Criteria for Success
- Apply to take the Research Qualifying Examination (RQE) at the appropriate time. The RQE is taken after completing the Technical Qualifying Evaluation (TQE) and producing sufficient research, typically in the 3rd or 4th year.
- Select an appropriate research committee: ideal committee members should work in an area related to your research, be familiar to you, and be engaged by asking questions and giving advice.
- Anticipate a long process. The RQE scheduling can take several months to complete, so it is good to apply soon after meeting the required criteria.
- Ask your committee for their expectations before your presentation. Although the RQE is a standard departmental requirement, different faculty members may have different expectations or preferences for the exam.
- Prepare your research talk with a central message in mind. Know the expertise of your committee, and provide sufficient background information to make your message understandable and compelling.
- Plan for a 30 minute presentation with an additional 30 minutes of questions.
- Be prepared to answer a lot of technical questions. Prepare background slides in anticipation.
- Get plenty of practice delivering your talk. Seek a technical audience that may help you prepare for questions from your committee.
Identify Your Purpose
The purpose of the RQE is to assess whether students in the MIT EECS PhD program have demonstrated the ability to carry out research effectively. The examination also tests your ability to effectively communicate the results of your research through a written report and an oral presentation. The examination is performed by two faculty members (the RQE committee), excluding your research advisor. There are three components to the exam: a letter from your research advisor, a written report on your research, and an oral presentation. In this article, we will focus on the oral presentation.
Your goal is to present your research to an informed audience and demonstrate the ability to perform independent research. You must be prepared to answer many questions about your work, understand the limitations, and convey expertise in your area. Don’t think of the RQE as just a requirement you need to get over and done with! The presentation is a fantastic opportunity to develop your technical presentation and communication skills. The ability to prepare and deliver a clear and comprehensive talk and to answer difficult technical questions are skills that are indispensable in your career. The RQE is a great way to prepare for future important presentations, such conference talks, your thesis defense, or job talks.
Analyze Your Audience
The RQE exam is given by the RQE committee, which comprises two faculty members with expertise in areas related to your research. An important part of the process is to suggest which faculty members will be on your committee. While you don’t get to decide your committee independently, your committee doesn’t have to be random! You should suggest professors that are in similar research fields, that are familiar to you, and that are known to ask good questions and give good advice. A good starting point is to go through individual research group websites to find matching research areas. You may also seek recommendations from your research advisor and senior members in your research group that have completed their RQE.
After the faculty members are assigned to your RQE committee, tailor your presentation around their areas of expertise. For example, if your research is in an applied field, such as machine learning for healthcare, and your committee members are professors in theoretical machine learning, you will need to spend a good deal of time explaining the clinical background. This is especially important to provide sufficient context for the challenges of your research problem. Knowing your committee, you should also anticipate questions that they may have about your work, and prepare sufficient background slides. Finally, you may also contact the committee members to ask them what they expect of your presentation. Meeting their expectations is an effective way to prepare a successful presentation.
The RQE is a departmental requirement to demonstrate that you are able to successfully conduct research. This is taken after completing the TQE, and typically in the 3rd or 4th year. You should have a plan with your research advisor for when “sufficient” research has been done. For many students, this will be after preparing a conference or journal paper, and the same submission can be used to fulfill the written research report requirement. The entire process can take several months to complete, from requesting a committee to delivering the oral presentation, so plan accordingly. While we provide general strategies for delivering a successful RQE, be sure that you are up to date on the department’s requirements for the exam, which are subject to change. As of the writing of this article, the current requirements can be found here.
The advice below focuses on general strategies for delivering a successful RQE presentation. See also the other CommKit articles on presentations, including on slide design and delivering a virtual presentation.
Planning for an effective presentation starts with knowing your audience’s expertise and expectations. During the RQE, the committee will assess your technical competence and will interrupt with questions throughout the talk. The exam is scheduled for one-hour, and you should plan for a 30-minute talk with an additional 30 minutes of questions throughout. Start planning your presentation by thinking of key messages or takeaways for the committee. From there, start with high-level planning by developing an initial outline. This will help ensure that your talk stays focused on delivering your intended message. To create your outline, write section and subsection headers. For example, you may start by modifying the standard Introduction, Methods, Experiments, and Results sections to fit your specific problem. Within the Introduction, you may dedicate subsections to providing background for your specific application.
After planning the outline of your talk, focus on individual slide design. For each slide, the content should emphasize the intended message. Having a descriptive slide title is an efficient way to directly state your message. Generic slide titles such as “Methods” add little value. Each slide should have one key message, and you should aim to maximize the signal (message) to noise (unnecessary equations, text, figures) ratio. Always ask yourself: does this content (text, figure, equation, graph, etc…) emphasize my message? Is this content extraneous information? Ensure that your slide reinforces what you plan to say and is clear to follow. Since the RQE is a technical talk, you will need to balance having sufficient technical content with creating a concise slide. Certain technical content may detract from the message but be of interest to the committee. Consider including the necessary technical content, such as additional equations or definitions, in a smaller font on the bottom of the slide. Using backup slides (hidden slides or extra slides at the end of your presentation) is another way to include additional details and technical content that you may need.
(The metaphor of “signal-to-noise ratio” comes from Jean-luc Doumont’s book Trees, Maps, and Theorems.)
The RQE committee will interrupt you with questions throughout the presentation. This is a key feature of the RQE exam. You should not see these questions as adversarial but rather as the committee’s way to get a deeper understanding of your work and how you think about research. Don’t expect to get through even your first slide without being interrupted by a question! Being interrupted by questions, even early on, does not mean that you are doing something wrong. Remember, this is the job of the committee members, so it is critical to be prepared.
Preparing for questions in advance is essential. While going through your slides, think of potential questions the committee may ask you. The committee will ask both specific, slide-level and high-level questions. Prepare plenty of backup slides with additional methodological details, derivations, or experimental results that may come up. Think of common questions, and spend some time thinking about your answers. Some of these questions may be about the applications of your work, comparisons of your method with others, your work’s limitations, and future directions. When asked a question, don’t panic! Breathe, take a sip of water, think about your answer. If there is a question you don’t know the answer to, acknowledge the knowledge gap, and pivot to an answer on a similar topic.
While the specific questions and your approach to answering them will vary depending on the nature of your work, the table below presents generic versions of some possible questions, and structures to think about using for your answers.
|Possible Question||Possible Answer Structure|
|What are the applications of your work?||We can apply our work into domain X on problems Y and Z.|
|How is your method different from A?||Our method offers advantages in terms of X, Y, and Z.|
|Why didn’t you compare with <method you haven’t heard of before>?||Unfortunately, I am not familiar with that exact method, but we did compare with X. Let me tell you about it…|
|What are possible future directions of your work?||We plan to apply to application X; we plan to improve the computational time by doing Y; we plan to conduct additional experiments to verify Z.|
|What happens if we change criterion A to B?||We would then expect effects X, Y, and Z.|
|On this Results slide, why does your graph go down at this point?||We hypothesize that this is because of effect X.|
|How long does it take your system to finish training? Are there ways you can improve that?||It takes T amount of time, which is fairly slow. We plan to improve by using optimization technique X.|
The best way to deliver an effective RQE presentation is to practice! Practice in front of a technical audience: your advisor, your research group, and friends or colleagues in a similar research area. Make an appointment with an EECS Comm Lab Fellow to practice and get feedback at any stage of your preparation. Encourage your practice audience to ask you plenty of questions, and seek feedback from them to improve your presentation. Whether the RQE is your first technical talk or you are a seasoned presenter, it is a terrific opportunity to learn the art of effective oral communication of research.