CIS students develop and demonstrate their interdisciplinary expertise by passing secondary area exams in two focus areas, and both secondary and primary exams in a third focus area presumed to be related to the intended dissertation. Secondary exams test students’ basic knowledge in the specified area of study. Primary exams evaluate students’ ability to conceptualize, plan and evaluate research in the specified area of study.

Area exams are scheduled once each semester, based on student requests (due within the first few weeks of the semester) and subject to faculty availability and approval. Each exam is written by a faculty committee and the exam content, structure and preparation process is at the discretion of the committee members. Generally, exams reflect topics covered in suggested courses and texts and articles suggested by course instructors, area coordinators, and examination committee members.

Summaries of focus area exams are below. For current exam information, contact the chair of the exam committee or the CIS chair.


Community Engagement (CE)

Community engagement explores the processes of researchers and professionals collaborating with stakeholders and organizations to build sustainable relationships that benefit community members. We consider theory and practice from interdisciplinary areas that emphasize critical analysis of organizational policies, community-based services and socio-cultural trends.

LIS 630 Community Engagement or a CIS 699 with one or more exam committee members are recommended preparation for the secondary exam. CIS students taking the secondary exam develop a community engagement project outline demonstrating understanding and the ability to apply community engagement concepts in the design of a research study. CIS students taking the primary exam develop a detailed research proposal informed by an in-depth literature review to inform a grant proposal, publishable paper and/or dissertation proposal. No additional coursework preparation is required, though a CIS 699 in the exam semester is recommended.

Exam CommitteeRich Gazan (ICS/LIS, chair), Patricia Buskirk (COM), Hanae Kramer (COM).

Communication & Information Theories (CIT)

Constituting the interdisciplinary core of the CIS program, this exam focuses primarily on theories addressing information and communication technologies and their social roles and contexts. This exam requires synthesizing knowledge related to the role of theory in research from CIS 701 (CIT theory), 702 (CITs), and 703 (CIT research methods). Students will choose theories most relevant to their research agenda.

The secondary exam requires completion of CIS 701, CIS 702, and CIS 703.  Please contact the exam chair for details if you would like to take this as a primary exam. The committee expects that you outline a theory topic area and create a bibliography early in the semester, so that we can work with you to create a customized reading list.

Exam Committee: Jenifer Winter (COM, chair), Wayne Buente (COM), Liz Davidson (ITM), Rich Gazan (ICS/LIS).

Data Science (DSci)

Data Science focuses on processes by which insights and new knowledge can be obtained from both structured and unstructured data, typically via automatic or semi-automatic analysis of digital data, to produce insights that can drive business or policy decisions or that can advance scientific discovery.

The Data Science exams are project based, requiring report of a data analysis in a “reproducible research” notebook format. The secondary project may use one data science analysis methods. The primary project integrates multiple analysis methods resulting in a publishable data science research paper. Preparation and requirements for the data science exam will be negotiated based on the examinee’s existing background in programming and statistics. Please contact the exam chair and cischair to facilitate this discussion.

Exam Committee: Dan Port (ITM, chair), Mahdi Belcaid (ICS), Peter Washington (ICS).

Data Security (DSec)

The exam area focuses on developing and applying foundational knowledge related to the mechanisms and security of data in transit, at rest, and in use by modern networks and applications. The Secondary Exam’s purpose is to validate that Ph.D. students have the requisite knowledge to teach data communications (networking) and introductory cyber security classes in a technical degree program or course. The Primary Exam’s purpose is to allow students to investigate and research one or more specific data security topics in depth with the goal of leading to new investigative research and topical knowledge creation.

There are numerous courses offered by ICS and ITM that would be useful for this exam, but there is no specific or complete set of courses that covers all the exam area topics. Students seeking to take the secondary exam are required to consult with the exam committee to discuss their preparation (including to receive specific guidance and readings) prior to formally declaring their intent to take the secondary exam. The Primary exam can be taken after passing the secondary exam; students will work with one or more interested faculty to develop a detailed research proposal that builds towards a possible dissertation proposal.

Exam Committee: Sal Aurigemma (ITM, chair), Edo Biagioni (ICS), Mehdi Tarrit Mirakhorli (ICS).

Digital Business Transformation (DBT)

This exam area focuses on applications of IT in business firms and organizations, including approaches to project management, IT governance, business process and system design, and IT-enabled organizational change.

