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PhD Preliminary Examinations


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As I’m getting ready for my oral preliminary examinations, I’ve been chatting with other students about experiences and formats for their writing/oral preliminary examinations. At my program, we have a grant proposal for our written followed a few weeks later with an oral presentation with pilot data. What format did you have for your preliminary examinations?

Please feel free to share your experiences, opinions, advice, etc. for all us graduate students going through prelims! :slight_smile:

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At the Medical University of South Carolina, Qualifiers are currently a 3 part process:

  1. Written examination: This was several days of questions about the subject matter from our core Neuroscience curriculum. We had to write the answers in an essay format in a secured room with only our personal knowledge.
  2. Oral examination: A 4-5 person faculty committee cross-examines our personal knowledge. They bring new questions and often ask about any shortcomings determined in the first written examination. We use a writing board to build and organize our arguments on each topic given.
  3. Proposal examination: We choose a 4-5 person committee that also includes faculty outside of the department. They will advise and guide throughout the thesis until the student defends. In this part, students often prepare an F31 proposal which is also the format of this presentation. The team decides if the student has given enough thought and alternative leverage to complete the project at a level warranted for Ph.D.

The student can fail at each step but is given one redo for each failure in order to improve and meet the expectations of the Department. BTW, many students fail at least one step which promotes focus and hard work toward the goal in most students.

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  • 3 months later...
Noelle James

There are a lot of variations on the qualifying and preliminary exams, even within a university. Here at the University of Illinois, the graduate college only technically requires a preliminary exam. Thus, many programs combine the qualifying exam in with it. However, the program I am in (Neuroscience) still has three separate exams - Quals, Prelim, and Final Defense. I took my Qualifying exam at the end of my 2nd year and my Preliminary Exam at the end of my 4th year. I expected that I would have less than two years remaining before my defense going in, which my committee agreed with.

A grant application is probably the most typical format I have seen with the specific format determined by the grant you are most likely to apply for. Within our lab, the DDIG used to be common so that is the format my PI prefers even if it is very short (~6 pages). Most of my colleagues however, used the F31 NRSA format. Having done the short format, I would recommend the longer format. I felt it did not give me enough space to explain the reasoning behind my experiments which is a large part of what my committee was looking for.

My written portion went out 1 week prior to my oral presentation. I had prepared an ~20 minute talk which got derailed on slide 4 which is completely normal. I had something like 75 extra slides so that I had a pre-made slide for any possible question, but I am also perpetually over-prepared. The entire thing took about 1.5 hours in part because of the shorter written portion; 1 hour is more typical.

It is worth noting that I met individually with each of my committee members to discuss where I was, what they might like to see experimentally, my proposed (DDIG) format, and their expectations. Each meeting took 30-45 minutes. I would strongly recommend doing this in person or at least via skype, not by email. This will help you set your priorities in writing and reduce the surprises.

In effect, my exam was hashing out the details of my remaining experiments before I could graduate. Their changes reduced the risk of the experiments which was fine by me, but expanded what I felt was a ‘backup’ experimental plan. I was told to think of it more as a negotiation rather than a traditional ‘exam’. We discussed experimental designs, expected outcomes and how these might be interpreted. At the end I had a list of ~2 major experiments to do and some follow up work on my preliminary data that would strengthen it. We also discussed how I might want to publish the results - one giant paper vs a methods and a smaller experimental paper.

I can say that most of my labmates have done the combined Prelim/Qual exam which is done much earlier in their graduate career sometime around 2 years into their program. In that case, they have little preliminary data and are not held to the proposed experiments. They can change topics freely and do none of their proposed experiments. The focus of that exam is that they know how to design an experiment.

Since there is so much variation, I would recommend you consult with your labmates and see if your program offers informal student panels on the exams. The U of I Neuroscience Program offers ‘brown bag’ lunch panels (basically AMAs about the exams) with 3-4 students who have already passed the milestone. No administrators or PIs attend so that everyone can speak freely.

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