To start off my 2020 blogging, here is the much-delayed transcript of my PhD qualifying exam. The qualifying exam is a Berkeley-wide requirement for PhD students, and varies according to the department. You can find EECS-specific details of the exam here, but to summarize, the qualifying exam (or “quals” for short) consists of a 50-60 minute talk to four faculty members who serve on a “quals committee.” They must approve of a student’s quals talk to enable the student to progress to “candidacy.” That’s the point when, contingent on completion of academic requirements, the student can graduate with approval from the PhD advisor. The quals is the second major oral exam milestone in the Berkeley EECS PhD program, the first of which is the prelims. You can find the transcript of my prelims here.
The professors on my qualifying exam committee were John Canny, Ken Goldberg, Sergey Levine, and Masayoshi Tomizuka.
I wrote this transcript right after I took this exam in April of 2018. Nonetheless, I cannot, of course, guarantee the exact accuracy of the words uttered.
Scheduling and Preparation
During a meeting with Professor Canny in late 2017, when we were discussing my research progress the past semester, I brought up the topic of the qualifying exam. Professor Canny quickly said: “this needs to happen soon.” I resolved to him that it would happen by the end of the spring 2018 semester.
Then, I talked with Professor Goldberg. While seated by our surgical robot, and soon after our ICRA 2018 paper was accepted, I brought up the topic of the quals, and inquired if he would be on my committee. “It would be weird if I wasn’t on the committee” he smiled, giving approval.1 “Will it be on this stuff?” he asked, as he pointed at the surgical robot. I said no, since I was hoping for my talk to be a bit broader than that, but as it turned out, I would spend about 30 percent of my talk on surgical robotics.
Next, I needed to find two more professors to serve on the quals committee. I decided to ask Professor Sergey Levine if he would serve as a member of the committee.
Since Berkeley faculty can be overwhelmed with email, I was advised from other students to meet professors in office hours to ask about quals. I gambled and emailed Professor Levine instead. I introduced myself with a few sentences, and described the sketch of my quals talk to him, and then politely asked if he would serve on the committee.
I got an extremely quick response from Professor Levine, who said he already knew who I was, and that he would be happy to be on the committee. He additionally said it was the “least he could do” because I am the main curator for the BAIR blog, and he was the one who originally wanted the BAIR Blog up and running.
A ha! There’s a lesson here: if you want external faculty to serve on a committee, make sure you help curate a blog they like.
Now came the really hard part: the fourth committee member. To make matters worse, there is (in my opinion) an unnecessary rule that states that one has to have a committee member outside of EECS. At the time of my exam, I barely knew any non-EECS professors with the expertise to comment on my research area.
I scrolled through a list of faculty, and decided to try asking Professor Masayoshi Tomizuka from the Mechanical Engineering department. In part, I chose him because I wanted to emphasize that I was moving in a robotics direction for my PhD thesis work. Before most of my current robotics research, I did a little theoretical machine learning research, which culminated in a UAI 2017 paper. It also helped that his lab is located next to Professor Goldberg’s lab, so I sometimes got a peek at what his students were doing.
I knew there was a zero percent chance that Professor Tomizuka would respond to a cold email, so I went hunting for his office hours.2 Unfortunately, the Mechanical Engineering website had outdated office hours from an earlier semester. In addition, his office door also had outdated office hours.
After several failed attempts at reaching him, I emailed one of his students, who provided me a list of times. I showed up at the first listed time, and saw his office door closed for the duration of the office hours.
This would be more difficult than I thought.
Several days later, I finally managed to see Professor Tomizuka while he was walking to his office with a cup of coffee. He politely allowed me to enter his office, which was overflowing with books and stacks of papers. I don’t know how it’s possible to sift through all of that material. In contrast, when I was at Professor Levine’s office, I saw almost nothing but empty shelves.
Professor Tomizuka, at the time, was a professor at Berkeley for 44 years (!!!) and was still supervising a long list of PhD students. I explained to him about my qualifying exam plan. He asked a few questions, including “what questions do you want me to ask in your exam?” to which I responded that I was hoping he would ask about robot kinematics. Eventually, he agreed to serve on the committee and wrote my name on a post-it note for him to remember.
