Preliminary Examination

The purpose of the Preliminary Exam is to verify that the student is ready to pursue full-time research towards a Ph.D. degree. In this exam the student is expected to demonstrate a broad understanding of core physics concepts, familiarity with the current research in the subfield chosen for the Ph.D. and proficiency in computational, experimental, and mathematical techniques necessary to pursue research in the field. A student is not formally accepted as a candidate for the Ph.D. degree until the preliminary examination has been passed. The following guidelines are intended to clarify the structure of a typical Prelim-Exam in the Duke Physics Department.

Timing of the Exam

The student is expected to take the exam as early as possible after completing required coursework and selecting a faculty research advisor.  In all cases, the student is expected to take the exam by the end of the sixth semester.

Under exceptional circumstances, the student may petition for an extension. This extension is not automatic, and requires the approval of the DGS and the Dean of the Graduate School. Ordinarily, an extension will not be granted beyond the middle of the fourth year.

During summer months, a preliminary examination may only be scheduled between the opening and closing dates of the summer sessions.  A student must be registered during the term in which he/she takes the exam.

The student can get an A.M. degree after passing the preliminary exam. If the student intends to receive the A.M. (or M.S. for a thesis), he/she will need to submit the "Apply to Graduate" process in DukeHub.

Topic of the Exam

The topic of the exam will be selected by the student in consultation with her/his Ph.D. Advisor and is in the field of research the student plans to pursue for the Ph.D. degree.  The student is expected to exhibit a broad understanding of core physics concepts, and to be familiar with current research in the chosen subfield so as to support her/his ability to conduct independent research at the doctoral level.  Additionally, the student is expected to demonstrate an appropriate level of knowledge and skill with methods and techniques used in the chosen field of research.

Prelim-Abstract

Once the topic of the exam is chosen, the student will submit a title and Prelim-Abstract (of length not greater than one page) to the Advisor, who will forward it to the Advisory Committee.

Advisory Committee

Approximately three months before the exam, an Advisory Committee consisting of five members of the faculty including the student's Ph.D. Advisor, who acts as the Chair, should be assembled. The role of the Committee is to evaluate the student in the Preliminary Exam and continue to guide and evaluate the student's progress until the student defends the Ph.D. thesis.

Using input from the student and the submitted Prelim-Abstract, the Advisor forms the Committee in consultation with the DGS.  The DGS and the Associate Dean of the Graduate School are responsible for approving the committee.  Physics Department policy requires that the Committee should adhere to the following conditions:

  1. At least one experimentalist and at least one theorist shall be on each committee;
  2. At least one member shall be from a Physics subfield that is different from the student's research topic;
  3. No more than 3 members may come from the same research group;
  4. Each committee shall have at least 3 members who have a primary or joint faculty appointment in Physics;

The Advisory Committee approval form must be filed with the Graduate School for approval by the Associate Dean of the Graduate School no later than 1 month prior to the preliminary exam.  The purpose of this form is to specify the members of the committee and not to fix the exact date and time of the exam. The latter is done by the student and Advisor working with the DGSA four weeks before the exam.

Prelim-Report

The student writes a 4-8 page Prelim-Report on the topic of the examination and the presentation he/she will make at the Prelim-Exam. The report typically contains 4 sections:

  • a broad introduction to the field;
  • the motivation of the topic and contribution to the current status of the field;
  • the methods/techniques used and results that the student may have already obtained;
  • a prospective plan for future research.

The report must contain a bibliography which lists the references cited in the text. The student should provide the Prelim-Report to all members of the Advisory Committee no later than two weeks before the exam.

Format of the Exam

The oral exam itself consists of 2 parts:

Part I: Presentation by the Student

The student gives a presentation on the topic of the exam to the Advisory Committee. During the presentation the Committee may ask questions directly related to the presentation. The presentation should be designed to last 30-40 minutes if there are no interruptions.

Part II: Questions and Answers

At the end of the presentation, a question and answer period will follow. During this period each Committee member has a chance to ask questions which may either concern the topics or techniques related to the presentation or be related to the broad range of core physics topics the student is expected to know as a physicist in the chosen subfield.

