Technical Qualifying Examination FAQ

What is the purpose of the TQE concentration area requirement?

One key element of the MEMP curriculum is to provide students with in-depth, advanced technical expertise in a classical engineering or physical sciences discipline. This is accomplished through rigorous graduate-level courses in a single concentration area to develop depth; this approach is deliberately different from many undergraduate programs in biomedical engineering that are designed to provide breadth. Successfully completing a MEMP concentration area provides you with the knowledge base necessary to interact on equal footing and communicate effectively with technical experts in your specific concentration area.

Many MEMP students have undergraduate backgrounds that were not structured this way, but we believe that thorough grounding in a classical discipline is an important part of the preparation for interdisciplinary research. Selecting a TQE concentration area give you an opportunity to focus your general technical interests and acquire a solid technical foundation in a specific discipline.

Can I define my own TQE concentration area?

MEMP students are required to select one of the eleven established concentration areas.  That affords you a wide range of options, considerably broader and more diverse than the requirements for most other MIT PhD programs.

How does HST’s TQE system compare to qualifying processes used by other MIT PhD programs?

Almost all MIT PhD programs have a two-part qualifying process. For the first portion, some departments require students to pass a set of written exams in specific topic areas, while other departments use systems based on grades in a particular set of classes. HST’s grade-based system is similar to that used by EECS; this approach provides a flexible alternative to written exams that require all students in the program to qualify in a limited number of topic areas. The second portion of the qualifying process always consists of an oral exam, with each department specifying the relative balance of coursework and research covered in the oral exam.

How is the list of concentration areas determined?

Prior to establishment of the current TQE system, HST partnered with a number of MIT departments to admit and qualify MEMP PhD students. The initial set of concentration areas reflected the disciplines represented by those departments. Over time, the Qualifying Exam in HST (QuEHST) Committee has added new TQE tracks in response to student interest and evolution of the field.

How do I decide which TQE concentration area to choose?

There are multiple factors to consider in choosing your concentration area:

  • Your long term career goals – Throughout your career, you will find yourself in situations where you are expected to excel based on your past experience in a particular realm. Selecting your TQE concentration area at the start of graduate study is one of the rare opportunities that you’ll have to switch your focus and chart a new course.
  • Your general research interests ­– Your TQE concentration area should support your general research interests. For example, if you’re interested in medical imaging, you might choose any of these concentration areas: EE, CS, NSE, BCS. It’s ok to be choosing your TQE concentration area before deciding on a research lab, since the concentration area should support your general research interests, not the specific project that you ultimately choose for your PhD thesis.
  • Your undergraduate background – Depending on your research interests and career goals, it might make sense to stay in your comfort zone and select the TQE concentration area most closely aligned with your undergraduate background. In other cases – due to your goals or because your undergraduate major is not represented in the established areas – you may decide to develop competency in a new field.

Is it common for MEMP students to choose a concentration area that's different from their undergraduate majors?

Yes, over half of MEMP students choose an area of study that's different than their previous degrees.  If you wish to switch your focus, entering a new degree program is an excellent time to do so.

Will it be more difficult to pass the TQE in a new field of study?

It may require some additional effort. If it supports your long term career goals, then the extra effort required to gain expertise in a new area will be a worthwhile investment. Students choosing a concentration area different from their prior training are encouraged to take undergraduate classes to build a strong foundation before entering graduate classes.

Will taking undergrad classes slow down my progress?

Students who take the time to develop a strong foundation almost always report that it was a very good investment. It is far preferable to make the investment up front and take undergraduate classes first rather than performing poorly in graduate-level classes, then taking undergraduate classes followed by retaking the graduate classes.

I’m still not sure what to do. How can I get more information and advice about choosing a TQE concentration area?

There are lots of resources to help you with this decision. As in most cases, you should start with your academic advisor. In addition, you are encouraged to seek advice from jgreenbe [at] (Julie Greenberg), IMES/HST Director of Education. You can also consult with the faculty members who serve as concentration area chairs for the areas that you are considering. Finally, it’s a good idea to talk to more senior MEMP students; ask your big buddy or any member of the Joint Council to introduce you to their classmates in concentration areas that you are considering. Also, note that the TQE process is set up to give you time to decide. During your first semester, you can take classes to explore a concentration area and see if it’s a good fit for you.

If I have an undergraduate background in biomedical engineering (BME), should I choose biological engineering (BE) as my TQE concentration area?

It’s a good idea to take a close look at the classes in a given concentration area to make sure that they fit your expectations. Biomedical engineering (BME) is a relatively new field, with individual undergraduate programs having wide variation in focus and content.  If you have a BME background and are considering the BE TQE track, please be aware that the biological engineering curriculum at MIT is focused on the analysis and synthesis of molecular and cellular biological mechanisms. To succeed in the BE TQE concentration area, you’ll need strong familiarity with the material covered in General Biochemistry (7.05) and Cell Biology (7.06)

When do I need to decide on my TQE concentration area? What if I want to switch later?

You should declare your concentration area on the TQE contract form, which is due by Spring term Reg Day of your first year in the program. If you want to request a change after that date, you can submit a written petition to the QuEHST Committee explaining the rationale for the change along with a revised TQE contract signed by your academic advisor. You can submit your petition to tanderso [at] (Traci Anderson) via email. Such petitions are relatively rare, but experience has shown that QuEHST is likely to approve changes motivated by clear and defensible educational goals.

When do I need to decide on my TQE classes? What if I want to change them later?

Initially, you will submit your best guess of TQE classes on the TQE contract form due by Spring term Reg Day of your first year in the program. You can “shop” classes at the start of each term and make changes to your TQE class selections until Add Date of the term in which you are enrolled in the class being added to your TQE – just send an email to tanderso [at] (Traci Anderson) with cc to your academic advisor before the deadline. Please make sure that the email is clear with respect to which class(es) you are adding to your TQE plan and which class(es) you are removing. Under no circumstances will you be permitted to add a class to your TQE contract after earning a grade in the class.

How can I increase my chance of success in TQE classes?

The classes on the TQE lists are rigorous graduate subjects. Depending on your background with the specific subject matter, many students find it helpful to take undergraduate classes in preparation for some of the advanced graduate classes.

I want to take a class for my TQE that isn't on the approved list, or that is on the list in another concentration area. Can I do that?

You may submit a petition requesting permission to count a class that’s not on the approved list for your TQE concentration area. The petition should include a copy of a recent syllabus, if possible. Please list the courses taken/proposed for your TQE (include semester and grade if taken.) Such petitions are more likely to be approved when:

  • the class is sufficiently rigorous - usually this means problem sets and quizzes rather than entirely project based;
  • the content is well aligned with topics covered in the approved classes in that concentration area.

You can submit your petition to tanderso [at] (Traci Anderson) via email. Petitions may be submitted at any time, but please allow sufficient time if you wish to receive an answer before the start of classes:  August 15 for fall term; January 15 for spring term.

Why pick from a pre-specified list of classes, rather than just taking whatever courses I want in my chosen concentration area? How are the lists of classes in each TQE concentration areas determined?

The lists of classes in each TQE concentration area are developed based on the requirements of the corresponding PhD program; this insures that MEMP students get the same rigorous training in foundational subjects as their peers in those disciplines. Beyond the basic departmental requirements, the lists are customized to allow MEMP students some flexibility to select from classes with a focus on human health and to achieve some measure of uniformity across the different TQE areas within MEMP. Each area has a concentration area chair, a faculty member knowledgeable in the discipline who oversees the TQE concentration area. The lists are updated annually based on curricular changes in the associated departments and degree programs.

Why is it recommended to include an alternate class on the TQE contract?

This is for planning purpose – the idea is to identify a class to be taken if it becomes necessary for any reason, including scheduling conflicts or a class not being offered. You won’t be required to take the alternate (usually fifth) class if you meet the requirements of your TQE track based on the initial set (usually four) classes taken. Students whose TQE contract includes a class in which they earned a B in a fall term must list an alternate class.

Do my TQE courses affect what to expect during my oral qualifying exam (OQE)?

The purpose of the OQE is to evaluate whether you can integrate information from diverse sources into a well thought out and coherent research proposal, defend your proposal during an oral presentation, and think on your feet. While the OQE is not designed to explicitly cover material covered in TQE classes, material covered in TQE classes is considered ‘fair game’ during the OQE if it relates to your research project. (An additional area assessed by the OQE is the student’s ability to explain the relevance of their proposed research to clinical medicine. Material covered in the pathology course requirement is likely to be relevant in that context.)

Why do some concentration areas have different criteria for passing the TQE?

Grading standards and policies differ among the various graduate programs represented by the TQE concentration areas. Based on discussions with faculty members in other MIT departments and years of experience with MEMP students taking these classes, we have developed criteria (new in 2016) that reflect the variations in grade distribution for core classes in different departments.

What happens if I don't get the required number of A's?

In most circumstances, you automatically have the option of taking one additional TQE class to meet the criteria. In a few cases (for example, if you receive three or more B grades in your initial set of TQE classes), the QuEHST committee determines the specific remediation plan that you’ll follow. In this case, you are welcome to submit a written statement proposing a specific remediation and/or explaining any circumstances impacting your performance.

How common is it for students to take an additional TQE class?

15-20% of MEMP students take an additional class in order to meet the criteria for passing the TQE.