The Preliminary Exam

While you will probably take a small smattering of courses that have more traditional midterm and final exams, these are not really that critical to your success in graduate school. Rather than caring about your grades in them, the goal is to actually master the materials in relation to your research.

Instead, graduate school typically has three major milestones:

1. Qualifying Exam (aka Quals)
2. Preliminary Exam (aka Prelims)
3. Final Defense

There are a lot of variations on the qualifying and preliminary exams, even within a university. Taking a separate qualifying exam appears to be rare based on other graduate students I have spoken with both within the University of Illinois and from other schools. However, whether or not your program has separate Quals will change the goals and expectations of the Prelim exam.

Here at the University of Illinois, the graduate college technically only requires a preliminary exam and final defense. Thus, many programs combine the qualifying exam in with the Prelim. However, the program I am in (Neuroscience) still has three separate exams - Quals, Prelim, and Final Defense. I took my Qualifying exam at the end of my 2nd year and my Preliminary Exam at the end of my 4th year. I expected that I would have less than two years remaining before my defense going in, which my committee seemed to agree with.

The Prelim exam is typically composed of a written and oral portion. A grant application style is probably the most typical format I have seen for the written portion of the Prelim, with the specific format determined by the grant you are most likely to apply for. The point of using a grant formating is to make it easier to apply for your own funding for your project. Within my lab, the NSF DDIG used to be the common grant for graduate students so that is the format that Alison preferred. Most of my colleagues however used the NIH F31 NRSA format. The DDIG format is very short (~6 pages) compared to the NRSA format, but has many less administrative/technical parts.

Having done the the NSF DDIG short format, I would personally recommend the longer NIH F31 NRSA format.

My written portion included an extra page covering my specific aims, which is required for NIH grant applications. Having done the short DDIG format, I would personally recommend the longer format. I felt the short length did not give me enough space to explain the reasoning behind my experiments, a major concern for my committee. In fact, my proposed chapter 1 material, representing 1 year’s worth of work and my most polished preliminary data, had to be cut down to 3 paragraphs. Additionally, the NSF no longer offers DDIG grants for biology making this useless as the basis for an actual grant proposal.

Prior to beginning to write my Prelim, I met individually with each of my committee members to discuss where my research was, what they might like to see in future experiments, my proposed prelim format, and their expectations. Each meeting took 30-45 minutes. I would strongly recommend doing this in person or at least via skype, not by email. This will help you set your priorities in writing and reduce the surprises.

I strongly recommend meeting with each member of your committee in person prior to beginning to write to consult on their expectations to help set your priorities and reduce the surprises during the oral portion.

My written portion went out in two phases; I sent my specific aims page 3 weeks prior to my oral presentation and my full written proposal the week before my orals. I had prepared an approximately 40 minute talk which got derailed before I even started the talk, which is completely normal. I had something like 50 extra slides so that I had a pre-made slide for any possible question, but I am also perpetually over-prepared. The entire oral portion took about 1.5 hours in part because of the shorter written portion; 1 hour is more typical.

In effect, the point of my preliminary exam was hashing out the details of my remaining experiments before I could graduate. I was told by my fellow graduate students to think of it more as a negotiation rather than a traditional ‘exam’, which matched my experience. My committee’s changes reduced the risk of the experiments, which was fine by me, but expanded what I felt was a ‘backup’ experimental plan. Now that I have finished a large portion of that experiment, I definitely appreciate the change and think that it strengthened the foundations of my main work.

During the oral portion, we discussed experimental designs, expected outcomes and how these might be interpreted. At the end I had a list of ~2 major experiments to do and some follow up work on my preliminary data that would strengthen it. We also discussed how I might want to publish the results - one giant paper vs a methods and a smaller experimental paper.

In contrast, most of my labmates have done the more common combined Prelim/Qual exam. This exam is done much earlier in their graduate career, sometime around 2 years into their program, as it needs little to no preliminary data. Further, they are not held to the proposed experiments or even topic. The focus of that style of preliminary exam is that they know how to design an experiment.

Since there is so much variation, I recommend that you consult with your labmates and see if your program offers informal student panels on the exams. This will help you get advice specific to your program’s format. The U of I Neuroscience Program offers ‘brown bag’ lunch panels (basically AMAs about the exams) with 3-4 students who have already passed the milestone. No program administrators or PIs attend so that everyone can speak freely.

Note: This is an edited repost of my post on Neuroline.