Pitt | Swanson Engineering
Graduate PhD Prelim

Graduate PhD Prelim

A brief description of the Ph.D. Preliminary Exam follows:

Graduate Handbook 


More Information

F.A.Q.- Frequently Asked Questions

Review Criteria- A general description of the review criteria used by the Examination Committees

Please note that individual tracks may have more specific criteria.

Exam Website- You will be granted access to this website after you sign up for the prelim exam during the Spring semester of your examination year.

General Timeline and Progression

Abstract Pre-approval

Typical Submission Deadline: Last Day in April

The abstract is used by the track coordinator to assess the appropriateness of the proposed topic for the Bioengineering PhD Preliminary Exam. Approval of the topic does not ensure (or assume) that the student will appropriately address those issues.

Written Component

Typical Submission Deadline: Track-Dependent

Oral Component

Typical Submission Deadline: Last Day in April

The purpose of the preliminary examination is to evaluate the student's ability to use fundamental principles of biomedical science and engineering approaches to investigate solutions to bioengineering problems. The basis of the examination is a specific research question (problem), chosen byte student.

The student may seek assistance from his/her advisor or any other faculty member for choosing the question. The examination will consist of an oral presentation and accompanying written document (see below for details).The written document and oral presentation should demonstrate the student's ability to think, present, and defend in an academic environment, as well as a sufficient background in the biomedical science and engineering aspects of the chosen problem.

The examinations will be coordinated within the current graduate tracks. They will typically take place at the end of the first year of graduate studies and be evaluated by a committee composed of at least 3 faculty members with expertise in engineering and the life sciences. The scheduling of the examinations will be handled by the track coordinators, who will also determine the suitability of the research question problem) (having both engineering and biomedical science components). The student may get help from any one in preparing the oral presentation, but must observe the usual strict standards on plagiarism in preparing the written document. Proper referencing of sources is required for both the oral and written components. One important paper in the field must be identified in the references and made available to the reviewers, who may ask for an explanation or critique of any aspect of the paper. The research proposal may be supported by preliminary data, but this is not a requirement.

The track coordinator determines the composition of the examination committees. These should include a broader spectrum of expertise than would normally be present on a dissertation committee and should include both biomedical science and engineering expertise. The student's advisor (or mentor) should be in the room during the oral presentation, but must remain silent. The committee will solicit the advisor's input after the student has left the room. The review process should not focus on evaluating the appropriateness of the research topic and/or feasibility of the proposed research methods. Rather, the examination committee is expected to probe the student with challenging questions to establish the depth of his/her creative and analytical thinking, as well as knowledge in appropriate background areas. The examiners ‘questions should be broad enough to include material that is relevant (or even remotely relevant) to the subject being presented, to test the student's ability to think on his/her feet.

The final result of the preliminary examination will be based on the combined evaluation of the written and oral components, with three possible outcomes: unconditional pass, conditional pass, and fail.

Conditional pass will be accompanied by specific corrective actions, such as remedial courses to be taken by the student. In the case of failure, the candidate may retake the preliminary examination one additional time.

Detailed Specifications

Scheduling of the Oral Examination. The oral examinations will be scheduled by each track coordinator to occur once a year during the summer months. The oral exam will typically be scheduled during June or July, dependent on availability of the Exam Committee members.

Pre-Approval. The student will submit to the bioengineering prelim website (1) an abstract (maximum

250 words) summarizing the research problem, (2) his/her choice of the track for all subsequent evaluations, (3) names of the faculty member(s) who participated in the formulation of the question, and (4) suggestions for potential evaluators (if any). It is critical that the abstract clearly identifies both the engineering and biomedical sciences aspects. A reference paper should also be submitted at this time.

This paper should be of limited focus and directly relevant to the proposed research question and would likely come from a peer-reviewed journal. It would be helpful to have this paper utilize engineering techniques with an application towards biological or medical problems. The pre-approval material should be submitted no later than April 30. Because the pre-approval process will be conducted on a rolling basis, students are strongly encouraged to begin the pre-approval process as soon as possible. Don't wait for the April 30 deadline.

Written Component. The written component should be submitted to the Bioengineering Prelim Website no later than May 31. This component will be 6 pages maximum, single-spaced, including tables and figures (not including references), to be distributed along with the abstract and reference paper to the examination committee put together by the appropriate track coordinator. Once again, students are strongly encouraged to submit the written component as soon as possible don't wait for May 31 deadline. The written component should contain the following three sections.

Section Suggested # Pages

Specific Aims 1

Background and Significance 2.5

Research Design and Methods 2.5

The Specific Aims section should introduce the problem and outline the major steps in the proposed solution. The Background and Significance section should describe the existing state of the field and the motivation for the research, including a review and critique of the reference paper. The critique should explore the reliability of the conclusions drawn by the paper based on the techniques, experimental protocols, and methods of analysis used. This section may also contain preliminary results by the student if they exist. The Research Design and Methods section should be organized by specific aims and describe the proposed research, including any new methods or custom equipment, how experimental results will be analyzed, and what problems may be expected, along with what alternate possible approaches might be pursued.

All written material, including the abstract and references, should be in standard NIH format (Margins:

Top: 0.8", Bottom, Left, Right: 0.5", single-spaced, Arial 11 font).

Oral Component. The oral component will typically last one hour, during which time the student will present and examiners may interrupt at any time with questions. The student should generally plan to have no more than30 minutes of formal presentation material. The primary focus of the oral presentation should be on presenting and defending the proposed research question and the approach to its solution.

The background material, including the reference paper, maybe discussed briefly if necessary, but the oral presentation is not meant to be a critique of the reference or other published papers. Examiners are free to ask any questions related to the presentation and the reference paper, with the primary intent of establishing the depth of student’s creative and analytical thinking, as well as knowledge in appropriate background areas.