Preliminary Examination

In addition to the required coursework, the Preliminary Examination (Prelim) must be passed before a student achieves candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. The Prelims are formatted to ensure the assessment of the skills that are required to become an independent, critical thinker and opinion leader in an area of cancer biology. The Prelims are made up of two separate checkpoints:

  • Checkpoint 1 - Didactic Exam (end of Winter term of 1st academic year)
  • Checkpoint 2 - Research Proposal & Oral Exam (Winter term of 2nd academic year)

More details regarding the Preliminary Examination can be found in the Cancer Biology Handbook

Checkpoint One – Didactic Exam

Checkpoint 1 is completed at the end of the Winter semester of the 1st academic year and consists of a didactic exam that evaluates students’ understanding of the fundamentals of cancer biology. The exam will be based on the content covered in CANCBIO 554 and will consist of short answer questions, which will be graded by the CANCBIO 554 instructors. Passing this checkpoint advances a student to candidacy.

Checkpoint Two – Research Proposal & Oral Exam

Research Proposal

The student writes a research proposal following the guidelines of the specific aims and research strategy sections of an NIH predoctoral NRSA fellowshipThis should look like an F31 application, including the integration of figures containing preliminary data or schemes of experimental design. It need not be as experimentally developed as a formal application, and discussion/figures with experimental plans/design are appropriate and encouraged. Its scope and area should be suitable for a Ph.D. thesis. In all but extenuating circumstances, the selected topic should represent the student’s planned Ph.D. thesis research. After the preliminary exam, it is the hope of the program that this proposal be updated with feedback from the committee and advisor and submitted to the NIH.

Research proposals must be built on a scientific rationale. They must address hypothesis-based questions and show a logical progression from preliminary data (from the literature, the lab or the student's own work) to hypothesis generation, to approach for testing the hypothesis, expected results and interpretation, limitations and alternatives. The limitations/alternatives is an important section and should be carefully considered and implemented. Implicit in this sequence is understanding of the controls required, and of likely modifications to approach and generation of new hypotheses that may be needed as new data shift the understanding of the question. Experiments may be either laboratory-based ("wet") or modeling studies that generate testable hypotheses ("dry"). Regardless of the primary experimental approaches planned, all cancer biology students are expected to have a conceptual understanding of the types of experiments needed to test predictions made. Students are expected to address elements of rigor and reproducibility required in the approach section of an NIH style proposal including sample sizes, control of genetic or environmental background, consideration of sex as a biological variable, and appropriate statistics. Note preliminary data do not have to have been generated by the student but may be used with attribution from other sources.

The proposal must be submitted to the committee at least 10 calendar days prior to the scheduled Oral Defense.

Oral Exam

The oral defense consists of a research seminar based on the written proposal that is presented by the student to the Prelim Committee. The presentation should be planned to last 40-45 minutes of the 120 minute examination. It should provide an overview of the topic/field, preliminary data, their hypothesis, specific aims and future directions. You will not be judged on progress or the generation of preliminary data, rather your ability to frame and extend existing preliminary data. Said data can be generated by the student, the lab, or extracted from the literature, with appropriate attribution. Much of the examination will include in-depth questions from the referees about the student’s general knowledge of the topic, the key experiments and data in their proposal, and their future directions, including the relevant experimental approaches, their anticipated results, and any potential pitfalls of their plans to extend on the published work.

Students cannot discuss their written or oral prelim with their mentor however they can consult with other faculty on specific topics that will help the students' understanding of the subject area. They can seek feedback on the written component from peers. Students are allowed and encouraged to set up mock oral exams for practice with peers (graduate students, postdocs) but not faculty members.