Propositional Examination

All Ph.D. students are required to pass a research propositional examination in which they defend an original research proposal in front of a three-member faculty panel during the Fall semester of year four. The preparation and presentation of the research proposal provides the student with a mechanism for developing the ability to conceive, evolve, plan, and defend an original research project independent of the research advisor. The primary intellectual content of the proposal must represent a significant departure from the student’s dissertation research, so that it represents an independent intellectual exercise.

Preparing for the Exam

In preparation for this examination, the student shall submit a completed preproposal form of no more than 200 words that succinctly summarizes the proposal. The pre-proposal should state the specific topic to be investigated (hypothesis), the methodology or approach to be employed, and should briefly justify the importance of the work.

Download Preproposal Form

Timeline for Exam Process

This pre-proposal will first be submitted to the research advisor for their signature indicating that the proposal is sufficiently removed from the dissertation research of the student. The pre-proposal with the advisor’s signed approval should be submitted to the DGSA office by August 24 of the Summer following academic year three. The DGS will then appoint several three-member faculty panels who will review the abstracts and later carry out the examinations.

Each abstract will be reviewed by the members of the appropriate panel, who will each indicate to the student whether they approve of the proposal topic and will provide feedback and comments for focus as appropriate. The student should receive this feedback by September 6. If the student fails to receive pre-approval from each of the panel members, the student should revise the proposal or initiate a new one to the satisfaction of the panel, with the revised proposal due September 17. Students are encouraged to discuss ideas with their advisor prior to submitting a pre-proposal.

All proposals must be pre-approved in this fashion by September 24 of the fourth year. The goal of this pre-approval process is to ensure that the proposed research topic is generally in keeping with expectations and sufficiently removed from the dissertation research of the student.

The propositional examinations will be administered by the same set of three-member panels between October 29 and November 19. The student should submit to the DGSA office by October 15 a written version of the research proposal to be provided to the examining panel; the written proposal should not exceed 1500 words in length, including figures, and references. 


The examination itself shall not take more than one hour. At the beginning of the examination, the student will be given 15 minutes to summarize the proposal topic and its significance, to be followed by questions from the panel. At the end of the examination each member of the panel will vote to pass or fail. At least two passing votes by the panel members are required to pass the examination. Comments regarding the examination shall be passed on to the student as well as the individual grades of pass or fail, and, along with a copy of the propositional report, will be made part of the student's record.

Should the student's performance be considered unsatisfactory in any aspect, the examining panel may require additional work by the student, and will set a timetable for the successful completion of such additional work. An unacceptable performance may require resubmission of another proposal, an improved version of the original proposal, or any other action deemed appropriate by the examining panel.

  • The decision by the panel members to pass or fail will be based on the following expectations:
  • The proposal should be focused and specific, with the written proposal stating the problem to be addressed clearly and succinctly at the very beginning of the document.
  • The proposal should identify and address a single scientific problem or hypothesis and develop it fully.
  • The proposal should support and defend the significance and originality of the work.
  • The proposal should describe the experiments or methodology that will be employed to address the problem.
  • The proposal should discuss possible outcomes and interpretations and significance of results.

For additional guidance in preparing proposals, students may wish to consult the web-sites of funding agencies that routinely support chemical research, such as NIH, NSF, ACS-PRF, and the Research Corporation. The “Funding Opportunities” section of the Duke Office of Research Support web-site at also has links to various “Grant Writing Resources” that can provide additional help.