Preliminary Examination

After completing their coursework, students take the preliminary exam during their second year. The preliminary examination tests the student’s ability to reason analytically and to develop scientific questions and experimental approaches. Students are expected to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the research problem, and the ability to design experiments to address the questions. The emphasis is on hypothesis testing and experimental design, as well as general knowledge in the field of immunology.

The exam consists of a written proposal and oral exam. 

Timeline (AY 2023-2024)

January 10: Submission of a specific aims page along with the names of two faculty who have agreed to participate as preliminary exam committee members.

January 19: Assignment of additional prelim exam committee members from the faculty by program directors.

January 31: Scheduling of exam for March 11-22 and feedback on specific aims.

February 13: Submission of written proposal

February 23: Written review of proposal by prelim exam committee, including whether partial or full re-write is needed.

March 5: Submission of revised proposed (as needed)

March 11-22: Oral examinations


MSTP Timeline (AY 2023-2024)

February 23: Submission of a specific aims page along with the names of two faculty who have agreed to participate as prelim exam committee members.

March 1: Assignment of additional prelim exam committee members from the faculty by program directors

March 11: Feedback on specific aims

March 22: Submission of written proposal

April 2: Written review of proposal by prelim exam committee, including whether partial or full re-write is needed.

April 16: Submission of revised proposed (as needed)

April 22 – May 3: Oral examinations


A. Written Proposal

Students will each design a short proposal based on either (A) their thesis research or related topic (B) a peer-reviewed immunology literature-based article published within the past 12 months. If the student chooses option (A), the proposal or Specific Aims cannot be taken from an application previously written by the student, mentor or anyone in their laboratory group. This includes F31 applications, other fellowship applications, the student's Pharmacology 503 project, or any grant application currently under preparation within the laboratory. The written proposal should be submitted to the mentor at the time it is submitted to the preliminary exam committee, following the mentor will be required to certify to the committee that the proposal was independently developed and written by the student. Students will prepare a 7-page proposal, similar in format to an NIH R21 proposal (includes an NIH-style specific aims page with two distinctive aims and a six-page body that consists of an introduction to the problem (outlining the significance/innovation of the questions), experimental approach, anticipated results/discussion, and rigor/reproducibility. A well-curated bibliography is expected (using the Journal of Immunology format) and is outside the page limits. Students will defend this proposed project as a component of the oral examination. 

Note: For the written proposal, students may discuss outlines and ideas with their mentor or colleagues. However, the written document should be the student's work and reviewed only by the student prior to submitting it to the Committee (i.e., no editing by mentors or scientific colleagues). The document should be thoroughly checked for typographical and grammatical errors to the best of the student's ability and should reflect the student's best-written work.

The Specific Aims page is due before the full proposal. At the first stage, the committee will evaluate whether the Specific Aims page is acceptable as submitted, whether the student can proceed with the full proposal, or if any changes/other considerations are recommended.

At the full proposal stage, the committee will again evaluate whether the student can proceed to the exam with the full proposal as written or whether modifications are required. If the latter, the chair will communicate the necessary changes, copying all committee members (students will receive compiled input in a single email, along with a clear outline of what changes are needed before the exam). If a rewrite is required, the student has about 10 days (more specific time will be specified in the chair’s required changes email) to revise the proposal, address concerns and provide a revised proposal to the Exam Committee. 

Example R21 proposals:

Example R21 IMM Cheat Sheet:

Written Proposal Evaluation Form (committee members will use this form for their evaluation of the written proposal and submit to the committee chair, who will provide a summary consensus response to the student)


B. General Immunology Knowledge

Students will also be examined in their general immunology knowledge during the oral examination. Students should be familiar with all topics listed in the Immunology study guide and covered in immunology courses, which is provided by the program.


C. Composition of Individual Exam Committees

 The Preliminary Exam Committee consists of 4 faculty members:

 ● Two faculty members are chosen by the student based on expertise relevant to the proposed project. The chosen faculty cannot include a mentor or co-mentors. Students are encouraged to talk to the Program Director prior to committee selection.

 ● Two faculty members selected by the Director, again based on bringing expertise related to the proposed project.

One of the four faculty members will be identified as the Committee Chair for the oral examination. The chair's duties are to ensure the smooth running of the exam (including respectful interactions between the students and faculty), provide a written summary of the exam outcome, including the strengths and weaknesses of the student's performance, and make any remediation recommendations.

 An Immunology Graduate Program Director (or representative) may elect to attend the exam as an observer. Frequently, members of the preliminary exam committee will be natural choices for students for their thesis committee membership, again based on scientific expertise.

The names of the two faculty members serving on a student's Preliminary Exam Committee will be made known to the student at least one month ahead of the oral exam. A potential conflict of interest with an assigned Preliminary Exam committee member should be brought to the attention of the Immunology Graduate Program Director no later than 21 days before the oral exam for further consideration. If a student is not satisfied with the Director's final decision, they may appeal in writing to the Immunology Graduate Student Affairs Committee.


D. Timelines

Based on current policies, Ph.D. students complete their preliminary exam in the winter term of their 2nd year. MSTP students entering the Immunology Program are considered to be at the same level as students entering the Program after one year in PIBS. MSTP students are encouraged to take their preliminary exams during the first year of their Ph.D. training alongside their Ph.D. class.

