Preliminary Examination

In addition to coursework, students must successfully pass a preliminary examination to advance to candidacy for the doctoral degree. The exam is taken during the winter term of the 2nd year. The exam is formatted to ensure that we are assessing the skills that are required to become an independent, critical thinker. The preliminary exam consists of two parts.

Part One – Written Exam

The student will prepare a written document on a recent, high-impact paper selected by the student and approved in advance by either Dr. Canman or Lombard. The selected paper may be relevant to the student’s thesis topic, but cannot be on exactly the same topic as the thesis. The topic should not include any on-going projects currently taking place in their research mentor's lab. Ideally, the research topic will be relevant enough to the student’s thesis research so that the increased knowledge gained in the area will add value to their thesis research, although the topic cannot be the same as the thesis research.

 The purpose of this written exam is to measure the student’s ability to:

  1. Convey the key findings of a recently published paper
  2. Explain the significance of these findings in the context of the existing body of relevant literature
  3. Propose feasible and creative future experimental directions that expand upon the major findings presented in the paper.

The piece should be written for an audience familiar with general biomedical science and should stand alone from the oral presentation. The body of the written piece should be between 1000-1500 words with ½ inch margins. The abstract, figure legend, and references are NOT included in the word count.

The student should begin with a title that captures the reader’s interest, an abstract of the major takeaways of the piece with up to 150 words, followed by a brief introduction that presents the audience with the necessary information needed to understand the concepts covered in the paper. This should include commentary on the problem(s) and/or gaps in knowledge of the field that their chosen paper is attempting to address.

The student should critically comment on how the major findings presented in their chosen paper address gaps in their field, highlighting both the value and limitations of key experiments and not necessarily addressing every figure. This section should also put the paper into context with respect to other key papers in the field.

Finally, the student should propose novel future directions that would build on the key findings and conclusions of their chosen paper. The student should define realistic and promising specific aims that a graduate student in that lab could take on as their next steps. This section should compromise a quarter to a third of the total word count and should be the basis of their graphical figure.

The title, abstract, graphical future directions, and figure legend should appear together on a separate title page that precedes the body of the written text. The references should be formatted in the Nature style (superscripted numbered literature citations within the text) with fewer than or equal to 20 references cited. The student’s written document should be emailed to their committee as a PDF at least one week in advance of the oral presentation. The document will then be critically evaluated by all members of the preliminary exam committee.

So that there is sufficient time for approval and preparation for the exam, students should submit their initial paper selections no later than January 1 prior to their exams, which generally take place in late February.

Part Two – Oral Exam

The student will have a 120 min oral examination focusing on their assigned paper in question and their written exam. They should prepare a well-focused presentation that provides an overview of the topic/field, their chosen paper, and their future directions/specific aims. Much of the examination will include in-depth questions from the review team about their general knowledge of the topic, the key experiments and data in their research paper, 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.