Preliminary Examination

The intent of the preliminary examination is to verify that the student is capable of PhD-level research. The exam is given in late May to all second year PhD students and in early June to all third year Combined Degree students. By this stage, students have completed all required courses. Passing this exam signifies that the student has advanced to dissertation status, and can begin full-time research toward the PhD.

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

The Proposal

The Preliminary Examination consists of two 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 an NIH Predoctoral Fellowship application (NRSA F31). Thus, students should craft their proposal with the following section headings, using single line spacing, 11 point Arial font, 0.5 inch margins, and the indicated page limits:

  1. Cover page (1 page): proposal title, student’s name, thesis lab and program.
  2. Project Abstract (30 lines): Clear, concise description of the proposed work, understandable to any scientifically literate reader.
  3. Specific Aims (limit 1 page): There are three objectives for this page. First, focus the reader's attention on the problem being addressed; second, present the hypothesis to be tested; third, provide an outline of the experiments testing that hypothesis. Use one or two paragraphs to address the first two objectives. Then outline the experimental approach in (usually) two Specific Aims, where each aim reflects a major experiment or experimental category.
  4. Research Strategy (limit 6 pages): There are two objectives in this section:
    1. This first section describes the scientific premise or foundation of the project.  Communicate the Significance of the question using a brief, but scholarly review of the field to explain the importance of the problem central to the proposal. Move from the general to the more specific. Additionally, describe how scientific knowledge would be increased if the proposed aims were achieved.
    2. The following sections convey the scientific rigor of the experimental design and methods, and of the analysis and interpretation of results.  Outline your approach to each aim, by restating the hypothesis and, briefly, the rationale behind the aim. Then describe the Experimental Approach and Analysis, including relevant biological variables, including sex, if applicable. For each aim include sections focused on Expected Results and Interpretations and Potential Pitfalls and Alternative Approaches.
      There is no expectation that extensive preliminary data should exist, but if it does, present it within this 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.
  5. Human Tissue or Animal Use (limit 0.5 page): For proposals involving the use of human tissues or vertebrate animals, please justify why this use is essential to achieving the goals of the proposal. For animal use also justify the numbers required to accomplish the proposed experiments.
  6. Authentication of Key Biological or Chemical Resources (limit 0.5 page): Describe approaches to identify and validate key resources such as cell lines, antibodies, biologics, chemicals, and small molecules essential for the experimental design. Use approaches and standards appropriate for your area of study.
  7. Literature Citations (no page limit): Each citation should be numbered in the body of the proposal; in the bibliography, each citation must include names for all authors, article title, journal (or book name), volume and page numbers, and year of publication.

The emphasis of the proposal should not be on a review of the literature but on creatively addressing the selected problem. 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.
Please see the Preliminary Exam Tips for additional guidelines.

For the Proposal Defense, there is an expectation of substantial depth of knowledge in the thesis area, broadly defined. 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 for the following questions: Is the central biological question clearly defined and significance conveyed? Are hypotheses clearly stated? Do aims effectively test the hypotheses? Are pitfalls and alternatives considered? Is breadth of knowledge proficiency demonstrated (conceptual and technical)? And is independence and depth of thought exhibited? Additional narrative comments are also recorded. These should include an assessment of the student's perceived strengths and weaknesses. Please see the Prelim Examiner Evaluation form for how you will be assessed.

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

Timetable for submission of the Preliminary Exam Proposal

  • Early February: Orientation meeting with CAMB chair to outline requirements for preliminary exam proposals and answer any questions about procedures associated with the exam. Examples of successful proposals will be provided
  • April 1: Each student will submit the title and specific aims of their proposal to their program chair for approval and also provide a copy to the graduate group office. The specific aims should be no more than one page. The program chair and/or program advisors will evaluate the specific aims and provide feedback to the student as approval or suggestions for revisions. If the aims need to be revised, the student will resubmit the revised aims for approval.
  • April 15: Each student will submit the approved Specific Aims and a detailed outline of the proposal to the program chair and the graduate group office. The outline does not have to be formally approved by the program chair. However, if significant issues are found, the program chair will notify the student. At this point the student should be well prepared to write the final proposal.
  • Early May: Each student will be informed of the composition of their examination committee and date/time of the examination. Once faculty are chosen to serve on the examination committee, the student must not contact the committee faculty to discuss the prelim proposal.
  • One week before scheduled exam: Each student will submit a copy of their proposal to: the graduate group office, the program chair and each member of the examination committee. Any request for an extension of this submission deadline must be conveyed to the program chair, and agreed upon by all committee members, in advance of the due date. Should a student fail to meet the proposal submission deadline, the examination committee may, in consultation with the program chair, decide to fail the student.
  • Last two weeks of May (PhD) or first week of June (CD): Preliminary examinations are administered.

