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Preliminary Exams

First Preliminary Exam | Second Preliminary (Qualifying) Exam

Preliminary exams are tools used to assess the organizational and conceptual abilities of the student in the context of his/her practical experience in the laboratory. The IGG faculty expect that each student will show evidence of his/her knowledge of immunological concepts that are consistent with his/her level in the program. There are two formal exams, both administered by members of the IGG Student Affairs Committee. Both exams serve as forums for faculty to evaluate the student’s knowledge of immunology, but the exams are different in the depth of expertise required of the student.


The first preliminary exam is a half-hour, chalk talk-style presentation in a closed session before an examining committee composed of IGG faculty. PhD students take the first preliminary exam after the second laboratory rotation, usually at the end of the spring semester of the first year. MD/PhD students typically take this exam at the end of the fall semester of the first year (i.e. MD/PhD year 3).

The first preliminary exam is used to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the individual student at a point in the training process where changes can be made in the course of study to accommodate his/her needs. Most students find the first preliminary exam useful in practicing their presentation skills and in preparing for the second preliminary exam.

During the presentation, the student must convey an understanding of the rationale for the second laboratory rotation and a plan for future experiments. If data are presented, the student must analyze them critically. The student may not use projection or overhead slides, but may give the examining committee a two-page handout. The examining committee will ask general concept questions to help them assess the student’s knowledge of immunology.

The examining committee will send the student an assessment of his/her performance on the exam. There is no pass/fail or graded component to the first exam.



The format of the second preliminary exam is a short paper, a presentation open to the Penn Immunology community, and a closed session of questioning by the examining committee.

PhD students take the second preliminary exam after the second laboratory rotation, in the middle of the fall semester of the second year. MD/PhD students take this exam at the end of the spring semester of the first year (i.e. MD/PhD year 3).

During the second preliminary exam, the examining committee evaluates the student’s progress and to determine if the student is capable of PhD-level research. If the student passes the second preliminary exam, the Executive Committee will meet to determine if the student should be advanced to Dissertation Status. No student may be advanced to Dissertation Status without passing this qualifying exam.

The preliminary exam has three components: 1) a paper describing the research that is the basis for the exam; 2) a public, oral presentation; and 3) a closed oral examination before the committee.

The written work should be five pages in length including references (and written in a reasonable font). The paper should take the form of a short manuscript similar to a JI Cutting Edge article or a JEM Brief Definitive Report (BDR). The paper should include relevant background and rationale for the hypothesis presented, a discussion of the systems used, the results, and discussion and brief future directions. The paper is due to the IGG coordinator one week before the date of the exam. Students can view the write-ups of more advanced students on IGG’s Canvas page.

The public oral presentation should parallel the written paper. It is not required that the exact same data be presented but similar data should be discussed. The presentation is expected to be 25-30 minutes in duration. The examination will follow the presentation and will be based on the data presented during the formal talk; students are asked to not bring additional slides as the committee will not look at them.

Mentor Participation
It is, of course, expected that mentors will discuss and provide guidance on both write-ups and presentations. We hope that s/he will discuss an outline review written work. It is also expected that mentors will observe presentation practices.

The student’s written report must be approved by the rotation supervisor and submitted to the IGG coordinator and the chair of the Student Affairs Committee one week before the oral exam; this report will be submitted to the examining committee. The examining committee will review the report before the exam, identify areas of potential weakness, and report problems to the student. The research seminar portion of the exam is open to all faculty and students. During the research seminar the student is expected to demonstrate the ability to:

The degree of success in meeting these tasks indicates the student’s expertise in the research completed in the laboratory project.

A closed session before the examining committee will follow the open session. At this time, the committee will more thoroughly examine the student’s performance in the rotation and clarify issues raised by the written document and the open session. During this phase of the exam, members of the committee will ask the student questions to test understanding of the research and general concepts in immunology. The committee will then excuse the student and ask the rotation advisor to assess the performance of the student in the laboratory and his/her aptitude for thesis-level research. The committee will then excuse the rotation advisor and discuss the student's performance in the laboratory. This recommendation is passed on to the IGG Executive Committee who will then make the final decision regarding advancement to dissertation status or dismissal from the program.

During the exam period, students will receive feedback about both the written and and oral components. The committee will recommend a decision ("pass" or "fail") to IGG's Executive Committee. Students will receive notification of the Executive Committee's decision within two to three weeks of taking the exam. Once students pass this preliminary exam, they advance to candidacy. Factors that influence this decision include: 1) performance in coursework; 2) participation in journal clubs and seminars; 3) performance in the first and second preliminary level exams; and, 4) evaluations by rotation supervisors. Only under very unusual circumstances will a student be allowed to retake the second preliminary exam.