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Preliminary Oral Exam

The Grad School requires doctoral students to take a preliminary examination consisting of a written examination and an oral examination.

Typically, students in the Chemistry Department present prelims by the first semester of their third year in the program, (fifth semester). However, according to the Grad School, students presenting a prelim must have completed all relevant, graded coursework relevant to the exam. All doctoral students should plan to present the prelim during the start of their third year before October 15, if you started in the Fall semester, or before March 15, if you started in the Spring semesterFinalize with your committee by either October 1 or March 1 depending on your date of entry into the program. The prelim in chemistry typically consists of a written document, an oral presentation, and the actual defense.

The written document includes a detailed literature review, research accomplishments including an ACS-formatted experimental section (synthetic details, spectral data, etc.), and future research plans for completion of the PhD. Your committee must receive the written document at least one-two weeks before your exam date. You may not be allowed to present your prelim if any one of your committee members is dissatisfied with the document.

Prelims typically occur within a three-hour block, during which you give an oral presentation. While there is no specified length for the oral presentation, students should be able to effectively and concisely communicate the following three major components: i) a critical review of pertinent literature, ii) a description of completed research, and iii) a presentation and discussion of future research plans.  Note: students are NOT allowed to read aloud their oral presentation, even if conducted online. Your committee will weigh all of these components, although individual situations may dictate otherwise.

Three possible outcomes exist: Unconditional Pass, Conditional Pass, and Fail. An Unconditional Pass means you will  advance to candidacy and you will continue in the doctoral program until, when your committee decides you are ready, you defend your final dissertation . A Conditional Pass means that your committee may, 1. Require you to complete additional work by a set date before deciding on an Unconditional Pass, or 2. Require you to retake the prelim no earlier between four to five months after the initial exam. Failure to pass the prelim will result in a change in program status from PhD to MS with the requirement of defending a MS thesis shortly thereafter.

Scheduling the Prelim

Before scheduling your prelim, you must have an approved Plan of Work. The Grad Office will not schedule an exam until you sign your Patent Agreement, submit your POW and it is approved by your committee and the Graduate School.

At least ONE TO TWO MONTHS IN ADVANCE, reserve a three-hour block, preferably* no later than 9:00 AM for morning exams or between 1:00 and 2:00 for afternoon exams once your committee settles on a date and time. We recommend that you reserve the room earlier rather than later due to the demand on available conference rooms. Contact the Chemistry Graduate Office ( to reserve DAB 210 or COX 400. Please contact Premila Jayaratne ( for PIII.

NOTE: All available conference rooms are in high demand during the Fall semester and we will not honor last minute reservations, so finalize your exam time and date as early as possible or you face having to present in an undesirable room or having to reschedule.

Turn in your completed Request to Schedule Doctoral Oral Examination form TO THE CHEMISTRY GRADUATE OFFICE no later than three weeks prior (15 working days, M-F) to your exam date. The form itself states a two-week window, but we prefer three weeks to check your Plan of Work, check your file in MyPack for any outstanding issues, and to allow the Graduate School time to find your Graduate School Representative. We may not be able to process forms received fewer than two weeks (10 working days) prior to your scheduled exam date due to Grad School regulations. If you forget to turn in your form, you may have to reschedule — NO EXCEPTIONS. The Grad School requires enough time to assign a representative to attend prelims (if one is required). Committee members do not need to sign the Exam Request Form but the Director of Graduate Programs (DGP) does need to sign. The Graduate School will electronically send your actual exam results form, Report of the Committee, to your committee.

*Each division has developed specific requirements that go hand-in-hand with our general program requirements. This includes scheduling and holding prelims in slightly different formats. Please review your corresponding divisional requirements and consult your advisor if you have any questions: Analytical, Inorganic, Organic, and Physical.

The Grad Office typically emails the entire department announcing your Preliminary Oral Exam prior to your exam. If you do not want your exam announced due to any reason, please inform the Grad Office in advance. Your scheduled exam will also be added to the Chemistry Events Calendar.

The Graduate School Representative

The Grad School Representative (GSR) has a unique role during the preliminary and final doctoral exams. The Representative protects the interests of the student, the advisory committee, and The Graduate School. The Representative is also an “unbiased person” to whom the Dean may turn for judgement and counsel in the event any issues arise after an exam. The Department of Chemistry’s Graduate School Liaison works with the Dean to appoint Graduate Faculty at random to serve as GSRs on student committees when a student schedules a prelim. If you know a Graduate Faculty member from another department, please ask them to serve as your GSR.  This would greatly assist the quick completion of your committee. If you already have a Graduate Faculty member on your committee from another department, ask them if they would agree to serve a dual purpose, as a voting member and as GSR. Do not forget that your GSR must also attend your final defense.

When scheduling your prelim, if needed, take into account that the Graduate School Liaison must find someone willing to serve as your GSR. When scheduling exams after hours (i.e. after 5:00 PM) The Dean has informed us that you must find your own GSR or make sure your committee has outside representation. The Graduate School WILL NOT assign your GSR in this case and if you do not have one, you will not be able to go through with your prelim.

In the event that your GSR cannot make it to your scheduled exam, please have that person contact the Graduate Office. If your GSR does not arrive at your exam, your exam should be put on hold or rescheduled. Please contact the Grad Office immediately in such cases.

The Prelim Document

Your committee, as well as the GSR, must receive the prelim document at least one-two weeks before  your scheduled exam. The prelim document should convincingly show that you have a firm understanding of the following:

  • The area of study, including the fundamental concepts, key research questions, and important literature
  • What you have accomplished in the project, why you did the work, and how the results are interpreted
  • Planned future work to complete the project.

A strong document typically consists of a good balance between literature, completed work, and future research plans. Thus, plan on dedicating approximately 1/3 of the paper to each of these areas. However, the faculty recognizes that individual situations may cause variations in organizational structure. A concise paper can be as short as 15 pages including abstract, figures, tables, and references. Keep in mind that the first statement, above anything else, determines the course of the document rather than any preset page minimum. Please adhere to the following layout specifications: Single-spaced, 12-point, Times New Roman font with 1” margins on all sides.

Organize your document using the following guidelines:

  1. Abstract
  2. Background and literature review
  3. Specific research objectives
  4. Description of completed work
  5. Future research plans
  6. Bibliography
  7. Figures and tables (if not embedded in the text)


NOTE: Please limit the amount of beverages you bring into any of our conference rooms and clean up after your event. Rooms that are not cleaned after being used by students will no longer be available for ANY student meetings or oral exams of any kind.

Students customarily provide a small amount of refreshments for oral exams; refreshments are your responsibility. You can bring pre-brewed coffee from places like Whole Foods, Starbucks, Cup-O-Joe, Dunkin’ Donuts, Chick-fil-A, etc. (note, some need 24-48 hr. advance notice). Plan to set up at least thirty minutes in advance of your defense, or plan accordingly if room is occupied before your exam. If you are on Main Campus or Centennial Campus, ask your lab mates to help you set up. Clean up whichever room you use and leave it as you found it. Not cleaning up rooms will result in fewer available locations for student presentations of any kind.