Graduate Student News:
Department Adopts New Qualifier System
by Steve Bell
Graduate students in mathematics break out in a cold sweat at the mere mention of the words "Qualifier Exam." The exam is a formidable rite of passage for students in every Ph.D. program in the country. If you mention the words "Qualifier Exam" to any mathematician with a Ph.D., you will hear the story of that person's horrendous experience followed by something like, "If you think that's bad, there was another guy in my class who kept passing out during his oral qualifier exam, and they kept standing him back up and asking him more questions. Finally, he wouldn't stand up any more and they told him to come back the next day. They let him sit the next day and he passed." As time goes by mathematicians look back upon their qualifier exams with "basic training" nostalgia.
In recent years, the Graduate Committee realized that the grumbling by students about our qualifier systems was getting louder and that the faculty was beginning to join in. Mathematics had become so large and diverse that our "one size fits all" exam was no longer appropriate. The Graduate Committee spent last year surveying our faculty and students about needed qualifier changes and researching what other departments around the country do for qualifier exams. After much deliberation, a new, more flexible, qualifier system was proposed and approved.
The new system is designed to get students doing research sooner and to be flexible enough to fit students intending to specialize in anything from applied math to algebraic topology.
Instead of taking five two-hour written exams on real, complex, linear, and abstract plus one special topic during one formidable week at the end of their second year, students will now take four exams on a wider variety of topics staggered over their first two years. Students who walk in the door with expertise in one qualifier subject can now take the exam on that subject during their first semester and be done with it.
All students still must take exams on real analysis and abstract algebra. Beyond that there is great freedom of choice. A topology student might take two more exams on topology and differential geometry, an applied math student might take two more on partial differential equations and complex analysis, an algebraic geometer might take two on linear algebra and logic.
The exams will still be daunting and will still be something to tell your grandchildren about, but they should be a better fit for most and they should get strong students doing research sooner.
For more details about the new system, check out the Graduate Student Handbook at: