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Ph.D. Program Milestones

First & Second Year Projects


Each student must give a talk on a research project that they are working on at the end of their first year, and another at the end of their second year. Unless otherwise arranged, all first- and second-year talks will occur on the same day near the end of the semester, such as the 2nd Friday of May, in a mini-conference format attended by CIS Graduate Group members. Talks will typically be 15-20 minutes in length. Talks should focus on the research that the student has been conducting in the CIS program. Discussion of work conducted elsewhere should be limited to how it directly relates to the work being conducted at UC Merced. Students should consult with their advisors about the content of the presentations.

Written Reports

First- and second-year students must also write a research report each year. Each report is to be formatted in a manner consistent with submission for academic publication. The papers are to be double-spaced, with margins no larger than 1.5 inches, in a font no smaller than 12 point, and no less than 10 pages in length not including references. Reports will be due to the members of the student’s advising committee and the Graduate Group chair shortly after the day of presentations (e.g., last Friday of May, to allow time for revision based on feedback). First- and second-year research reports are expected to serve as the bases for conference proceedings submissions or journal articles. Advisory committees will evaluate reports and presentations in terms of progress towards professional academic work in one or more areas of cognitive science. First-year reports will be given a grade of Pass, Conditional Pass, or Fail, whereas second-year reports may also be given Revise and Resubmit as a grade, allowing for rounds of revision. Faculty must provide the first round of feedback by one month from submission of their respective reports, and the final grade by three months from submission. The final evaluation of the committee on these papers will be recorded and taken into account when the student is considered for advancement to candidacy.

A Note from Jaskanwaljeet Kaur & Shannon Proksch:

The first and second year projects are the first two milestones on your Ph.D. journey in Cognitive & Information Sciences at UC Merced. They are an oral and written summary of your main research projects over your first and second year. Everyone’s research is a little bit different — we have students doing everything from philosophy, data science, ethics & science policy, to computational modeling and experimental neuroscience after all! — so everyone’s projects will look a little bit different. Some projects may look like a philosophical argument about a specific aspect of cognition, some projects will report empirical insights from observation of linguistic trends on social media, and some projects may report results of a computational model or results of a laboratory experiment. This means it is important to discuss any plans you make for your project with your advisor and your labmates. And we can’t stress enough the importance of talking with and seeking advice from your labmates. After all, they will have gone through this exact experience in their first and second year, so they have some hidden tips about what worked well and what might best be avoided. The first & second year project presentations  are the first time that everyone in the department can hear the amazing research you’ve been undertaking in your first two years (unless you’ve spoken at a CIS Brownbag talk already). These talks are a celebration of your efforts, and something we all look forward to as each Spring comes to a close. Specific requirements are listed below, and of course discuss your project with your advisor and labmates. And with that, have fun, do great research, and we’re excited to hear from you in May!

Integrative Review Paper (~3rd Year, Masters en route)

Integrative Review Paper

Graduates of the Ph.D. program in CIS are expected to possess a broad understanding of the full range of theories and methods employed in this interdisciplinary field. In order to assess the breadth of student knowledge, and in order to encourage an integrated view of the varied contributions that different disciplines make to cognitive and information sciences, each student must compose an integrative review (IR) paper. This paper will review and synthesize literature that is relevant or related to the student’s topic(s) of study, with the view that each research topic studied in CIS can be tackled from multiple perspectives and levels of organization, using different methods and approaches. The paper should integrate, at a deep level, research, theories, and methods from each of six approaches to CIS. Five approaches are set in advance:

  • Behavioral science
  • Computational modeling
  • Language and linguistics
  • Neuroscience
  • Philosophy

