Before the first day of spring semester classes in the third year in the Plant Biology Ph.D. program, students will have ideally completed the requirements of the preliminary exam. Students have two options for their preliminary exam; which option a student pursues is a joint decision of the student and their committee.
It is advisable that the student meet in person with their committee to discuss the preliminary exam. This means the student should be holding a committee meeting in the spring semester of their second year or fall semester of their third year to discuss the preliminary exam with their committee. They would then be taking their preliminary exam sometime during their third year. The options are as follows:
(1) a traditional subject-matter exam, whereby each committee member submits questions that the student must answer in a defined time, followed by an oral exam that may follow the topics of the written exam or range elsewhere; or
(2) a research proposal, whereby the student proposes to the committee a research proposal idea subject to their approval, after which they write and submit the proposal for committee evaluation and ultimately defend the proposal as the oral part of the examination (which may also include general plant biology subject matter questions).
The procedures for the traditional written exam are as follows:
Each member of the advisory committee prepares a set of questions for the student’s response, and the answers to each set are returned to the appropriate faculty member for grading. The student and committee should establish the plan for the exam, i.e., how and to whom the committee members will submit the questions (usually to the committee chair who then conveys them to the student on the scheduled days for each set); the specific dates the student will be working on each committee member’s questions (this should be written down and approved by all parties); how the student will submit the answers (usually to the committee chair, who then conveys them to the committee member); the specific rules for each set of questions (some may be open-book or allow use of web resources, others may not; the specific format and rules for each set of questions is at the discretion of the individual committee member); any variance on the time limit (the norm is 48 hours per set of questions, but the committee may agree that one or more of its question sets can have longer time); and a timeline for committee member evaluation of the answers.
The committee members submit their evaluations of the student’s answers to the committee chair together with whether or not they authorize “permission to proceed” to the oral examination. The committee must be unanimous that the student has permission to proceed. If there is unanimous consent, then the committee chair notifies the student and the DGP of that result and the student proceeds with the oral examination as outlined below. If there is not unanimous consent, then the committee chair must work with the committee to determine the next steps. The committee may recommend a reexamination, may issue a conditional permission to proceed, the conditions of which must be met before the student can proceed to the oral exam, or the committee may indicate that the student has failed the exam and should no longer participate in the graduate program. Each of these options requires consultation with the DGP and provision of documentation to the student, DGP, and the Graduate School. The DGP will also inform the student of their options regarding appeals and grievances.
If the student has received permission to proceed to the oral exam, they work with their committee (including the Graduate School Representative) to identify a time and date for the oral examination. It is a good idea to have established a tentative oral exam date at the beginning of the examination process (making sure to include sufficient time between the written exam and the proposed oral exam date for the committee to evaluate the student’s answers. Once a date has been confirmed by all committee members, the student prepares and submit to the DGP the Request to Schedule an Oral Examination. Note that the form must be submitted no later than 10 working days prior to the proposed date. If the student is submitting the form close to the 10-day deadline, they should confirm that the DGP will be available to review and submit the form to the Graduate School. If any committee members will be participating remotely (this cannot be the Graduate School Representative), another form is required and is also subject to the 10 working day deadline. Request to conduct Remote Oral Examination.
In the oral exam, committee members may question the student on any phase of the course work taken by the student during graduate study or any subject logically related to an understanding of the subject matter in the major and minor areas of study. The questions are designed to measure the student’s mastery of his/her field and the adequacy of preparation for research, to test the student’s ability to relate factual knowledge to specific circumstances, to use this knowledge with accuracy and promptness, and to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the field of specialization and related areas.
The outcomes of the preliminary oral exams can be an unconditional pass, a conditional pass, or a fail. The outcome is formally reported to the Graduate School on an exam report form. Conditional passes require a specific statement of what the student must do in order to pass. This should include dates by which those benchmarks will be accomplished. The report requires that a Fail be accompanied by the committee’s judgment of what comes next: either a reexamination (include an estimate of the date when that would occur) or termination from the program. The DGP must be involved in discussing options for failed exams. The DGP will also inform the student of their options regarding appeals and grievances.
The procedures for the research proposal option are as follows:
This option requires even more extensive communication with your committee. Again, a student is urged to meet in person with their committee as a whole to discuss the specifics of their preliminary exam. The student need to work hard to determine the expectations of each committee member and make sure that they make every effort to meet those expectations. External committee members and committee members from other departments may not be familiar with the proposal option (their department may only have a question option preliminary exam). Make sure they understand the process and our program expectations. Take nothing for granted and make sure you know in advance what the committee members are expecting. This includes such mundane matters as the format of the research proposal. Generally, the committee will expect the student to follow a specific granting agency’s proposal guidelines (i.e., National Science Foundation, US Department of Agriculture, National Institutes of Health). Confirm with the committee which of these is expected and whether or not all components of a standard grant proposal are to be included (i.e., a budget, current and pending support, facilities statement, etc.) Be sure you know if you are to adhere to the strict page limits of the agency or if the committee will impose a higher page limit.
The research proposal exam consist of two parts, the written proposal and an oral defense by the student before the members of the Advisory Committee.