list. The set of examinations to be taken should be determined in consultation with the student's academic advisor. Each examination is based on a corresponding graduate course whose number is given in parentheses.

Examinations are offered at the start of each semester. Their schedule and instructions for registration will be posted at Basic Exam Schedule. Typically one needs to register by writing to Christine Gilchrist at least 10 days before the start of the semester.

Each examination is three hours long. Typically a student would take the basic exam soon after taking the corresponding course and pass all four exams at the end of the first year of studies. A student should pass at least two basic examinations by the beginning of the second year of studies (this includes the examinations at the beginning of the second year). A student who has not passed two basic examinations by this time will be placed on academic probation. A student who does not pass two exams by the beginning of their fourth semester of studies, will be supported for the fourth semester, but will generally not be retained in the program beyond that semester.

A student should pass four basic examinations by the beginning of the fourth semester of their studies (this includes the examinations at the beginning of the fourth semester). A student who has not passed four basic examinations by this time will be placed on academic probation. A student who does not pass four exams by the beginning of the fifth semester of studies, will be supported for the fifth semester, but will generally not be retained in the program beyond that semester.

If a student fails a basic examination without having taken the appropriate graduate course which prepares for it, then the student is required to take the course before being allowed to take the basic examination again.

Course Requirements

Students are required to complete at least six additional courses in mathematics, each with grade B− or better, beyond those covering their basic examinations. Typically these are graduate courses in the department, at level 700 or above. Other choices of courses may be made, inside or outside the department, subject in all cases to approval by the Department Head.

If a student gets a grade of C+ or below in any of the courses required for their degree, the student may be placed on academic probation.

Further information about the courses offered in each research area can be obtained on the pages that describe the Areas of Research represented in the department.

Qualifying Oral Examination

The primary purpose of this examination is to establish the breadth and depth of the student’s knowledge in general areas related to the research area.

The format and content of the Qualifying Oral Examination is decided jointly by the student and the student’s Doctoral Advisory Committee which also administers the examination. At least one month before the scheduled date of the examination a document describing its format and content will be submitted to the Department. 

Every Doctoral Advisory Committee has at least three faculty members and is chaired by a faculty member chosen by the student. The chair must be chosen by the end of the student’s fourth semester of graduate studies.

The format of the Qualifying Oral Examination varies according to subject area. In addition to a part related to the area of the proposed thesis it may include a minor topic deemed to be of interest or relevance. In exceptional cases the committee may choose to make part of the examination written rather than oral.

The examiners may choose to require the student to repeat all or part of the examination. An unsatisfactory performance on the second examination normally results in the student not being retained in the program.

A student in the Department of Mathematical Sciences is expected to have passed the Qualifying Oral Examination by the end of their fifth semester of graduate studies.

B. Thesis Requirements

Selecting a Doctoral Thesis Advisor

After admission to doctoral candidacy, a student must select a doctoral thesis advisor. Acting as an academic advisor is not a commitment to act as a doctoral thesis advisor. The advisor/advisee relationship is long-term and not to be entered into casually by either party. It's important to establish a clear understanding of commitment from the start.  

Usually, the thesis advisor is a member of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Carnegie Mellon. On occasion students are permitted to choose an advisor from outside the Department or even outside the university. However, when the thesis advisor is not a regular or research faculty member at Carnegie Mellon, the head of the Mathematical Sciences Department shall appoint, after consulting both the candidate and their thesis advisor, a faculty member in the Department to serve as the candidate's Departmental sponsor. It is the Departmental sponsor's responsibility to monitor the candidate's work and to assist the candidate, the thesis advisor, and the Department in assuring that all work conforms to the candidate's doctoral program. 

After the Qualifying Oral Examination has been passed and a thesis advisor has been selected, a new Doctoral Advisory Committee (which may or may not differ from the previous one) shall be formed. The members will be nominated by the thesis advisor with the agreement of the candidate (and of the Departmental sponsor, if there is one), and their appointment approved by the Department head. The purpose of the committee at this stage is to serve as a resource for the student and to monitor the student's progress. The responsibility for advising the student lies with the thesis advisor. 

The committee may include members from outside the Department. The committee must have at least three members, including the thesis advisor and the Departmental sponsor, if there is one (and thus will have at least one member from the Mathematical Sciences Department). The student is responsible for maintaining contact with the members of the committee. 

The Doctoral Thesis Committee

Often the Doctoral Advisory Committee will serve as the Doctoral Thesis Committee, although this is not required. The thesis committee should be appointed no less than two months before the estimated date of the final examination. In order to permit an orderly performance of the committee's functions, it shall be the responsibility of the candidate to keep the thesis committee informed about the progress of his or her work, from the time the committee is appointed to the time the thesis is submitted. The committee may specify whether this should be done individually or collectively by formal or informal presentations.

The purpose of a Doctoral Thesis Committee is to judge the validity, originality, significance, and proper presentation of the candidate's doctoral thesis. To that end, the committee shall examine the thesis submitted by the candidate, conduct the public oral final examination on the thesis, prescribe corrections or revisions to the thesis before or at the time of the examination, and certify to the dean its finding on the acceptability of the thesis in its final form.

The Doctoral Thesis Committee shall consist of no fewer than four members, and shall include the thesis advisor, as well as the Departmental sponsor if there is one.

At least half of the members of the committee shall be regular or research faculty members in the Department of Mathematical Sciences; one of these, who must be a regular faculty member with the rank of assistant professor or higher, shall chair the committee. If qualified under the preceding provision, the thesis advisor will ordinarily chair the committee; the same is applicable to the Departmental sponsor if there is one.

At least one member of the committee shall be a "visitor", that is a person not affiliated with the Department nor with any Department participating in the candidate's thesis research; the thesis advisor may not serve as "visitor". To be eligible to be a "visitor", a person should be familiar with academic standards and procedures and be especially qualified to judge some aspect of the thesis. A "visitor" may come from another Department at Carnegie Mellon, from some other university, or from outside academic institutions altogether.

A vacancy on the doctoral thesis committee need only be filled if the remaining members would not constitute a valid committee. When a vacancy is filled, care shall be taken that the new committee member has the time and opportunity to participate effectively in the performance of the committee's functions.

The final examination may proceed only if the committee members present would, by themselves, constitute a valid thesis committee according to the preceding provisions. A committee member is counted as present if he or she participates via a video-conference connection. A member of the committee who is unable to be present at the final examination may, if he or she wishes, submit a written recommendation.

When the thesis advisor (and the Departmental sponsor if there is one) is satisfied that the thesis is ready, it shall be submitted to the committee. The final examination shall be scheduled so as to provide the committee with two weeks to study the thesis between its submission and the date of the examination.

C. Teaching and English Language Requirement

All graduate students are required to perform the duties of a teaching assistant (TA) for at least one semester before receiving a doctoral degree. Students will benefit from the experience gained by explaining mathematical concepts in an efficient and understandable way and by responding to questions. The classroom performance of TAs is monitored by the departmental TA Supervisor. Students will receive feedback on their teaching performance based on comments received by students and supervising faculty, and on classroom observation by the TA Supervisor.

Proficiency in spoken English is extremely important for communicating mathematical ideas. After enrolling at CMU, students whose native language is not English are required to take the International Teaching Assistant (ITA) Test administered by the Intercultural Communications Center (ICC) at CMU. Students are required to take this test in order to be certified as Teaching Assistants. Students whose native language is not English must receive either a score of PASS or RESTRICTED I by the end of their second year in order to receive financial support from the department.

Students who have not yet received a score of PASS or RESTRICTED I are required to attend workshops and training sessions at the ICC.