In addition, the IR paper should also integrate research, theories, and methods from a sixth approach to be decided upon by the student and their Faculty Advisory Committee, reflecting the need for diverse approaches in an interdisciplinary program. Possibilities for this elective approach include (but are not limited to) Cognitive Engineering, Anthropology, Evolutionary Biology, or Education. The IR paper is to be formatted in a manner consistent with submission for academic publication. The paper is to be double-spaced, with margins no larger than 1.5 inches, in a font no smaller than 12 point, and no less than 30 pages in length, not counting references. The paper should reference at least 60 previous publications or other informational sources. The IR paper is to reflect the individual understanding and solitary effort of its student author. While members of the student’s Faculty Advisory Committee may be consulted for guidance, and other researchers may act as sources of information, the content of each submitted paper is to be composed by the student, alone. Students are expected to strive to produce documents of the highest quality, both in terms of scholarship and in terms of presentation. It is anticipated that some or all of the text from the IR paper will be revised and expanded by the student in order to produce a publishable manuscript, allowing this requirement to act both as a program milestone and a means for strengthening the student’s academic credentials. Students should strive to turn in their IR paper to their advising committee during their fifth semester, and must submit it by the end of their sixth semester. Advising committees may also request that the student give an oral presentation to accompany the IR paper.

Evaluation of the IR

The IR paper will be assessed by the student’s advising committee and be given a grade of Full Pass, M.S. Pass, Conditional Pass, or Fail. A grade of Fail will result in the student’s termination from the program without receiving a degree, following the processes for termination consistent with the policies of the Graduate Division, and should be given only in cases when the student’s committee does not view a successful and timely revision as likely. For a conditional pass, the committee will indicate additional revisions to the IR paper that, if completed successfully according to a schedule dictated by the committee, will result in a Full Pass. A grade of M.S. Pass indicates that the student is viewed as unqualified to continue in the Ph.D. program, but that the IR paper can satisfactorily serve as a capstone or thesis project, enabling the student to leave with the M.S. degree. A Full Pass indicates that the student will continue in the program, and will also denote that the IR paper can serve as the capstone or thesis requirement for the M.S., should the student wish to file for that degree en route to the Ph.D.

Receiving an en route M.S. degree. Successful completion of the core 24 credits of required coursework, as well as a passing grade on the IR paper, shall qualify a student to receive an M.S. degree en route to the Ph.D. To receive this degree, the student must file appropriate paperwork with the Graduate Division.

A Note from Jaskanwaljeet Kaur & Shannon Proksch:

The Integrative Review Paper (IR for short) can be thought of a little bit like a third year project, with a few important differences from the first and second year projects. First off, it is recommended that you complete the IR in the first semester of your third year (your 5th semester) so that you have time to submit your dissertation proposal by the end of your 6th semester. Secondly, where the first and second year projects were likely a focused report on a specific research topic, maybe one specific philosophical argument or experimental results (etc), the IR asks you to place your specific research interest into the much broader context of cognitive science as a whole.That is, you must write a document synthesizing your specific research interests or topic(s) of study within six interdisciplinary approaches to Cognitive & Information Sciences. This sounds daunting! But, it is important to remember that you’ve been engaging in these diverse approaches to CIS throughout all of your first and second year coursework, alongside an even broader view into CIS ‘in the wild’ through the array of researchers, scientists, and industry professionals you have engaged with at the weekly MTS seminars. Coupled with all of the reading you have done, the writing, the computational/experimental/statistical methods you’ve practiced, you are more than prepared to write the IR when you arrive at this milestone. The IR allows us the ability to focus our writing on our own research interests while gaining an in-depth understanding of our topic from many perspectives. Many students take the IR as an opportunity to dive more deeply into discussing aspects of their research topic which they haven’t yet had time to personally implement in their coursework or first and second year projects. Specific requirements are listed below, and as always, we encourage you to discuss the IRs with your labmates and other CIS students beyond your lab. This is a solitary work performed by you, and you alone, but the best research and the best writing both comes from frequent discourse and feedback among your peers.

Advancement to Candidacy: Written Dissertation Proposal and Oral Defense (aka Qualifying Exam)

Advancement to Candidacy

All students in the CIS Ph.D. program are required to pass a Qualifying Examination prior to advancement to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. Before taking the Qualifying Examination the student must have completed all required formal coursework and successfully received a grade of “Full Pass” on the Integrative Review Paper. Students must also formally file with the Graduate Division to schedule their Qualifying Examination. It is expected that students will complete the Qualifying Examination prior to the completion of their sixth semester in academic residence (excluding summer semesters) at UCM, and it must be completed prior to the completion of their eighth semester. The Qualifying Examination has three basic purposes. First, it is intended as a test of the breadth of knowledge of the student, providing a forum for interactive challenges to the student’s mastery of core cognitive science concepts and methods. Second, it determines if the student possesses the knowledge and skills needed to successfully complete a dissertation research project in their chosen area of interest. Third, and lastly, it provides a means for providing constructive criticism of the student’s plan for his or her dissertation research. In pursuit of these three goals, the Qualifying Examination includes both a written component (i.e., the dissertation proposal) and an oral component.

