In my last post about what Every Theory Grad Student Should know some more general questions were raised:
Qualifying exams vs Course Requirements.
Why do we have either?
1) To correct mistakes that admissions made. That is, some students that were admitted are not going to finish and better to get them out of the system sooner rather than later.
2) To make sure students are well rounded.
When do exams work:
In Math or Physics there is a well defined notion of basic stuff that all grad students should know. That's why, for the most part, every Math prof can teach every ugrad math course. That a Logician Teaches Linear Algebra does not surprise anyone.
CON for CS exam:
In CS... we have not settled on an `every CS grad student must know...' I suspect we haven't because the field changes fast AND our field is just so diverse. Hence NOT every CS prof could PASS every ugrad CS course. In short- having a qualifying exam may be problematic since we don't quite know what the basics are
CON for exams:
You are getting rid of people. Are they the right people?
Would you believe that someone we kicked out of the program had four papers in STOC! Would you believe it! Four papers in STOC! No. Oh. Would you believe 2 papers in ICALP? No. How about a failed proof that P=NP?
Where do you draw the line for `she's so good we should let her get a PhD even though they failed the qualifying exams' This doesn't happen in math so much since they don't start research their first year. Again, the difference is the age of the field and the prereq needed to get up to speed.
PRO for exams:
You get rid of people early before they waste too much time.
PRO for courses: If you take Blah courses in blah blah areas then even if you try to game the system some, you do KNOW something.
CAVEAT about courses: If the course grades actually matter for the requirements then the professor has to give out real HW and real exams. This forces people to learn the material-- even grad students need some encouragement. But it may be bad for the learning environment.