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Finding a PhD Advisor and What to Expect After Prelims

1.) Finding a Research Advisor. Graduate students follow many paths to complete the prelims, find an advisor, and move on to the research stage. So, there is no "one-size-fits-all" advice that can be given about the process of finding an advisor. However, here are some suggestions and things to keep in mind.

  • When should you start asking faculty about possible research advising? For most students, this will happen after they finish two prelims. At this point, you are ready to start the transition from coursework and prelim study to preparing for research. Some students find an advisor sooner than this, and some students do not find an advisor until they have finished all three prelims. The most important thing in this regard is to talk to the Director of Graduate Studies about your ideas for possible advisors and your plan for when you will start the process of finding an advisor.
  • There are at least two things to keep in mind when considering potential advisors. The first is the research area -- you will want to work in an area of mathematics that you enjoy thinking about. The second is the interpersonal relationship you will have with your advisor -- you will want to work with an advisor who you enjoy working with. While neither of these needs to be perfect for a successful research experience (it does not have to be your favorite math, and your advisor does not have to be your best friend in the universe), both of these are important to consider.
  • Almost all graduate students and faculty will "test out" how they work together through an independent study before confirming an advising relationship. Often this testing-out phase is during the preparation for a Master's exam, but not always. So, rather than going to a faculty member and asking "will you be my PhD advisor?", it is a good idea to schedule a meeting and tell a faculty member that you are interested in their area of math and ask them if they are available to do an independent study with you. This can either be an official MA 611 course during a semester, or an informal independent study during the year or in the summer. Sometimes faculty are not available for this, either because they have a full advising load, or they will be leaving for sabbatical soon, or other reasons, but it is important to ask faculty directly rather than use second-hand info from other graduate students.
  • After you have spent a few months in an independent study with a potential advisor, you will know whether or not you want to ask them to be your official advisor, and they will know whether or not they are comfortable working with you as a student. It will be easier to discuss the idea of long-term advising after you have established a working relationship.
  • Remember that every student has a different experience finding a graduate advisor, and this is a feature of our program that provides additional flexibility. (Some departments in other disciplines require you to pick an advisor when you apply, before you even meet them, and then have no way to change advisors if it turns out to be a bad match.) Your best path forward is to talk to the Director of Graduate Studies during your advising meetings, and to also talk to the faculty teaching your courses about their advice for finding an advisor.

2.) Establish your Advisory Committee and Applying for the Qualifying Exam. Completing your qualifying exam is the last requirement prior to writing and defending your dissertation. Prior to qualifying, you must have passed three prelims and confirmed with the DGS that your courses satisfy the minor requirement (this can include courses taken during the semester when you qualify). You are not allowed to complete your qualifying exam until during or after the semester that you will complete at least 36 hours of graduate coursework. This is due to the pre-qualifying residency requirement set by the graduate school.  (If you entered the Ph.D. program with a completed master’s from another institution, you may count up to 18 hours from your completed master’s toward your pre-qualifying residency requirement. If this applies to you, then you will need to contact the Director of Graduate Studies, who will make an official request to the graduate school.)

For the qualifying exam, you will be expected to read research-level mathematics and have a proposed research problem to discuss. Most students do not have any research actually completed prior to their qualifying exam, but sometimes this happens. The goal is to demonstrate to your advisory committee that you have a research problem to work on and that you are knowledgeable about the mathematics needed to work on the problem.

There are three additional things to know about the qualifying exam: (A) you cannot defend your dissertation until at least one year after your qualifying exam. (B) When you complete your qualifying exam, you receive a small automatic pay increase for your TA position and summer teaching. (C) After you complete your qualifying exam, your official academic advisor changes from the DGS to your PhD advisor.

Once you and your advisor agree that you are ready to schedule your qualifying exam, you will need to form an Advisory Committee and have your Committee approved by the Graduate School before you schedule your Qualifying Exam. The application to schedule the qualifying exam is due no later than two weeks prior to the exam date. The advisory committee has a core of four members. This core consists of your advisor as chair, two other members from mathematics, and at least one faculty member from another department. All four of these committee members must be members of the Graduate Faculty of the University of Kentucky (this means either an Assistant, Associate, or Full Professor). Three of the four committee members must possess full Graduate Faculty status; this usually is equivalent to faculty being an Associate or Full Professor. If your PhD advisor is an Assistant Professor, they are usually an associate member of the Graduate Faculty, and thus you and your advisor will need to arrange for one of your other three committee members to serve as an official co-advisor. You can check on the Graduate Faculty status of any UK faculty member at the Graduate School’s website:

As soon as you have confirmed your committee members and identified a date/time for your qualifying exam, you should fill out the "Formation of an Advisory Committee" form online at the Grad School's website. These can be done at the following website:

Once your Advisory Committee has been approved by the Graduate School, you should:

  • Arrange a qualifying exam date and time with your committee members.
  • Reserve a room for the exam. If you wish to use the 7th floor conference room, POT 745, check the calendar in POT 713 and, if the room is available, use the reservation calendar available via Outlook.
  • Submit a "Qualifying Exam" form online at the Grad School's website (at least 2 weeks prior to the exam):
  • Send your title and abstract to Rejeana so she can post the information to the department’s online calendar of events.

NOTE:  The Qualifying Exam must take place during an official semester or summer session.  It may not be scheduled between semesters or summer sessions.

3.)  Register for MA 767.  Once you pass your Qualifying Exam, you must register for MA 767 each semester until you pass your Final Doctoral Exam.  (You may register for 767 during the same semester you plan to take the Qualifying Exam, but you must pass the exam that semester in order to receive credit for 767.) MA 767 is the residency credit; it is only 2 credit hours, but it counts as your full-time student course load.

If there are courses relevant to your research, you can enroll in them even after you have completed your qualifying exam. However, once you start enrolling in MA 767, there are limitations regarding the number of graduate courses you can take each semester. You need to make sure that you stay under the limit, or else you might be charged tuition that is not covered through your TA funding. The details regarding course limits are here:

4.)  Defend your Dissertation and Apply for Graduation.  When your Advisory Committee members agree you are ready to defend your dissertation, you need to complete the following steps:

  • File your "Application for Degree" with the Graduate School online by logging into MyUK. Click on Student Services / myRecords / Graduate Degree Application    Watch the academic calendar for deadlines.  The deadline is usually about 4 weeks into the semester (Fall or Spring), or late June for summer graduation. 
  • Submit a "Notice of Intent to Schedule a Final Doctoral Exam" form online at the Grad School's website: This form must be submitted at least eight (8) weeks prior to your proposed exam date.  Submission of this form triggers the process whereby the Grad School appoints your University or "outside" committee member.  Once your University member has been appointed by the Graduate School, schedule a date and time with all committee members (including the University member).
    • If it is possible but not certain that you will graduate, you should go ahead and file the notice of intent form. This does not commit you to defending during that particular semester, but it does get an external committee member assigned so that you can defend your dissertation if needed.
  • Reserve a room for the dissertation defense.  If you wish to use POT 715 or 745 use the online scheduling tool via Outlook. If 715 or 745 is not available or you would prefer a different room, either of the department staff members can assist you with finding a room.
  • Submit a "Request for Final Doctoral Examination" form online at the Grad School's website. This must be submitted at least 2 weeks prior to the examination.

NOTE:  The Final Exam must take place during an official semester or summer session.  It may not be scheduled between semesters or summer sessions.

Please ask the DGS or the DGS Staff Administrator if you have any questions about these steps or about the forms to submit.