Preliminary Examination

The Preliminary Examination changed as adopted by the faculty in April 2005. (Minor changes to the document by the DGS, September 15, 2012).

Introduction

The purpose of the Preliminary Exam is to verify that the student is ready to pursue full-time research towards a PhD degree. In this exam the student is expected to demonstrate a broad understanding of core physics concepts, familiarity with the current research in the subfield chosen for the PhD and proficiency in mathematical, computational and other techniques necessary to pursue research in the field. A student is not formally accepted as a candidate for the PhD degree until the preliminary examination has been passed. The following guidelines are intended to clarify the structure of a typical Prelim-Exam.

Timing of the Exam

The student is expected to take the exam as early as possible after the student has chosen to work with a faculty Advisor towards a PhD, but no later than the end of the sixth semester. We note that this is different from the Graduate School requirement.

Under exceptional circumstances the student may petition for an extension. This extension is not automatic, and it requires the approval of the DGS and (if the exam goes beyond the third year) the Dean of the Graduate School. Ordinarily, an extension will not be granted beyond the middle of the fourth year.

In the summer, a preliminary examination may only be scheduled between the opening and closing dates of the summer session. A student must be registered during the term in which he/she takes the exam.

The student can get an A.M. degree after passing the preliminary exam. If the student intends to receive the A.M. (or M.S. for a thesis), he/she will need to submit the "Apply to Graduate" process in ACES. More information can be found here.

Topic of the Exam

The topic of the exam will be selected by the student in consultation with his/her PhD Advisor and must be in the field of research the student wishes to pursue during his/her PhD. However it is not necessary that the student have a clear goal or topic of his/her PhD thesis. It is also not necessary for the student to have done substantial research in the subfield before the exam is taken. On the other hand the student should exhibit a broad understanding of the core physics concepts, be familiar with some of the current research in the chosen subfield so as to clarify his/her ability to conduct independent research and must show that he/she has a good understanding and is comfortable with the techniques used in the chosen field of research.

Prelim-Abstract

Once the topic of the exam is chosen, the student will submit a title and Prelim-Abstract (of length not greater than one page) to the Advisor, who will forward it to the Advisory Committee when it is formed. An example of the title/abstract page can be found at this sample (PDF).

Advisory Committee

Approximately three months before the exam, an Advisory Committee consisting of five members of the faculty including the student's PhD Advisor, who acts as the Chair, must be assembled. The role of the Committee is to evaluate the student in the preliminary exam and continue to guide and evaluate the student's progress in subsequent years until the student defends the PhD thesis.

Using input from the student and the submitted Prelim-Abstract, it is the responsibility of the Advisor to form the Committee in consultation with the DGS. He/She then contacts the members to check their availability and forwards the Prelim-Abstract. The DGS and ultimately the Associate Dean of the Graduate School is responsible for approving the committee. The choice of the Committee must adhere to the following requirements in order to achieve a suitable physics balance:

  1. At least one experimentalist and at least one theorist shall be on each committee;
  2. At least one member shall be from a subfield different from the student's;
  3. No more than three (3) members may come from the same group;
  4. Each committee shall have at least three (3) members who have a primary appointment in Physics and shall furthermore have a clear majority of members with a primary appointment in Physics;
  5. The member who satisfies point (1) cannot be the same as the one who satisfies point (2).

These foregoing restrictions are for the preliminary exam, any post-prelim meetings, and the thesis defense.

The Advisory Committee approval form must be filed with the Graduate School for approval by the Associate Dean of the Graduate School no later than two months prior to the preliminary exam. The Advisor must send to the DGS the list of the members. The purpose of this form is to specify the members of the committee and not to fix the exact date and time of the exam. The latter is done by the Advisor four weeks before the exam.

In the preliminary exam, the Committee is expected to probe the student's understanding from his/her seminar, the Prelim-Report, and any relevant questions and answers. Then the Committee must decide whether the student passes the exam or not.

Prelim-Report

The student must write a 4-8 page Prelim-Report on the topic of the examination and the presentation he/she will make at the Prelim-Exam. The report typically will contain four sections:

  • a broad introduction to the field;
  • the motivation of the topic and contribution to the current status of the field;
  • the methods/techniques used and results that the student may have obtained;
  • a prospective plan for the future.

The report must contain a bibliography which lists the references cited in the text. The student must provide the Prelim-Report to all members of the Advisory Committee no later than four weeks prior to the exam.

Format of the Exam

The oral exam itself consists of two parts:

Part I: Presentation by the Student

The student will give a presentation on the topic of the exam to the Advisory Committee. During the presentation the Committee may ask questions directly related to the presentation. The presentation should be designed to last 30-40 minutes if there are no interruptions.