To evaluate the Qualifying Examination, an Examination Committee must be established for the student. Like the Faculty Advisory Committee, this committee must consist of the Primary Research Advisor and two other program faculty members, though additional faculty may be invited to join the Examination Committee beyond these minimal requirements. While it is not required, it is generally desirable for the Examination Committee to be identical in membership to the later constituted Dissertation Committee, described below, and members should be selected with this goal in mind. The members of the Examination Committee must be approved by the student, the Primary Research Advisor, the nominated committee members, and, additionally, by the Dean of Graduate Studies. Approval will involve signatures on the Graduate Division paperwork to schedule the examination. The primary charge of the Examination Committee is to evaluate student performance on the Qualifying Examination. This faculty group also acts as the student’s Faculty Advisory Committee from the time it is constituted until a Dissertation Committee is established.

Dissertation Proposal

In order to advance to candidacy, students must submit a written Dissertation Proposal to their Examination Committee, and defend the proposal in a privately held oral exam in front of all members of the committee. The proposal is expected to make a convincing case that the proposed research is likely to make an original contribution to human knowledge, is of sufficient interest to be worthy of pursuit, and is feasible given the student’s skills, time constraints, and available resources. In order to defend the novelty of the research, as well as explain its significance, this document should include a substantial review of the literatures that are directly relevant to the proposed dissertation project. In order to justify the feasibility of the proposal, the document should include an overview of progress to date, as well as a detailed description of the research yet to be completed, along with an estimated schedule for the component tasks. Depending on the scope of the proposed dissertation project, the proposal document need not be long (e.g., typically about 30 double-spaced pages), but it should make a clear case for the program of work. The document should be double-spaced, with margins no larger than 1.5 inches, and in a font no smaller than 12 point. The topic of the dissertation research proposal is to be determined by the student in negotiation with the student’s Primary Research Advisor. The document must be approved by the Primary Research Advisor before it is delivered to the other members of the Examination Committee. Informal feedback on this document may be provided by Examination Committee members prior to the oral component of the Candidacy Examination, but the primary forum for feedback is to be the oral defense of the proposal. Thus, the negotiated date of the oral component of the Oral Candidacy Examination must allow at least four weeks for the Examination Committee to evaluate the dissertation proposal document, in accordance with Graduate Division policy.

Oral Candidacy Exam

In order to advance to candidacy, each student in the CIS Ph.D. program must pass an oral Candidacy Examination, including an oral defense of the written dissertation research proposal. The oral component of the Candidacy Examination is to be scheduled by consensus of the student and the members of the student’s Examination Committee. The examination meeting must not take place earlier than four weeks after the dissertation research proposal has been delivered to the members of the Examination Committee. This meeting should be held before the beginning of the student’s seventh semester in residency at UCM (excluding summer semesters), and must be held before the beginning of the student’s ninth semester. All members of the Examination Committee must either be physically present at the Candidacy Examination meeting, or must be able to robustly interact with physically present participants through the use of sufficiently high bandwidth telecommunication technologies. (The central participants, including both the members of the Examination Committee and the student being examined, must be unanimous in their acceptance of any telecommunication surrogate for physical presence.) Unless the Examination Committee unanimously decides on an alternate format, the format of the oral Candidacy Examination is to include a presentation by the student. The meeting is normally expected to be closed to outside observers, but the meeting may be made open to the UCM CIS community, to the broader University community, or to members of the public upon unanimous consent of the members of the Examination Committee. At minimum, students should expect to be questioned by members of the Dissertation Committee on the following topics:

  • General knowledge of CIS concepts and methods
  • Contents of coursework completed by the student
  • Material related to the Integrative Review Paper prepared by the student
  • Material related to the student’s written dissertation research proposal

The Oral Candidacy Examination is to last no more than three hours, including deliberations. Once all members of the Examination Committee are satisfied with the questions that have been presented, the Examination Committee must meet in private in order to deliberate and determine the results of the examination. The results of these deliberations should be communicated to the student being examined as soon as possible, usually immediately upon their completion. The conclusions of the Examination Committee should be communicated to the Dean of Graduate Studies, using the forms provided by the Graduate Division.

