PhD Preliminary Exams

A couple weeks ago I promised a post about my preliminary exams. For those of you not familiar with the hierarchy of academia, you may have no idea what I’m talking about. So I want to explain this to all you good folks who are interested in science but may not know all that much about how everything actually works.

When you join a PhD program, you are usually just considered a generic ‘graduate student’, and thus you could either be on track for a masters. In fact, I recently discovered that at my school for the first year in grad school the office of graduate studies actually considers everyone to be a masters student. This apparently is for some financial reason that I don’t fully understand. Anyway, after ~2 years, during which you take classes, often teach laboratory sections, and start developing and beginning to work on your research plans, almost everywhere requires that you pass a set of exams. The structure of these exams differ based on your country, your school, your department, and your committee (every student has a committee of 4 faculty members, who are there to guide you, mentor you, and provide constructive criticisms on your project). Where I am, the exams begin after you’ve submitted your research proposal to your committee and consist of one written exam from each committee member followed by an oral exam with your entire committee.

The questions can be anything. Theoretically, you’re responsible for any topic within all of biology. However, my committee members focused mainly on things within the broad scope of my research proposal. The questions were generally fairly reasonable, and some of them were exactly what I had expected. Others definitely came out of left field. My committee members gave me anywhere from 8-48 hours to respond to their questions, and I wrote from 6-14 pages in response. It was a lot of hard work, holed up in tiny independent study room cubicles the library. It looked something like this:



Although it was so much hard work, writing all day almost every day for over a week, I found it to be surprisingly rewarding. To my fellow grad students out there, this probably sounds like blasphemy, because prelims are thought of as the worst thing in the world. However, my committee members asked me some really good questions that made me think about my project from different perspectives and encouraged me to explore some of the nuances of my project. 3 of my 4 written exams were open book, so I was able to do a lot of research and reading to answer the questions, and I found it surprisingly stimulating to do all the reading and discover new information about my field of biology.

Although being evaluated face-to-face in an oral exam is intimidating, my committee was overall very supportive. Although my project takes several risks (parts of it may or may not actually work), they were enthusiastic about the ideas and the possibility of how it might work. They also asked about my career plans and were very encouraging. Overall, my prelims were a surprisingly positive experience. Hopefully, for those of you facing prelims in the future my experience can be a new perspective on the exams. For those of you reading that have gone through prelims, what have your experiences been? Have they been similar? Really different? Post in the comments below!


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