Part II: Questions and Answers

At the end of the presentation a question and answer period will follow. During this period each Committee member has a chance to ask questions which may either concern the topics or techniques related to the presentation or be related to the broad range of core physics topics the student is expected to know as a physicist in the chosen subfield. The student will not have access to these questions before the actual exam occurs.

The Committee members will make a point of addressing questions to the student rather than to each other. The student will be given an opportunity to respond to such questions. If a student is having difficulties with a particular question, it is the questioner who should take the primary responsibility for helping out. When appropriate, the Advisor or other committee members can enter the discussion after the first exchange either to follow up or to clarify issues.

Results of the Exam

Immediately following the exam, the Committee will discuss the results. As required by the Graduate School, each Committee member must vote to Pass or Fail the student on the Prelim-Exam. Passing the exam requires no more than one negative vote, which must not be that of the Advisor (see the Graduate School regulations).

In case of failure, the Committee can grant the student a second chance at taking the exam, but no sooner than three months after the first exam date. When the exam is taken for the second time, passing requires an affirmative vote by each member of the Committee. Failure on the second examination will render a student ineligible to continue in the PhD program.

For internal departmental purposes, the pass vote must be further categorized as either Pass or Conditional Pass. Both count as Pass insofar as the Graduate School is concerned. In the case of a Conditional Pass, the Committee will assign additional work and/or study considered to be in the best interest of the student. In granting a Conditional Pass, the Committee is stating that the student does appear to be capable of pursuing the PhD degree, but that some minor weaknesses evident in this exam should be corrected.

Within one week of the exam, the Advisor must write a brief summary of the exam and the result. The summary must be distributed to the Advisory Committee for review. After appropriate revisions are completed, the summary must be sent to the student, the Committee and the DGS. In cases where the student received a Conditional Pass, the summary must include a description of the remedial work that the student is required to complete, and a timeline for its completion.

Additional Meetings with the Committee

At any time during the year, a meeting of the Advisory Committee may be initiated. If the student, or the Advisor, or at least two members of the committee request a meeting, then a meeting of all members of the Advisory Committee needs to be convened. The particular format of the meeting is flexible and will be decided between the student and the Advisory Committee. It is the responsibility of the Advisor to convene a meeting when needed.

Within one week of the meeting, the Advisor must write a brief summary of the meeting. The summary must be distributed to the Advisory Committee for review. After appropriate revisions are completed, the summary must be sent to the student, the Committee and the DGS.

Responsibilities

Advisor (Chair of the Advisory Committee):
  • As soon as the student begins research, remind the student of the need to take the preliminary exam as early as possible, and no later than the end of the sixth semester.
  • Assemble an Advisory Committee and get it approved by the the DGS approximately three months before the exam date.
  • Forward the student's Prelim-Abstract to the Advisory Committee.
  • Send to the DGS the list of the members for the Advisory Committee Approval Form, which must be no later than two months before the exam.
  • Fix the date and time of the exam about four weeks before the exam.
  • Convene a Pre-Prelim-Meeting with the Advisory Committee two weeks before the exam to discuss the student's strengths and weaknesses (using the student's "Proposed Program of Study", grades, qualifier results, and Advisor input) and plan the exam. A form indicating that the "Pre-Prelim Committee Meeting" has taken place must be submitted to the Assistant to the DGS.
  • Prepare a brief written summary of the exam and the result. The summary must be distributed to the Advisory Committee for review. After appropriate revisions are completed, the summary must be sent to the student, the Committee and the DGS. In cases where the student received a Conditional Pass, the summary must include a description of the remedial work that the student is required to complete, and a timeline for its completion.
  • Convene a meeting with the Advisory Committee when needed; it could be requested from the student, or the Advisor, or at least two members of the committee. In case the student was required to complete remedial work for the Preliminary Exam the Advisor must address this issue at this meeting. Prepare a brief written summary of the meeting, check up the Committee, and sent to the student, the Committee and the DGS.
  • Submit all forms to the Assistant to the DGS for record keeping.
Student:
  • The student should discuss the exam with the Advisor well in advance of the exam date to learn about any ways in which the exam might be tailored to the student's individual case.
  • If a Master's degree based on the prelim is desired, submit the "Apply to Graduate" process in ACES.
  • Choose a topic for the Prelim-Exam in consultation with the Advisor and fix the appropriate time to take the exam. The student must write a title and a Prelim-Abstract, no longer than one page in length, and submit it to the Advisor soon after the date and topic has been chosen.
  • Prepare a 4-8 page Prelim-Report, describing the topic and the main points of the presentation the student will give at the exam. The report must be distributed to the Committee members at least four weeks before the exam date. At this time the student obtains the signatures of the Advisory Committee members showing that they agree to the date and time of the exam on the "Agree to Sit" form. The student obtains the blank form and returns it with the appropriate signatures to the Assistant to the DGS.
  • Obtain and file the "Proposed Program of Study" form with the Assistant to the DGS three weeks before the exam. This consists of the name of the school where the student received the BS degree, a list of classes and semester hours taken in undergraduate and graduate school related to the student's physics major (or minor), the proposed date and time of the preliminary exam, the specific field of research chosen for the PhD, the one page Prelim-Abstract, and the Prelim-Report.
  • One week before the exam the student obtains the exam card and Graduate School "Report of Prelim" form from the Assistant to the DGS. The student brings these items to the exam.
  • One week before the exam the student sends out a reminder to the Advisory Committee about the exam.
  • Any remedial work recommended by the Committee as a result of the exam must be completed in a timely manner.
  • At the completion of the exam, the student delivers the exam card and Graduate School "Report of Prelim" form to the Assistant to the DGS.
  • Submit a 1-3 page annual report by March 31, to the DGS and other members of the Advisory Committee.
  • Submit all forms to the Assistant to the DGS for record keeping.
Advisory Committee:
  • Attend the Pre-Prelim meeting, the Preliminary Exam and any other meetings.
  • Read the Prelim-Report so as to help in evaluating the student fairly but critically during the exam.
  • Approve the Summary of the Prelim prepared by the Advisor.
  • Be willing to discuss relevant topics with the student in order to mentor the student towards the PhD degree.
Director of Graduate Studies:
  • Make sure that the Advisory Committee is well balanced containing theorists, experimentalists, experts and non-experts in the field.

