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. The proposal should follow the general format of a NSF or NIH grant. A typical proposal is 10-12 single-spaced pages in length exclusive of references.  It must be thorough and of the highest quality.

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 discuss relevant reviews and published literature that provides a background for and justification of the questions to be addressed in the dissertation. It should show the student’s understanding of the central concepts described in the research proposal. The Specific Aims section should concisely summarize the specific critical questions that the research is intended to answer. In the Preliminary Results section, unpublished results related to the dissertation topic should be described. The Experimental Plan should describe how the questions raised in the proposal will be addressed and why the questions are important. It should include a description of the approaches and techniques that will be used to conduct the research. It is recommended that the proposal include alternative approaches to address unexpected results. The question of how the anticipated results will advance knowledge in the area of research should be discussed. It is helpful to end the Experimental Plan section with a summary and a brief description of future directions.

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 a 20-30 minute presentation of the Dissertation Proposal to the Ph.D. Advisory Committee followed by questions from members of the committee. The questions will focus on the research proposal, but may include any question or topic 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.