Technically, the portfolio is called "The PhD Candidacy Exam." Instituted in 1993, it is intended to certify depth and breadth in computer science, and to promote scholarship, research, and professional skills. The portfolio requires supporting letters, coursework, a "synthesis" project, and evidence of research productivity.

The committee evaluates your portfolio in its entirety when it is due and will make recommendations to the faculty regarding admission to candidacy. The entire faculty will discuss and vote on the committee's recommendations. These decisions are final, so it is very important to begin the preparation of the portfolio early and to solicit the help of faculty advisors. Although the Graduate Program Manager will try to ensure you have satisfied the requirements, you are ultimately the only person responsible for making sure that your portfolio is complete before submission.

Prerequisites for submitting a portfolio

Portfolios should be submitted in your fifth semester, though if your portfolio is ready earlier, you are strongly encouraged to submit it then. If you in the PhD-only track, the hope is that you will submit your portfolio earlier in your graduate career. To submit a portfolio, the following must be true:

  • You must be in the PhD or MS/PhD track
  • Your synthesis project must be completed and approved by all readers
  • You must have four of the six core requirements completed, including at least one from each area
  • You must have completed all past incompletes (INC), even if they are not in core courses
  • Non-native speakers of English must have completed the Spoken English requirement outlined below

In addition, the faculty strongly recommend that you have a fifth core requirement in progress at the time the portfolio is submitted.

If you have not satisfied all of the requirements for submitting a portfolio, your advisor may petition the Graduate Program Director to defer your portfolio for one semester. Unless your reasons are frivolous, a one-semester extension is likely to be accepted. A second extension (pushing your portfolio to your seventh semester) requires an in-person meeting between you, your advisor, and the Graduate Program Director. Extensions beyond the seventh semester will almost never be granted.

If your portfolio is deferred, your case will be stronger if you have completed more than four core requirements.

Components of a portfolio

You should be aware that every member of the Computer Science faculty will have access to the entire contents of your portfolio. Your portfolio will include the following:

1. Portfolio Report. The portfolio report form can be found here. This is an expanded version of the progress report that students submit yearly. 

2. Statement of purpose. The statement is your opportunity to summarize past accomplishments and future goals. This is a chance to speak directly to the Graduate Program Committee and the faculty regarding any issue relevant to your possible candidacy. Please limit yourself to a page, maybe two, focusing on the key issues and letting other aspects of your portfolio speak for themselves.

3. Core requirements. A report indicating how you satisfied the six core requirements. If you have only satisfied four of them, you must describe how you intend to complete the remainder within the following year.

4. Synthesis project. A copy of your completed and approved synthesis project write-up.

5. Letters of recommendation. You must solicit three letters of recommendation from Computer Science faculty members. Two of these letters must be from readers of your synthesis project. At most one of the three letters may be from an adjunct member of the College. Beyond the three letters already mentioned, you may solicit references from additional members of the Computer Science faculty, from other departments, industrial collaborators, or from students you TA'd, if you believe they will help your portfolio. All letters should be sent directly to the Graduate Program Manager. The letters are strictly confidential.

6. Waiver of access to letters. You are expected to sign a waiver of access to the recommendation letters in order to ensure that we receive an honest assessment of your potential. If you do not wish to sign that waiver of access, you must indicate your decision when you request that someone write a letter of support. Further, we require that each of those letters explicitly state that the letter is written with the understanding that you have not waived your right of access. You should be aware that many faculty members will not write a letter without the waiver; nonetheless, the requirements regarding the number and type of letters will not change.

7. Evidence of research ability. A key component of the portfolio is how it demonstrates your ability to conduct research. The faculty will be looking for evidence of specific research skills--e.g., the ability to identify a problem, to work independently, to carry out critical analysis of your and others' work, as well as evidence of scholarship and communication skills (writing and/or speaking). Your synthesis project provides some evidence of research ability and your letters will provide additional support. You are encouraged to provide added information to support your research ability.