The Committee members will make a point of addressing questions to the student rather than to each other. The student will be given an opportunity to respond to such questions. If a student is having difficulties with a particular question, it is the questioner who should take the primary responsibility for helping out.  When appropriate, the Advisor or other committee members can enter the discussion after the first exchange either to follow up or to clarify issues.

Results of the Exam

Immediately following the exam and after the student has left the room, the Committee will discuss the results.  As required by the Graduate School, each Committee member must vote to Pass or Fail the student on the Prelim-Exam.  Passing the exam requires no more than one negative vote, which must not be that of the Advisor.

In case of failure, the Committee can grant the student a second chance at taking the exam, but no sooner than 3 months after the first exam date. When the exam is taken for the second time, passing requires an affirmative vote by all members of the Committee. Failure on the second examination will render a student ineligible to continue in the Ph.D. program.

For internal departmental purposes, the pass vote may be further categorized as either Pass or Conditional Pass. Both count as Pass insofar as the Graduate School is concerned.  In the case of a Conditional Pass, the Committee typically assigns remedial work and/or study considered to be in the best interest of the student. In granting a Conditional Pass, the Committee is stating that the student does appear to be capable of pursuing the PhD degree, but that some weaknesses evident in this exam should be corrected.

Within one week of the exam, the Advisor writes a brief summary of the exam performances and any recommendations for the student. The summary is distributed to the Advisory Committee for review.  After appropriate revisions are completed, the final verion of the summary is then sent to the student, the Committee and the DGS.  In cases where the student received a Conditional Pass, the summary should include a description of the remedial work that the student is required to complete, and a timeline for its completion.

Additional Meetings with the Committee

At any time during the year, a meeting of the Advisory Committee may be initiated. If the student, or the Advisor, or at least 2 members of the committee request a meeting, then a meeting of all members of the Advisory Committee needs to be convened. The particular format of the meeting is flexible and will be decided between the student and the Advisory Committee. It is the responsibility of the Advisor to convene a meeting when needed.

Within one week of the meeting, the Advisor must write a brief summary of the meeting. The summary must be distributed to the Advisory Committee for review. After appropriate revisions are completed, the summary must be sent to the student, the Committee and the DGS.

Responsibilities

Advisor (Chair of the Advisory Committee):
  • As soon as the student begins research, remind the student of the need to take the preliminary exam as early as possible, and no later than the end of the sixth semester.
  • Assemble an Advisory Committee and get it approved by the the DGS approximately 3 months before the exam date.
  • Forward the student's Prelim-Abstract to the Advisory Committee.
  • Send to the DGS the list of the members for the Advisory Committee Approval Form, which must be no later than 1 month before the exam.
  • Fix the date and time of the exam at least 4 weeks before the exam.
  • Convene a Pre-Prelim-Meeting with the Advisory Committee 1 - 2 weeks before the exam to discuss the student's strengths and weaknesses and to plan the exam.
  • Prepare a brief written summary of the exam and the result. The summary must be distributed to the Advisory Committee for review. After appropriate revisions are completed, the summary must be sent to the student, the Committee and the DGS. In cases where the student received a Conditional Pass, the summary must include a description of the remedial work that the student is required to complete, and a timeline for its completion.
  • Convene a meeting with the Advisory Committee when needed; it could be requested from the student, or the Advisor, or at least two members of the committee. In case the student was required to complete remedial work for the Preliminary Exam the Advisor must address this issue at this meeting. Prepare a brief written summary of the meeting, check up the Committee, and sent to the student, the Committee and the DGS.
  • Submit all forms to the DGSA for record keeping.
Student:
  • The student should discuss the exam with the Advisor well in advance of the exam date to learn about any ways in which the exam might be tailored to the student's individual case.
  • If a Master's degree based on the prelim is desired, submit the "Apply to Graduate" process in DukeHub.
  • Choose a topic for the Prelim-Exam in consultation with the Advisor and fix the appropriate time to take the exam. The student must write a title and a Prelim-Abstract, no longer than one page in length, and submit it to the Advisor soon after the date and topic has been chosen.
  • Prepare a 4-8 page Prelim-Report, describing the topic and the main points of the presentation the student will give at the exam. The report must be distributed to the Committee members at least two weeks before the exam date.
  • At least one month prior to the exam, the student must complete the Committee Approval Form and submit it to the DGSA for processing with the graduate school.
  • One week before the exam the student obtains the exam card and Graduate School "Report of Prelim" form from the DGSA.  The student brings these items to the exam.
  • One week before the exam the student sends out a reminder to the Advisory Committee about the exam.
  • Any remedial work recommended by the Committee as a result of the exam must be completed in a timely manner.
  • At the completion of the exam, the student delivers the Graduate School "Report of Prelim" form to the DGSA.
  • Submit a 1-3 page annual report by March 31, to the DGS and other members of the Advisory Committee.
  • Submit all forms to the DGSA for record keeping.
Advisory Committee:
  • Attend the Pre-Prelim meeting, the Preliminary Exam and any other meetings.
  • Read the Prelim-Report so as to help in evaluating the student fairly but critically during the exam.
  • Approve the Summary of the Prelim prepared by the Advisor.
  • Be willing to discuss relevant topics with the student in order to mentor the student towards the PhD degree.
Director of Graduate Studies:
  • Make sure that the Advisory Committee is well balanced containing theorists, experimentalists, experts and non-experts in the field.

