USC Price School of Public Policy

Qualifying Examination

The Guidance Committee prepares a comprehensive written examination covering the fields of study. Each committee determines the exact format for the written portion in advance. The written exam is graded by all committee members. Following completion of the written portion, the entire committee conducts an oral examination of the student, focusing on material both complementary and supplementary to the written examination but relevant to the field and overall program selected by the student. Upon passing both portions of the qualifying examination, the student becomes a candidate for the Doctor of Philosophy degree.

The examination qualifying a student for candidacy for the Ph.D. degree is comprehensive in nature, partly written and partly oral, designed, at least in part, to test the student’s fitness to undertake independent research. Prior to taking the qualifying examination, the student must have met all of the departmental requirements for doing so and have the recommendation of the guidance committee. The qualifying examination is normally taken not later than during the fifth semester of graduate standing. The student should note the maximum time limit for completing the degree.

Prerequisites for the Qualifying Examination
To be eligible to take the qualifying examination, the student must have completed at least 24 units applicable toward the degree in residence at USC and must have achieved a GPA of at least 3.0 on all USC coursework available for graduate credit. As part of their advancement to candidacy, students must complete the PPD 700a&b Teaching Seminar in order to become eligible for the qualifying exam. Each student will produce at least one course description and syllabus during the Seminar, which addresses his/her substantive core expertise, and one of these must be submitted prior to taking the qualifying exam. The focus of the course and the major or minor field must be consistent. A student must enroll in Studies for the Qualifying Examination (GRSC 800) during the semester in which the qualifying examination is to be taken if not otherwise enrolled.

Request to Take the Qualifying Examination
When the student and the guidance committee have determined that the qualifying examination can be taken, the student should obtain the Request to Take the Ph.D. Qualifying Examination. The student secures the signatures of the department chair, the guidance committee and the Graduate School, which verifies that the student has met residency and GPA requirements. The student should return the completed form to the Graduate School the semester before and not later than 30 days before the beginning date of the examination. The examination must be taken during the semester for which permission is granted. The qualifying examinations may be scheduled by the department at any time during the semester, provided all members of the guidance committee are available to administer it. All portions of the examination must be completed within 60 days. Postponement of the examination after permission has been granted must have the approval of the Vice Provost for Academic Programs.

Written and Oral Components of the Qualifying Examination
The written examination will be prepared, administered on campus and read by the guidance committee; in a few departments there will be a department-wide committee examining all doctoral students. When the student’s written examination is satisfactory, an oral examination is given covering, in depth topics discussed in the written examinations or touching upon additional material. The fact that a student has done well on the written examination is not to be construed to mean that the oral examination is to be a pro forma exercise. The oral examination is a serious and integral part of the qualifying procedure. If on the written examination the judgment of the committee is such that an oral examination cannot counterbalance a poor performance, the committee is not obliged to give an oral examination and the report to the Graduate School will be one of failure. In the case where the written examination is marginal, the committee may use the oral examination as an opportunity to confirm or alter its judgment of the student’s performance.

Evaluation of the Qualifying Examination
A student must pass both the written and oral portions of the qualifying examination in order to pass the examination. The examination may not be reported as being passed if there is more than one dissenting vote. Ph.D. examinations cannot be passed conditionally. A pass on the examination cannot be made contingent upon other factors such as the completion of additional coursework, the preparation of extra research projects, etc.

During the oral examination, all members of the guidance committee must be present and must render a judgment on the student’s qualifying examination. Only the guidance committee may participate in the oral portion of the examination.

Retaking the Qualifying Examination
A student who fails a qualifying examination may be permitted, at the discretion of the faculty, to take it a second time. The student may not be required to repeat parts of the qualifying examination which were passed on the first administration. The retaking of a failed qualifying examination must be scheduled at a time mutually satisfactory and not less than six months from the date of the first examination. The second examination must be completed before the end of the second consecutive semester (excluding summer session) following the first examination. Requests for an exception must be approved by the Vice Provost for Academic Programs. A student may not take the qualifying examination more than twice and must be appropriately enrolled at USC during the semester in which such an examination is taken or retaken. A student who fails the qualifying examination a second time may not continue in the degree program after the end of the semester in which the second examination was taken. No exceptions are allowed.

USC Price Stipulations for the Qualifying Examination
In addition to university requirements, the Price School of Public Policy has the following specific stipulations:

  • The qualifying examination is held annually in late September.
  • The qualifying examination will examine students in their field(s) of specialization. The major field should fall under the disciplinary umbrella of one of the doctoral program substantive core tracks: Planning, Public Management, Public Policy, or Urban Development. The minor field may be within the academic purview of USC Price or may fall outside this purview, as approved by the Guidance Committee.
  • The written exam is given in a two-part, take home format. Generally, students are given three weeks to respond in writing to the exam. The exam is administered as follows:
    • Part I: A panel representing the specialization in Planning, Public Management, Public Policy, or Urban Development determines and grades a question that is common across the student’s chosen specialization. Students are asked to demonstrate expertise in one of the four substantive field tracks.
    • Part II: These questions will be formulated at the discretion of the student’s Guidance Committee. At least one question should address the major/substantive core field and the designated minor field, while one should be formulated keeping in mind the student’s overall research interests and plans for the dissertation.
  • The oral component of the qualifying exam will take place at least one week subsequent to the student’s submission of all of his/her examination materials to the Guidance Committee. The final Guidance Committee must meet at least twice, first to formulate the examination and secondly to examine the student orally following the submission of the written examinations.
  • Normally, students are given three weeks in which to prepare the written portion of the examination with an oral examination to be conducted the following week. However, the committee has the discretion to create a different format or procedure where appropriate. In all cases, students will have to pass both a written and an oral examination.
  • Once the qualifying examination is successfully completed the student is admitted to candidacy by the Graduate School.
  • In the event that the student does not pass the qualifying examination, he or she may be allowed to repeat the examination once more at the discretion of the guidance committee. A retaking of the examination may not occur before six months following the first attempt and no later than twelve months following.
  • Should the student fail any part of the examination on the first try, the committee shall report a grade of fail to the Graduate School. The committee may decide that the second exam will be focused on only those parts that were not passed on the first attempt.
  • Under no circumstances can the membership of the guidance committee be altered for the second examination.

Additional Information
For additional information, please go to the Graduate School Policies and Requirements page in the USC Catalogue.