Dissertation Proposal/Preliminary Examination

Doctoral students are expected to complete the Preliminary Examination by the end of their third year in the program. The Preliminary Exam is the defense of a written Dissertation Proposal. The exam will consist of two parts; Part I, approval of the written Dissertation Proposal, and Part II, an oral defense of the proposal before the student’s Ph.D. Advisory Committee.

After the proposal has been approved by the Advisory Committee, the student must submit the Doctoral Dissertation Proposal Hearing Form (Milestones). The student should also request the Doctoral Preliminary Examination Warrant at least three (3) weeks prior to the oral exam date from the Department’s Graduate Program Assistant. The student must also file the Application for the Doctoral Preliminary Examination(s) available in the online doctoral Milestones system. From this application, the Graduate School determines the eligibility of the student to take the Preliminary Examination. The oral defense of the Dissertation Proposal/Preliminary Examination can proceed after approval of the Graduate School, as noted in the Milestones system.

Part I: The Written Dissertation Proposal

Doctoral students must prepare a formal, written Dissertation Proposal outlining the objectives and methodologic approach of his/her proposed research project. A typical proposal is 10-15 single-spaced pages in length exclusive of references. The length of individual Dissertation Proposals may vary depending on the extent of the preliminary results and of the details included in the experimental plan. The proposal must be thorough and of the highest quality. The advisor may assist in formulating the specific aims and research goals of the proposal, but it is expected that the student writes the proposal with subsequent editing assistance from the advisor. The Advisory Committee may provide reviews and literature to assess the student’s understanding of general concepts related to the area of research.

The proposal should include the following sections: 1) Abstract, 2) Background and Significance, 3) Specific Aims, 4) Preliminary Results and 5) Experimental Plan. An Abstract of approximately one page should briefly describe background information pertinent to the research being proposed and mention the unanswered questions the proposal will address. The Background and Significance section will provide background and justification for the questions to be addressed in the dissertation. It should include a discussion of relevant reviews and published literature demonstrating the student’s broad understanding of the central concepts described in the research proposal as well as specialized information pertinent to the specific area of research. The Specific Aims section should concisely summarize the critical questions that the research is intended to answer. In the Preliminary Results section, unpublished results related to the dissertation topic should be described. Research data that establish the importance, relevance, and feasibility of the questions being addressed in the proposal are included in this section. The Experimental Plan should state the hypothesis of each specific aim and describe how the questions raised will be addressed. It should include a description of the approaches and techniques that will be used to conduct the research. The approaches should be described in sufficient detail to illustrate the student’s understanding of the proposed approaches and techniques. The anticipated results should be presented and the significance of the results should be discussed. It is recommended that the proposal include alternative hypotheses/approaches to address unexpected results.

The Dissertation Proposal must be submitted to and approved by the student’s Ph.D. Advisory Committee two weeks before the Preliminary Examination is to be taken.

Part II: Oral Defense of The Dissertation Proposal

The student will give an oral presentation of the Dissertation Proposal to the Ph.D. Advisory Committee. Members of the committee will ask questions during and/or after the presentation. The questions during the exam will focus on the research proposal, but may include any questions or topics relevant to the area of research. The final decision concerning the outcome of the Preliminary Examination will be made by a majority of the Advisory Committee. Once the student has passed the exam he/she must file the signed departmental Doctoral Preliminary Examination Warrant with the Biological Sciences Graduate Program Director.

If a student fails the Preliminary Examination, the Ph.D. Advisory Committee will decide if the student can retake the exam for a second time. If the student fails a second time, a retake is not allowed. For students retaking the Preliminary Examination for the second time, failure of any part (or all) of the examination will result in dismissal from the Graduate Program. The student’s Ph.D. Advisory Committee may appeal to the departmental Graduate Committee to allow a student to retake the exam for the third time. Direct appeals from the student to the departmental Graduate Committee will not be considered.

The student may petition the Graduate School to take only one (1) credit during the semester that he/she intends to take the Preliminary Examination, even while receiving financial support as a TA, PA, RA, or Fellow. To request the one-credit exception, the student must have completed the Application for the Doctoral Preliminary Examination(s) available in the online doctoral Milestones system before the start of the semester. Such a petition will be granted only once during the student’s tenure in the Ph.D. program. The Examining Committee is usually the same as the Ph.D. Advisory committee, but may be any three appropriate UWM graduate faculty or Ph.D. committee members approved by the latter.