Typical Timeline

X: Main responsibilities
x: Other responsibilities

Time To Do Student Advisor Committee
Deadline If the student wants a MA degree, then he or she will need to submit the "Apply to Graduate" process in DukeHub by the given deadline per semester set forth by the graduate school X    
-3 months The Advisor discusses with the student the time and the topic of the preliminary exam. X X  
-3 months The student writes a Title and Prelim-Abstract of no more than one page in length and submits it to the Advisor for approval. The Advisor approves the Title and Prelim-Abstract. X X  
-3 months Three months before the exam the Advisor, in consultation with the DGS, forms the Advisory Committee and submits their names to the DGS for approval along with the Title and the Prelim-Abstract.  At the same time the student sends the Title and Prelim-Abstract to the committee. X X x
-5 weeks The Advisory Committee Approval Form must be filed with the Graduate School, by sending to the DGSA the list of the members. At the same time the student sends the Title and Prelim-Abstract to the committee. X X x
-4 weeks Four weeks before the exam the student distributes the Prelim-Report to all members of the Advisory Committee. The Advisor oversees this process. X x x
         
-3 weeks Three weeks before exam the student files the "Proposed Program of Study" form with the DGSA. X x  
-2 weeks Two weeks before the exam the Advisory Committee meets for the Pre-Prelim Meeting. The Advisor brings the student's "Proposed Program of Study" and transcripts to this meeting. The Advisor brings the "Pre-Prelim Committee Meeting form" to the Assistant to the DGS at the conclusion of the meeting.   X X
-1 week One week before the exam the student obtains the prelim assessment forms and Graduate School "Report of Prelim" form, from the DGSA X    
-1 week One week before the exam the student sends out a reminder to all the members of the Committee about the exam. X    
Exam The Oral Preliminary Examination X X X
+ 1 hour Student brings signed Graduate School "Report of Prelim" form to the DGSA X X X
+ 1 day The Advisor collects all the assessment forms from the Advisory committee and brings them to the DGSA.  The committee members can bring them to the DGSA individually if they prefer.   X X
+1 week Within one week of the exam the summary of the Committee is written and approved by the Committee and given to the student and the DGSA.   X X
  Any remedial work specified by the Committee must be carried out according to the timeline specified in the Committee summary. X x  
  The Advisory Committee meets with the student when needed. After a meeting, a brief written summary is distributed to the Committee, the student, and the DGS. X X X

Note: Departmental deadlines are flexible upon agreement of the DGS and/or the Advisory Committee. Graduate School deadlines are rigid, especially the Committee Approval submission and the completion and passing of the Preliminary Exam by the end of the sixth semester.