Oral Preliminary Exam

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 Ph.D. degree at Duke University.

Eligiblity and 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.

The exam must be taken before the end of the Spring semester of the student's third year.

Exam Format

The format of the exam can vary considerably depending on the committee. Applied math committees will often have students do presentations on ongoing or proposed research; pure math committees will often only ask questions based on the courses. You should meet with your individual committee members to learn what is expected of you for the exam.

Exam Committee

  • The preliminary exam is an oral exam presented in front of a committee consisting of at least four professors. 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. The Graduate School will provide a form that allows the remote participant to report their vote.
  • A member of the graduate faculty in Math (GFM) is someone who is a member of the graduate faculty of the university and holder of a primary or secondary appointment in math. 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 GFM.  At least two of the committee members must have primary appointments in Math.
  • One committee member is designated to represent the minor area. The major and minor areas must be sufficiently separated.
  • Professors from other Universities can serve on preliminary exam committees. To do this they must be appointed term members of the GFM.
  • The committee must be approved by the Graduate School. The student fills in the necessary information on the committee approval form then turns it over to the DGS Assistant for submission.
  • Once the Graduate School approves the committee, there is a 30-day waiting period before the exam can take place. 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.
  • In most cases, the preliminary exam committee will also be the committee for the Ph.D. thesis defense.

Exam Process

  • Once the exam schedule has been decided, the student informs the DGS Assistant of the time and place it will be held.
  • 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.
  • Satisfactory completion of the preliminary exam requires that at least 3 of the 4 committee members, including the committee chair, cast an affirmative vote. (On a committee with 5 members, at least 4 affirmative votes are required.)
  • Results are entered on a Preliminary Exam Report Form. All committee members must sign this form. If a committee member voted to "Fail," the word must be written clearly next to their signature.
  • Each exam committee member will fill out a Math Department Preliminary Exam Assessment form.
  • If a student fails the preliminary exam they may, with consent of the full supervisory committee, take the exam a second time.
    • The second exam must be given by the original exam committee.
    • The second exam cannot be taken sooner than three months after the date of the first exam.
    • Successful completion of the second exam requires the affirmative vote of all the committee members.
  • If the student passes the second exam then the failure of the first exam will not appear on the student's official Duke transcript. Failure of the second exam, though, will render a student ineligible to continue in a Ph.D. degree program at Duke University.