Qual Lore

Preparing for the Qual

Selecting Your Committee

Perhaps the most difficult part of a qualification exam is gathering your committee. Your committee is required to consist of 3 faculty members from the Astronomy department, and 1 faculty member with no appointment in the Astronomy department (as of 2016, 0% appointments are now OK as long as they are part of the Academic Senate). As you pick an outside faculty member, be sure to confirm they are part of the Academic Senate and have a ⇐ 0% appointment in Astro! It is recommended that you begin asking faculty about availability well in advance (i.e. >= 1/2 year) of your desired qual date, since professors' schedules fill up early. Your advisor should be on your committee, and can help you select other members. Factors to consider in selecting committee members:

  • Availability
  • Ability to offer advice in a field complementary to your advisor's
  • Potential interest in your project

Remember that the purpose of your qual committee is to advise you on your research to help you succeed. Pick people who can offer you meaningful advice.

It is very useful to talk to each member of your committee 1-2 weeks before the exam. The purpose of these meetings should be to briefly familiarize your committee with your thesis topic and proposal. Letting your committee know what to expect can reduce the number of strange or random questions you will face during the exam. For external committee members, it can clarify what what kind of role they expect to play in the exam (general knowledge, related sub-field, project management and timeline, etc.). It is also useful to ask your committee members what they are looking for in your presentation and what kind of questions you will be asked from them (e.g., prelim-like questions, bigger picture research questions, technical methodology questions, etc). Some committee members will ask bigger picture questions, while some will have you derive equations on the board, so it's definitely good to figure out what to expect as there's been a wide range of questions!

As with the prelim, it is important to schedule your Qual way in advance to maximize faculty availability. Typically, allocate three hours of time for your qual. The large majority of quals are shorter ( ⇐ 2 hours), but some Quals have lasted the full three hours.

See the Berkeley Graduate Division Policies website section on committee requirements for more details.

Making Your Presentation

The structure of the qualifying exam is different from the prelim. You prepare a ~45 minute talk and presents it to your qual committee. The committee members will interrupt with questions throughout the presentation, lengthening the presentation to 1.5 to 2 hours. Afterwards, there is a short round of general knowledge questioning. This questioning typically focuses upon the material presented, but sometimes wanders into related fields of astronomy. You should ask your committee members ahead of time what kind of questions to expect to help with preparation.

Formally (according to UC Berkeley), the qual focuses on 3 subjects related to your research. Within the department, these 3 topics are generally nested “contexts” of your research:

  1. A general overview/broad context of the subject of your research
  2. A narrower and more detailed context assuming familiarity with (1).
  3. A detailed discussion of your research assuming familiarity with (2).

For example, if your research is on 21 cm detection of the Epoch of Reionization, your contexts might be: the cosmological context of reionization, the physics of 21cm emission in reionization, and then the actual research.

In terms of your presentation, the first 2 “contexts” should constitute only the first 5-10 minutes, since your committee will probably be familiar with them. You are demonstrating that your understand the context of your research. The rest of your presentation will explore your current research, the research you plan on doing, your timeline for doing it, and the publications which will result. It can be helpful to your committee to present the goals and expected results of your research early on, and to refer back to them as you discuss each subject in greater detail.

Required Forms

The Graduate Division requires that you submit an "Application for the Qualifying Examination" (PDF) form at least three weeks prior to your proposed exam date [note: while this is ostensibly a hard rule, it's really not. Several people have submitted this form within a few days of the exam and still passed the qual. In the worst case, some fudging of dates by Amber may be required]. You are required to list both your three subject areas and your committee members. You must select one committee member as the chair of the qual committee (mostly a formality), note this has to be someone within the department who is not your research advisor. Details about the Grad Division's requirements for the qual can be found in section F3.2 of the Guide to Graduate Policy. The form needs to be signed by the “Head Graduate Advisor”. Both Dexter and the Grad Division have a list of authorized signatures for this form, so see her to determine whom you need to hunt.


Devote time (at least 5 minutes of your presentation) to a good (direct, well-organized, not rushed, not lazy) explanation of how your thesis project will help answer broader questions. For example, my proposed thesis project was to directly measure the masses of supermassive black holes in a sample of galaxies. So the first part of my talk summarized the possible roles of mergers in galaxy evolution, and how different merger scenarios would yield different values of the final black hole mass. Only then did I get into why directly measuring black hole masses was challenging, and how I was going to do it. Yes, your thesis committee might already know a lot of the broader context, but spelling it out for them will give them the warm and fuzzy feeling that “this student understands why his/her work is important.” Which will set you up to do quite well.

Clearly point out the ways in which your proposed work will be unique, and be specific about how it will improve upon past work. Don't limit this to the beginning of your talk: when you present technical stuff later on, remind your committee why your methods will accomplish things that other authors haven't been able to.

