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. The preliminary exam is part of the Graduate School requirements for a PhD degree at Duke University.


Complete the committee approval form and submit to the DGS Assistant. A student should NOT delay starting the committee approval process. A student only has to provide the list of professors and a description of the minor area to start the process — not the exam date, exam time or syllabus as discussed below.

The chair of the committee should be the student's research advisor. At least three committee members (including the chair) must be a members of the Mathematics Graduate Faculty. At least two of the committee members must have primary appointments in Math. Professors from other Universities can serve on preliminary exam committees. (To do this they must be appointed term members of the Mathematics Graduate Faculty.)

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 before the end of the spring semester of the student's third year.) Once the Graduate School approves the committee, there is a 30-day waiting period before the exam can take place.

Schedule the exam with the committee and reserve 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.


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.

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 week before the exam. The syllabus is important because it clearly defines the material for the exam.

At most one committee member may participate by video conference (e.g. skype). This must be approved in advance by the Graduate School. This approval is routine but may take several days to obtain, so plan ahead.