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SIPI PhD Screening Exam

Who takes the exam? Ph.D. students in the EE area must take and pass the screening exam by the 4th semester of their Ph.D. program. There are different groups in EE-Systems: SIPI, CSI, CENG, Controls. All of these groups have their own exam format (this page describes the SIPI format). Students in the EE-Systems area can take the screening exam from any of the four groups. Students who choose to take the SIPI exam are typically more comfortable with the SIPI material, have taken classes from faculty in SIPI, and/or are working with faculty in SIPI. However, it is possible for a student who is working with a SIPI faculty member to take the screening exam in CSI, CENG, or Controls. It may also be possible for students to take the exam on the EE-Electrophysics side if that is more appropriate. Talk to your advisor and/or a faculty member if you have questions about which exam you should take.


Application: You must apply through the EE-Systems Department to take the screening exam. To take the exam you should satisfy the following:

  1. You must currently be in the Ph.D. program in the EE Department at USC
  2. You must be within the first 4 semesters of your Ph.D. program at USC
  3. You must currently have a 3.5 GPA or higher. Exceptions to these requirements are considered on a case-by-case basis after a petition has been submitted to the department.

Information Session: A faculty member from SIPI will serve as coordinator for the exam. This professor will call a meeting of the students taking the exam approximately one month before the exam. The coordinator will review the information on this page and address any questions that the students have at that time.


Timetable: The screening exam is given near the 12th week of the semester, every Fall and Spring semester. Students must pass this exam prior to the end of their second year in the USC Ph.D. program. This two-year period will start the first semester of USC Ph.D. study, and does not include any time spent in the MSEE program at USC or other institutions. Students who do not pass the exam on their first attempt can take the exam again. This is typically done during the following semester, but must be within the two-year timeframe. Thus, it is strongly encouraged that all students first take the exam by the third semester.


Exam Format:   Students will be examined on the following four subject areas with questions drawn from topics that include those listed below:

EE 441 Applied Linear Algebra for Engineering: matrices, matrix algebra, Gaussian elimination, vector spaces, linear equations, orthogonality, determinants, eigenvalues and eigenvectors, positive and negative definite/semi-definite matrices, computations with matrices, singular-value decomposition, pseudo-inverse.

EE 483 Introduction to Digital Signal Processing: discrete and continuous Fourier transforms, z-transforms, unitary transforms, linear time invariant system characterization and properties, sampling, digital filter design, filter structures.

EE 503 Probability for Electrical and Computer Engineers: logic and sets, probability measures, combinatorics, random variables and moments, stochastic convergence, limit theorems, statistical estimation.

EE 562a Random Processes in Engineering: Gaussian processs, Poisson processes, Markov chains, mean-square processes, detection and estimation, stationarity types, optimal filtering, applications in signal/speech/image processing

All exams are written and each lasts 90 minutes. Note: students are responsible for reviewing each of the topic areas listed above even if not covered when you took the recommended course (or its equivalent at a previous school). The exams are typically given over two days.  Calculators are not allowed.  Formula sheets are not allowed.


Why do we have a screening exam? And why this format?

This tests students on topics that they may later teach. This is a rough measure to judge research ability.


Grading:  Each exam will be graded anonymously by a professor (meaning that the grading professor does not know the name of the student).  Each exam will be graded on a range of 1-10, corresponding roughly to Fail (1-3), Marginal (4-6), and Pass (7-10). The SIPI faculty then meet to discuss the overall exam pass level. Generally, students who have done well on all exams pass and students who have done poorly on several exams do not pass. For students who fail to perform adequately on two attempts, the faculty may consider factors in addition to the exam performance, such as GPA, GRE scores, research experience or progress, and prior personal interaction.


The raw exam scores are not disclosed. Students who do not pass the exam are encouraged to meet with their faculty advisor or the exam coordinator to get a better understanding of the areas where improvement is necessary.