Cell & Molecular Biology Graduate Group

CAMB Home » Preliminary Examination

Preliminary Examination

The preliminary examination is a qualifying examination given in late May to all second year PhD students and all third year MD/PhD students in the Cell and Molecular Biology Graduate Group. By this stage, students have completed all required courses for the Graduate Group and their individual programs, and are ready to begin full-time research toward the PhD. The intent of the qualifying exam is to verify that the student is capable of PhD-level research. Thus, the student must pass this exam in order to advance to dissertation status and remain in the program.

Proposal | Timetable | Examining Committee | Exam Procedure | Possible Outcomes

The Proposal

The Preliminary Examination consists of 2 parts: a written Proposal describing plans for the thesis project, and an oral Defense of that document. If there is not a well-developed thesis project by winter of the prelim exam year, the proposal can be focused around any problem central to the work in the thesis lab. The proposal guidelines closely follow those for a Predoctoral Fellowship application to the NIH (NRSA F31). Thus, students should craft their proposal with the following section headings, using single spaced, 11 point Arial font, 0.5 inch margins, and the indicated page limits.

There is no expectation that extensive preliminary data should exist, but if it does, present it within the Research Strategy section (remaining within the 6 page limit). For example, you might provide such data as part of the rationale or justification for a particular approach. Any preliminary work that represents unpublished data of others from the thesis lab should be explicitly approved by those providing such data and be properly cited.

The emphasis of the proposal should not be on a review of the literature but on dealing creatively with the problem selected. The Proposal should be "hypothesis-driven". That is, it should aim explicitly to address a working hypothesis regarding an unresolved issue in Cell and Molecular Biology. It is important to remember that the proposal should describe work that can reasonably be done by one person in 3-4 years, not what an entire lab of people could accomplish in 3-4 years. In this respect, the written Proposal will be more focused than a mentor’s NIH R01 application. This proposal is only a starting point for the actual thesis work. The approaches and experiments can reasonably be expected to change over time with input from the Thesis Advisor and the Thesis Committee.

For the Proposal Defense, there is an expectation of substantial depth of knowledge in the thesis area, broadly defined. Thus, it will not be sufficient to defend only the particulars of the proposed experiments. A key element of the oral examination will be to explain and defend the importance of the questions to be addressed, and to place these questions in the broader context of the field. Thus, in both the Significance section of the written Proposal and in the subsequent oral Defense, the student should be able to marshal knowledge from the relevant literature and from broader areas of Cell and Molecular Biology. Each student's performance will be evaluated on: 1) quality of the written proposal; 2) quality of the oral presentation; 3) defense of the proposal; and 4) general knowledge of Cell and Molecular Biology.

Proposal | Timetable | Examining Committee | Exam Procedure | Possible Outcomes

Timetable for submission of the Preliminary Exam Proposal

Proposal | Timetable | Examining Committee | Exam Procedure | Possible Outcomes

Role of Thesis Advisor

The student is encouraged to consult with his/her Thesis Advisor during preparation for the Preliminary Examination. The student is also free to consult with any other faculty, students or postdocs as they develop their ideas. Thesis advisors should not give copies of current or former grant applications to students nor should they edit the student's written proposal. It is the Thesis Advisor's responsibility to ensure that the overall objectives of the proposal are worthwhile. The student can discuss potential experimental approaches with his/her advisor or others.

Composition and duties of examination committee

The Program Leader, or his/her designate. Optimally, the program chair should be present at all exams given for his/her program. If the number of students in a program makes that impractical, the responsibility should be shared among one or two senior faculty members of the program. The purpose of the Program Leader's or designate's presence on the committee is to be able to compare all the exams with respect to rigor and the decision making processes of the different exam committees. With this information, uniformity in decisions can be established. The final decision for each exam (pass or fail) will be made by the program chair, and then made known to the student by the program chair, either at the end of each day of examinations, or after all exams for his/her program are completed. In making these final decisions the Program Leader, or designate, will consider the committee's recommendations along with the comparative rigor of all the exams. The program leader or designate will be responsible for the evaluation forms (see below) that constitutes the written record for the exam.

Experts: The remainder of the committee will be chosen by the Program Leader and will consist of three faculty members with a reasonable degree of expertise in the area of the proposal. They should be selected to provide a balance between junior and senior faculty.

Thesis Advisor: The Thesis Advisor is explicitly excluded from being on the Preliminary Examination committee for his/her own student and has no role in determining the composition of the committee.

