In the semester that qualifying exam is passed, students are expected to form a Ph.D. committee. In addition, students should have a Prelim committee in place prior to writing their proposal and scheduling the prelim exam. To learn more about the guidelines and process of forming a Ph.D. committee, visit the Ph.D. Committee section.


Writing a good proposal is an important part of being a successful researcher. The Thesis Proposal (Preliminary Exam) is viewed as an important milestone that helps students develop this skill. The Ph.D. student writes a proposal that is submitted to the Ph.D. committee prior to the exam. The Thesis Proposal presentation gives the Ph.D. committee a formal opportunity to evaluate the research progress and goals of the student. Thus, the two main purposes of the Preliminary Exam are to develop proposal writing skills and to obtain feedback on the research plan from the Ph.D. committee.

Exam Policies

  • The Thesis Proposal presentation (Preliminary Exam) should be held within a year or two of passing the Qualifying Exam. It may be taken no later than five semesters after passing the Qualifying Exam. Effective Fall 2012 term, all students must now be registered for the term in which the Prelim Exam occurs.
  • All Ph.D. candidates whose native language is not English, regardless of US citizenship, must pass the TSE(passing score is 50), the SPEAK(passing score is 50), the TOEFL iBT-speaking subsection(passing scores is 24), the IELTS-speaking subsection(passing score is 8), or the EPI Exam (passing score is 5) administered by the university, prior to attempting the Preliminary Exam. For students who have entered the program fall 2011 and foward must complete this requirement before attempting the Qualifying Exam.
  • The Thesis Proposal must be submitted to the Ph.D. committee at least three weeks prior to the exam. This gives the committee sufficient time to carefully read the proposal and evaluate the ideas. Failure to submit the proposal on time may result in having to reschedule the exam.
  • The Ph.D. committee for the exam must satisfy the five criteria given in the Ph.D. Committee section. The proposed committee and exam date must be submitted to the Academic Office at least 3 weeks prior to the exam by completing the Prelim-Final Exam form. The Graduate College requires this time to approve the committee and officially appoint it. Effective Fall 2012, the Graduate College will require an original "wet" signatures of the "Chair", "Co-Chair" and "Department Head" on the Prelim Exam Result form.
  • The committee and format of the exam must also satisfy the exam policies defined by the Graduate College

Contact Maggie Metzger Chappell (or at 333-4428) in the Academic Office with any questions.

Guidance on How to Write the Proposal

  • A balance must be struck between satisfying severe space limitations and providing the most critical details. The proposal is not a binding agreement between the student and the Ph.D. committee on the precise tasks that must be accomplished. Through frequent interactions with Ph.D. committee members, the student can adapt the specific thesis accomplishments as necessary.
  • The Thesis Proposal should be between 15 and 25 pages (when single-spaced format). Bibliographic references are not included in this page count (having more references is encouraged). There are no explicit page limits or formatting requirements. If proposals are much shorter or longer than the norm, the Ph.D. committee will question the reasons for this. If the proposal is much too long, the committee may recommend rescheduling the exam after the proposal is rewritten.
  • Three main criteria are usually applied in evaluating a proposal (the first two are similar to the National Science Foundation's guidelines for evaluating research proposals).
    • Intellectual merit: What is the importance of the activity to advancing knowledge or understanding?
    • Expected impact: What impact can be expected in terms of particular research communities and on society in general?
    • Feasibility: How likely are the stated goals to be achieved by the candidate?
  • Based on these criteria, the Thesis Proposal should contain:
    • An overview of the state of the art, which helps to show that the candidate has a good grasp of the relevant research fields.
    • A brief summary of research results obtained so far by the candidate. This includes citing prior publications and current submissions produced by the student.
    • A clear description of the remaining problems and goals.
    • Some details of the proposed technical approach.
    • Clear arguments as to why the work is interesting in terms of intellectual merit and expected impact.
    • An explanation of how the goals can be accomplished within the expected amount of time.
  • The Thesis Proposal should not be
    • A preliminary draft of the thesis.
    • Particular chapters or parts of the thesis.
    • A survey of the candidate's research field.
    • An existing publication or technical report.

Photo of students collaborating

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