Preliminary Examination and Proposal Defense

The Preliminary Examination is a requirement for all doctoral students. This examination must be taken at least six (6) months before the Final Examination must be scheduled through the Virginia Tech Graduate School at least two (2) weeks in advance via Graduate School’s Electronic Signature System ESS.

The purpose of the Ph.D. Preliminary Examination is to determine the student's ability to formulate a plan to conduct research leading to a Ph.D. The examination shall consist of an oral presentation of a specific research proposal for work leading to a Ph.D. dissertation. The presentation shall provide the advisory committee with an appropriate literature review, identification of the research problem, preliminary results and/or a discussion of specific problems leading up to the dissertation work. 

Examination Process

After the pre-proposal presentation, the committee will identify a series of questions related to the proposed research to serve as the preliminary examination. Typically, these questions will be formulated to address gaps identified in the pre-proposal by the committee that must be resolved before the final proposal can be prepared and defended. While the specific format and timeline of the preliminary examination may vary based on the recommendations of the committee for each student, all preliminary exams include a formal oral presentation that addresses the questions posed by the committee to constitute the preliminary exam. Other aspects of the timeline and format for the preliminary exam are at the discretion of the advisory committee.

Typically, students will be given a series of questions, either all at once or sequentially, that must be answered within a specified period of time determined by the committee. The questions are typically related to gaps or unclear areas identified in the pre-proposal. Accordingly, answers to the questions may be either prepared individually in response to each question, incorporated directly as part of the revised proposal presented to the committee for the formal proposal defense, or both. In any case, the written outcome(s) of the preliminary exam, including the revised final proposal, should be prepared and provided to the committee for review no later than one week before the formal oral preliminary exam is scheduled.

The content of the oral preliminary exam is at the discretion of the committee but typically includes an overview of the student’s responses to each preliminary exam question along with an overview of clarifications and changes to the pre-proposal. The successful outcome of this meeting is a clear understanding by both the committee and the student of the scope and approach to be taken for the student’s doctoral research.

Students should schedule the exam by submitting a Request to Admit Candidate to Preliminary Exam through the Graduate School’s Electronic Signature System at least two weeks in advance of the proposed date. Requests to schedule examinations must include the time, date, building and room number, and title of dissertation or thesis. The student’s Advisory Committee is required to approve the examination before it is offically scheduled. The examination should not be conducted if the Advisor has not received notification via email that the examination has been scheduled and the examination request has been received. Required examinations are administered during regular academic semesters or sessions, i.e., between the first day of classes for a given semester or session and ending with the last official day for examinations. Permission to schedule an examination in the time between sessions may be granted if an explanation of special circumstances requiring that scheduling is made to the Graduate School by the student’s Advisor.

At least four Advisory Committee members are required to participate in the Preliminary Exam. Students must schedule a mutually agreeable date for the formal oral Preliminary Examination with all members of the advisory committee. If one or more members of the advisory committee cannot participate in person or virtually in the meeting, those members must recommend to the chair a faculty member with suitable qualifications to serve as a proxy for the meeting. The Chair of the Advisory Committee should then request, in a brief letter accompanying the exam request, that another faculty member serve on the Examining Committee. The proxy will have full voting rights in determining the outcome of the examination. Those conducting the examination must all indicate whether they consider the student's performance to be Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory via the Graduate School Electronic Signature System.

To pass the preliminary exam, a graduate student is allowed at most one Unsatisfactory vote. If a student fails an examination, one full semester (a minimum of 15 weeks) must elapse before the second examination is scheduled. Not more than two opportunities to pass any one examination are allowed. A student failing any of the examinations required by Graduate Policies two times will be dismissed from graduate studies by the Graduate School.