Preliminary Examination

Timing of Preliminary Exam

You should complete the Preliminary Exam by the end of the first semester of the third year. If you fail to pass the Preliminary Examination before the start of the spring semester of the third year, you will be placed on probation automatically. Reversion to regular status will not occur until you have passed your Preliminary Exam. Following two consecutive semesters of enrollment on probation, you are required to petition the Steering Committee for an extension if you have experienced extenuating circumstances that have delayed your progress or else you will not be allowed to continue in the Program. N&PP students will be given an additional year and Neuro/Law students an additional two years to complete the preliminary exam.

If you change advisors during the first two years of study or experience unusual circumstances beyond your control that substantially delay normal progress, such as an extended illness, you may petition the Steering Committee for an extension to complete the Preliminary Examination without sanctions.

Preliminary Warrant

At least one month before the day of your Preliminary Examination, contact the Program Office to request a "Request for a Preliminary Warrant" form be completed by the Program office and sent to the Graduate School. The Ph.D. office of the Graduate School issues a Warrant authorizing the Program to administer the Examination. You may pick the Warrant up from the Program office. Fill out the requested information on the Warrant prior to the Examination. Leave the minor section blank as NTP students are not required to complete a minor. The Preliminary Warrant is taken to the Examination and signed by your Advisory Committee and the Chair of the Program after you have successfully completed the Examination. Part II of the Certification Form should also be filled out and filed at this time. Please return the completed Warrant and Certification Form II to the Program Office immediately following your examination. You also need to e-mail a copy of the outside area paper and thesis proposal you sent the committee to the NTP Office at

Structure of the Prelim papers and oral exam


The Preliminary Examination consists of two papers, an "outside-area" paper and a thesis proposal, which are reviewed by your Committee, followed by an oral defense of both papers with your Committee.

The outside-area paper should be a critical analysis of current knowledge about a topic that is not related to your area of research. The topic is chosen by you and approved by your Committee. The purpose of this paper is to stimulate directed reading in a specific area, to integrate what is known, to critique it, and to propose new experiments or ideas that clarify unresolved issues. Generally, this should be accomplished in 20 double spaced pages or less, and the emphasis should be placed on critical analysis and not on exhaustive description. You should allow about 4 weeks, but not longer than 6 weeks, to write your outside-area paper.

The thesis proposal should be written in the style of an NIH grant proposal, and include specific aims, background and significance, preliminary results, and experimental plan. The proposal should be approximately 20-30 double spaced pages in length. The background section should include an overview of the essential areas related to the proposal, and provide a strong conceptual framework and rationale for the proposed project. Often this part of the thesis proposal (with the necessary updates) serves as the template for the first chapter in the Ph.D. thesis. The experimental plan should outline the experiments to be done, a description of methods to be used, and include discussion of interpretation of the results and potential problems. Obtaining satisfactory preliminary results for an acceptable thesis proposal will take substantial time. Therefore, you should be exploring various research topics during the summer between the first and second years, and be working in the laboratory on your proposal during the second year. Keep in mind, however, that the aim of the proposal is to demonstrate that the thesis research you have selected is original and feasible. The proposal and preliminary results need not address every conceivable problem that might occur once the research is fully underway. In other words, the thesis proposal is not a preliminary thesis and should not be approached as such.

Oral Exam:

The oral portion of the prelim will be a defense of both papers. For the outside area paper defense, you should prepare a short presentation (20 minutes) that is structured as a critical analysis rather than a lengthy description of data from the studies you analyzed. The review of the outside area paper (presentation plus questions) will occupy approximately one-third of the time allotted for the entire Preliminary Examination, which typically is 3 hours or less. Remember that for both papers, the majority of the time in the oral exam will be spent on discussion of questions from your committee. You should not prepare presentations that will fill the entire time period.

For the thesis proposal, you should prepare a longer presentation (40-45 minutes) that includes background, preliminary data and your proposed experiments. The defense of your proposal may take up to 2 hours, however most of the time again will be spent on questions from your committee.

The papers should be submitted to your Committee for review at least two weeks before the Preliminary Examination. If the papers are delivered late, your major professor will reschedule the Examination to allow two weeks for the Committee to read your work. A waiver of this scheduling requirement requires approval by the entire Advisory Committee. You may choose the option to split the two portions of the prelim (outside area and thesis proposal) into two separate defense meetings.If so, the outside area defense should be done first. You should consult with your P.I. and Committee whether to combine or separate the two portions, and make a decision agreeable to all. If you separate the prelim, both components must be completed on schedule by the first semester of the third year.

You must pass the Preliminary Examination to become a candidate for the Ph.D. degree. If you fail one or both parts the first time, you will have a second chance within two months to retake the Examination. Continuance in the program is contingent on passing. If you do not pass, it will not be possible to continue in the Program.