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Preliminary Exam

The preliminary examinations, or prelims, certify the student’s preparation to work independently as a scholar (that is, to write a dissertation and enter the job market). The prelims show you understand the discipline, have taken a stand within your specialty, and have identified what original contribution you can make (through, for example, the dissertation proposal).

Like other parts of the roadmap, the prelims are flexible but depend on the responsibility of the student. You must take prelims no later than three calendar years after admission or upon completion of 40 semester hours of doctoral coursework (whichever comes first), once you’ve completed your proposed program of coursework (and the DGS has, along with the Graduate Program Committee, concurred and approved any modifications). In the regular or summer term when you take prelims, the department requires that you register for credit, either for Independent Research or for Dissertation if you will defend your proposal at the prelims meeting.

The Graduate College lists the rules for forming a committee, for timing each step of the prelims, and for registering in the Preliminary Examination Policies and Procedures. Follow them closely.

A Committee Recommendation Form must be completed and submitted to the Graduate College before Preliminary exams. 

The Committee

Start forming a committee as you begin the last year of coursework. Propose members to your advisor based on your specialty, methods, and research topic or interests. Committee members should know your work well, usually because you did coursework with them. Most prelim committee members go on to serve on your dissertation committee (but check the rules for the two committees at the Graduate College Exams & Defense page). Choose the committee to cover broad fields as well as your specialty.

To approach a potential committee member, first set up a meeting. Be prepared to describe your research project (and, if the member is outside the department, to explain the prelim procedure). Discuss the time frame for the prelims as well as what about your project the examiner will ask you.

When you have agreement from all the members, complete a Committee Recommendation Form. The department will submit the form with DGS approval, and the Dean of the Graduate College, if all is in order, issues a letter of appointment to each committee member. Taking prelims is a process involving two phases, one written and the other oral.


Discuss your prelim question and exam format with each examiner. Students and examiners jointly fashion the areas for questions to seek good coverage (in anticipation of the dissertation, see below) and to avoid overlapping questions. The consultation phase avoids surprise questions and assures that exam questions will be meaningful. Each committee member will negotiate either a reading list or one or more questions, or both, and may disclose any specific question for you to answer in writing. Some examiners ask the student to propose a reading list and/or question suitable as preparation for the dissertation, and then reshape it. Outside examiners may honor department custom or follow the pattern from their home units at their discretion.

After receiving a notice of appointment and completing the preparations with you, each committee member will submit your agreed upon question in writing to your advisor, who will review them and resolve any overlap and conflict with the affected examiner before forwarding them to the department. The staff will then have each question on hand for you when you are ready to write an exam, based on your plan for timing the questions.

You take written questions one at a time, spending, for instance, a few weeks preparing for each question to fit them all into one semester. Schedule each question a few days in advance for delivery during regular business hours. Scheduling arrangements are made in consultation with your advisor.


Answer each examiner’s question as a take-home over a 24-hour period. The one-day format allows time to reflect and requires an answer of about twenty standard manuscript pages.

When you have finished your answer, you submit it to your advisor. Grading follows the Graduate College rules (see above). You must abide by the committee consensus on how much time can elapse between the appointment of a prelim committee and the oral examination (usually no more than six months). Schedule the oral defense for a minimum of two hours, within a few weeks of completing the written questions so that you have time to prepare your dissertation proposal for defense at the same time.

Arranging a meeting with all five members is difficult and requires planning well in advance. As soon as you have developed your plan for writing the prelims and preparing your proposal, begin by looking up each committee member’s teaching schedule and target a potential few weeks. Query committee members about their travel plans, check with the department about upcoming events, and then propose a handful of time slots that seem likely.


For the oral, your written prelim answers open up areas for questioning. Some examiners focus specifically on your answer to their own question. Others probe to find the limits of your knowledge, asking questions until you answer, “I don’t know,” which simply ends that line of questioning. (NB: “I don’t know” is an acceptable truthful answer, and it is in your best interest not to fake knowledge of an area of inquiry.) Examiners look for and ask about how your answers interrelate. The exam is a conversation among scholars, not a test of your ability to give an expected reply, and you should aim to express your own thinking clearly and thoughtfully, showing where you stand on the main issues the prelim questions raise.

Dissertation Proposal

Another Committee Recommendation Form must be completed and submitted before the Dissertation Defense. This will generate another Examination Report for signatures and approval by your Committee before you submit your intent to graduate.

The department strongly recommends that at the same meeting you present the dissertation proposal, which you have shaped while writing the prelims. During prelims, continue discussing the proposal with your advisor and share draft sections with committee members. After each prelim, incorporate materials you answer as appropriate into the proposal draft, a process that helps you prepare for the prelim orals and moves the proposal forward. Once your advisor reads and approves your final draft, send it to the committee about two weeks before the defense. The members then read all your prelim questions and your updated thoughts incorporated into the proposal, and the orals cover first the prelim answers and then the proposal.

Dissertation proposals include the following:

  • a review of the literature where the dissertation will make a contribution,
  • a description of the research you have planned and its methods,
  • a chapter outline of the entire dissertation,
  • reasons why your contribution will matter, and
  • an extensive bibliography.

If you have arranged your prelim questions well, the written prelim answers can accomplish much of the work behind the dissertation proposal. You may find it possible to use sections of prelim answers in the proposal after revising them with more time than the exam process allows. The proposal may in turn become fodder for the first chapter of the finished dissertation.

Orals Procedures

Questioning during prelims about your proposal usually focuses on why your research matters and on method(s). Examiners may argue how you conceive of or approach the project or inquire into practical details of the research. Their purpose is to make sure that you can do the proposed dissertation and that it will be worth doing. The prelims discussion often becomes a kind of coaching.

After the discussion, the committee deliberates in private before calling you back to reveal the result. Although individual members may vote either “pass” or “fail,” department committees generally aim for consensus. In grading, committees have wide latitude. The outcome may be to defer a decision until you do additional work, usually to the satisfaction of your advisor or another member with reservations. Or the outcome may be a provisional passing grade, with conditions specified to the Graduate College. In either case you will receive instructions in writing specifying what work to do or conditions to complete. Another oral exam takes place only rarely.

Once you clear up the added work or other conditions, the department submits your Examination Report.