Preliminary & Qualifying Exams

The exam for advancement to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree consists of two parts: (1) Preliminary Exam: a knowledge-based written and short oral exam and (2) Qualifying Exam: a thesis proposal defense. The general-knowledge written/oral exam will be held at the end of the first year in late August to early September. The thesis proposal defense is expected to be completed within one year of passing the general knowledge exam.

Part 1: Preliminary Exam - General Knowledge Written/Oral Exam


The written exam will cover the material offered in the core course, and contains a short-answer or problem-solving section and an essay section, the latter requiring integration and analysis. The oral exam will both allow examination of areas of perceived weakness from the results of the written part, and allow examination of the student's ability to "think on one's feet."

The exam will be given in Mid-August (dates announced by end of May). The written portion of the exam will be on one day, with morning and afternoon 3-hour sessions. It will be designed to be finished in 4 hours even though the students have six. The oral exam will occur within one week of the written exam and will take 1.5hours.


There are three possible outcomes of the oral exam: (1) Pass, (2) No Pass, and (3) Fail. Under a no-pass on the student's first attempt, then the student will retake the test within three months (with exceptions approved by the Educational Policy and Testing Committees for special circumstances). If the student again receives a no-pass on the second attempt, then the student fails and will be asked to leave the program. If the student fails the exam, they will be asked to leave the program. If a student receives a no-pass on one section but passes the other sections, then the student may retake just that section.

Part 2: Qualifying Exam - The Thesis Proposal Defense


The written thesis proposal is loosely modeled after an NIH grant, with different page guidelines on the sections. The following sections are included:

(1) Specific Aims (1 page). Compactly outlines the main scientific questions addressed by the proposal.

(2) Background and Significance (5 pages). Describes previous experiments which motivate the study.

(3) Preliminary Data (0-5 pages). Self-explanatory. Especially useful if methods new to a lab are being used, or if the experiments are particularly challenging.

(4) Research Design and Methods (5-10 pages). This section need not be as detailed as in the typical R01, and should be modeled after the guidelines of an NRSA application. The student should clearly describe the methods under use, potential pitfalls, and what would be concluded under different possible outcomes.

The thesis proposal is not a binding contract for the work to be done; normally this evolves under the guidance of the major professor and thesis committee. The proposal is to be given to the committee at least 3 weeks in advance of the exam date. All students are encouraged to reorganize these proposals into NRSA format (a minor effort) and submit them to NIH. Several of our students have been successful in obtaining NRSA funding.


The committee for this exam should include 5 faculty members, one of which must come from outside the Graduate Group. One member must also be on teh advising commitee, and will serve as Chair. These commitees often have considerable overlap with the dissertation committee which is set up after the student advances to candidacy. Usually the only differnce is that the student's Major Professor may not be on the exam commitee, but will be a member (not the Chair) of the dissertation committee. Defense. This also is a 3-hour exam. It starts with an oral presentation of the proposal by the student (approximately 30 min). Following this, there will be general discussion of the proposal, with examiners free to explore background (i.e., the student's scholarship), methodology, and reasoning. As before, the student will be asked to leave and the committee will consider if the student has demonstrated sufficient expertise to advance to candidacy.


The Graduate School allows 3 possible results: (1) Pass, (2) No Pass, and (3) Fail. Under a not-pass outcome, the committee may specify a variety of remedial actions, from redoing the exam, re-writing parts of the proposal, to demonstrating in other ways proficiency where it was found lacking during the exam. If the student fails the exam, the student is allowed one re-try to pass the exam and advance to candidacy.