Well, not really — I had to schedule the exam, and that’s challenging with busy professors. After several failed attempts at throwing out times, I asked if the professors could provide a full list of their constraints. Surprisingly, both Professor Levine and Professor Tomizuka were able to state their constraints on each day of the week! I’m guessing they had that somewhere on file so that they could copy and paste it easily. From there, it was straightforward to do a few more emails to schedule the exam, which I formally booked about two months in advance.
All things considered, I think my quals exam scheduling was on the easier side compared to most students. The majority of PhD students probably also have difficulty finding their fourth (or even third) committee members. For example, I know one PhD student who had some extreme difficulty scheduling the quals talk. For further discussion and thoughts, see the end of this post.
I then needed to do my preparation for the exam. I wrote up a set of slides for a talk draft, and pitched them to Professor Canny. After some harsh criticism, I read more papers, did more brainstorming, and re-did my slides, to his approval. Professor Goldberg also generally approved of my slides. I emailed Professor Levine about the general plan, and he was fine with a “40-50 minute talk on prior research and what I want to do.” I emailed Professor Tomizuka but he didn’t respond to my emails, except to one of them a week before to confirm that he would show up to the talk.
I gave two full-length practice talks in lab meetings, one to Professor Goldberg’s lab, and then to Professor Canny’s lab. The first one was hideous, and the second was less hideous. In all, I went through twelve full-length talks talks to get the average below 50 minutes, which I was told is the general upper bound for which students should aim.
Then, at long last, Judgment Day came.
Qualifying exam date: Tuesday April 24, 2018 at 3:00pm.
Obviously, I showed up way in advance to inspect the room that I had booked for the quals. I checked that my laptop and adapters worked with the slide system set in the room. I tucked in my dress shirt, combed my hair, cleaned my glasses for the tenth time, and stared at a wall.
Eventually, two people showed up: the sign language interpreters. One was familiar to me, since she had done many of my interpreting services in the past. The other was brand new to me. This was somewhat undesirable. Given the technical nature of the topic, I explicitly asked Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program to book only interpreters that had worked with me in the past. I provided a list of names more than two weeks in advance of the exam, but it was hard for them to find a second person. It seems like, just as with my prelims, it is difficult to properly schedule sign language interpreting services.
Professor Levine was the first faculty member to show up in the qualifying exam room. He carried with him a folder of my academic materials, because I had designated him as the “chair” of the quals committee (which cannot be one’s advisor). He said hello to me, took a seat, and opened my folder. I was not brave enough to peek into the files about me, and spent the time mentally rehearsing my talk.
Professor Tomizuka was the next to show up. He did not bring any supplies with him. At nearly the same time, Professor Canny showed up, with some food and drink. The three professors quickly introduced each other and shook their hands. All the professors definitely know each other, but I am not sure how well. There might be a generational gap. Professor Levine (at the time) was in his second year as a Berkeley faculty member, while Professor Tomizuka was in his 44th year. They quickly got settled in their seats.
At about 3:03pm, Professor Levine broke the painfully awkward silence: “are we on Berkeley time?”3
Professor Canny [chuckling]: “I don’t think we run those for the qualifying exam …”
Professor Levine [smiling]: “well, if any one professor is on Berkeley time then all the others have to be…”
While I pondered how professors who had served on so many qualifying exam committees in the past had not agreed on a settled rule for “Berkeley-time,” Professor Goldberg marched into the room wearing his trademark suit and tie. (He was the only one wearing a tie.)
“Hey everyone!” he smiled. Now we could start.
Professor Levine: “Well, as the chair of the committee, let’s get started. We’re going to need to talk among ourselves for a bit, so we’ll ask Daniel to step out of the room for a bit while we discuss.”
Gulp. I was already getting paranoid.
The sign language interpreters asked whether they should go out.
Professor Goldberg agreed: “Yeah, you two should probably leave as well.”