Requests to delay or defer the preliminary examination are strongly discouraged; however, such requests will be considered by the Graduate Group Chair in consultation with the student's program chair.

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

Composition and duties of examination committee

The Program Chair or designate: Optimally, the program chair should be present at all exams given for their 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 Chair's or designee's presence on the committee is to be able to compare all the exams with respect to rigor and the decision-making processes, and to ensure that uniformity in deciding outcomes is maintained. The final decision for each exam (pass, conditional 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 the program are completed. In making these final decisions the Program Chair will consider the committee's recommendations along with the comparative rigor of all the exams. The Program Chair or designate will be responsible for collecting the evaluation forms (see below) that constitute the written record for the exam.

Experts: The remainder of the committee will be chosen by the Program Chair 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. The student is given the opportunity to suggest potential committee members.
Thesis Advisor: The Thesis Advisor is explicitly excluded from the Preliminary Examination committee for their own student and has no role in determining the composition of the committee.

Role of Thesis Advisor

The student is strongly encouraged to consult with their Thesis Advisor throughout the 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 previous 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 their advisor or others.

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

Exam Procedure

Prior to the day of the exam: As indicated in the timetable for preparation of the preliminary exam proposal, the student will provide each member of their committee with a copy of the proposal. In addition, the CAMB office will provide a copy of the student's academic record to each examiner. Faculty will 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 preliminary exam, the CAMB office should be notified immediately. Any issues 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 examination committee or will ask another committee member 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's overall record. Any deficiencies that might need special attention in the oral questioning should be identified.
  • The quality of the written proposal. If the quality is so poor as to be unacceptable, the student can be given a "fail" at this point.
  • If the proposal is generally acceptable, any specific deficiencies revealed in the written proposal should be identified and pursued in the oral questioning.
  • The "ground rules" for the examination should be agreed upon. The student should prepare a 15-minute presentation. The committee members should decide in advance if they plan to let the student do the presentation uninterrupted or if they plan to interrupt the presentation with questions as they come up. Either format is acceptable, but the student needs to know which will be followed. When the "interrupt" mode is chosen, the discussion might proceed in a direction that does not allow the student to actually complete the prepared talk. The student should be assured ahead of time that this might happen and that they should not be concerned about getting back to the prepared talk.

The student will then be asked to rejoin the committee. The chair will 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 as 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 studies 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 committee decides that the student has been examined sufficiently, the student will be excused.
The committee then discusses the student’s performance and evaluates six specific areas: Is the central biological question clearly defined and significance conveyed? Are hypotheses clearly stated? Do aims effectively test the hypotheses? Are pitfalls and alternatives considered? Is breadth of knowledge proficiency demonstrated (conceptual and technical)? And is independence and depth of thought exhibited? Each faculty examiner will complete the Prelim Evaluation form, providing a numerical assessment of the performance in the six areas on a 1 to 5 scale (1 = excellent to 5 = unacceptable). Additional narrative comments are also recorded. 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, and become part of the student's academic record. 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 either at the end of the day or after the last exam for the program. Each student will be given the opportunity to review the committee evaluations.

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 performance areas identified are considered in the discussion, and a very strong performance in one area may serve to offset a weaker 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 communicate to the Program Chair what is required to address the deficiency (such as rewrite the proposal, prepare a mini review, 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, typically 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 the decisions are fair and to assure that the proposed remedial actions are equitable from student to student. When the program chair, or designate, communicates the outcome of the exams, they will discuss with the student the required remediation of the conditional pass.

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 the reasons for that decision in the most specific terms possible. A student who fails will get a chance to rewrite the proposal and defend it at a second oral examination, which must take place prior to the start of the fall semester. The possible outcomes for the second exam are Pass or Fail. A student who fails the exam twice will be dismissed from the program with the option of obtaining a Terminal Master's Degree.