Preliminary Examination

The Preliminary Exam is a written and oral defense of your dissertation proposal and is taken after successful completion of the Readiness Assessment exam and approval of your Plan of Study. Its primary purpose is review and approval of your thesis research proposal and your admission to candidacy for the PhD. Successful passage of the Preliminary Exam constitutes “Admission to Candidacy” (Ph.C.). 

After admission to candidacy, you must devote at least two semesters to research before taking the final examination. Since one goal of the Preliminary Examination is to provide research direction and feedback, you must take it early enough to allow the Graduate Advisory Committee to make an effective contribution.

Preliminary Exam Milestones

Important milestones associated with the Preliminary Exam are identified in PhD Timeline and Milestones. To ensure timely academic progress, the Preliminary Examination should be taken by PhD students with a master’s after no more than six semesters in the PhD program and by direct PhD students after no more than eight semesters in the program.

To become eligible to take the Preliminary Exam:

  • Inform the Graduate Coordinator of your plans.
  • Portfolio: The portfolio should be reviewed with your major professor and dissertation committee. 
  • Doctoral committee: The preliminary examining committee must consist of a minimum of three members of the graduate faculty, who need not be faculty members with whom you have taken coursework. All members of the examining committee are to be notified of the scheduled examination. Other faculty members may be requested by any member of the examining committee to participate, without vote, in the examination, and any interested faculty member may be present, without vote. Although only three committee members are required, if the committee has four or more members, a single member may withhold his or her signature of approval.
  • Submit a request to take the Preliminary Exam: See Graduate School Deadlines. Formally request the scheduling of the examination by your preliminary examining committee through the ENE Graduate Office four weeks before the requested exam date. Do so by completing a Request for Appointment of Examining Committee (Form 8). After the request for a Preliminary Examination has been approved by the Graduate School, the ENE Graduate Office will prepare a file for the day of the Preliminary Examination that includes the approved Form 8 from the Graduate School and the rubric for your committee members to fill out during the exam. 
  • Registration: A preliminary examination passed by a student whose graduate study and/or professional activity has been inactive for five years or more is invalid.

Responsibilities of the Preliminary Exam Committee

It is the responsibility of the examining committee to determine whether you are qualified and ready to undertake or continue research and proceed toward the PhD. The committee should report the examination as “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” by completing the online Report of Preliminary Examination (G.S. Form 10) immediately following the examination. 

If the report of the examining committee is favorable, you will be formally reclassified as a candidate for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. If the report is unfavorable, the examining committee may recommend that you be permitted to request a second examination by submitting a new request (G.S. Form 8). You must wait at least until the following session (including summer session) to repeat the examination. If you fail the preliminary examination twice, you may not be given a third examination, except upon the recommendation of the examining committee and with special approval of the Graduate Council.

Preparing for the Preliminary Exam

Work with your committee to focus on a thesis topic

In consultation with your advisory committee, identify a topic area for a dissertation research project proposal. The committee also agrees on a group of committee members whose expertise and affiliation fulfill departmental and university guidelines. Discuss the dissertation research project with each of the proposed committee members and request feedback from the committee.

Draft a proposal

In consultation with your advisory committee, develop a dissertation research proposal which provides, for example: (a) relevant background literature sufficient to motivate the proposed study, (b) a description of the hypotheses to be tested or the issues to be investigated, (c) details of the research design and methodology sufficient to judge feasibility, and (d) proposed methods of data analysis. The length of your proposal will vary depending on the nature of the problem to be pursued and the complexity of the design and/or analysis plan requiring description. There are many useful resources for organizing your proposal, such as outlines from Engineering Education Inquiry course or outlines from research methods electives, as well as AERA guidelines.

Schedule the Preliminary Exam

When you and your advisor agree that the proposal is ready for committee review, the proposal draft is prepared for dissemination to the committee members and an oral defense is scheduled through the ENE Graduate Office. Proceed as follows:

  • Consult with your advisory committee to find a date and time for the examination that is acceptable to all. Determine if all committee members intend to be physically present for the examination. If necessary, make alternative arrangements for committee members that must be absent (e.g., on sabbatical). Chairs or co-chairs must be physically present for your examination  If this is not possible, you must request approval from the ENE Graduate Office before your examination request will proceed.
  • At least three weeks before the proposed exam date, submit a request for a Preliminary Examination (Form 8) with the ENE Graduate Office, who will seek approval from the Graduate School for your Doctoral Advisory Committee to conduct the examination. Please be aware that late requests to schedule an Examination will not allow sufficient time to process a request. Any requests to schedule an Examination less than three weeks in advance must be approved by the ENE Graduate Chair, and will be approved only in exceptional circumstances.
  • At least two weeks before the oral exam date, deliver a copy of the thesis to all committee members.  
  • Reserve a room for the Preliminary Examination: Go to and select the room you wish to schedule and check the availability of that room. After confirming availability, select “Request Reservation”, click on the name for the manager of that room, and send the request. If you have problems with scheduling, contact the Graduate Coordinator.

After the request for a Preliminary Examination has been made and examination forms are returned by the Graduate School, the ENE Graduate Office will prepare a file for the day of the Preliminary Examination that includes the approved Form 8 from the Graduate School and the rubrics for your committee members to fill out during the exam. 

Conclude the Preliminary Exam

At the oral defense, you will provide an overview of the proposed research project. During the Preliminary Examination, you are typically expected to exhibit a clear understanding of the research problem, an awareness of pertinent background literature and current efforts, and a reasoned plan for answering the research question. The committee members may question you about the project and provide feedback regarding the logic of the study, issues of design and data analysis, and any concerns about the feasibility or acceptability of the project. At the conclusion of the oral defense, you are asked to leave and the committee members may discuss any necessary changes in the study for it to be approved. The committee invites you back and orally shares the general nature of any proposed changes, which may require you to respond, rewrite your plan as necessary, and distribute the revised plan to the committee. The study should then be executed in accord with the revised plan.

After the exam, each committee member will be asked to approve via an online form. Each examining committee member must also complete the rubric form. The completed rubrics must be placed in the provided envelope or folder and returned to the Graduate Office. Committee members who attend the examination remotely email their completed rubric forms.

If you pass the Preliminary Examination, the Graduate Advisory Committee certifies that you have passed the examination by signing the “Report of the Preliminary Examining Committee” furnished by the ENE Graduate Office. If you fail the Preliminary Examination, at least one academic session (Fall, Spring, or Summer) must elapse before a re-examination is permitted.

After completion of the Preliminary Exam

The Graduate School exam form will be signed by the Chair of the Graduate Committee and returned to the Graduate School only when all the rubric forms have been completed.

Each completed rubric form will be placed in a confidential summary folder in the ENE Graduate Office. This is to develop a database of the rubric outcomes to be analyzed later to evaluate learning outcomes being achieved and those requiring attention. The rubric outcomes will be anonymous in the database. The decision to share the responses of committee members with the student being examined will be left to the discretion of the student’s advisor and committee.

After the passing the exam, you will carry out the research project described in the original proposal, amended as necessary to reflect changes forwarded in writing following the proposal orals. You must be registered for research credit in all semesters following the completion of your preliminary exam.

Preliminary Exam Rubrics

As a requirement of the North Central Assessment in 2009, rubrics were developed for the PhD and MS final exams as well as the PhD preliminary exams. The faculty of the School of Engineering Education approved these rubrics. Copies of the rubrics are available here.

Reminder: Preliminary exam rubrics must be completed by each committee member and submitted to the ENE Graduate Office.