Passing the oral preliminary exam is the final step to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. The exam is intended to allow the student to demonstrate readiness for research by knowledge of research expectations, by presentation of research results, by a reasonable acquaintance with the literature of the field, or a combination of these. The oral preliminary examination is taken near the completion of the student’s coursework. This should normally occur towards the end of the second or beginning of the third year of graduate study.
Preliminary exam policy
The Preliminary Oral Examination consists of two parts. The student may choose the sequence of these two parts. The total time allocated for the exam is 2 hours.
Part I. Thesis proposal
The thesis proposal consists of a 30-minute talk followed by questions. The talk may include results from the student’s preliminary research, but the main emphasis should be the proposed research. The structure of the talk should be as follows: introduction (to introduce the committee to the field, identify gaps in knowledge and provide context for the proposed research), preliminary results (which helped shape the proposal and demonstrate core competencies of the student researcher), and proposed research. The proposed research part should focus on research questions to be answered, proposed methodology, risks associated with the methodology (what can go wrong?). Risk mitigation should be discussed. A timeline for achieving research milestones should also be provided.
The follow-up questions from the committee will evaluate the student’s understanding of research goals, knowledge of the methodology, suitability of methodology, and the literature context for the proposed research.
Part II. Presentation on a self-taught topic
4 weeks before the scheduled date of the Preliminary Oral Examination, the student’s advisor will email the thesis committee members with a list of suggested topics. The committee will communicate via email (or otherwise) to select one topic. 3 weeks before the scheduled date of the Preliminary Oral Examination, the committee will communicate the topic to the student. The student will prepare a 25-minute presentation/lecture on the topic, which will be given during the Preliminary Oral Examination.
The student will be questioned by the committee during and after the presentation. The committee may ask clarifying questions during the presentation. Questions that go beyond clarification will be reserved for after the presentation.
The topic should be selected in such a way that it is relevant to the student’s proposed research topic, yet it is general enough that experts in the student’s research field should be knowledgeable about it. The topic should be beyond what is discussed in graduate courses.
The student should prepare the presentation as for a classroom setting, including quantitative statements and a detailed derivation of the presented conclusion(s). When preparing this presentation, the student is free to use any learning tool, including the advice of peers, colleagues, department members, and the student’s supervisor. However, interactions with colleagues/experts must be kept at a professional level such that the student maintains ownership of the finished product. For example, when the student discusses the topic with their advisor, the interaction would look like a student visiting office hours for a class.
Example topics that could be assigned to a student doing research in astrophysics:
- Solutions of the Riemann problem (for a numerically oriented student)
- Apparent superluminal motion in astrophysics
- The Jeans limit and its relevance in structure formation
Example topics that could be assigned to a student doing research in condensed matter:
- The phenomenology of type-I and type-II superconductivity