As I walked out the room, Professor Goldberg tried to mitigate my concerns. “Don’t worry, this is standard procedure. Be ready in five minutes.”
I was certainly feeling worried. I stood outside, wondering what the professors were plotting. Were they discussing how they would devour me during the talk? Would one of them lead the charge, or would they each take turns doing so?
I stared at a wall while the two sign language interpreters struck up a conversation, and commented in awe about how “Professor Goldberg looks like the typical energetic Berkeley professor.” I wasn’t interested in their conversation and politely declined to join since, well, I had the qualifying exam now!!
Finally, after what seemed like ten minutes — it definitely was not five — Professor Goldberg opened the door and welcomed us back in.
It was time.
During The Talk
“May I start?” I asked.
The professors nodded and stared at me. Professor Goldberg was smiling, and sat the closest to me, with notebook and pen in hand.
My talk was structured as follows:
- Part I: introduction and thesis proposal
- Part II: my prior work
- Part III: review of relevant robot learning research
- Part IV: potential future projects
I gave a quick overview of the above outline in a slide, trying to speak clearly. Knowing the serious nature of the talk, I had cut down on my normal humor during my talk preparation. The qualifying exam talk was not the time to gamble on humor, especially since I was not sure how Professor Tomizuka or Professor Levine would react to my jokes.
Things were going smoothly, until I came to my slide about “robot-to-robot teaching.” I was talking in the context of how to “transfer” one robot policy to another robot, a topic that I had previously brainstormed about with both Professor Goldberg and Professor Canny.
Professor Goldberg asked the first question during the talk. “When you say robot-to-robot teaching, why can’t we just copy a program from one robot to another?” he asked.
Fortunately this was a question I had explicitly prepared myself for during my practice talks.4
“Because that’s not teaching, that’s copying a program from one to another, and I’m interested in knowing what happens when we teach. If you think of how humans teach, we can’t just copy our brains and embed them into a student, nor do we write an explicit program of how we think (that would be impossible) and tell the student to follow it. We have to convey the knowledge in a different manner somehow, indirectly.”
Professor Goldberg seemed to be satisfied, so I moved on. Whew, crisis averted.
I moved on, and discussed our surgical robotics work from the ICRA 2018 paper. After rehashing some prior work in calibrating surgical robots, and just as I was about to discuss the details on our procedure, Professor Tomizuka raised his hand. “Wait can you explain why you have cheaper sensors than the prior work?”
I returned to the previous slide. “Prior work used these sophisticated sensors on the gripper which allows for better estimates of position and orientation” I said, pointing at an image which I was now thankful to have included. I provided him with more details on the differences between prior work and our work.
Professor Tomizuka seemed about half-satisfied, but motioned for me to continue with the talk.
I went through the rest of my talk, feeling at ease and making heavy eye contact with the professors, who were equally attentive.
No further interruptions happened.
When I finished the talk, which was right about 50 minutes, I had my customary concluding slide of pictures of my collaborators. “I thank all my collaborators,” I said. I then specifically pointed to the two on the lower right: pictures of Professor Canny and Professor Goldberg. “Especially the two to the lower right, thank you for being very patient with me.” In retrospect, I wish I had made my pictures of them bigger.
“And that’s it,” I said.
The professors nodded. Professor Goldberg seemed like he was trying to applaud, then stopped mid-action. No one else moved.
Immediately After The Talk
Professor Levine said it was time for additional questions. He started by asking: “I see you’ve talked about two kinds of interactive learning, one with an adversary, one with a teacher. I can see those going two different directions, do you plan to try and do both and then converge later?”
I was a little confused by this question, which seemed open-ended. I responded: “yes there are indeed two ways of thinking of interactive teaching, and I hope to pursue both.” Thinking again at my efforts at implementing code, I said “from my experience, say with Generative Adversarial Networks as an example, it can be somewhat tricky to get adversarial learning to work well, so perhaps to start I will focus on a cooperative teacher, but I do hope to try out both lines of thinking.”