Evaluation and Advancement to Candidacy

There are three possible outcomes for the Candidacy Examination: Pass, Conditional Pass, and Fail. An outcome of “Pass” is unconditional. The student cannot be required to satisfy any other conditions before obtaining the benefits of passing this examination. A “Conditional Pass” is treated as a “Pass” outcome as soon as the student satisfies certain specific conditions detailed by the Examination Committee at the time of the assignment of the “Conditional Pass” outcome. Acceptable conditions include the successful completion of prescribed courses and the rewriting of the dissertation research proposal. A student who receives a “Fail” outcome may repeat the Candidacy Examination after a preparation time of no less than three months. Typically, a new dissertation research proposal is prepared for the repeated examination, but the original document may be used with the unanimous consent of the members of the Examination Committee. The repeated examination must be officiated by the same Examination Committee, though members of this committee may be replaced, with the approval of the Primary Research Advisor, if cause, such as extended absence from campus, is demonstrated and documented. Failure to pass the examination upon a second attempt disqualifies the student from further study toward the doctoral degree. The Dissertation Committee must reach a unanimous decision with regard to the outcome of this examination.

If the exam is passed, the Examination Committee immediately takes actions to advance the student to candidacy, as mentioned above. If the exam is initially failed, the result (as always) is immediately communicated to the student, and planning should begin for a repeated examination. If the exam is then failed again, the result is immediately communicated to the student, as well as to the Dean of Graduate Studies. If the exam is passed conditionally, a document detailing the conditions to be met by the student should be provided to the student within one week of the examination. Once these conditions are met, the Examination Committee confers to determine if the conditions have been satisfied and if the student should be advanced to candidacy.

A Note from Jaskanwaljeet Kaur & Shannon Proksch:

Advancing to Candidacy is a formal milestone in your Ph.D. journey that occurs, for CIS PhD students, by the end of the 6th semester in residence (or by the end of the 8th semester at the absolute latest). Advancing to Candidacy means a few things. First off, it means you are ready to begin completing your dissertation work. It also means that you are eligible to be an Instructor of Record as a Teaching Fellow (aka you can teach an undergraduate course on your own!) And finally, it means that the next major step in your Ph.D. journey is the Dissertation Defense itself. You’re nearly a doctor! In the CIS program, there are two main steps to reach this milestone 1) the Written Dissertation Proposal, and 2) The Oral Qualifying Examination (aka Oral Defense of the Proposal). Just like in your first years of the CIS program, it is helpful to remember that everyone’s research is a little bit different — from philosophy, data science, ethics & science policy, to computational modeling and experimental neuroscience and more — so everyone’s dissertation proposals *and* dissertations will look a little bit different. What you include in your dissertation proposal will strongly depend on your own research area and what you discuss with your faculty advisor.

Dissertation & Defense

Ph.D. Dissertation and Thesis Defense

Students must successfully complete a written doctoral dissertation containing an original contribution to scientific knowledge in some domain within cognitive and information sciences. The dissertation should contain material of a quality that is worthy of scholarly publication, and must be formatted according to campus guidelines for dissertation manuscripts. The student must also give an oral presentation of the dissertation that is open to the campus community, and may be open to the general public with consent of both the student and their advisory committee. The presentation is to be followed by a private session of questions and discussion with the advisory committee. The quality of the dissertation and the defense of its thesis are evaluated by the Dissertation Committee in order to determine if the student has successfully completed this final requirement for the Ph.D. degree in CIS.

The Dissertation Document

The Ph.D. dissertation must be a creative and independent work that can stand the test of peer review. The research described in this document must be original and defensible. The expectation is that the dissertation will serve as the basis for at least one publication in a peer-reviewed journal, though it is not uncommon that between two and four publications will result from the dissertation. The reported work and the written composition must be the student's own, though the student is encouraged to discuss both the substance and the preparation of the dissertation with the members of her or his Dissertation Committee well in advance of its final defense.

