Objective of Qualifying Exam Format

Starting in the Fall of 2021 the Woodruff School is using a new qualifying exam format that applies to students seeking a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. Students seeking a Ph.D. in nuclear and radiological engineering and medical physics will use this format through the 2021-22 school year. 

Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives provided the foundation for how the new exam format was viewed to fit within the broader context of the School’s Ph.D. program, based on an excellent paper on the topic1. The relationship between Bloom’s taxonomy and the main elements of our Ph.D. program is shown in Figure 1.

This relationship can be explained further as:

  • Coursework: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application (levels 1-3 in Bloom’s taxonomy), somewhat into Analysis in general and specialized fields.

  • PhD Qualifying Exams: Analysis, Level 4. (Breaking down material into its constituent parts to identify elements, detecting the relationships among the parts, and recognizing the organizational principles or arrangement of the structure). Ex: Apply to some papers in the field of research.

  • PhD Proposal: Synthesis, Level 5. Synthesize general and specialized knowledge and research methodology to develop the student’s own research plan.

  • PhD Dissertation: Evaluation, Level 6. Perform the research plan, evaluate results, evaluate research methods.

1 TO Loughead, “The doctoral comprehensive examination: Fine-tuning the process,” Counselor Education and Supervision, 37(2):140-148, 1997.

Bloom's Taxonomy
Figure 1: Relationship between educational objectives and elements of our Ph.D. program.

A student should be able to read research literature (e.g., journal papers) and analyze it based on knowledge of the domain and based on research methodology. That is, students should demonstrate competence at Level 4 – Analysis, which requires full comprehension of the research material in terms of its structure and its content. Based on this foundation, the qualifying exam objective is based on the idea of research preparation:

"To support, develop, and assess a student’s subject knowledge that will allow them to be successful in conducting graduate research."

Mechanical Engineering Qualifying Exam Format

Ph.D. Qualifying Exam Objective

To support, develop, and assess a student’s subject knowledge that will allow them to be successful in conducting graduate research.

Format Summary

The Exam shall consist of one oral exam of the student’s subject knowledge, lasting a maximum of one hour, based on three technical publications selected by the exam committee from preapproved list. During the Exam, each committee member will ask questions based on the selected technical publication(s). The committee will evaluate the student’s performance based on a standard rubric. Results will be conveyed to the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies (immediately) and to the student (after approval).

Identification of Student’s Subject Area and Topic

The semester before taking the qualifying exam, the student will fill out the Qualifying Exam Profile Form (see attached) and submit it to the graduate office. This form intended to identify the student’s research area, describe the various disciplines and sub-disciplines of relevance to the research, and provide info on the students coursework background. The student, in consultation with his/her adviser, selects the primary RAG to administer the exam and provides a list of up to 5 GWW faculty members who should serve on the committee. These faculty members should be good candidates to serve on the student’s Ph.D. Reading Committee, but need not all be from the same RAG. The student shall submit this form to the Graduate Office before the semester’s end.

Exam Committee

The RAG that is identified as the administering RAG in the student’s summary will propose an examination committee, in consultation with the adviser, that consists of 3 tenure track faculty members with an appointment in the Woodruff School. The PhD adviser cannot be part of the committee. The committee members do not have to be from the same RAG. The RAG will assign one of the 3 committee members as the Committee Chair, who will be responsible for overseeing the exam preparation and communicating with the student. It is expected that the exam committee will have an overlap with the student’s proposal and dissertation reading committees. The qualifying exam committee will then be responsible for selecting the three papers and arranging the exam.

Research Areas

The research areas in which students will be examined consist of the Research Area Groups in the School. At present, these are:

Acoustic & Dynamics
Automation, Robotics, & Controls
Computer-Aided Engineering & Design
Fluid Mechanics
Heat Transfer, Combustion & Energy Systems
Mechanics of Materials
Micro & Nano Engineering

Technical Publications

Each RAG will maintain a list of publications within a database (typically between 20 and 50) that will be collected and maintained by the School, called the School repository. It is expected that each RAG will review and possibly update their identified publications annually. The paper collection will not be publicized to the students.

The committee will select 3 publications from the School’s repository and ensure that the publications selected are consistent with the student’s research area. None of the selected papers may be authored by a member of the exam committee or the student’s adviser. The selected papers shall be communicated to the student two weeks before the scheduled exam.

Exam Administration

The student can prepare a written response to the three papers that is no longer than 3 pages and share it with the exam committee. The response should summarize the papers and address the evaluation criteria articulated in the exam rubric. The student may also bring the hardcopy of the assigned papers. The three page written summary can be shared with the committee but is not taken into consideration as part of the assessment.

During the exam, the exam committee members ask the student questions about the papers that can cover the papers’ technical contents, the research methods used, and other aspects as indicated in the rubric. The committee can choose to cover all three papers, or focus on one or two of the papers.

Once the papers are assigned to you (student), you are no longer allowed to discuss anything of relevance to these papers, directly or indirectly, with your advisor, lab or class mates, friends, parents, anyone. You are on your own during the 2 weeks of preparation for the exam. You are allowed to read any papers you want, those which are cited in the papers assigned to you or others that are not cited, any books, lecture notes, etc. The only thing that is not allowed is to discuss/consult with others, formally or informally, on any matters that are relevant to your exam preparation.

Note: Students requiring disability-related accommodations for their doctoral qualifying exams need to contact both their program advisor and the Office of Disability Services no later than 1 month prior to the scheduled exams, but preferably early in the semester in which they are planned. After these meetings, Disability Services will be in touch with the Program Advisor (or designee) to make formal arrangements. You can contact Disability Services at https://disabilityservices.gatech.edu.


A standard rubric will be used for evaluating the exam (see attached). The rubric will be readily available to students and faculty (e.g., included in the Graduate Handbook). Criteria include proficiency in summarizing, understanding, and evaluating research literature. Each criterion will be evaluated as Proficient, Satisfactory, or Unsatisfactory, with the rubric describing the performance characteristics for each rating. During or in the discussion following the exam, each committee member will complete an examination form that contains the rubric as their record of evaluating the student, with an overall performance result of Pass or Fail. The committee will convene immediately after the exam session and come to a (2/3) majority consensus on whether the student passes or fails the exam, then convey their decision and their completed evaluation forms to the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies.


Students will notify the graduate office of their intent to take the qualifying exam at least 3 weeks prior to the end of the semester preceding when they will take the exam. Exams will be administered during the Fall and Spring semesters and must be conducted no later than the end of the second month of the semester. Students who entered the program with an MS must take the exam no later than the one-year anniversary of their initial enrollment date. Students who entered the program with a BS must take the exam no later than the two-year anniversary of their initial enrollment date.


The exam may be retaken one time, at the end of the semester for which the student was first evaluated and deemed unsatisfactory.

Feedback to Student

After results of the qualifying exam have been approved, the completed evaluation forms will be released to the student as formal feedback on their subject knowledge. This helps meet the qualifying exam objective of supporting students and should be used to guide the student’s research, in consultation with the adviser.