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Only doctoral students take this examination. This is an oral examination of at least two hours in length and equivalent to what is called “qualifying examination” at other institutions. It MUST be passed by the end of the Fall term of the third year to remain in good standing in the PhD program. At this point a student will usually have successfully completed most of the coursework in the program of study. After passing this examination PhD students are also referred to as “candidates”.
In preparation for the exam, you must submit to each committee member a written thesis proposal that describes your thesis problem, summarizes research progress to date, and outlines research strategies for the goals yet to be attained. The quality of this written document is evaluated and is part of the examination. 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 research topic to be addressed and presents a plan for research that is well-reasoned and defensible based on what is known at the time, and that is of a scope reasonable for a Ph.D. thesis. Although some of the ideas and approaches presented in the proposal may have come from your advisor or others (typical of the collaborative nature of science), it is essential that the proposal is written in your words and that it covers material over which you have intellectual ownership. In preparing the proposal, you may have your advisor and other students read rough drafts and provide feedback, but the writing should be yours. The purpose of the preliminary exam is for the committee to assess whether you give evidence of mastery of your proposal subject and to show that you have the intellectual and organizational abilities to succeed in doing research at the Ph.D. level. This includes being able to define a problem, research the topic, design a research strategy, and carry it out and interpret the results effectively. The proposal also could provide an excellent starting point for a fellowship application (but that is independent of the examination).
Similar to fellowship applications, the proposal should be organized as follows: (1) summary of the proposal, including a statement of the specific aims (1 page maximum) and (2) main body of the proposal organized into three sections (Significance, Innovation, and Approach; 9 page maximum). Figures are included in the 9-page maximum, but references are not included in the page limit. The font should be ‘Arial 11’ for all main text and can be ‘Arial Narrow 10’ for figure legends. These minimal specifications mirror what is expected for Research Plans for NIH pre-doctoral applications or proposals for private foundations.
The “prelim” or “thesis” proposal must be submitted at least one week before the scheduled date of the exam, ideally as an electronic text file and a printout (in the mailboxes of the committee members). At the exam, it is expected that all committee members have read the proposal, and so an extensive research presentation is not necessary. Talk with your advisor about what the exam will be like and how they would like you to start it. Typically you will be asked to give a 5 to 20 minute opening presentation to guide the committee through the context and importance of the problem being addressed and the main aims to be pursued while distinguishing briefly what you have already done as opposed to what remains to be done. Unlike a seminar, your presentation will be interrupted by questions from the committee members (and may never be completed during the exam). As the presentation continues or after it is completed, a common process is for committee members go through a few rounds of taking turns in asking whatever questions they would like, with other committee members chiming in with related questions or comments.
The first part of the oral exam is focused on the student's research project and related areas. For instance, a student working on gene cloning should understand all aspects of DNA biochemistry, structure and function, as well as gene expression as represented in part by content of advanced courses taken by the student. Whatever your topic, in additional to technical knowledge about methodology you should also be knowledgeable about the biological context and significance of the project and the relevant literature, as well as being able to justify how the chosen aims and research strategies are appropriate for the problem, what kinds of results might be expected and how they would be interpreted, and what might be limitations of the chosen approach and/or alternate approaches to achieve the aims. This part of the exam is used to assess the your ability to plan and conduct research, to think critically and creatively about questions in your area of interest, and to be aware of current and recent research literature in these areas. The second part of the exam will encompass general questions in the broader area of Biochemistry and Biophysics; this will include all coursework you have taken at OSU. The advice here is to prepare, prepare, PREPARE both in terms of timely and careful preparation of your thesis proposal, as well as key topics covered in your coursework, especially any of them that were taught by your committee members. It is generally useful to work with your major professor and the other members of the research group to discuss and practice answering questions concerning your work. They know this material better than anyone else (other than yourself, hopefully).
When the committee members have no further questions, the student will be asked to step outside. At this point the Graduate Council Representative leads a discussion focused on evaluating the student’s performance and each committee member votes either “pass” or “fail.” If there are zero or one “fail” votes, the exam is passed. If there is more than one “fail” vote, the exam is not passed and the committee discusses about whether to allow the student to retake the exam and if so under what conditions. After these deliberations are complete, the student is invited back in to hear the results.
There are specific rules for the preliminary exam, laid out by the Graduate School. You must adhere to the schedules! The preliminary oral exam must be scheduled during periods when classes are in session (including finals week). A three-hour block of time should be reserved (the minimum time for a preliminary exam is two hours according to Graduate School rules), but it is best to make sure the room is available for longer. Reserving a room for the exam is part of your responsibility. As you must allow plenty of time to coordinate a meeting time with your five committee members, start the process of setting a date and reserving a room at least 2 to 3 months in advance. If there are time conflicts with one or more of your committee members, you may petition for a replacement. As soon as the date and time have been chosen, notify the department and the graduate school. This must be at least one week in advance of the exam date. As noted above, the thesis proposal must be provided to your committee at least one week in advance of the examination.