Candidacy Exam

The Candidacy Exam is typically held in the third year.
It is an oral examination lasting 90-120 minutes, at which The Candidate should plan to speak for about 40-45 minutes.
The remainder of the time is filled with interruptions for clarification during the presentation, and then general discussion upon completion of the prepared talk.

Your first step is to identify a committee.
The composition of the committee is ideally along the following lines:
1) the thesis advisor,
2) another expert in the field,
3) a theorist (for observational theses) or an observer (for theory students),
4) an experimentalist,
5) a faculty member entirely unrelated to the field of thesis.
We require five faculty members, but additional formal members of the committee may be added, for example if you have a JPL/IPAC or other external collaborator or expert you would like to invite. You should meet with the Option Rep, or send by email a statement summarizing the topic of the thesis and the suggestions of committee members based on discussion with your advisor. The Option Rep will approve, after ensuring that the slate is diverse and fair, and attempting to balance the faculty load across all students. It is longstanding policy in Ay that the committee chair is someone other than the research advisor.

Your next step is to arrange for all of these people to show up at the same time and in the same place for your Candidacy Exam.
Then you need to fill out some electronic paperwork in the REGIS system.

Don't forget to schedule the room, and to advertise to the committee the agreed date and chosen location.
A reminder the day before never hurts.

Each student going into the Candidacy Exam should distribute (electronically) a written report about a week in advance, to both the committee members and the Option Rep.

The report is essentially a thesis proposal and should include:

  • The thesis topic, its motivation, and its scientific context.
  • An overview of the methods to be used, including the scope of work, the anticipated outcomes of the project, and particular challenges that may arise.
  • A timeline with milestones (e.g. data acquired, software written, papers published, etc.) that leads to a thesis defense.
    The plan must be robust and include reasonable contingency plans as relevant, in case things do not work out as anticipated.
    For example, delays with respect to the scheduled appearance of new hardware, the availability of working software,
    or the realization of novel science, are not uncommon!

    The entirety of the thesis proposal should be understandable by astronomers in a different area of specialization. Note that your thesis commitee should have some of these.
    A well-written document allows for both expert and nonexpert faculty members to assess the scientific worthiness of the project and its feasibility.

    The suggested length is 4-12 pages. There are no hard limits, as we want to give you space to explain yourself, but we also do not want to see a proto-thesis at this stage.
    You may structure the report however you wish, so long as the key elements above are present.
    Please do not use "apjemulate" or any such similar journal style formatting in your submission. This is not a paper being published in a journal, but your proposal for thesis research at Caltech.

    Regarding the exam itself, there are four possible outcomes:

  • pass and admission to candidacy (also requires that all other course and departmental requirements, e.g. TA, have been met),
  • conditional pass, meaning that additional demonstration of research competency is required, such as actually submitting a paper in-preparation (usually within a 6-9 month time scale),
  • non-pass, with opportunity for re-examination (usually on a 6-9 month time scale),
  • fail with recommendation to leave the program.

    Going forward, it is important to note that you are not bound to execute exactly the research program you propose in your report; we all recognize the rapid pace of the field at its frontiers.
    However, should there be major changes in direction, you should be sure to consult with and possibly re-convene your committee members
    for advice and for approval of the change in scope or time line. Please discuss with your advisor and the Option Rep.

    Remember that you are always free to "check in" with your committee members to review your research progress and plans.
    We are all invested in your successful navigation of the path to PhD, and generally happy to dispense advice.