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Math Candidacy FAQs

Graduate students are expected to pass the Candidacy Exam by the end of the third year. The Candidacy Exam is primarily a test of the candidate's suitability for research in his or her chosen field. The form of the exam is similar to a seminar talk. The candidate will give a 1-hour (or shorter) oral presentation to a committee of mathematics faculty describing the proposed thesis research and the area of research it belongs to. The presentation will describe both the general area of the student's proposed thesis research and the specific problem or problems to be addressed. The student may also talk about the methods used to attack the problems, and (preliminary or partial) results he or she has obtained. The candidate does not have to have obtained a publishable result. 

The committee members will ask questions related to the proposed research project. After the presentation, the committee will have a discussion to determine whether the candidate shall pass

What is candidacy and why do I have to do it?

  • The candidacy meeting is an oral presentation to a committee of faculty members on your proposed thesis research and the specific problem or problems to be addressed. It demonstrates the commitment to a PhD project by you, your advisor, and your committee. It's an important degree milestone that is a rite of passage during your PhD studies. 
  • To be admitted to candidacy, you must complete your core course requirements, qualifying exams, advanced courses, and the candidacy meeting.

How do I know if I'm ready to hold my candidacy meeting?

  • Talk to your advisor about whether they think you are ready. 
  • As a rule of thumb, if you have identified a problem and understand the problem and the background, then you are ready to hold your candidacy meeting. If you have done some preliminary work as a proof of concept that you can solve your problem, even better. 

What happens if I don't do candidacy by the end of the Spring term of my third year?

  • If your candidacy is delayed into the summer or early in the following fall term due to scheduling constraints, you'll simply need to petition for extended registration with the Dean's office. If you have the commitment of your committee and a date set, your petition will be accepted.
  • If your candidacy is delayed for some other reason, you may be placed on probation. You'll need to meet with the option rep and graduate program director to discuss a revised plan and timeline. If you don't complete candidacy by the Spring term of your fourth year, you could risk dismissal from the math graduate program. 

How do I assemble my candidacy committee?

  • Committee members are people you will talk to about your research, career aspirations, and more between candidacy and defense. Some of them are the people who will write your letters of recommendation for the first position you seek after grad school. Choose people who you feel you can talk to, who know your field, and/or who you think can provide guidance.
  • You are encouraged to talk to your advisor about their recommendations, but ultimately the decision is up to you and needs to be approved by the option rep.
  • You must have at least 4 members on your candidacy committee. At least 3 of whom need to be Caltech professorial faculty, and 2 need to be math professorial faculty.
  • One of the members of your committee should be your research advisor, but the chair should be someone other than your research advisor.

How do I organize the candidacy meeting?

  • Once you have the commitment of your candidacy committee members, work on setting a date and time. It can take several weeks or even months to find a date that works for everyone, so start early!
  • Book a conference room by contacting Michelle Vine or the PMA Student Programs Office
  • Enter the necessary info in Regis. See Do I have to do any administrative steps before or after candidacy?

What do I present and talk about at my candidacy meeting?

  • Focus on the problem you have identified for your thesis
  • Demonstrate your deep understanding of the problem
  • Plan to talk a bit about your strategy to solve the problem
  • Cover any necessary background or related work that you've already completed
  • The level of the talk should be fairly technical. Remember that you're talking to a committee of experts. You may need to incorporate some additional background and avoid jargon if any of your committee members work in a different field. This will vary for everyone, so you're encouraged to talk to your committee members about this beforehand if you're unsure.

What are some suggestions for preparing for my candidacy meeting?

  • Some find it helpful to prepare slides, others prefer writing on the blackboard from notes
  • Practice your talk with friends and colleagues who know your field

What kinds of questions will my committee members ask?

  • They will make sure you really understand your problem
  • Background and related work
  • What challenges do you expect along the way
  • Back up plans if your approach does not work out

How long does the candidacy meeting usually last?

  • Prepare to give about a 40-minute talk, with anywhere from 30-60 minutes of discussion and questions.
  • It is suggested to book the room for 2 hours just to be on the safe side.

Do I have to do any administrative steps before or after candidacy? 

  • Enter candidacy committee members, date, time, and location in Regis. Regis will send auto reminders to your committee before the meeting 
  • You don't need to do anything after the meeting, but the committee members will be pinged to enter their result and any comments in Regis

What does it mean to pass or fail candidacy?

  • Passing candidacy means that as a result of the candidacy meeting, your committee is confident that you are ready to dive into your thesis work. You've completed a big degree milestone!
  • It is very rare to fail candidacy, as it is expected that you and your advisor have discussed your readiness and that you have prepared. Your advisor will not recommend that you move forward with candidacy unless he/she thinks you're ready. 
  • In the very rare case that your committee doesn't think you've shown enough to pass candidacy during your meeting, then they will likely suggest some additional work before reconvening the committee. Each scenario may look a little different, but one possibility is that your committee asks you to do some more background research on a particular topic and come back in a few weeks or months to demonstrate that you've gained a better understanding of your problem. 

What happens after candidacy?

  • Once you've passed, you're officially a PhD candidate! You now get to dive into your thesis work!
  • Unless you decide to change the members, you candidacy committee with become your Thesis Advisory Committee, and they will follow your progress until your defense. You'll be meeting with them at least twice before you defend at the end of your fifth year. See the section on the Thesis Advisory Committee for more details.