Preliminary Examination

Schedule & Format

The preliminary examination will normally be conducted during the spring semester of year two and will be carried out in accordance with the regulations of the Graduate School as described in the Graduate School Bulletin. The Chemistry DGSA must file for and receive approval from the Graduate School (signed by Dean John Klingensmith) confirming their Preliminary Exam Faculty Committee members at least 30 days prior to the exam date.

In the interests of consistency and fairness, every effort will be made to schedule all preliminary examinations during a time window in the spring semester to be designated by the Director of Graduate Studies. According to Graduate School policy, all preliminary examinations must be held while school is officially in session. At least one week prior to the preliminary exam, the student will distribute to the members of the examining committee (the Supervisory Committee) the final and updated version of preliminary examination document along with the evaluations and comments of the initial report, which will serve as the written document for the examination. A one-page abstract should also be provided to the main office at this time for use in publicizing the seminar.

Just prior to (and considered part of) the preliminary examination, the student will present a brief (no longer than 30 minute) public seminar summarizing the research project and background, work accomplished to date, and projected plans for the future. The rest of the preliminary examination will be conducted in private with the student’s the Supervisory Committee, with the goal of determining whether or not the student should be admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. This portion of the examination will involve questions from the committee aimed at measuring the student's general and specific background, knowledge of the particular research project involved, research results obtained to date, and planning for how the research will evolve into the dissertation. Because the research advisor is familiar with the student, it is expected that the bulk of the questions will come from the other members of the committee so that they can adequately evaluate the candidate. In particular, the advisor will refrain from assisting the student in answering questions. Students should be prepared to provide and discuss materials such as primary data or laboratory notebooks.

Successful Completion of the Examination

At the conclusion of the examination, which should normally take no longer than 2 hours total, including the brief oral presentation, the committee members will deliberate and each will vote to pass or fail. This decision will be based on material in the written prelim document, performance on the questioning during the exam, and input from the research advisor. Specifically, students will be evaluated on the following:

  • Fundamental understanding of the research area;
  • Specific understanding of the research project and its significance;
  • Productivity and progress to date on the research project;
  • Future research plans toward the dissertation; and
  • Evidence of and capacity for growth as an independent scientist.

Passing the preliminary examination requires at least four (4) affirmative votes. Thus, if the preliminary examination committee is composed of four (4) members, one negative vote fails the candidate. If the committee is composed of five (5) or more members a single negative vote does not fail the candidate. Two or more negative votes always fails the candidate.  If the chair of the committee casts a negative vote, the student fails the examination. 

In the case of failure, the committee has several options. If the committee determines that the deficiencies that led to failure are potentially correctable, then the committee may permit the student to retake the examination, with the second preliminary examination occurring no later than the end of the fall semester of year three. The committee must retain its original membership for the retake of the preliminary exam. No professors may be substituted, except in exceptional cases that must be approved by the Dean of the Graduate School.

If the committee concludes that the student should not be allowed to retake the preliminary examination, or if the student fails the second preliminary examination, then the student may be either excluded from the graduate program altogether, or allowed to write and defend a thesis for the M. S. degree (see the Master’s Program section of the Graduate Student Handbook for more details). In the latter case, the committee, in conjunction with the DGS will specify a timeline for completion of the Master’s degree. Failure to pass the Preliminary examination by the end of the fall semester of year three will result in exclusion from the Ph.D. program.