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Lessons Learned: Preliminary Exam

Hellloooo from the other side!

We’re so happy to announce that we have both successfully passed our prelim exams! Some programs may refer to this as a ‘qualifying exam’, and both tend to invoke a sense of dread among first and second year PhD students. As fate would have it, we took our exam on the same day and shared a committee member as well. Friendship goals, amirite? Even though we passed our exams almost two weeks ago, we both took some extra time off to recuperate because our brains were so fried. But now we’re back and ready to share our experience with you all! Have a read, especially if you’re also preparing to take your qualifying exams soon :)

What is our prelim like?

Most programs will have unique prelims or quals, but they all have the same general, stressful vibe. Programs typically emphasize that failure of the prelim or quals can result in dismissal from the program. Staff in molecular engineering have been open about the fact that no one has been kicked out of the program due to failing the exam. A small, nagging thought may still murmur "There is a first for everything!" and leads to a great deal of stress for students as they prepare.

From our graduate student handbook,

"The Preliminary Examination is the first test, after admission, of a MolE student’s potential for a successful career in original research at the doctoral level. The Preliminary Exam is designated to evaluate a student’s scientific knowledge, research, and presentation skills, creativity and time management."

Our molecular engineering prelim is supposed to be taken in the fall quarter of our second year. At the start of this quarter, students select faculty members to be on their committee. This is typically done with the help of the PhD advisor, who should also be on the committee. Once the committee is selected, you work with your committee to decide on a date for the exam.

For the exam itself, there are two parts.

1. Two written reports: a paper critique and a research write up. Three weeks prior to the exam, we are given the paper selected by our committees to critique in depth; because of this, students typically spend those three weeks away from the lab and spend most time working on exam preparation. These papers should be about a topic that is adjacent to our research areas, so both of us had to acquaint ourselves to a new research topic from the papers. One week before the exam, the written portions are submitted to the committee.

2. Two presentations on the paper critique and our research. On the day of the exam, we present to our committees who then ask us questions about our presentation to explore our knowledge of the field. The oral exam itself is roughly two hours long, and we are rated on our critical thinking, knowledge of scientific and engineering principles, ability to make original/independent research progress, ability to formulate research plans, written communication, and oral communication.

Before the Exam

First and foremost, know that you are enough.

Imposter syndrome may rear its ugly head and you may worry that you can’t do this, but you can! You were accepted into your program for a reason.

Set early goals.

We had 3 weeks to prepare 2 reports and 2 presentations. It’s a lot. The knowledge that experts in the field will be seeing them adds an additional strain. It was so important to set early goals and map out what tasks to focus on every day. Make sure to leave some time for studying extra materials and rehearsing your presentations.

Have an accountability buddy!

The weeks leading up to your exam can be so isolating (particularly during these times). We took time off from the lab and stayed inside our apartments practically all day long. Having an accountability buddy was so helpful for our sanity and making sure that we kept on track with accomplishing our goals! Because our exams were on the same day, we were each other's accountabilibuddies. At the start of our 3 weeks, we made a list of deliverables and dates to have them complete (e.g. outline done by 11/20, research writeup done by 11/27). If one of us didn’t have the deliverable complete by the specific deadline, we owed the other a chai latte. You can choose your own repercussions if you don’t meet a deadline.

Take meaningful breaks.

You’re way more productive when you take breaks. Do something meaningful such as spending time with your pet/roommates, work on a new hobby you’re trying to cultivate during quarantine, or take time to cook a warm meal. Seattle was unusually sunny and glorious during our prelim prep, so Ayumi spent time outside in the sunshine on her breaks.

Make backup slides.

We can't emphasize enough how useful a set of 'backup slides' can be during a presentation. If there is something you don't want to forget (a chemical structure, an equation, a specific pathway, data you hadn't presented, etc.), you can make a backup slide with the details. If committee member asks a question about it, you can pull it up and look highly prepared. We both made over a hundred backup slides each (because we are extra, and we definitely don't recommend making that many) and found that during the exam itself we only ended up using 1-2 of them. Making these detailed slides was quite useful for studying, so we ended up not even needing to pull them up! As they say, better to have them and not need them. For smooth transitions between backup slides: once you have finished organizing them, write up a list of each slide's title and what slide number it is. Keep this list handy during your exam. You will find that in google slides and PowerPoint, you can type in the number/hit enter and the corresponding slide will pop up. You won't need to click through a ton of backup slides to get to the one you want to show, and risk being questioned on anything that pops up in the other backup slides.

