PhD Preliminary Exam

About the Preliminary Exam

The goal of the Preliminary Exam is to evaluate students’ readiness for creative, rigorous and independent research at the PhD level. The exam tests the general technical background of the students in civil engineering, environmental sciences and engineering, as well as their critical thinking, synthesis, and communication skills (oral and written). This exam will be in the form of writing and presenting a research proposal. The preliminary exam committee comprised by the student’s primary advisor and a committee formed as follows.

First-year CEE Ph.D. students will each be invited to write a short proposal that demonstrates creativity and critical thinking skills, on a topic within the student’s research domain but not directly related to their ongoing research or anticipated Ph.D. dissertation. This topic will be selected by the examination committee in consultation with the student’s advisor. The student will have two weeks to prepare this proposal and aim to present it during the week prior to commencements. A 20-min presentation will be followed by questions from the examination committee, consisting of three faculty members including their advisor. The questions may extend beyond the proposal theme to ensure core competency skills and advise students of potential areas that require strengthening (e.g., through future course work).

The exam will be documenting using the PhD prelim evaluation sheet CIVI or ENVI.

Brevity is appreciated (e.g., 10-page limit including figures but not references, 11-point font, 1-inch margins, 1.5 spacing).


The proposals should consider the following evaluation criteria:

  1. Intellectual merit and originality of the overall proposal.
  2. Evidence of a broad understanding of topic or problem they aim to solve (i.e., the Need for proposed research), and critical knowledge gaps and barriers.
  3. Approach (including hypothesis and scientific basis)
  4. Feasibility and expected Benefits (including broader impacts).
  5. Consideration of Competition and alternatives, with proposed benchmarking as appropriate (see NABC to define a value proposition, next page).

The following proposal format is suggested:

  1. Introduction (Include problem statement and motivation).
  2. Objective, Hypothesis, and Significance.
  3. Literature Review (Should be a brief but critical review that shows you can discern critical gaps directly relevant to your proposal).
  4. Approach and Technical Research Plan, including expected results (Should be credible and feasible. You may include original graphics and tables of experimental design with controls as appropriate).
  5. Expected Benefits and Deliverables.
  6. References.


The four fundamentals that define a project's value proposition:

  • Need: What are our stakeholders or societal needs? A need should relate to an important and specific societal challenge or opportunity that could be addressed by science and technology. With the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for example, we are required to state a critical Department of Defense (DoD) need. The need should be significant enough to merit the necessary investment and development time.
  • Approach: What is our compelling solution (or hypothesis) to address the specific need? Draw it, simulate it or make a mockup to help convey your vision. As the approach develops through iterations, it becomes a full proposal, which can include deliverables and a timetable. DARPA usually demands paradigm-shifting approaches that address a specific DoD need (e.g., a 10-times improvement).
  • Benefits: What are the client (or stakeholder) benefits of your approach? What are the broader impacts? Each approach to a client need results in unique benefits, such as low cost, high performance or quick response. At DARPA, the benefit might be an airplane that turns faster, goes higher, costs less or is safer. Success requires that the benefits be qualitatively and substantially better - not just different. Why must we win?
  • Competition/alternatives: Why are your benefits significantly better than the competition? Everyone has alternatives. We must be able to tell our client or partner why our solution represents the best value. To do this, we must clearly understand our competition and our client alternatives, and sometimes do direct comparisons with appropriate metrics (i.e., “benchmarking”). For a commercial customer, access to important IP is often a persuasive reason to work with us. At DARPA, our competition is usually other research laboratories and universities across the United States. But, whether to a commercial or government client, you must be able to clearly state why your approach is substantially better than that of the competition. Your answer should be short and memorable.

Exam Time

The exam can last anywhere between 60-90 minutes unless the committee decides to exceed this time to help with its deliberation. The committee will provide immediate feedback to the student at the end of his/her exam period. Students are requested to submit a copy of their critical review and any prepared slides to the Graduate Studies Program Administrator for record-keeping.


Students who fail the preliminary exam either fully or partially can petition for retaking the exam. Petitions will be considered on a case-by-case basis by the graduate committee and the department chair. All pass/fail decisions will be approved by the preliminary exam committee, the graduate committee and department chair. Students who fail the preliminary exam twice will not be allowed to continue in the Ph.D. program.

A student who passes the written and oral part of the preliminary exam becomes eligible for taking the qualifying exam.

Evaluation criteria for CIVI and ENVI