8. Spoken English.

  • If you are a US citizen and attended a US undergraduate institution, you are automatically assumed to have passed the requirement.
  • If you attended a US undergraduate institution (i.e., where all of your instruction was in English), the College of Information and Computer Sciences will assume you will pass the test and waive the requirement on request of your advisor to the Graduate Program Manager.
  • If your entire education has been in the United Kingdom, Ireland, English-speaking Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Commonwealth Caribbean, or the United States, the College will assume you will pass the test and waive the requirement on request of your advisor to the Graduate Program Manager. Your advisor will ask that you take the test if there is any doubt about your ability to understand or be understood in a TA or research setting.
  • If you scored a 26 or above on the Speaking section of the TOEFL test (8.0 on IELTS).
  • In all other cases, you are required to take the University's test of spoken English. Your score on the test determines what happens:
    • If you get a score of or higher, than a 50 or 9 on BEST Plus test, you have passed the test for all Department purposes. in particular, you will have satisfied the English portfolio requirement, and you will be eligible to TA any class for which you have suitable background. 
    • If you get a score of or higher, than a 45 or 8 on the BEST Plus, you will have satisfied the portfolio requirement. However, the TA assignment options available to you may be reduced: classes that require heavy interaction with students require stronger English skills. The Department encourages you to continue working on your English speaking skills based on the feedback you receive from the examiners.
    • A score of or lower, than a 40 or 7 on the BEST Plus is not sufficient to pass the portfolio requirement. In addition, by University policy you will be considered ineligible to TA classes involving contact time with students.

9. Other material. It may be helpful to include other items that support you as a candidate for a PhD. Here is a list of examples that you might find useful (you might have included some of these already)

    • Accomplishments. Give an informal statement of the two or three things that you are most proud of in this period. Examples are passing a difficult course, getting a paper into a conference, finishing your M.S., finishing your dissertation proposal, etc.
    • Honors and awards. Include student fellowships, induction into honor societies, etc.
    • Refereed publications. The typical subcategories are: Books or Monographs, Textbooks, Edited Books, Journal Articles, Refereed Conference Proceedings, Refereed Workshop Proceedings, Refereed Book Chapters.
    • Unrefereed publications. The typical subcategories are: Unrefereed Conference Proceedings, Unrefereed Workshop Proceedings, Invited Book Chapter, Communications.
    • Publications in progress. All the categories above typically apply.
    • Unpublished documents. Typical subcategories are: documents that were submitted for review but rejected, various kinds of documentation (e.g., a user's manual), your thesis proposal(s). Include any significant piece of writing; for example, a write-up of a meeting with your advisor does not count, but write-ups of half a dozen such meetings, progressing toward a thesis proposal, do count. A long message about your suspicions about a research topic doesn't count; a five-page document with experimental results does count. Get used to the distinction between writing that develops ideas and writing that presents those ideas with some substantiation.
    • Presentations. Typical categories are seminars, professional presentations, and tutorials. Include lab meetings, workshop presentations, paper presentations in classes, paper presentations at conferences, etc. Do not include presentations to lab visitors unless a lot of time went into them (e.g., posters or demos for a major site visit).
    • Proposals (in preparation, submitted, under review, and accepted). Include fellowship applications, grant applications (or sections thereof), applications to industrial affiliates, requests for travel money from conference organizers, etc. Note the status of the proposal (in preparation, under review, accepted, rejected, under revision, etc.)
    • Professional reviewing. Include reviewing for journals, book proposals, conferences, workshops, etc. Include other significant internal reviewing; for example, if you spent more than a few hours reviewing drafts of papers or proposals for people in your lab or other Computer Science members, include that.
    • Teaching. Were you an instructor, a TA, a grader, or a lab monitor in the Ed. Lab? List your responsibilities, including giving lectures, and writing and grading exams and homework, if applicable. Did you hold office hours? How many students were in your section? Note whether you worked in Computer Science courses or other courses at UMass or in the Five College Area. Note any teaching experience you gained at other universities.
    • University and department service (not research or teaching). Include standing and ad hoc department committees, grad student representative, coffee czar, significant GEO activities, etc.
    • Lab service (not research). Include programming tasks that do not lead directly to publications, tutorials, and other things that do not fit well into the categories above. For example, newer students should emphasize how they have contributed to ongoing research; older students should emphasize their contributions to the development, supervision and direction of newer students.
    • Include participation in the activities of professional societies, volunteer activities at local schools, etc. Include participation in the activities of professional societies, volunteer activities at local schools, etc.
    • Plans. Say what you intend to accomplish before you write your next progress report. Keep in mind that in the next report you will have to say whether you accomplished these goals, so resist hubris and try to be realistic.
    • Needs. Say what would make you more productive. Include help with learning the systems, help with course work, assistance from other students on your project, assistance from professional staff. Include anything that can help your advisor or the Graduate Program Director, or others in the department, allocate resources well.
    • Self assessment. Say what aspects of your work please you. It is often difficult to write things that sound self-congratulatory, but you must do it, not only here, but for the rest of your professional career. Say also what is unsatisfactory-what you think you need to work on.

