Ph.D. Preliminary Exam Process


The goal of the preliminary exam process is to guide and assess students in doctoral programs for formal entry in to candidacy for a Doctor of Philosophy administered by the VMS department. The candidate will be assessed as to their application and understanding of the scientific foundation of knowledge, process of inquiry and philosophy of their discipline.


The preliminary exam consists of two parts: i) a general knowledge test that should be taken at the end of the first year of study and ii) a written and oral examination based on the student’s independent research proposal immediately following the completion of the majority of their didactic courses, typically at the end of their second year. Annual renewal of stipends, research assistantships, and teaching assistantships will require the student to complete the exams at the designated time for their program. Students can request scheduling modifications from their advisory committee for extenuating circumstances. The student and mentor are responsible for completion of both parts. This includes not only agreeing with the committee to a scheduled time, but also filing the necessary scheduling paperwork with the Graduate School at NDSU. The paperwork should be submitted to the Graduate School in association with the proposal examination only. For both exams, the department chair will be present as an observer, to ensure the examination process is followed as described below. The observer will not participate in the examination of the student.

Checkpoint One: General knowledge test

The purpose of the general knowledge test is to ensure that students have the requisite grasp on fundamental areas of knowledge that will be essential for success as a doctoral candidate. Accordingly, this checkpoint coincides with formation of the graduate committee near the end of the student’s first year in residence. The exam results inform the committee’s approval or modification of the plan of study. There are three possible outcomes:

  • If no deficiencies are noted, the plan of study is approved without modification.
  • If minor deficiencies are noted, the plan of study may be modified to address minor deficiencies in the student’s fundamental knowledge of the discipline.
  • If major deficiencies are noted in the student’s fundamental knowledge of the program, the plan of study will be modified, including the possible addition of remedial courses. In this case, the student repeats the general knowledge test at a later date established by the committee, typically within 1 or 2 semesters. If major deficiencies are still noted in the second general knowledge test, the committee can recommend that the student move to the M.S. program.


Approximately one month prior to the oral exam, the student selects 3 articles of interest, each from a current edition of a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The 3 articles should address areas of interest to the student but should be unrelated to each other. The student should review article choices with their advisor, and the advisor should approve the articles before sending to the committee. These articles become the foundation for the general knowledge test. The student and advisor also complete the plan of study at this time and submit the three articles and the plan of study to the committee at least two weeks prior to the scheduled exam period. Each member of the advisory committee reads the articles and prepares approximately 10 questions, in total, aimed at examining the student’s grasp of foundational knowledge in microbiology.

Conduct of the general knowledge test

  • One committee member is appointed as timekeeper.
  • Committee members take turns asking questions from their list.
  • The advisor may elect to ask questions or may opt not to, thus allowing the rest of the committee more time.
  • The student is allowed up to 10 minutes response time per question, during which any committee member may engage in dialogue with the student and with each other. However, the committee member who asked the question may, at their discretion, close out the question prior to 10 minutes elapsing. This will permit the examiner to close a question when they are satisfied with the answer or to move on if the student flounders while answering the question.
  • After 10 minutes, the group must move on to the next question. This will permit equal opportunity for all committee members to assess the student.
  • The total examination shall last no longer than 90 minutes
  • The student or advisor may request a single 10-minute break at any point, for any reason. However, the break signifies the end of the current question. Upon resuming, the next question will be asked. Other break schedules must be requested in advance and will be considered and authorized in accordance with graduate school policies for student accommodation.

Checkpoint Two: Research Proposal

Concept for proposed research

The student shall develop a concept for their proposed research in consultation with their mentor. The advisory committee shall be notified in writing of the proposal topic. The committee will have no less than 5 business days to discuss the topic with the mentor and the student. The committee’s approval of the proposal topic should be treated as highly desirable.

Expectation of independence

The proposal submitted by the student shall be the student’s own independent work. The proposal should be developed in consultation with the research mentor, colleagues, and collaborators. However, the mentor is expected to allow the student editorial and intellectual authority over the proposal to every reasonable extent, and the written proposal should be solely the product of the student’s work.

Composition of proposal

The written proposal shall consist of a major individual research grant proposal containing a project narrative of at least six pages in length. The targeted program for the proposal can vary, but should be approved by the advisory committee along with the concept. The targeted program should be administered by the NIFA, NIH or NSF. It can include predoctoral, postdoctoral or the main research programs in the chosen institute. The mentor is expected to provide guidance on the requirements and scientific focus of the target program including helping the student decipher formatting requirements, preliminary data requirements, etc.

