The “Prelim” Exam is taken 1.5-2 years after entering the graduate program and coincides with successful completion of the Pharmaceutical Sciences Major Course Requirements. It is important to view this exam not so much as a hurdle but more as an important educational exercise.
The Preliminary Exam should be completed by the end of August of your second year. The exam consists of two written components –  a short summary of your research progress (3 pages) and  an independently written research proposal (see IV, below, for format). Copies of your Research Progress Summary and Preliminary Exam Research Proposal should be provided to all members of your Thesis Committee at least two weeks in advance of your exam date. You should begin scheduling your Preliminary Exam with your Thesis Committee at least two months prior to your targeted exam date. Allow two hours for the examination.
I. Goals of the exam:
- To assess student knowledge in both general background of his/her field of study and more specific knowledge related to the thesis research
- To determine if the student can independently identify an important and novel scientific problem and provide feasible research strategies to address the selected problem
- To assess the student’s ability to recognize possible pitfalls in the long range planning of a research proposal and present methods of adaptation to circumvent such pitfalls
- To determine if the student can develop a logical attack on a specific problem (i.e., which experiment comes first, second, etc.) and to reasonably gauge both the scope and anticipated timeline for a proposed research project
- To determine if the student can defend the proposal and think on his/her feet
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II. Topic of the Research Proposal:
- The topic of the research proposal can be based on the student’s thesis research or an independent proposal, based on the discretion of the thesis advisor.
- If the student is writing a proposal that is not based on their thesis research, the advisor can offer input to ensure that the proposal topic is within their general field of research. This will ensure a useful assessment by the committee during the exam.
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Prior to the exam:
- Complete the Pharmaceutical Sciences Course Requirements.
- Schedule the Preliminary Exam with members of your Thesis Committee (inform the SoP Graduate Program Coordinator (GPC) at least 4 weeks prior to date of exam, to generate the accompanying paperwork needed).
- The GPC will request a warrant from the Graduate School and will notify the student when the forms can be picked up. There are two (2) forms that the Thesis Committee needs to fill out and sign—one from the Graduate School, and one that is Pharmaceutical Sciences Program-specific.
- Begin working on the proposal (see Section IV) and a written overview of your thesis research.
At the exam:
- The student presents a brief oral presentation describing their thesis research progress, followed by an oral presentation describing their research proposal.
- During the presentation, the student responds to questions by the Thesis Committee. The questions can be based on anything directly or tangentially related to the material presented.
- The Thesis Advisor, as a voting member of the Thesis Committee, will be present for the exam but should only participate as an observer during the oral exam (i.e., the Thesis Advisor should not field questions or coach the student in any way during the examination).
- The Thesis Advisor is permitted to ask questions of the student during the examination.
- After the presentation, the Thesis Committee will make a decision (Pass; Request Written Revisions; Request Written Revisions and a repeat of the Oral Defense; or Fail) concerning the student’s performance and will sign the Pharmaceutical Sciences Preliminary Exam Form. If the decision is positive, the Committee will also sign the Graduate School’s Warrant.
Following the exam (PASS):
- The student should provide signed copies of the Warrant, PharmSci Prelim Exam Form, and research proposal to the GPC.
- The GPC will obtain the signature of the Pharmaceutical Sciences Division Faculty Chair and will forward the Warrant to the Graduate School.
Following the exam (if WRITTEN REVISIONS are needed):
- Notify the GPC of the Committee’s “written revisions” decision regarding the research proposal.
- Complete the requested revisions to the research proposal and obtain the signature of the Thesis Committee on the revised document. Their signatures will confirm that satisfactory revisions have been completed.
- Provide a copy of the Warrant, PharmSci Prelim Exam Form, and Thesis-Committee-signed copy of the revised research proposal to the GPC.
- The GPC will obtain the signature of the Pharmaceutical Sciences Division Faculty Chair on the Warrant and will forward it to the Graduate School.
Following the exam (if WRITTEN REVISIONS and a REPEAT of the ORAL DEFENSE are needed):
- Turn in the PharmSci Prelim Exam Form to the SoP GPC immediately following the original defense.