Time Line:

X: Main responsibilities
x: Other responsibilities

Time To Do Student Advisor Committee
Deadline If the student wants a MA degree, then he or she will need to submit the "Apply to Graduate" process in ACES. May degree:- January 25; September degree:- July 1; December degree:- November 1. X    
-3½ months The Advisor discusses with the student the time and the topic of the preliminary exam. X X  
-3¼ months The student writes a Title and Prelim-Abstract of no more than one page in length and submits it to the Advisor for approval. The Advisor approves the Title and Prelim-Abstract. X X  
-3 months Three months before the exam the Advisor, in consultation with the DGS, forms the Advisory Committee and submits their names to the DGS for approval along with the Title and the Prelim-Abstract. At the same time the student sends the Title and Prelim-Abstract to the committee.   X x
-2 months At least two months before the exam the Advisory Committee Approval Form must be filed with the Graduate School, by sending to the DGS the list of the members. At the same time the student sends the Title and Prelim-Abstract to the committee. X X x
-4 weeks Four weeks before the exam the student distributes the Prelim-Report to all members of the Advisory Committee. The Advisor oversees this process. X x x
-4 weeks After the report is distributed to the Advisory Committee, the student and the Advisor discuss the format of the report with the committee to make sure there are no major revisions of the report necessary. Once the committee approves the report, in consultation with the committee, the Advisor fixes the date and the time of the exam in roughly four weeks time. X X x
-4 weeks Four weeks before the exam, after Advisory Committee has agreed for the date and time of the exam, the student obtains the "Agree to Sit" form from the Assistant to the DGS, and files the signed "Agree to Sit" form with the Assistant to the DGS. X x x
-3 weeks Three weeks before exam the student files the "Proposed Program of Study" form with the Assistant to the DGS. X x  
-2 weeks Two weeks before the exam the Advisory Committee meets for the Pre-Prelim Meeting. The Advisor brings the student's "Proposed Program of Study" and qualifier results to this meeting. The Advisor brings the "Pre-Prelim Committee Meeting form" to the Assistant to the DGS at the conclusion of the meeting.   X X
-1 week One week before the exam the student obtains the prelim assessment forms, exam card and Graduate School "Report of Prelim" form, from the Assistant to the DGS. X    
-1 week One week before the exam the student sends out a reminder to all the members of the Committee about the exam. X    
Exam The Oral Preliminary Examination X X X
+ 1 hour Student brings signed exam card and Graduate School "Report of Prelim" form to the Assistant to the DGS. X X X
+ 1 day The Advisor collects all the assessment forms from the Advisory committee and brings them to the Assistant to the DGS within one day of the exam. The committee members can bring them to the DGSA individually if they prefer.   X X
+1 week Within one week of the exam the summary of the Committee is written and approved by the Committee and given to the student and the DGS.   X X
  Any remedial work specified by the Committee must be carried out according to the timeline specified in the Committee summary. X x  
  The Advisory Committee meets with the student when needed. After a meeting, a brief written summary is distributed to the Committee, the student, and the DGS. X X X

Note: Departmental deadlines are flexible upon agreement of the DGS and/or the Advisory Committee. Graduate School deadlines are rigid, especially the "2- months" deadline above.