I asked if Professor Levine was satisfied, since I was worried I didn’t answer well enough, and I assumed he was going to ask something more technical. In addition, GANs are fairly easy to implement, particularly with so many open-source implementations nowadays for reference. Surprisingly, Professor Levine nodded in approval. “Any other questions?”
Professor Goldberg had one. “Can you go back to one of the slides you said about student’s performance? The one that said if the student’s performance is conveyed with $P_1$ [which may represent trajectories in an environment] and from that the teacher can determine the student’s weakest skill so that the next set of data $P_2$ from the student shows improvement …””
I flipped back briefly to the appropriate slide. “This one?”
Professor Goldberg: “yes, that one. This sounds interesting, but you can think of a problem where you teach an agent to improve upon a skill, but then that results in a deterioration of another skill. Have you thought about that?”
“Yes, I have,” I said. “There’s actually an interesting parallel in the automated curriculum papers I’ve talked about, where you sample goals further and further away so you can learn how to go from point $A$ to point $B$. The agent may end up forgetting how to go from point $A$ to a point that was sampled earlier in the sequence, so you need to keep a buffer of past goals at lower difficulty levels so that you can continually retrain on those.”
Professor Goldberg: “sounds interesting, do you plan to do that?”
“I think so, of course this will be problem dependent,” I responded, “so I think more generally we just need a way to detect and diagnose these, by repeatedly evaluating the student on those other skills that were taught earlier, and perhaps do something in response. Again problem dependent but the idea of checking other skills definitely applies to these situations.”
Professor Levine asked if anyone had more questions. “John do you have a question?”
“No,” he responded, as he finished up his lunch. I was getting moderately worried.
“OK, well then …” Professor Levine said, “we’d now like Daniel to step outside the room for a second while we discuss among ourselves.”
I walked outside, and both of the interpreters followed me outside. I had two interpreters booked for the talk, but one of them (the guy who was new to me) did not need to do any interpreting at all. Overall, the professors asked substantially fewer questions than I had expected.
After what seemed like another 10 minutes of me staring at the same wall I looked at before the talk, the door opened. The professors were smiling.
Professor Levine: “congratulations, you pass!”
All four approached me and shook my hand. Professor Canny and Professor Tomizuka immediately left the room, as I could tell they had other things they wanted to do. I quickly blurted out a “thank you” to Professor Canny for his patience, and to Professor Tomizuka for simply showing up.
Professor Goldberg and Professor Levine stayed slightly longer.
While packing up, Professor Levine commended me. “You really hit upon a lot of the relevant literature in the talk. I think perhaps the only other area we’d recommend more of is the active learning literature.”
Professor Goldberg: “This sounds really interesting, and the three year time plan that you mention for your PhD sounds about right to get a lot done. In fact think of robot origami, John mentioned that. You’ve seen it, right? I show it in all the talks. You can do robot teaching on that.”
“Um, I don’t think I’ve seen it?” I asked.
Professor Goldberg quickly opened up his laptop and showed me a cool video of a surgical robot performing origami. “That’s your PhD dissertation” he pointed.
I nodded, smiling hard. The two professors, and the sign language interpreters, then left the room, and I was there by myself.
Later that day, Professor Levine sent a follow-up email, saying that my presentation reminded him of an older paper. He made some comments about causality, and wondered if there were opportunities to explore that in my research. He concluded by praising my talk and saying it was “rather thought-provoking.”
I was most concerned about what Professor Canny thought of the talk. He was almost in stone-cold silence throughout, and I knew his opinion would matter greatly in how I could construct a research agenda with him in the coming years. I nervously approached Professor Canny when I had my next one-on-one meeting with him, two days after the quals. Did he think the talk was passable?? Did he (gulp) dislike the talk and only passed me out of pity? When I asked him about the talk …
He shrugged nonchalantly. “Oh, I thought it was very good.” And he pointed out, among other things, that I had pleasantly reminded him of another colleague’s work, and that there were many things we could do together.
Wait, seriously?? He actually LIKED the talk?!?!?!?
I don’t know how that worked out. Somehow, it did.
I’m writing this post more than 1.5 years after I took the actual exam. Now that some time has passed here are some thoughts.
