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. 


January 4: Submission of a specific aims page along with the names of two faculty who have agreed to participate as preliminary exam committee members
January 18: Assignment of additional preliminary exam committee members from the faculty by program directors
February 1: Scheduling of exam for March 8-19
February 8: Submission of written proposal
February 15: Written review of proposal by preliminary exam committee, including whether partial or full re-write is needed
March 1: Submission of revised proposed (as needed)
March 8-19: Oral examinations


A. Written Proposal

Students will each design a short proposal based on either (A) a topic related to their thesis research or (B) a topic related to 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 502 project, or any grant application currently under preparation within the laboratory. The written proposal should also be submitted to the mentor at the time it is submitted to the preliminary exam committee, following which 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 a NIH R21 proposal (includes a NIH-style specific aims page with two specific aims and a six-page body that includes an introduction to the problem (outlining the significance of the questions), experimental approach and anticipated results/discussion). A well-curated bibliography is expected (using Journal of Immunology format) and is outside the page limits. Students will defend this proposed project as a component of the oral examination.

Note: Unpublished data may not be used or cited in the written proposal, whether it be from the student or any other researcher.

For the written proposal, a student may discuss outlines and ideas with their mentor or other colleagues. However, the written document should be the student's own work and reviewed only by the student prior to submitting it to the Committee (i.e. no editing by a 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 Preliminary Exam Committee may vote to reject a poorly written proposal prior to the oral exam, providing a clear rationale for the rejection. If the written proposal is rejected, the student has one week to revise the proposal, address concerns and provide a revised proposal to the Exam Committee.

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 Review Outline, which is provided by the program.

C. Composition of Individual Exam Committees

The Preliminary Exam Committee consists of 4 faculty members

  • Two faculty members 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 Directors prior to committee selection.
  • Two faculty members selected by the co-Directors, again based on bringing expertise related to the proposed project.

One of the 4 faculty members will be identified as committee Chair for the oral examination. The duties of the chair are to ensure 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 performance, and 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 the scientific expertise.

The names of the 2 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 Directors no later than 21 days before the oral exam, for further consideration. If a student is not satisfied with the Directors' final decision, they may appeal in writing to the Immunology Graduate Student Affairs Committee.

D. Timelines

Based on current policies, PhD 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 PhD training alongside their PhD 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 be familiar with the theoretical basis, appropriateness and limitations of each technique proposed, to addressing the hypothesis being tested.

Detailed knowledge of protocols, including 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, student 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. Format

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, using the white board. This presentation should focus on the hypothesis, specific aims, and the significance of the proposal. The student can prepare 1 page of notes for the presentation and exam.

Emphasis should be placed on the experimental approaches to be taken to address the hypothesis. 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. While questions will likely center around the proposal, questions pertaining to general knowledge of the field of Immunology should be anticipated by the student. Hence, the student should have a good grasp of general immunology. 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 20-30 minutes of the 90-minute exam will be devoted toward questioning of the student’s understanding of immunologic principles.

Student will be asked to leave the room at the end of the oral exam. The committee will then attempt to reach a consensus opinion. 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 member 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, unless they are MSTP or dual PhD-MS students (these students will make individual arrangements with the Program for scheduling their prelim exam). All students will receive their results from the Immunology Graduate Program (not their Exam Committee), within 48 h after completing the exam.

3. Evaluation

The committee can recommend an unconditional pass, a conditional pass, or a fail. The committee can recommend an exam retake with the same proposal, a modified proposal, or a re-write of the proposal on the same or a different topic. In addition, the committee might also recommend other remedies for unsatisfactory performance in specific areas (e.g., additional classwork). For example, should a student perform poorly on the general immunology portion of their exam, the committee could recommend that the student re-take one or more immunology classes. In the program’s experience, students who are asked to retake the examination generally show significant improvement during the second time. A student will be dismissed from the Immunology Program if he/she fails either the written or oral portion of the examination a second time.

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.