Learning Goals and Assessment

Learning Goals

We train Ph.D. students to create and communicate mathematics.  The chief requirement for the doctoral degree is to produce a dissertation which makes an original and substantial contribution to its subject matter.  Students work under the guidance of an advisor to achieve this.

We do not require you to choose a specific research area or a dissertation advisor at the outset of your graduate education. The best way to make an informed choice of a research area and to make headway in it is to gain knowledge in a number of areas of mathematics. As a beginning student you will be taking various required core courses in basic subjects. Furthermore, aside from providing research training, we prepare our students for careers as professional mathematicians in a variety of settings, including academia, business, and government. Our aim therefore is to educate flexible and broadly knowledgeable mathematicians, and to this end we offer a wide selection of advanced courses and seminars.

We will help you develop the oral and written communication skills expected of a professional mathematician. You will acquire these skills in part through courses and dissertation work. Active participation in our many seminars, several of which are targeted to students, is another way to improve your presentation skills and will also ease your transition from a learner to a researcher of mathematics. In addition, many practicing mathematicians are involved in teaching at some level, and that is why we require every student to undergo our teaching assistant training program and to participate in the teaching mission of the mathematics department.

See also the statement on doctoral proficiencies by the Cornell Graduate School.


Our program has no qualifying exam; instead we assess performance in the core courses through homework, written exams, oral presentations, or term papers. The minimum passing grade for the core courses is B-; no grade is assigned for placing out.

Performance in the teaching program is assessed by means of student teaching evaluations.

The Student Progress Review (SPR) requirement supports the regular exchange of constructive, written feedback between advisees and advisors. It codifies a process for research degree students and their Special Committees to have at least one formal conversation per year about academic progress and future plans. Using the SPR form, students are asked to reflect on their recent accomplishments, identify challenges, and set goals. Committee chairs then review their students’ SPR forms and enter constructive feedback. Chairs indicate whether progress has been excellent, satisfactory, needs improvement, or is unsatisfactory. Feedback that is documented on the SPR will be made available to the student, all members of the student’s special committee, and the DGS/GFA of the student’s field. Beginning in their second year of the Ph.D. program, all students must complete the Student Progress Review annually. The field of mathematics does not require CVs to be submitted in the SPR.

In your first three semesters in the program we expect you to choose your area of specialization and to find a permanent advisor, who will chair your special committee and be your principal guide on the path to the dissertation. Before the end of your third year you will take the examination for admission to candidacy or A-exam. This is an oral exam administered by the special committee, which tests your readiness to embark on a dissertation project, your mastery of the relevant mathematics, and your oral presentation skills. After the exam your special committee will provide an assessment of your performance to the Director of Graduate Studies and you will turn in a progress report on your experiences and accomplishments in the program.

The final examination for the Ph.D. degree, or B-exam, is an oral exam at which you present the results of your dissertation research and respond to the queries of your special committee and any other graduate faculty members who may be present. After the exam your special committee will report to the Director of Graduate Studies on the quality and originality of the research and of the written and oral presentation. You will be asked for a final report containing such items as a publication list, your first job placement, and any other feedback you may care to offer.