Mentors should be aware that tuition support for pre-candidates is higher than for candidates, especially for Michigan non-resident students. We strongly recommend that the preliminary exam is completed by the spring of the student's 2nd year.


E. Oral Exam

1. Focus

The oral exam will test the student’s ability to reason analytically, develop ideas and defend the scientific premise of the proposal. The emphasis will be on hypothesis testing, scientific reasoning, experimental design, and general knowledge in the field of Immunology. The student should be familiar with the relevant background literature leading to their hypothesis and the important basic concepts of the experimental approaches that will be used. Students should also be familiar with the theoretical basis, appropriateness and limitations of each technique proposed, to address the hypothesis being tested.

Detailed knowledge of protocols, such as buffer ingredients or incubation times are not important, unless they are vital to the interpretation of the results. For example, if ELISPOT technology is proposed to measure cytokine levels, students will be expected to know how the assay works, whether ELISPOT is the best approach to address the question, and the limitations of using ELISPOT measurements. Students are not expected to know details such as compositions of ELISPOT buffers or the incubation time for a particular step (unless it is a critical parameter for the assay in question). In contrast, if one were studying ion channels, one would be expected to know the ion concentrations in the buffers.

 2. Exam Format

  • ~5 minutes for discussion of the student's record (in the absence of the student)
  • ~15 minutes (largely uninterrupted), for the student's presentation of the FULL proposal (including all Aims and the brief description of the methods), using a powerpoint file and screen sharing (if the exam is virtual), 
  • ~1 hour of questions based on the prelim proposal (verbal only)
  • ~25 minutes of general immunology questions
  • ~10 minutes of committee deliberation (without the student)
  • ~5 minutes of final committee's discussions of results with the student

At the start of the examination the student will be asked to leave the room for a few minutes to allow the exam committee to discuss the student’s record, how the examination will proceed, and any potential concerns. The student will return to the room and present a 15-minute overview of their project. The first part of the exam will center around the proposal and could relate to any element of the proposal-hypothesis, significance, and Aims, including details of the proposed experiments and expected results. Students will have the opportunity to practice their preliminary exam overview presentation during their IMM 815 seminar presentation.

Students can also practice this 15 minute overview with their PIs and labs (getting feedback from them).

The members of the committee may ask for points of clarification during the student’s presentation but should allow the student to complete his/her overview (15 minutes maximum) prior to more in-depth questioning.

Subsequently there will be questions pertaining to general knowledge of the field of Immunology. Hence, the student should have a good grasp of general immunology, based on their classes (640, 641, 850, 541). It is highly recommended that the student be familiar with all topics listed in the Immunology Review Outline, which is provided by the program. Approximately 25 minutes of the 90-minute exam will be devoted toward questioning the student’s understanding of immunologic principles.

3. Evaluation of oral exam

After the oral exam, the student will be asked to leave the room. The chair will solicit comments from everybody on the committee, and make recommendations for a pass, fail, or conditional pass (if the latter, with specific suggestions for remediation). The committee will communicate comments about the exam and the results to the student in a constructive way. The chair will also summarize the committee member comments and provide these in written form to the Immunology office, along with the decision for a pass, fail, or conditional pass (if the latter, with specific suggestions for remediation), and the individual committee member evaluations of the written components (which should be sent to the chair).

 Thus, the options for the Committee are:

  • Pass - no additional work is needed from the student at this stage; student will be admitted to candidacy
  • Conditional Pass - The student will need to perform some work in an additional area that is identified by the committee. The recommended remediation option should first be discussed with the Director(s) before communication to the student, within a few days following the prelim. The student can be admitted to candidacy either before or after completing the remediation, based on the nature of the required remediation. Some remediation requirements that have recently been implemented include rewrites of specific parts of the proposal, auditing of a general immunology class, study of review articles in relevant areas of knowledge deficiencies and answering related questions in a 2nd   oral exam within 3-4 weeks, presenting an article at journal club in a relevant area of knowledge deficiency.
  • Fail - The committee finds the student's performance unacceptable and this is relayed to the student at the end of the prelim and to the Director(s). The committee will write up a description of the deficiencies identified during the prelim and send this to the Director(s) to decide the next course of action. Actions include retaking the prelim, re-taking a portion of the prelim, taking coursework for remediation with a minimum grade earned, or other options. The general expectation is that the student will not be admitted to candidacy until the deficiency is resolved.

The Chair will submit a written report of the consensus majority opinion. If there are dissenting opinions with the consensus view, the member(s) with the dissent are asked to express their concerns to the Program Directors directly, and these concerns should also be fully discussed with other committee members at the meeting. If the dissenting opinion is the Chair’s, another committee member can summarize the consensus view. It is generally expected that all students will take the exam during the same 2-week period, which will be different for MSTP or dual PhD-MS students (these students will make individual arrangements with the Program for scheduling their prelim exam).

Oral Exam Evaluation:

4. Summary

After the examination, the appointed Chair of the student’s Preliminary Exam Committee will advise the Student Services Coordinator and the Program Director(s) of the results. Upon successful completion of the exam, and assuming all other requirements are met, the Program Director(s) will approve the student’s Advancement to Candidacy form, which will be electronically sent to Rackham.