uc davis materials science engineering graduate milestones

Graduate Student Milestones

Plan Your Graduate Career

As a materials science and engineering graduate student, you can expect to encounter the following major milestones during your time at UC Davis: 

Beginning Graduate School

Getting ready to begin your studies is an exciting time. However, before you take your bike for a spin around town, register for classes or rent that moving truck, there are a few steps that need to be completed. Check out our guide for a complete list of the actions you need to take to become an Aggie.

The First Year 

Finding a major professor

You can expect at least one main milestone in your first year—finding a major professor. During fall quarter, students participate in "Preparing for Graduate Student Success" (EMS 200), which matches you with a major professor. In general, you should plan to meet with at least five to six faculty members by the midway point of the quarter. Attending group meetings is also a great way to meet a faculty member’s students and learn about current research projects. From there, you should narrow your preferences down to the top three research groups you would like to join. Preferences are then collected from the faculty, and the department chair, the graduate program chair and staff advisors meet to match students and faculty. This process is usually complete by the end of fall quarter. 

Preliminary Exam

If you are a doctoral student, another first-year milestone is passing the preliminary exam at the end of spring quarter. You must have a 3.25 GPA in all course courses required for the Ph.D program. You may also take the preliminary exam if you are a master's student who wishes to move to the doctoral degree track. To do so, you must meet the GPA requirement, be in good academic standing and have a letter of support from your major professor that include a commitment to funding you if you should pass the exam.

Updated guidelines for the preliminary exam are usually discussed as a group during winter quarter. Over the course of spring quarter, you should write your abstract, prepare and practice your presentation and complete your program of study. By mid-April, you will be notified of the date of your exam and the committee. Most exams are taken in mid-to-late May, with notification of results by the beginning of June.  

This exam consists of a 15-minute presentation followed by 20 minutes of questioning by a committee consisting of five faculty members. The presentation should be a critical literature review of one paper selected from a pre-determined list of 10-12 papers. You may select a second paper of your own choosing. You must justify your selection of this paper in the form of a 400-word abstract. The committee, which will be the same for all students, will question the student on the presentation and its relation to the fundamental knowledge of Materials Science and Engineering topics. You are not allowed to include extraneous slides or access handouts and notes. The overall goal of this exam is to determine whether the student has mastered the subject matter in Materials Science and Engineering at a level appropriate for the doctoral degree and that the student has the ability to integrate basic concepts across subject areas. 

The committee members will determine an outcome of the exam to be either "Excellent", "Good", "Fair", or "Poor". This decision is then discussed and either confirmed or changed in a meeting of graduate program faculty members. If you receive a score of "Fair", then you are required to retake the examination once prior to the start of the following quarter (usually Fall). The retake committee will be comprised of as many of the original faculty committee members that are available for the time of the retake. In order to receive a pass for the exam (either in the original exam or retake), you must receive a grade of "Excellent" or "Good". Students receiving a "Poor" on the original exam, or failing to achieve "Excellent" or "Good" on the retake, will be recommended for disqualification from the Ph.D. program. If appropriate, the student may be allowed to transition to the M.Engr. or M.S. program. 

Winter '22 PE Committee: Susan Gentry, Seung Sae Hong, Subhash Risbud, Klaus van Benthem and Adam Moule

Winter '22 PE Information Session Recording Access Code available upon request. 

The Second Year 

Qualifying exam

The qualifying exam consists of a written research proposal and an oral presentation. The written portion consists of a 10-15 page research proposal and bibliography that follows a format similar to an NSF or NIH grant proposal. It typically covers introduction and motivation, background information, project objectives, methods section, any preliminary results obtained, and a proposed research timeline. This research proposal is due to qualifying faculty committee two weeks prior to the QE exam date. 

The second portion of the QE exam is a 30-35 minute oral presentation, during which a faculty committee will question the student. The exam should be scheduled for three hours to allow time for questions and answers. The content of the presentation is very similar to the written research proposal.  You are not allowed to include extraneous slides or access handouts and notes. The overall goal is to determine whether the student has a thorough understanding of their research project and research plans going forward. 

The qualifying exam committee consists of a total of five faculty members out of which four can be graduate program faculty members and one member should be an external faculty outside the graduate group. The students should select the committee in discussion with their major professor. Major professors are not allowed to participate on the qualifying exam committee. The qualifying exam needs to be scheduled two months prior to the qualifying date in order to give graduate studies enough time to approve the application. To book one of the available conference rooms, please email mse-advising@ucdavis.edu with your exam date and time (remember that the exam should take at least 3 hours).

Winter 22 QE Information Session Recording Access Code available upon request. 

Advancing to Candidacy

For master’s students, advancement to candidacy can occur as soon as the majority of your coursework has been completed, usually by the fall quarter of your second year. However, doctoral students must complete all coursework and pass their qualifying exam before advancing, which usually occurs by the spring quarter of your second year. Ready to advance? Read about the guidelines of advancing to candidacy


You’re almost done and ready to throw that cap in the air. Here’s what you need to know before you say farewell to your fondest years at UC Davis.