Preliminary Exam

For many students taking the prelim can be the most daunting and stressful part of their PhD.  It takes place at a time when you have finished most of your classwork, but do not have much experimental experience and are still trying to dig through the overwhelming amount of papers trying to get a grasp of your research project. While it can feel overwhelming and intimidating at times, bear in mind that the prelim are an essential part in your preparation for your thesis to ensure that you are ready to embark on your research project and that the research project is built on a solid foundation. The prelim is there to ascertain that will have a successful PhD.

Furthermore, apart from command of the subject, the prelim also teaches you important skills that will be useful for your thesis and research career, such as creativity, scientific writing, oral presentation, answering questions on the spot and promoting your view of science and scientific ideas.

The preliminary exam consists of two parts:

  1. A F31-style written proposal based on the student’s thesis project. This proposal should consist of 2-3 specific aims. At least one of these aims must be independently conceived and developed by the student and not based directly on any work proposed by or ongoing in the thesis lab.
  2. An oral presentation that includes defense of the proposal and general knowledge. “General knowledge” includes the thesis field of research and all coursework preceding the exam.

Timeline for Completion

The prelim exam should be completed by the end of January of the student’s second year in the thesis lab (second year in graduate school for MB/BC entrants or Directly Admitted students and third year for MD/PhD students).

by September 30th

Select a thesis committee (who will also act as the Preliminary Exam Committee), schedule a date and room for 2 hours and notify the Graduate Program Administrator.

by January 31st

take the Preliminary Exam

4 weeks before exam

Send the Specific Aims page to the committee members and meet individually with each committee member to discuss the specific aims

One week before exam

Submit the final proposal to the committee and prepare a presentation that would take 30 minutes to present without interruptions.

For detailed information of how to prepare the written proposal and the oral presentation please see our handbook (link).

Tips for oral presentation

The presentation is not just about giving information about your project, but also creating interest and enthusiasm for what you will do. Here are some tips to help you prepare:

  • Before you get started, talk with other students to get as much information as you can on the prelim exam process. The more you know the better you can prepare and the less stressful the prelim will be.

General

  • Clearly articulate the main question you are investigating and why. Focus your talk around that question.
  • Create a strong introduction stating what is known on your topic, what questions are unanswered, how you will address this gap in knowledge and why it is important for them to learn about.
  • Organize your thoughts and slides. Be logical. Provide an Introduction, Methods & Results, Conclusion and Acknowledgement section.
  • When presenting data, briefly explain the experiment and provide a conclusion of each figure.
  • Do not get lost in details, unless they are essential in the overall understanding of your topic.
  • Less is more. Keep you focus on the main question and do not try to cover too much material.
  • Define terms early and often. You will immediately loose the audience if you are speaking in unfamiliar acronyms.
  • Transition from slide to slide by including a one sentence introduction and conclusion for each slide to help your audience follow along.
  • Repeat yourself. The audience will thank you for a reminder of the main question from time to time.
  • Time yourself and practice! Make sure that you stay within the time limit. The more you practice the more comfortable you will be during your presentation.
  • It is fine to keep some notes, but do not read from a script. It is best to memorize the transitions from slide to slide.
  • For the conclusion go back to your main question, summarize your project in one or two sentences and explain what we will learn and gain from what you are doing.
  • Keep a backup copy on a memory stick in case your computer has issues.
  • Chat with your committee members before the presentation. It will make you appear more approachable and calm your nerves.
  • Remember that the audience is on your side and wants you to succeed, even if it feels that they seem indifferent at times.
  • If someone asks you a question that stumps you, it is fine to admit that you do not know the answer. You are not expected to know everything and we are all learning new facts every day.
  • Give yourself some grace and don’t be too hard on yourself. Everyone gets nervous giving talks.
  • Be excited and enthusiastic about your project, enjoy yourself and smile at the audience!

Slide Design

  • Standardize a design template, use the same style for each slide
  • Use a large and easy to read font, eg. Arial or Helvetica, no smaller than 24 point for the main text
  • Use a Header on each slide and use the same font for the header on each slide, eg. bold and bigger than the text of the body
  • Use bullet points, do not write in complete sentences, use about 6-8 words max per line
  • Use different colors for impact, do not use italics, it is hard to read
  • Do not overload your slides, keep them uncluttered, one slide one message
  • Avoid special effects, animations or flashy transitions, unless they essential to the understanding of your project
  • Use contrasting colors for text and background. Avoid using patterned backgrounds as it can reduce readability of text and graphs.
  • Use good quality images
  • Use 1-2 large images per slide rather than a lot of small images.
  • Add graphs or charts to visualize the concept of your thesis.
  • As a rule of thumb, prepare one slide per minute of the talk (30 slides for 30 minutes)

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