Students without a recent MBA should take BUS 625 Managing Information Technology for Strategic Advantage. Other courses relevant to the secondary exam include ITM 683 Data Analytics and Business Intelligence and ITM 680 Project Management. Students desiring a primary exam should take ITM 704 Doctoral Seminar in Information Systems and/or prepare via CIS699 directed reading mentored by an ITM department faculty member.

Exam Committee: Bo Sophia Xiao (ITM), Tung Bui (ITM), Randall Minas (ITM).

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)

Human-Computer Interaction is “concerned with the design, evaluation, and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use and with the study of major phenomena surrounding them” (ACM SIGCHI) It is an interdisciplinary field that draws on computer science, behavioral and social sciences, design disciplines, media studies, visualization, and several other fields of study.

The HCI exam committee requires that students take an HCI course before taking the secondary area exam. Relevant courses include: ICS 464 Human Computer Interaction, ICS 664 Human-Computer Interaction II, ICS 667 Advanced HCI Design Methods, and LIS 677 Human Dimension in Information Systems. The format of the secondary exam has typically been four questions out of which the student answers three in a three hour period. The primary exam requires that the student has passed the secondary, and is intended to help the student work towards a dissertation proposal in HCI. One of two formats may be chosen, depending on the student’s needs and readiness for the second option: a critical review of a chosen literature, or an empirical study to explore research in his or her chosen area, perhaps functioning as a pilot study for the proposal and leading to a publishable paper.

Exam Committee: Dan Suthers (ICS, chair) Scott Robertson (ICS), Nurit Kirshenbaum (ICS).

Information Policy & Planning (IPP)

Information policy refers to the set of regulations, laws, guidelines, and practices that govern the flow, access, use, and dissemination of information through communication networks, particularly telecommunications networks and the Internet. Issues covered in this exam include, but are not limited to: privacy and surveillance, freedom of expression, cybersecurity, the Digital Divide, content regulation and access, open data, broadband technologies and policy, the Internet as a human right, and the governance of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.

COM 660 Communication Planning is the prerequisite to take this exam, and it will be offered every spring semester. Most readings for the secondary are from the recent iteration of COM 660. COM 633 Information & Communication Technologies is also relevant. The primary exam is based on a custom reading list. Students need to contact the exam chair the semester before to initiate the process. The examinee is responsible for drafting a substantial reading list under supervision of the committee, which is due at the start of the semester when taking the exam (so that it can be further refined).

Exam Committee: Jenifer Winter (chair, COM), Rich Gazan (ICS/LIS), Hanae Kramer (COM).

Social Informatics (SI)

At its inception (as defined by Robert Kling and colleagues), Social Informatics was concerned with how the design, use, and implications of information and communication technologies interact with institutional and cultural contexts. In the CIS program we focus on social phenomena within technological contexts: how technology offers affordances for interaction and other associations between people, and how people appropriate that technology for social purposes. The phenomena studied can be at different scales including dyads, groups, communities, or loosely associated networks of persons. The specific settings studied may change over time but currently include collaborative work, online communities, social media, content production, ubiquitous connectivity, etc.

Students are required to take at least one of the following courses before taking the secondary exam, or two courses before taking the primary exam: ICS 668 Social Informatics; ICS 669 Social Computing; COM 634 Social Media. The format of the secondary exam is 4 questions out of which the students chooses 3 to answer. The questions are designed to require that the student integrate content of multiple assigned readings, demonstrating basic understanding as well as the student’s own assessment and critical thinking. The primary exam is intended to help the student work towards a dissertation proposal in Social Informatics. It consists of a critical review of a chosen literature. Students will also be required to enroll in CIS 699 under the faculty member of their choice, who will guide the student in studying the required readings.

Exam Committee: Wayne Buente (COM, chair), Rich Gazan (ICS/LIS), Dan Suthers (ICS).

Other Areas: In exceptional circumstances, students can petition the CIS Executive Board for a special secondary area examination other than those usually offered. The special area should (1) be a rigorous academic area, (2) be a generic area of study as opposed to an application area, (3) involve faculty other than CIS faculty, (4) not cover material covered in other examinations, and (5) follow the policies used in regular examination areas. (see The CIS Program Policies and Procedures document. 3.2)