At a minimum, the proposal should contain information corresponding to the following criteria:

  1. Project summary and impact statement
  2. Background and justification/significance of the proposed work
  3. Preliminary data
  4. Specific hypotheses or objectives
  5. Approach: experimental design and technical methods
  6. Expected outcomes
  7. Project timeline
  8. Biographic sketch
  9. Draft budget

Submission of proposal

The student shall provide the advisory committee with a PDF document of their proposal no less than 10 business days prior to their scheduled oral exam. The advisory committee members and mentor are expected to devote considerable effort to analysis and criticism of the written proposal.

Format of the oral examination

The student, mentor and committee shall decide, in advance, whether the student will publically present their research plan to the department. Such a presentation will serve to summarize the student’s proposed research and illustrate how the proposed work fits into the larger field of study. The presentation of the proposed research can be formatted to serve one of two purposes: i) to provide the department an opportunity to comment on the student’s proposal no more than 48 hours in advance of the preliminary examination or ii) to provide insight into the student’s proposed work not more than one week following successful completion of the proposal examination.

The entire advisory committee, the student and the mentor shall participate in the oral examination. The oral examination shall be conducted in a private venue and shall not exceed 2.5 hours in length. During this time the advisory committee and mentor can question the student on any facet of science related to their proposed research.

The student shall be responsible for scheduling venues for the exam and any other events associated with it.

There are three possible outcomes for the checkpoint two exam:

  1. A result of “Pass” indicates that there are no significant deficiencies in either the written or oral examination of the student. The student advances to candidacy for their Ph.D.
  2. A result of “Conditional Pass” shall be given when the committee feels that one or more of their specific expectations was not met. The student receiving a “Conditional Pass” shall receive a written report of the specific deficiencies that they are to address. The student is then expected to address any deficiencies according to the committees expressed requests in not more than 10 business days after receiving a written report from the advisory committee. In the case of a “Conditional Pass”, the advisory committee will nominate a single member, who is not the mentor, as the arbiter of whether the student has sufficiently met all conditions.
  3. A result of “Fail” shall be given when there is evidence of significant deficiencies in either the written or oral components, and that these deficiencies cannot be corrected without major improvements to student’s performance as a scientist. The first “Fail” will result in a single grace period in which the student can significantly rewrite their proposal and retake their oral examination not more than six months following the original oral exam. Two failures will trigger the student’s dismissal from the doctoral degree program. There exists an opportunity for the student to appeal for a third attempt after review by the Graduate School.

Oral Assessment and Criteria

The candidate will be assessed according to the following framework in relation to their scientific discipline. Not all topics will be explicitly covered in every oral examination, but the committee must be satisfied with the student’s capacity in any topic that is covered in order for the student to receive a “Pass”.

Foundation of Knowledge

  • Can cogently discuss topics from their coursework – can relate fundamental knowledge from coursework to their research proposal
  • Can cogently and thoroughly discuss the state of their field
  • Critically evaluates models and hypotheses in their field

Process of Inquiry

  • Understands experimental design in the context of their field
  • Can cogently discuss models and hypotheses related to their work
  • Can discuss the utility of descriptive science and the current needs in their field
  • Can discuss model-testing science and the characteristics of the main models and hypotheses in their field
  • Can discuss the characteristics of technology-development and the current applications in their field

Philosophy of science

  • Approaches their proposed work empirically; can discuss assumptions underlying their proposed work
  • Can cogently discuss the challenges/knowledge gaps facing their field
  • Can discuss social and personal biases underlying their work; can engage in criticism of their own ideas
  • Can cogently discuss the logical characteristics of experiments and can evaluate primary data to discover the logical strengths and weaknesses of inferences from the literature
  • Understands the ethical issues surrounding their own work and relating to their field.
  • Can critically evaluate research proposal design, constraints and outcomes to propose future research

Written assessment and criteria

Project summary

The project summary meets the criteria for the target program and discusses both the intellectual significance of the research and the expected impact of the research on society.


The presented background material presents the most relevant past research in the area and demonstrates the significance of the work.

Preliminary data

The preliminary data are relevant to the specific objectives/hypotheses proposed and support the research. If actual data is not available, published literature is an acceptable substitute

Specific Objectives/Hypotheses

  • The specific aims are well defined, novel, and achievable.
  • The aims are neither redundant or co-dependent, i.e., falsification of one hypothesis will not invalidate other objectives in the proposed work.


  • The approach is well-suited to the specific aims or hypotheses proposed.
  • The technical (benchwork) objectives are achievable within the project timeframe with existing technology.
  • Pitfalls and assumptions are clearly identified and dealt with by proposing alternative approaches.

Expected outcomes

  • Proposed outcomes directly address specific aims/hypotheses
  • Proposed outcomes are realistic given the approach and the state of the field.
  • Significance of achieving project goals is clear.

Project timeline

The project timeline is realistic.

Timeline for the Preliminary Exam