Physics PhD Preliminary Oral Exam

4 weeks before the exam day



Scientific writing is one of the important skills to be developed in the course of Ph.D. studies. The goal of the writing project is to develop skills in clear written communication that prepares the student for writing peer-reviewed research papers and the Ph.D. thesis. The writing project should be completed before scheduling the Preliminary Oral Examination and be one of the following:

  • Thesis proposal
  • Conference proceedings paper
  • Letter or Article written for a journal (i.e. “a paper”)
  • Literature review (e.g. to serve as an introduction for a thesis)
  • MS Project report

The writing must be done during the student’s time in the graduate program at OSU, and the writing must be done by the student independently. The advisor’s feedback on the manuscript should be incorporated in the document, but all editing must be done by the student.

The structure of the document depends on the type of the document chosen (see above). However, most document types are expected to follow the structure of scientific publications
and have:

  1. An abstract
  2. An introduction to discuss the motivation for the research, the status of the field and the gaps of knowledge
  3. Proposed methodology or relevant theoretical framework
  4. Preliminary or anticipated results
  5. Conclusions
  6. References

The literature review document is be expected to have an overview of various methodologies and literature results and how they inform the research to be done by the student towards their Ph.D.

There is no page requirement for the writing project. However, a typical format for a letter size conference proceedings paper (5-10 one-and-a-half spaced pages which includes figures and references) provides a reasonable target. The quality of the document will be evaluated by the committee and feedback to the student will be provided within 1 week of submission. If revisions are necessary, these revisions will have to be incorporated before the Preliminary Oral Examination can be scheduled.


4 weeks before the scheduled date of the Preliminary Oral Examination, the student’s advisor will email the thesis committee members with a list of suggested topics. The committee will communicate via email (or otherwise) to select one topic.

The topic should be selected in such a way that it is relevant to the student’s proposed research topic, yet it is general enough that experts in the student’s research field should be knowledgeable about it. The topic should be beyond what is discussed in graduate courses.

3 weeks before the scheduled date of the Preliminary Oral Examination, the committee will communicate the topic to the student. The student will prepare a 25-minute presentation/lecture on the topic, which will be given during the Preliminary Oral Examination.

The student should prepare the presentation as for a classroom setting, including quantitative statements and a detailed derivation of the presented conclusion(s). When preparing this presentation, the student is free to use any learning tool, including the advice of peers, colleagues, department members, and the student’s supervisor. However, interactions with colleagues/experts must be kept at a professional level such that the student maintains ownership of the finished product. For example, when the student discusses the topic with their advisor, the interaction would look like a student visiting office hours for a class.

Example topics that could be assigned to a student doing research in astrophysics:

  • Solutions of the Riemann problem (for a numerically oriented student)
  • Apparent superluminal motion in astrophysics
  • The Jeans limit and its relevance in structure formation

Example topics that could be assigned to a student doing research in condensed matter:

  • The phenomenology of type-I and type-II superconductivity
  • What are dislocations, and how do they affect ductility?


The Preliminary Oral Examination consists of two parts. The student may choose the sequence of these two parts. The total time allocated for the exam is 2 hours.


The thesis proposal consists of a 30-minute talk followed by questions.


The talk may include results from the student’s preliminary research, but the main emphasis should be the proposed research. The structure of the talk should be as follows:

  1. Introduction (to introduce the committee to the field, identify gaps in knowledge and provide context for the proposed research),
  2. preliminary results (which helped shape the proposal and demonstrate core competencies of the student researcher), and
  3. proposed research.

The proposed research part should focus on research questions to be answered, proposed methodology, risks associated with the methodology (what can go wrong?). Risk mitigation should be discussed. A timeline for achieving research milestones should also be provided.


The follow-up questions from the committee will evaluate the student’s understanding of research goals, knowledge of the methodology, suitability of methodology, and the literature context for the proposed research.



The student lecture.


The student will be questioned by the committee during and after the presentation. The committee may ask clarifying questions during the presentation. Questions that go beyond clarification will be reserved for after the presentation.