LAAS Preliminary Exam

The Written Preliminary Examination and Oral Preliminary Examination must be passed by every PhD candidate. The purpose of these exams is to demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of core concepts in Land and Atmospheric Science and within the student’s specific sub-discipline; and to assess the student's analytic ability, creativity, and potential for successful completion of the PhD program in LAAS. The student is responsible for completing all Preliminary Exam-related forms and procedures that are required by the Graduate School and LAAS (see Both the Written and Oral Preliminary Examinations should normally be completed by the end of the student’s second year in the program. If you have questions, please contact the LAAS administrator, Kari Jarcho (, 612-625-5251).

Part A - Written Preliminary Examination

1. Students develop, write, and orally defend an original, hypothesis-driven research proposal that:

    • outlines a series of experimental approaches that will test the validity of the hypothesis
    • establishes the scientific context of the proposed research with respect to prior work and the current state of knowledge in the field
    • demonstrates knowledge of core information and concepts in their field within Land and Atmospheric Science

The Written Proposal is an NSF or USDA-style research grant proposal. The proposal must be hypothesis-driven and an original contribution by the student. It cannot be based on one that was supplied by the advisor. The proposal topic should be selected by the student and approved in advance by the exam committee. The proposal must contain an abstract, a brief review of the literature pertinent to the specific question, a detailed description of experiments designed to test the hypothesis, a discussion and interpretation of the anticipated results, a concise statement of the significance of the project and a list of references.

2. The written proposal should be submitted to the examination committee by eight weeks prior to the end of the student’s second year in the program. The preliminary exam committee should review the proposed title and outline to verify that it does not overlap substantially with the student’s current research. They should then vote whether or not to approve the proposed title and outline. If the committee does not approve the title and outline, the student must submit a revised title and outline.

3. The proposal should be 5-8 single-spaced pages (12 pt font, 1” margins), not including references or figures, and will be distributed to all members of the exam committee. Each member of the exam committee, with the exception of the minor field examiner, will prepare a written critique.

4. Examiners will be asked to comment specifically on the creativity, originality and validity of the proposal and of the experimental approaches proposed to test the postulated hypothesis as well as on the quality of the presentation.

5. Within 2 weeks of receiving the proposal, the exam committee will take an “pass or fail” vote on the acceptability of the research proposal and the readiness of the student to proceed to the oral examination phase.

6. If the proposal is deemed acceptable by the exam committee, the oral examination is then scheduled for a date not later than 6 weeks after the exam committee vote.

7. If the proposal is deemed unacceptable by the exam committee, the student will have ONE opportunity to revise their proposal. The revised proposal should be submitted no more than 3 months after the evaluation of the initial proposal is returned, and may be submitted earlier depending on the extent of revision required. The exam committee will then vote on the revised proposal within 2 weeks of its receipt. If the revised proposal is found acceptable by the exam committee, the oral exam shall be scheduled for a date not later than 6 weeks after the exam committee vote.

8. The preliminary exam committee consists of a minimum of 4 faculty members. The Graduate School requires 3 major field members and 1 “minor or supporting program” member. The committee is selected by the student in consultation with the DGS and Advisor. The DGS will maintain balance on the committee. The student’s advisor must represent the major on the committee. The student shall select one faculty member in the major field to serve as chair of the exam committee; this can be the student’s advisor if desired. See for more details.

9. The preliminary exam committee is not necessarily the same as the thesis committee, but can be. Students can change the membership of the thesis committee as needed based on the development of the student’s thesis research.

10. In the case of an irreconcilable disagreement among the exam committee members regarding the written preliminary examination, it shall be the responsibility of the DGS to determine a solution.

Part B - Oral Preliminary Examination

1. The oral preliminary examination must be scheduled within 6 weeks of the exam committee’s acceptance of the written proposal.

2. The oral preliminary examination will be used to 1) test the student’s ability to present and defend the written proposal (Part A) (no more than 45 minutes) and 2) to test the breadth of the student’s knowledge of fundamental concepts in Land and Atmospheric Science and their specific sub-discipline (90-135 minutes).

3. At the beginning of the exam, the student will give a short oral presentation introducing the written proposal to the committee. Preliminary data are not required. This presentation can be a maximum of 20 minutes in length. Committee members will NOT be allowed to ask questions during the student’s presentation.

4. Following the presentation, committee members will ask questions about the written proposal or topics related to the written proposal. The total time for the presentation and questions from the committee on the proposal will be 45 minutes.

5. For the remainder of the exam, the committee will test the student on breadth of knowledge of fundamental concepts in Land and Atmospheric Sciences.

6. The outcome of the examination, with all committee members present and voting, is recorded in one of three ways: pass, pass with reservations, or fail. The voting proportions necessary for these decisions are as follows: if the committee consists of four members, a favorable verdict for passing consists of either a unanimous vote or a vote of 3-1; if the committee consists of five members, a unanimous vote or a vote of 4-1 is needed; if the committee consists of six members, a unanimous vote or a vote of 5-1 or 4-2 is needed; and if there are seven members, a unanimous vote or a vote of 6-1 or 5-2 is needed. Candidates who do not earn committee votes in these proportions fail the examination. If, to achieve the minimum number of votes to reach a verdict of pass, any vote of pass with reservations is included, then the outcome will be recorded as a pass with reservations. A vote to pass the student with reservations still constitutes a passing vote.

A pass with reservations is appropriate when the student demonstrates overall competence, but is found to be deficient in some specific area. In this case, the student is informed immediately, but the committee is permitted one week in which to convey its reservations to the student in writing, informing the student of the steps that must be taken to remove them. A copy of this letter must be sent to the Graduate School and should accompany the signed Oral Examination Report Form. The committee may require that the student take a specific course to address the deficiency, take a second oral examination confined to that subtopic, or write a scientific paper on the topic. Any additional requirements are to be completed within 6 weeks of the original oral examination. When the student has satisfied the committee's reservations, a second letter informing the student and the Graduate School that the reservations have been removed and that the student may proceed toward the degree is also required. Both letters should be written by the committee chair. In the case of a fail vote, the student may, at the discretion of the examining committee, have one opportunity to repeat the oral examination and must obtain either a pass or a pass with reservations to remain in the program. The re-examination must be conducted by the original preliminary oral examining committee, and in no case may the re-examination take place before 10 weeks have passed after the first oral examination. No more than one re-examination is allowed.

More information is available at the Graduate School Website.