    Evaluation of your portfolio

    Your portfolio wil be evaluated in its entirety with the goal of deciding whether you are likely to be a successful PhD candidate. In particular, there is no set list of requirements that, if satisfied, will result in your portfolio being accepted.

    Once the portfolios are received, the Graduate Program Committee carefully evaluates them and makes its recommendations to the faculty. These recommendations are then deliberated at a general faculty meeting. The possible outcomes are:

    1. Admit to candidacy with distinction.
    2. Admit to candidacy.
    3. Defer portfolio. In this unusual situation, the faculty indicates that the case is borderline but hopeful and asks that the portfolio be resubmitted in one semester.
    4. Decline admission to candidacy. The faculty has determined that the student is unlikely to be a successful PhD student.

    The vote of the faculty is final, with no procedure for appeal permitted.

    If you are admitted to candidacy and have not yet completed your core requirements, your admission will be conditional. Once you have satisfied the pending core requirements, your admission to candidacy will be complete and will have occurred on the date that the faculty voted, even if it takes you a full year to complete the cores.

    The portfolio is a very important step and is taken very seriously by the faculty. However, to reduce your anxiety, you may like to know that almost every student who submits a portfolio with his or her advisor's blessing passes.

    Submitting your Portfolio

    Your first goal is to prepare a portfolio so that you can be admitted to candidacy. However, you are simultaneously earning a masters degree which has an impact on what is needed in your portfolio. Your portfolio should include:

    1. Core requirements. You must satisfy six core requirements. Most core requirements are satisfied by getting a grade of B+ or better in a core course. You must staistfy your cores by using option a) 2 courses from each of the primary areas or option b) 2 theory courses, 3 systems courses (1 from each group) and 1 AI course.

    2. Synthesis project. You are required to complete a scholarly research "synthesis" project that combines at least two research areas that are not typically brought together. You must submit an on-line Synthesis Project Proposal that will be approved by the GPD. (The Synthesis project does not earn any course credits.) Forms are available here.
      • NOTE: Most (but not all) MS/PhD students use their Synthesis project as a Masters project also, in which case you indicate on your Synthesis proposal form that you are doing that, and you also register for CMPSCI 701 (6 credits). You may use the same readers for both projects, or may have different readers (though at least one faculty member should overlap). You will also need to inform the Graduate Program Manager when the project is completed so that signatures can be obtained from your readers. (The submission forms are available here.)

    At the time you submit your portfolio, you may have as few as four core requirements completed and should have a fifth in progress. You must have satisfied as least one core requirement from each area.

    If your portfolio is accepted by the faculty, you will be admitted to candidacy once any pending core requirements are satisfied. (The portfolio is called a "preliminary comprehensive examination" by the Graduate School.)