Be strategic about how thoroughly your presentation covers technical details. Provide the most thorough explanations for the methods that are truly central to your thesis work, and especially note the details that give you a significant advantage over previous authors. But don't distract your committee with endless details about less important issues. If you feel nervous about glossing over some details, remember that your committee can always ask you for them. By all means, give them a chance to ask questions you know the answer to! - Nicholas

Everyone's qual topics will be a little different, so don't be too worried if your research isn't well described by the nested 'contexts' as described above. Do make sure to talk about more general aspects of your field. For example, since I'm working on observations of Neptune's atmosphere, my topics were 1) planetary atmospheres 2) radiative transfer and 3) my specific research. Even though radiative transfer is not exactly a subset of planetary atmospheres, nobody complained about my subjects. Keep in mind that some people (for example, Eugene) will think a lot about your chosen topics when preparing to give you the qual, but most committee members won't even look at what you wrote down.

There is also some flexibility in the amount of background you give; in some cases a little more background is appropriate. For my talk, I had two different research projects to talk about. I gave one 5 minute general introduction/background at the beginning, and more detailed information for the context for each of my two projects (maybe another 5 minutes each). However, don't forget that the purpose of your qual is not to present a great review talk but to highlight your understanding of and contribution to your chosen field. The purpose of the background is to show that what you are doing is important. Harp on the importance of your own work; use and cite your own figures on slides, and for each paper you have written or intend to write, make sure to spend a few minutes talking about what you did and why it improves on what has been done before.

It's a good idea to have a timeline of your thesis plan in your presentation. This typically comes at the end when discussing how all the research you have done/will do fits together into your thesis. You don't need to stick to your timeline after your Qual, but it should be believable. The timeline can be however detailed as you want (e.g., dividing when you are doing data analysis vs writing for a project, or just bunching it all together in a block); it just needs to convey that you have a plan for your thesis. It's a good idea to go over this with your advisor beforehand.

Every person has their own strategy for preparing for the qual. A few things that come to mind for me:

- Make an outline of your talk early. It will help clarify the rest of your preparation and highlight what you need to study.

- I would find and read one or two good review articles. Keep a list of papers. If you see a paper mentioned time and time again, read its intro and conclusion. Only read the full papers for things that are very closely related to your work (you can only spend so much of your time reading).

- Talk to your committee ahead of time! Each faculty member has their own idea of what the qual is for and their own expectations for you. At the least, meeting with your committee gives them an idea of what to expect from your qual talk. At most, they may tell you specific questions they'll expect you to be able to answer during your exam. Your commitee can also help you with finding papers you should read. Many advisors will also go through your talk beforehand.

-Leave lots of time at the end to adjust figures. Perfect figures (with clear and straightforward axes, good colors, thick lines) are essential, and they take a long time to make.

-Like any talk, don't overcrowd it. Less is more. And if it's in your talk, understand it thoroughly (know how they made that figure!)

-Don't stress about the random questions at the end. Most questions will be related to what you show in your talk, so focus on that. In general, it is more important to understand the general properties and behavior of something than to be able to write down/derive an equation for it (i.e. know that changing A increases/decreases/has no effect on B, rough sizes/temperatures/distances of things). That said, don't be surprised if you're asked to do board work (Jason: if a commmitee member hints that they might ask prelim-type questions, there will probably be board work). Go over your physical constants.

- Treat the qual as a chance to take a step back from the nitty gritty work that is research and look at your thesis as a big picture. I found the experience tremendously useful and has given me much more direction for finishing my thesis work.


“If I had one thing to say to anyone taking their qual, I'd say 'Papers,Papers,Papers'” - Abraham Lincoln

Seriously, read as many as you can, it will make you feel better, you'll know the field better and you can drop them into qual chat like cookies for committee members to snaffle. They love it, really they do. - Conor

Use the GSPS forum to give a practice talk to grad students and postdocs. Solicit feedback, especially from advanced graduate students who have already done the qual. Here is an example feedback form. - Lauren

During the Qual

It's generally considered good form to provide snacks and coffee for your committee to snaffle while you present. Don't forget to relax during your presentation.


Relax some more. You must now fill out an “Advancement to Candidacy” form before the end of the semester following the one in which you took your qual. The form is now on Cal Central underneath the Student Resources section and accessed using the High Degrees Commmittees Form (see video instructions). There is also a fee of $90, which is billed to your student account. This should be covered by your advisor's research funds, or by NSF (see below). You are now 3 signatures (and a thesis) from graduating!

Note to those on NSF:

NSF will cover the $90 fee as long as you submit the form during the 5-year fellowship year, whether or not you are “on tenure.” Submit the Advancement to Candidacy form directly to the NSF coordinator (Michael Sacramento).