Preliminary Examination

The primary purpose of the preliminary exam is to determine if the student has acquired the specialized knowledge necessary for their proposed dissertation research. 


From the Graduate School Bulletin:

"The obligatory milestone examinations for PhD students are the preliminary and dissertation examinations. The requirements for the composition of the committee are the same, regardless of the examination, though its individual members may change over time. This committee also typically serves as an advisory committee to the student during his or her studies, and should be appointed to reflect research expertise that is helpful in guiding and evaluating the student’s research project. This committee must include at least three Graduate Faculty members from the major field of study, and at least one from a minor area, being from outside the degree program or from a clearly differentiated subfield within the degree program. At least two members of the committee, including the chair, must be faculty in the degree-sponsoring department or program. A majority of the committee must be Duke University faculty members, except in the case of joint PhD programs with other universities. This committee, with all members participating, will determine a program of study and administer the preliminary examination. The student’s milestone committee, either the same or with some or all members replaced as needed, will also examine the dissertation and administer the final examination." 

Student To-Do List

  • Complete the Graduate School's committee approval form and submit to the DGS Assistant.  Do this as soon as possible, and at least 45 days before you wish to take the exam.   Once the Graduate School approves the committee, there is a 30-day waiting period before the exam can take place, and the department will need time to review the form before it is submitted to the Graduate School.  (You do not need to have the the exam date, exam time or syllabus at this point.
  • The student and their research advisor will write the syllabus to be covered in the major and minor topics of the exam. This outline must be approved by the preliminary exam committee members and submitted to the DGS one month before the exam. The syllabus is important because it clearly defines the material for the exam.
  • The student is responsible for scheduling the exam with the committee and reserving a room for the exam. It is strongly recommended that you do this at least two months in advance. Inform the DGS Assistant of the time and location.

Eligibility & Timing

A student must be registered during the term in which they take the preliminary exam. With permission of the committee, the exam can be conducted during the break between terms but only if the student is registered for the term before or the term following the break.

Students are strongly encouraged to take the exam as early as possible, and ideally by the Fall of the third year.   The exam must be taken no later than the Spring of the third year.


The format of the exam can vary considerably depending on the committee. Meet with your individual committee members to learn what is expected of you for the exam.