- Schedule a new defense with your committee and revise the research proposal as they suggested
- Once the recommended revisions have been made and the oral defense repeated, the student will be required to turn in a new PharmSci Prelim Exam Form with a new decision indicated by all the committee member signatures.
- Provide a copy of the Warrant, the new PharmSci Prelim Exam Form, and the revised research proposal to the GPC Office.
- The GPC will obtain the signature of the Pharmaceutical Sciences Division Faculty Chair on the Warrant and will forward to the Graduate School.
Following the exam (FAIL):
- Discuss the recommendations with the Advisor and the Thesis Committee.
- Student must turn in the PharmSci Prelim Exam Form and unsigned warrant to the GPC and inform the GPC of the committee’s recommendation.
- If the Prelim Exam is not successfully completed, a student cannot continue in the Pharmaceutical Sciences PhD Program.
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IV. The Preliminary Exam Research Proposal—Content; Format; Writing Specifics
- A student must consult with their Thesis Advisor when writing the proposal.
- The topic of the research proposal will be based on the student’s thesis research or an independent proposal, based on the discretion of the advisor.
- The topic of an independent proposal should not be so far off from the student’s field of research that their knowledge of that area cannot be properly assessed. The Thesis Advisor should be consulted in this regard.
- Prepare the proposal in a format similar to a NIH F31 predoctoral grant application. See https://grants.nih.gov/grants/how-to-apply-application-guide/format-and-write/page-limits.htm for more information.
- Format and page limit requirements are described below. Prelims should minimally include these five parts:
- Project Summary/Abstract (30 lines of text)
- Project Narrative (3 sentences in “lay person’s” terms)
- Specific Aims (1 page)
- Research Strategy (6 pages) (single-spaced, half-inch margins)
- Eleven (11) point font should be used throughout the proposal. Adherence to this format and page limit will be considered in the final evaluation.These five components will meet the goal of evaluating graduate student’s critical thinking and will provide applicants with committee peer review if they choose to submit a F31 fellowship. Pharmaceutical Sciences graduate students who are planning on submitting an F31 may also want to consider optional submission of two additional components, in order to receive critical feedback on these from their thesis committee:
- NIH Biosketch for Trainee
- Applicant’s Background and Goals for Fellowship Training
- If your proposed research involves human subjects or animals, you must inform yourself of the appropriate campus compliance committee and anticipated approvals required for the proposed research. For information about these committees, with instructions on obtaining approvals and completing the required training, see https://research.wisc.edu/compliance-policy/human-research-protection-program/ for the UW-Madison Human Research Protection Program (HRPP) and https://www.rarc.wisc.edu/ regarding the Research Animal Resources Center (RARC).
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SOME NOTES REGARDING PARTICULAR SECTIONS OF THE WRITTEN “PRELIM”
- State the broad, long-term objectives.
- Describe concisely and realistically what the specific research is intended to accomplish and any hypotheses to be tested.
- Briefly sketch the required background from which to evaluate the proposal’s significance and novelty.
- Critically evaluate existing knowledge.
- Specifically identify the gaps in knowledge that the project is intended to fill.
- State concisely the importance of the research described in this application by relating the specific aims to the broad long-term objectives. Outline the experimental design and the procedures intended to accomplish the specific aims of the project.
- Detail the means by which the data will be collected, analyzed and interpreted.
- Describe any new methodology and its advantage over existing methodologies.
- Discuss the potential difficulties and limitations of the proposed procedures and alternative approaches to achieve the aims.
- Provide a tentative sequence or timetable for the investigation.
- Point out any procedures, situations, or materials that may be hazardous to personnel and precautions to be exercised.
- Each citation must include the title, names of all authors, book or journal, volume number, page numbers, and year of publication (use a consistent format).
- Make every attempt to be judicious in compiling a relevant and current list of literature citations; it need not be exhaustive.
- This does not count as part of the 6-page Research Strategy page limitation.
- Figures that are critical to the proposal should be included within the 6-page limit.
- The student will have the opportunity to present other figures at the oral preliminary exam.
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