BPP PhD Preliminary Written and Oral Exams

The PhD preliminary exam for advancement to PhD candidacy should be taken as stipulated by the Graduate School, currently “after completion of or while currently registered for all course work required by the program.” The exam will consist of two portions: written and oral. The written part should be planned to immediately precede the oral prelim exam.  The preliminary exam should be scheduled at or near the end of the second year of a student’s graduate program (typically during the 7th or 8th quarter of enrollment, and after the student has given their Departmental proposal seminar). The exam must be passed by the end of the Fall term of the third year to remain in good standing in the PhD program.  Under exceptional circumstances, a delay of no more than two terms may be requested, but must be approved by the student’s thesis committee.

Written exam

Policy adopted 05 March 2019

The student writes a dissertation proposal following the format, including page limits, font size and margins, used by a recognized funding agency (e.g., NSF, NIH, USDA, EPA, etc.) that is appropriate for the student’s field of study. The content and format should be approved by the student’s examination committee.  A length of 8-15 pages (not including references, but including figures, legends and a timeline for the project) is recommended.  A budget is not required.

The purpose of the dissertation proposal is to allow the student to formulate and defend a proposed body of research. The thesis proposal is not a contract for what must be accomplished during the Ph.D. program, but it should be a cohesive research proposal that defines the topic to be addressed, presents a plan to investigate that topic that is well-reasoned and defensible based on current knowledge, and is of a scope reasonable for a Ph.D. thesis. Although some of the ideas and approaches presented in the proposal may have originated from the advisor or others (typical of the collaborative nature of science), it is required that the proposal be written in the student’s own words and that it includes material over which the student has intellectual ownership.

It is hoped that this process will lead to the submission of a proposal to a funding agency in the scientific area of interest, but it is not a stipulation for advancement to candidacy.

The written exam should be approved if the student has successfully demonstrated the ability to 1) assimilate a body of scientific literature, 2) pose interesting and tractable questions, 3) propose practical and effective methods for answering those questions, and 4) demonstrate creativity and originality. The written exam should be rejected if it fails in any two categories.


  1. The student chooses the subject and format for the thesis proposal in consultation and with the approval of the major professor.
  2. The student submits a one page abstract to the program committee for approval before the proposal is written.
  3. The student obtains an BPP Abstract Approval Form from the Grad Studies Administrative Assistant.
  4. The student consults with each program member individually and, on their approval, obtains each signature on the abstract approval form.
  5. The student writes the thesis proposal and submits it to the committee at least three weeks prior to the planned oral examination. Submit it as hard copy or electronically as desired by the committee members.
  6. Within two weeks of the date that the proposal is submitted, the major professor solicits responses from the committee and delivers the conclusion to the student. Three options are available to the committee: approved, revise and resubmit, and rejection.
  7. Upon approval of the written thesis proposal by the program committee, the student may proceed with the oral exam.
  8. Once a date, time, and place for the oral exam has been arranged with committee members, an exam scheduling form should be filled out and submitted to the Graduate School at least two weeks prior to the exam.

Oral exam

The oral exam of no less than two hours includes a one-hour defense of the proposal and a one-hour general oral exam, covering subjects beyond the scope of the proposal.

The part of the oral exam concerning the dissertation proposal should test the student’s ability to defend their proposed dissertation research. The originality of the proposal, the scholarly quality of the literature review, and the technical feasibility of the approach should be evaluated. In addition, the student should demonstrate a capacity for critical thinking and a broad command of their general and more specific field. Given that all committee members have read the proposal, an extensive presentation is not necessary; rather, a short, ~10-minute summary that outlines the background and importance of the problem being addressed, and the main aims to be pursued is sufficient. Unlike a seminar, the presentation will be interrupted by questions for the student from the committee members.

Committee members are encouraged to incorporate ethics into the exam in accordance with policies of the Graduate School.

If committee members find that it is appropriate, two retests of the exam will be allowed, in keeping with Graduate School guidelines.

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