Proposal | Timetable | Examining Committee | Exam Procedure | Possible Outcomes

Exam Procedure

Prior to the day of the exam: As indicated in the students' timetable for preparation of the preliminary exam proposal, each student will provide each member of his/her committee with a copy of the proposal. In addition, the CAMB office will provide a copy of the student's file to each examiner. Faculty should read and review both of these documents prior to the exam. If any deficiencies are noted that would indicate that the student has not fulfilled all of the requirements necessary to take the exam, the CAMB office should be notified immediately. Any problems with the submitted proposal should be held for discussion at the committee meeting.

On the day of the exam: The program leader, or designate, will serve as the chair of each examining committee or should ask one of the other members to take on this role. Examinations will be scheduled to allow 1.5 hours for each exam. When the committee has gathered and the members have been introduced to the student, the chair should ask the student to leave the room briefly. The topics to be discussed in the student's absence are:

The student will then be invited to return to the room. The chair should explain the ground rules to the student and ask the student to begin the presentation. The student may prepare a 1 page handout for members of the committee if a complex diagram is needed for the oral presentation. With the exception of this handout, the student will be expected to use the white board if needed. If questioning is slow in getting started, the committee chair should lead off by asking a question. The chair should then turn over the questioning to one of the other examiners. In a rotating fashion the other examiners should question the student.

Exam questions should be designed to probe the student's depth of knowledge on the subject of the proposal, both theoretical and technical. In addition, exam questions should determine the student's general knowledge of cell and molecular biology especially as it relates to lecture and seminar courses taken and independent study and rotations completed. Special emphasis should be placed on questions designed to elicit the ability of a student to describe how an experiment was or will be done and to interpret it appropriately. When the chairman feels that the student has been examined sufficiently, he/she will ask the student to leave the room while the committee discusses the performance. Each student's performance should be evaluated in four areas: 1) quality of the written proposal, 2) quality of the oral presentation, 3) defense of the proposal, and 4) general knowledge. Each faculty examiner will be asked to fill out a form providing a numerical assessment of the performance in the four areas on a 1 to 5 scale (1 = outstanding to 5 = unacceptable). Additional narrative comments can also be added. These should include an assessment of the student's perceived strengths and weaknesses. These signed forms are returned to the program chair at the end of the exam. They become part of the student's file. These forms have often been collected in haste after the exam; this should be avoided so that the examiners have time to discuss the exam and thoughtfully prepare their evaluations. The student will be told that the outcome of the exams will be made known at the end of the exams for the program. In most cases this is little more than a day.

Proposal | Timetable | Examining Committee | Exam Procedure | Possible Outcomes

Possible outcomes

Pass: This is the outcome for most students. It can represent a range from absolutely stellar performance to a good, generally solid one. It is appropriate to give a pass when the performance is good, but not perfect, and perhaps was not all that the examiners think the student might be capable of doing. All four aspects listed above should come into play in the discussion, and a very strong performance in one area may serve to offset a weak performance in another area.

Conditional Pass: This is the outcome for students who do well, but perhaps exhibit a significant weakness in a specific, single area. For example, an excellent presentation, oral defense and impressive fund of general knowledge in the setting of a written proposal that is significantly below average could lead to the recommendation of a Conditional Pass. In the event of a "conditional pass" recommendation, the committee must suggest to the Program Chair what the student should be required to do to address the deficiency (such as rewrite the proposal, do an independent study, etc.) If the student is expected to consult with the committee members individually, this should be stated, and a time frame for completing the remediation should be established. This should typically take less than one month. It is important for the committee chair to put this in writing so that there is no ambiguity about what is being asked of the student. At the end of all the exams the program chair will evaluate and compare all conditional passes to make sure they are fair decisions and to assure that the proposed remedial action is equitable from student to student. When the program chair, or designate, communicates the outcome of the exams, he/she will discuss the conditions of a conditional pass with the student involved.

Failure: This is the outcome when either the written proposal is completely unacceptable or the performance on multiple aspects of the exam is unacceptable. If the overall performance of the student was weak, or if there were significant deficiencies in more than one of the areas being evaluated, the student will fail the exam. Students who fail the Preliminary Exam will be told why in the most specific terms possible. A student who fails will get a chance to rewrite the proposal and defend it at another oral examination.The possible outcomes for the second exam are Pass or Fail. A student who fails the exam twice must leave the program and has the option of obtaining a Terminal Master's Degree.

Back to Handbook Table of Contents