Pitt | Swanson Engineering
Graduate PhD Prelim -- FAQ

Graduate PhD Prelim


Frequently Asked Questions for BioE Prelim Examination

Q: Is my report supposed to be a critique of the reference paper? 

A: Neither the written document nor the oral presentation is supposed to be a critique of the reference paper. Of course, you should discuss the reference paper (and any other relevant material) in the Background and Significance section of the written component and refer to it briefly during the oral presentation. However, the focus should be on your approach to solving the stated problem. Please note that you should be thoroughly familiar with the reference paper - you may be asked questions related to the contents of this paper during the oral presentation.

Q: How "big" should my problem be? 

A: Limit the scope of the problem. This is not a thesis proposal with multiple aims and a wider scope – a single, focused problem is all that is necessary. If the problem scope is too wide then you may end up spending a lot of time setting up the problem, as opposed to focusing on your proposed approach to solving the problem.

Q: How closely related to my Research Project can my Prelim Project be? 

A: Short Answer. If someone had already published your research project, do you think you would be able to get your prelim project published? Or would a journal say that there was nothing "new and improved"?

The prelim topic is allowed to be 'related' to your research topic, but not too closely. What do I mean by 'too closely'? The Prelim Exam is designed to test your ability to design an independent research project. Most students' research projects will have been heavily influenced by their advisors (and therefore go beyond the "assistance" allowed by ones advisor) and is not a good representation of the students' ability. We therefore require students to come up with a separate project.

It is natural that this project be within your area of expertise. Given the variety of projects and topic areas in our department, there is no strict rule for "how different is different enough", but this is something that the committee will ultimately judge.

Q: Should both my oral and written components address both biological and engineering aspects of my problem? 

A: Yes, please do not forget about the engineering and biological sciences aspects of your problem. The recognition of these aspects should also come across in your pre-approval abstract as well as the oral and written components. It is entirely up to you how you want to address this issue during your presentation -we are simply asking that you do not ignore it.

Q: Can I get outside help? 

A: Certainly the written and oral components should bed of your own making and in your own words, but you are free to utilize outside resources. Although no one should do your work for you, you are free to use peers, colleagues, advisors, etc. as resources to help you formulate your problem and your proposed research track. The committee also has no problem with your preparing for the oral presentation by giving practice talks to lab members or friends.