The preliminary exam

The following are suggestions and procedures for preparation for the Preliminary Examination. It provides a list of do’s and don’ts for the student, and a framework for understanding expected standards of performance. Remember, this is both an oral examination and a written examination. Thus, a well-written proposal, clear presentation of the project, and solid performance when answering questions by the committee are required for passing the examination.

The Preliminary Examination occurs six (6) months after selection of Advisory/Examination Committee but no later than May of second year.

Be sure to share the following forms with the members of your committee prior to your oral exam date. 

Individual Form and Summary Form


Preparing/Selecting the Examination Committee 

The Examination Committee for the prelim exam will consist of all members of the Advisory/Examination Committee except the Major Professor, who will not be present during the exam.

The student is responsible for making sure of the following:

  • Replacement of the Major Professor on the examining committee. This member will be selected by the Major Professor and needs to be a faculty member of Biological Sciences. The Major Professor and student must get approval from this individual.
  • Selecting the Principal Examiner of the Examining Committee. Of the four members of the completed Examination Committee, the Major Professor will select the Principal Examiner. The Major Professor and student must get approval from this individual.
  • The student needs to
    1. Send a completed and signed Prelim Faculty Replacement Form to the Graduate Coordinator
    2. Update the composition of Examining Committee using Form 8 in myPurdue four (4) weeks before the examination once all approvals have been confirmed.


Job of the Principal Examiner

The Principal Examiner will preside at the Preliminary Examination and will be primarily responsible for the format of the meeting and for filing the written comments from the committee members to the GASC and Graduate School.  The Principal Examiner  should establish, in advance, guidelines for the length and nature of the student’s presentation, the length and scope of the question and answer period, and any other procedures he or she feels should be specified.  Hence, prior to each meeting the student should discuss the format for the meeting with the Principal Examiner.

The main goal of the Preliminary Examination is to test the PhD candidate’s ability of defending a research project and independent thinking. 

Once completed, the Principal Examiner will need to log into the following database: Once logged in, the Principal Examiner will then need to fill in and "sign off" on the form before any other committee members can vote. 

The Major Professor can request a recording of the Preliminary Examination, which should only include the portion of the exam in which the student was participating but not any discussion by the committee before and after the exam. If the Major Professor would like to have the exam recorded, they must communicate this request to the Principal Examiner who will be in charge of setting up and distributing the recording. 


Goals and Recommendations for the Student

Selecting the topic: 

Students taking the preliminary examination have two choices of format:

  1. a topic within your own research area, or
  2. a topic unrelated to the area of your thesis research.

Well in advance, discuss your choice of format with your Major Professor since they may have strong opinions on which format is most appropriate for you. Your Major Professor must approve the topic. It should be noted that, regardless of the format, the expectations for performance will be similar. Examining committees are likely to be less forgiving about the depth of your background knowledge when the topic is in the area of your thesis research. Remember also that if you do choose a thesis-related topic, the proposal still must reflect the student’s own scientific creativity. Whichever format you choose, you should design approaches that are expected to provide significant advances to the field and you should be prepared to discuss further approaches beyond the immediate scope of your proposal.

Thoughtfulness and innovation are highly desirable qualities in a research proposal.


Meeting with the Principal Examiner:

The student should consult with the Principal Examiner at least 2 months prior to the preliminary examination to determine what will be expected. It is advised to use this time to your full advantage. Come prepared to the meeting with 3-5 background slides and consider sending your proposed Aims to the Principal Examiner prior to the meeting. Doing so will result in a much more productive meeting, and a much happier Principal Examiner.


Preparing the written portion: 

The purpose of the written proposal is to provide the examination committee with adequate background and details to understand the current state of the chosen field of research and evaluate your proposed experiments. Too little detail will frustrate the committee in its evaluation while excessive length will be a waste of their time. You should be prepared to discuss experimental details and interpretations without listing them all in the proposal. For example, you can describe how you would characterize a protein by electrophoresis without giving the composition of every solution used in the procedure. Any results that are not your own, should be properly referenced. Keep in mind that extensive preliminary results are not required, but a clear description of background, questions, approaches, expected results, and alternative approaches are essential.

The student should submit the final written report at least 3 weeks before the Preliminary Examination to the whole committee. The report that includes a brief description of the proposed thesis research project including a literature review relevant to that project in the background section.  In the report the student must clearly outline the objectives of the proposed research and indicate how they plan to achieve them. The literature review does not need to be exhaustive, but must show that the student is aware of the most important papers in the field – especially current papers – and how they relate to the proposed research.  

If the committee determines that the written document has enough flaws indicating that the student is likely to fail the oral exam, the committee can request a rescheduling of the exam and revision of the proposal. 


Formatting the written proposal:

Maximum of 9 single-spaced pages, excluding the title page and references. Figures, and figure legends should be included in the 9-page limit. While a lower limit is not provided, anything less than 6 pages would likely be insufficient. 

