The Preliminary Exam is taken within two years after entering the CMB Program, following successful completion of the CMB course requirements. It is important to view this exam not so much as a hurdle, but more as an important educational exercise. The Preliminary Exam must be scheduled by May 17 and completed by August 31 of the second year. Failure to do so will result in a hold being placed on the student’s registration. The Preliminary Exam Form can be found on the Forms page of the CMB website. If an in person meeting is not possible, please see the CMB Virtual Meeting Guide.
Shortly after submitting the signed Preliminary Exam warrant, students should expect to receive an email from the Graduate School confirming dissertator status for the following semester and admission to candidacy for the PhD degree. Dissertator status is a university fee status in which the student has completed all necessary PhD requirements, except the dissertation. To reach dissertator status, a student must complete all CMB course requirements and pass the Preliminary Exam. For more information on dissertator status, see the Graduate School Academic Policies and Procedures website.
Goals of the Preliminary Exam
To determine if the student can:
- Understand and apply core concepts in cellular and molecular biology.
- Critically analyze data (i.e., identify gaps in knowledge; develop hypotheses based on existing data; and design feasible, rigorous experiments that test hypotheses).
- Develop a logical series of experiments that addresses a problem (i.e., which experiment comes first, second, etc.).
- Identify possible pitfalls in the long-term planning of a research proposal and devise alternative plans.
- Effectively communicate and defend their choices and ideas in writing, orally, and visually.
Preliminary Exam Research Plan
- Students must consult with others, including their Thesis Advisor when writing the proposal
- Subject matter must coincide with the student’s anticipated thesis research
- Extensive preliminary data are NOT necessary for the exam
- The format of the written document should conform to the NIH F31 format. See the Fellowship Supplemental Form Research Training Plan Section. (The F30 is an analogous award for MD/PhD students.)
Font (size, color, type density) and Line Spacing:
Adherence to font size, type density, line spacing and text color requirements is necessary to ensure readability. Although font requirements apply to all sections, they are most important in sections with page limits.
Text must follow these minimum requirements:
- Font size: Must be 11 points or larger. Smaller text in figures, graphs, diagrams and charts is acceptable, as long as it is legible when the page is viewed at 100%.
- Type density: Must be no more than 15 characters per linear inch (including characters and spaces).
- Line spacing: Single spaced. Must be no more than six lines per vertical inch.
- Text color: No restriction. Though not required, black or other high-contrast text colors are recommended since they print well and are legible to the largest audience.
We recommend the following fonts, although other fonts (both serif and non-serif) are acceptable if they meet the above requirements.
- Palatino Linotype
Specific Aims (1 page, single spaced):
This section provides an overview of the significance, goals, and approaches of the proposal. 1-3 Aims are suggested.
Research Strategy (6 pages, single spaced with figures embedded in the text):
This section provides evidence from the literature and preliminary data from the student that illuminate the importance of the research problem and the potential implications of the proposed research.
This section describes the experimental strategies that will be used to address the research problem. It should include evaluations of problems that might arise, alternative strategies to address the potential problems, and benchmarks to evaluate success. If available, preliminary data from the student should be included as evidence of experimental feasibility as well as evidence of progress on the project. This section should end with a timeline.
Reference (unlimited pages):
Each citation must include the title, names of all authors (unless there are greater than 10, in which case use “et al.”), book or journal, volume number, page numbers, and year of publication.
Requirements to Complete
Prior to the Preliminary Exam:
- Complete the CMB course requirements
- Schedule Preliminary Exam with committee members (be sure to allow at least two hours for the exam)
- Send an email notification with the scheduled exam date to the CMB Office at least three weeks prior to the date in order to obtain the Preliminary warrant
- The CMB Office will request a warrant from the Graduate School and email it to the student when it is ready
- It is recommended that the written proposal be discussed with the Thesis Advisor prior to circulating it to the full committee
- It is recommended that the Thesis Advisor read the written proposal and provide feedback such that the student has time to make revisions before going out to the rest of the committee
- Feedback on drafts of the written proposal can also be solicited from others, including members of the Thesis Committee.
- Circulate the final proposal to the Thesis Committee at least two working weeks prior to the exam
- Complete a Preliminary Exam form, available on the CMB Forms section of the CMB website
- Together with your Thesis Advisor, establish the chair of the meeting from amongst the other committee members and notify that person in advance of the meeting (see the Thesis Committee section of the CMB Handbook)
- Send the chair of the meeting a link to the Preliminary Exam section of the CMB Handbook so that he/she is aware of the format and expectations of the exam
- As committees evaluate students, they should keep the CMB Program learning goals in mind (available under the Program Assessment Plan section of the handbook)
At the Preliminary Exam:
- The duties of the Preliminary Exam Chair will be to maintain the pace of the meeting and provide written feedback to the student on the corresponding CMB form. Detailed instructions can be found in the “Responsibilities of the Preliminary Exam Chair” document.
- The student presents an oral presentation describing their research proposal (approximately 20 minutes)
- The Thesis Advisor cannot participate in the Preliminary Exam
- After the presentation, the student responds to questions by the Thesis Committee. Questions could pertain to either the written or oral material.
- After the defense, the committee meets in the absence of the student to discuss the presentation and develop recommendations. This discussion is summarized by the chair when the student rejoins the meeting.
- Obtain signatures of all Thesis Committee members on the Preliminary Exam form and warrant
- The exam is usually completed within two hours
After the Preliminary Exam:
Based on the outcome of the exam, complete the following:
- Submit the signed warrant, signed Preliminary Exam form, and a copy of the final research proposal to the CMB Office
- Submit the signed Preliminary Exam form to the CMB Office
- Complete recommended written revisions of Preliminary proposal as suggested by the Thesis Committee
- Obtain signatures of Thesis Committee members on the warrant after written revisions have been completed
- Submit the signed warrant, signed Preliminary Exam form, and a copy of the revised research proposal to the CMB Office
Written Revisions and Repeat of Oral Defense
- Submit the Preliminary Exam form to the CMB Office
- Complete recommended written revisions and reschedule to repeat the Preliminary Exam
- Obtain a new decision and signatures of all Thesis Committee members on the new Preliminary Exam form
- Submit the signed warrant, the new Preliminary Exam form, and a copy of the revised research proposal to the CMB Office
- Discuss results and recommendations with the Thesis Advisor and Thesis Committee
- Submit the Preliminary Exam form, unsigned warrant, and a copy of the research proposal to the CMB Office
- Under special circumstances, the CMB Program will consider up to a six-month extension for the Preliminary Exam
- The student and the Thesis Advisor must justify the reasons for an extension in writing to the CMB Office
- The CMB Curriculum Chair and/or the CMB Program Chair will review the request for consideration
- If the Preliminary Exam is not completed by the end of the extension, the student’s academic standing in the CMB Program may be jeopardized
- For both the written report and oral presentation, think of yourself as the teacher and your committee as a class of students
- Your audience is your committee, so tailor your written and oral presentations to the knowledge and background of your committee members
- Practice your oral dissertation with both experts (such as others in your lab) and non-experts (such as friends and CMB students outside of your lab)
- Some students have found it helpful to save some “backup slides” to serve as an aid in answering anticipated questions