While the dissertation document is expected to provide a complete and comprehensive characterization of the student’s Ph.D. research project, there are no universal requirements concerning the format of this document. Each student’s Primary Research Advisor is responsible for providing structuring and formatting guidelines for the dissertation document, in consultation with the student’s Dissertation Committee. Once the dissertation document is complete in the opinion of the student and the student’s Primary Research Advisor, the student must provide a copy of the dissertation to each member of her or his Dissertation Committee. Each committee member must be given at least four weeks to read the dissertation and provide informal comments on it before the date scheduled for the thesis defense. If one or more committee members find that there are significant errors or shortcomings in the dissertation, or that the scope or nature of the work is not adequate, the student must address these shortcomings before the defense. Thus, some students may wish to submit their dissertation to their committee and receive feedback before scheduling a defense.

Thesis Defense

The Ph.D. thesis defense consists of an open seminar on the dissertation work followed by a closed examination conducted by the Dissertation Committee. During the examination, the student is expected to explain the significance of the dissertation research, justify the methods employed, and defend the conclusions reached.

The thesis defense cannot commence until all members of the Dissertation Committee have read the dissertation and agreed that it is ready to be defended. Once such an agreement has been reached, the student is expected to work with the members of the Dissertation Committee in order to schedule a date and time for the defense. Members of the dissertation committee should make efforts to ensure the defense is scheduled in a timely fashion. All members of the Dissertation Committee must attend the thesis defense, either through physical presence or through the use of a high-bandwidth telecommunications technology that is unanimously accepted by the student and all members of the Dissertation Committee. The thesis defense cannot extend beyond three hours, but a block of time of that size should be reserved for this event in every case. Once the date of the thesis defense is determined, this information must be reported to the Dean of Graduate Studies, and one copy of the dissertation must be filed with the Division of Graduate Studies no later than two weeks before the scheduled date of the thesis defense.

Immediately following the closed examination of the student by the Dissertation Committee, the members of the Dissertation Committee shall meet in private in order to discuss the student’s performance. At the conclusion of these deliberations, the committee shall vote on the question of whether both the written dissertation and the student's performance during the defense are of sufficient quality to warrant the awarding of a Ph.D. degree from the University of California. A simple majority is required to pass. Members of the committee may vote to make conferral of the degree contingent on corrections and/or revisions to the dissertation, however. In this case, the committee will select one member, normally the Primary Research Advisor, to be responsible for approving the final version of the dissertation that is submitted to the Graduate Division. All members of the Dissertation Committee who voted to award the degree must sign the final dissertation.

Upon completion of the final examination and approval of the dissertation, the Doctoral Committee recommends, by submission of the Report on Final Examination of the Ph.D. Degree Form, the conferral of the Ph.D. subject to final submission of the approved dissertation for deposit in the University Archives. The Committee recommendation must be unanimous (even if the initial vote was not). Detailed information and instructions on the submission and filing of the dissertation is available in the UCM Thesis and Dissertation Manual. A schedule of dates for filing the thesis in final form are published on the Graduate Division website in the Dates and Deadlines section.

A Note from Jaskanwaljeet Kaur & Shannon Proksch:

The Dissertation & Defense are the final milestones in your PhD Journey. After finishing this milestone you can officially claim the title of doctor and don your cap and gown. At this point, you will have written up your dissertation document according to your proposal and the feedback you already received from your committee. Aside from following general UC Merced guidelines for the formatting of the dissertation document, each dissertation may differ substantially between different PhD Candidates within the interdisciplinary Cognitive & Information Sciences Program. As with each previous milestone, you should remain in close contact with your advisor regarding the structure and content of your dissertation document. Then, invite all of your CIS colleagues, family, and friend to your thesis defense! This defense is an open presentation for the public, after which any public attendees can ask you questions. For your labmates, family, friends, professors, etc who attend this defense, this is a celebration of you and all the hard work you’ve done to reach this milestone. But you’re not quite done yet! After the public commentary period, you and your committee will hash it out in the final oral examination of your PhD career. The best recommendation for the dissertation (both the document and the defense) is to write often, practice speaking often, and request feedback often. Ask your labmates and other CIS colleagues to reveiw chapter drafts, ask your roommates, family, and friends to be practice audiences for your presentation. And of course, plan ahead with answers to questions you think your committee will have for you. Most of all, have fun and do good work :)