Preliminary Examination


The oral preliminary examination is given to determine formal candidacy for the PhD degree. Basically it tests the student's readiness to begin research work in his or her chosen specialty. It is given after the student has passed the qualifying examination and has begun thesis research. The department requires that the preliminary examination be taken no later than the fourth semester of enrollment in Physics 597 (Independent Study) with the same research advisor, except under unusual circumstances. A complete set of instructions for the prelim is available in PDF format, and slides from a Prelim Exam Workshop provide information on the Prelim Exam and tips on writing the prelim exam paper and presentation. A brief summary of procedures for the prelim exam follows below.

Forming a Preliminary Exam Committee

Once a student has begun working with a research advisor (Physics 597) and they agree to collaborate on a thesis project, the student should consult with his/her research advisor, then make an appointment with the Associate Head for Graduate Programs, to identify appropriate committee members for the preliminary exam. An examination committee is appointed for each candidate by the Dean of the Graduate College on recommendation of the Associate Head for Grad. Programs. The examination committee must consist of at least four members, at least three of whom must be members of the graduate faculty, with a majority of members from the Physics Department, and at least two tenured faculty members. In the Department of Physics, the committee is usually composed of the thesis advisor, a theorist, and an experimentalist, with one from the general area of the student's specialty, and a fourth member from outside that specialty. The chair person of the committee must not be the research advisor but is usually the member from the same general area of the student's specialty.

It is the candidate's responsibility to contact each member of his or her prelim committee and to schedule a date and two-hour time slot for the exam that all the committee members can attend. The Physics Graduate Office must be notified of the agreed-upon time at least three weeks in advance. At this time, staff in the Physics Graduate Office will reserve a room for the exam. However, it is the candidate's responsibility to ensure that any needed A/V equipment, such as a laptop and/or projector is available and working for the exam.

Writing the Preliminary Exam Paper

The preliminary examination paper is basically a review of a student's proposal for thesis research, in the form of a paper of no more than 15 pages, including figures and bibliography. The paper should explain the rationale for the project, the problem to be studied, the methods to be employed, and the expected results. The paper should be written so that members of the prelim exam committee who are not experts in your subfield can understand the motivation for, the methods used in, and the results obtained in your project. Committee members must receive a final copy of the paper at least two weeks before the exam. At this time, the student must also provide the Physics Graduate Program Office with a final PDF copy of the paper.

While the prelim exam paper forms the basis for the prelim, the committee will not necessarily focus exclusively on this topic during the preliminary exam, but may ask more general questions on the physics fundamental to the proposed thesis. The examination will also test familiarity with basic literature in the field.

Suggestions for writing the preliminary examination paper can be found on the Prelim Exam Workshop site.

The Preliminary Exam Presentation

The preliminary examination consists of an oral presentation by the student on the motivations for the proposed project, the methods planned in that project, any preliminary results obtained, and the proposal for future research. Please keep two things in mind when writing your presentation: First, the presentation should be no more than 25-30 minutes in length when given without questions. Committee member questions during the prelim exam typically lengthen the presentation considerably, and the ensuing discussions usually comprise the main body of the 1.5 – 2 hours. Second, the presentation should be written so that members of the prelim committee who are not experts in your subfield can understand the motivations for, methods used in, and results obtained in your project.

Suggestions for writing the preliminary exam presentation can be found on the Prelim Exam Workshop site.

It is the student's responsibility to ensure that any needed A/V equipment is reserved and working properly in advance of the prelim examination. Most conference rooms do have overhead projectors kept in them, but if you need to reserve a portable projector, staff members in Room 213/233 Loomis and Room 38 Loomis can assist with reserving A/V equipment.

After the Prelim

After successfully completing the preliminary exam, students may register for Physics 599, "Thesis Research," for subsequent terms.

If you have further questions about the prelim or scheduling your prelim, contact the Graduate Programs Office (227 Loomis, 217-333-3645).