Font size is limited to 11 pt. Arial or 12 pt. Times New Roman.

Figures should be embedded in the text and have adequate figure legends.

Any results that are not your own, should be properly referenced.


Organizing the written proposal:

Background and significance: Provide a brief background of the field. Describe the current knowledge as it relates to your proposal. Try to stick to the significant findings, but describe issues that are controversial or unclear. Be sure to point out what information is missing in the field that you will be providing through your proposed experiments. Within the framework of your current knowledge, formulate a hypothesis (hypotheses) that you will test by experimentation. State concisely what significant issues or questions you are attempting to answer and how your studies are expected to advance the field. This section is extremely important for your committee to grasp. Do your best in conveying this message to them. It is often useful to state the issues in the form of hypotheses because this method tends to organize your thoughts about how best to test the hypotheses.

Research design and methods: Provide a description of the experimental approaches you are proposing. A good preliminary proposal will provide 3 or 4 major experimental approaches to be used. Be critical when using approaches proposed by others, and give credit to your sources (references, personal communications). State the specific aims of the proposal in outline form first. Then, for each approach describe the experiments that will be performed, how data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted. While not every conceivable detail need be included, you should be aware of the mechanics of the experiment and any instrumentation used, as well as the strengths and limitations of the method. Be prepared for alternative approaches, should your original proposed experiment fail.

Discussion of expected results: Describe the expected experimental results within the context of your hypotheses. Be prepared to discuss alternatives should you be able to reject your original hypothesis. Be prepared to suggest further avenues of research beyond the scope of your proposal.

References: In the text of your proposal, you should cite references for important previous work in the field. This is essential for the committee to obtain supplemental information as well as to evaluate whether your proposal is novel. The end of your report should include a list of the references.

Timeline of expected progress: Include a time estimate of doing and completing various phases of the proposed research, including specific experiments, manuscript writing and submission, dissertation writing, dissertation defense and graduation date. This will, of course, be amended as progress is realized. But it does inform the committee about an expected timetable of accomplishments.


The oral portion:

During the preliminary examination, the examining committee will determine by means of a question and answer period whether or not the student is reasonably equipped to proceed in a scientific manner with the proposed thesis research.  Questions on subjects directly or closely related to the research proposal should have priority.  These might include questions about current literature, research techniques, collection and evaluation of data, and formal course work.

After making their written evaluation, including their comments and their votes for pass or fail, the committee members will discuss with the student both their evaluation of the student and their appraisal of the plan of study.  The evaluation should detail areas of weakness and expectations for remedies.  If necessary, amendments to the plan of study should be recommended. Any questions about procedures should be directed to the Graduate Office. 

The committee members will cast on paper ballot a vote of “pass” or “fail” at the conclusion of the question period.  A passing performance will be one in which no more than one member of the committee casts a vote of “fail”. 

Upon successful completion of the preliminary examination, a student will be required to meet at least annually with their advisory committee in Annual Committee Meetings.

To do list:

  • The student should identify a time that works for everyone on the committee. It is highly recommended that the student attempt to schedule the meeting 2-3 months before they intend to have it. Common practice for doing so entails the following steps:
    1. Email the committee with and ask if anyone has any full weeks or major commitments in their schedule during the month the student would like to hold the meeting.
    2. Once this is determined, send a digital request to the committee for availability of a two-week stretch, at most. The most favorable way to do this is to use WhenIsGood (preferred) or doodle
    3. Once the date is determined, the student should reserve a room using the room reservation system that can be found on the Departmental Website under Resources.


What if I do not pass?

If the student fails to achieve a passing performance, the committee will decide whether to schedule a second examination or to recommend that the student leaves the program. If a second exam is approved, it must be held during the next semester, not including the summer. It is highly recommended that the student schedule a meeting with the Principal Examiner soon after the failed attempt. The Principal Examiner can provide guidelines for a better performance during the second exam.

If the student fails to achieve a passing grade in the second preliminary exam attempt, the student will be dismissed from the PhD program.  The student will be allowed to participate in the Master’s program.


Helpful hints and general recommendations for preparation:

Pre-prelim: You are encouraged to have your peers read over your written document and practice your oral defense of your proposal as a “pre-prelim”. It is advised that you seek the help of more senior graduate students who can read your proposal, sit in for a practice exam, and provide you with feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of your performance. This practice will be very valuable in preparing you for the expectations of the exam. Choose practice examiners who are beyond prelims themselves and know what to expect. Hold the pre-prelim meeting early enough to give yourself time to make any needed adjustments in the proposal. Use your own judgement in reacting to the suggestions of other students. No one is perfect and omniscient.

Seeking outside help: While originality in design of the experimental approach is essential, seeking outside help on details of experimentation and analysis is encouraged. For example, if you do not understand the principles behind analytical ultracentrifugation, you are permitted to seek the advice of an expert.  Your Advisory Committee members may also serve in this capacity. However, the Major Professor should refrain from helping you significantly with your proposal since this is an examination.