Present your work to people outside of your research area.

Sometimes you can get so caught up in the details of your work that the simplest questions can really catch you off guard. Ayumi learned all about how CT scans work and how to read a basic CT scan, just in case she was questioned on a figure containing CT scans in her paper, but she was initially thrown when her siblings asked about a common symptom of the disease she was presenting on. These kind of sessions can help you recognize what you know and don't know. Having (non-scientist) family and friends listen to our presentations and asking questions kept us accountable for understanding the basics of the research (why and how we ran certain experiments).

During the Exam

Have a cup of tea/coffee and water.

Phuong got this really helpful advice from an upperclassman. Having a cup of tea around helped soothe her throat during the exam (talking for a full two hours is hard!). More importantly, it also set the atmosphere of the exam to be more similar to a coffee discussion about research rather than a panel of professors grilling you. Ayumi had a mug of coffee and water bottle ready. It also helps to take a sip if you have to gather your thoughts before answering a question!

Admit when you don’t know the answer, but give it your best shot.

You’re a student and your committee knows this. They don’t expect you to be able to answer every question. The purpose of the exam is to test the boundaries of your knowledge and evaluate your critical thinking. If you don’t know the exact answer to a question, share with your committee what you know and what you think the answer would be.

Pause before answering questions.

In retrospect, this is something we both wish we did. The exam is not a speed competition. We don’t know about you, but stress can make us say things that we did not intend to say. Pause to think about how to phrase answers to your questions rather than just blurting out the first thing that comes to mind (like what Phuong did).

Helpful phrases.

Ayumi made a list of useful phrases when answering questions from her committee. She didn’t end up using them word for word, but having some responses prepared made her feel more confident during the oral exam.

  1. “You’re right, that is a drawback. If I ran into that problem, I would address it with ______.”

  2. “I haven’t thought about the problem from that perspective! I’ll have to think about it and get back to you.”

  3. “I’m not familiar and would like to read more about it. Do you have any recommendations?”

  4. “I am not familiar, but based on my knowledge of ______ and ______, I think ______ would happen.”

  5. “That may be outside the scope of this project, but it could make for an interesting exploration in the future! I would start by ______.”

After the Exam


You did it! It is over and done. This weight is officially off your shoulders, so take a deep breath and soak in the freedom.


This is a major PhD milestone! Do whatever you need to treat-yo-self after. We both didn't really know what to do with ourselves after 3 weeks of non-stop preparation. Free time? We don't know her. Take the time to celebrate this accomplishment, whether that means playing Spore for 2 entire days, binging a show/book, or downing an AMF with friends (over zoom, of course).

You are worthy as a human being regardless of your performance in this one exam.

Stress, unexpected illnesses, family issues, and more can really affect your performance. Phuong literally got food poisoning the day prior to her exam, so she definitely wasn’t in the right headspace! Life is out of your control at times, and you just have to do the best with what you’ve got. We need to be kind to ourselves (after this train wreck of a year, we deserve it).

Thank the folks who helped you along the way.

It takes a village! Shout out to Ayumi's family, in particular her mom who videochatted every day for 5 days straight so Ayumi could practice her presentation, brother-in-law Chris who went as far as reading her assigned scientific paper so she could practice presenting her critiques, and her partner Kyler who went on stress runs with her, took on the bulk of household duties, and made her plenty of coffee.

Reflect on the things that went well and things that didn’t.

This reflection period can happen immediately or a couple of days after the exam, as long as it happens! Don’t dwell on what you could have or should have done differently. Focus on aspects where you can improve (without being hard on yourself) and the areas where you succeeded. Talk with your PhD advisor and ask for feedback. Don't take negative critiques personally! This is just data to remember when you present again in the future, including the general exam or the defense. But that's a stressful topic for another time.

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