My main one pertains to why we need a non-EECS faculty member. If I have any suggestion for the EECS department, it would be to remove this requirement and to allow the fourth faculty to be in EECS. Or perhaps we can allow faculty who are “cross-listed” in EECS to count as outside members. The faculty expertise in EECS is so broad that it probably is not necessary to reach out to other departments if it does not make sense for a given talk. In addition, we also need to take an honest look as to how much expertise we can glean from someone in a 1.5-hour talk, and if it makes sense to ask for 1.5 hours of that professor’s time when that professor could be doing other, more productive things for his/her own research.
I am fortunate that scheduling was not too difficult for me, and I am thankful to Professor Tomizuka for sitting in my talk. My concern, however, is that some students may have difficulty finding that last qualifying exam member. For example, here’s one story I want to share.
I know an EECS PhD student who had three EECS faculty commit to serving on the quals committee, and needed to find a fourth non-EECS faculty. That student’s advisor suggested several names, but none of the faculty responded in the affirmative. After several months, that student searched for a list of faculty in a non-EECS department.
The student found one faculty who could be of interest, and who I knew served as an outside faculty member on one EECS quals before. After two weeks of effort (due to listed office hours that were inaccurate, just as I experienced), the student was able to confirm to get a fourth member. Unfortunately, this happened right when summer began, and the faculty on the student’s committee were traveling and never in the same place at the same time. Scheduling would have to be put off until the fall.
When summer ended and fall arrived, that student was hoping to schedule the qualifying exam, but was no longer able to contact the fourth non-EECS faculty. After several futile attempts, the student gave up and tried a second non-EECS faculty, and tentatively got confirmation. Unfortunately, once again, the student was not able to contact the faculty member again when it was time to schedule.
It took several more months before the student, with the advisor’s help, was able to find that last, elusive faculty member to serve on the committee.
In all, it took one year for that student to get a quals committee set up! That’s not counting the time that the student would then need to schedule it, which normally has to be done 1 or 2 months in advance.
Again, this is only one anecdote, and one story might not be enough to spur a change in policy, but it raises the question as to why we absolutely need an “outside” faculty member. That student’s research is in a very interesting and important area in EECS, but it’s also an area that isn’t a neat fit for any other department, and it’s understandable that faculty who are not in the student’s area would not want to spend 1.5 hours listening to a talk. There are many professors within EECS that could have served as the fourth faculty, so I would suggest we change the policy.
Moreover, while I don’t know if this is still the current policy, I read somewhere once that students can only file their dissertations at least two semesters after their qualifying exam. Thus, significant delays in getting the quals exam done could delay graduation. Again, I am not sure if this is still the official policy, so I will ask the relevant people in charge.
Let’s move on to some other thoughts. During my quals, the professors didn’t bring a lot of academic material with them, so I am guessing they probably expected me to pass. I did my usual over-preparation, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I was also pitching a research direction that (at the time) I had not done research in, but it looks like that is also acceptable for a quals, provided that the talk is of sufficient quality.
I was under a ridiculous amount of stress in the months of February, March, and April (until the quals itself), and I never want to have to go through months like those again. It was an incredible relief to get the quals out of the way.
Finally, let me end with some acknowledgments by thanking the professors again. Thank you very much to the professors who served on the committee. Thank you, Professors John Canny, Ken Goldberg, Sergey Levine, and Masayoshi Tomizuka, for taking the time to listen to my talk, and for your support. I only hope I can live up to your expectations.
At the time, I was not formally advised by him. Now, the co-advising is formalized. ↩
I felt really bad trying to contact Professor Tomizuka. I don’t understand why we have to ask professors we barely know to spend 1.5 hours of their valuable time on a qualifying exam talk. ↩
Classes at UC Berkeley operate on “Berkeley time,” meaning that they start 10 minutes after their official starting time. For example, a class that lists a starting time of 2:30pm starts at 2:40pm in practice. ↩
As part of my preparation for the qualifying exam, I had a list of about 50 questions that I felt the faculty would ask. ↩