The preliminary examination is an oral examination taken by a student in his/her second year, conducted by the student’s Ph.D. (exam) committee. Students become eligible to take the preliminary oral exam two months after passing their last cumulative exam, or at the start of their fourth semester in residence, whichever comes later. Students are expected to take the exam as soon as possible after they become eligible. Normally the exam should be completed by the end of the 4th semester of residency.  To remain in good academic standing, the exam date must be scheduled by no later than October 1st of the 5th semester in residency.

Each student will distribute to his/her committee a written research report at least one week before the oral exam. Students are strongly encouraged to meet with their advisors regarding the format and content of the preliminary exam report and then communicate the organization of their report to their committee when they submit the report. Failure to distribute the report on time to even a single committee member may result in failing the exam. The report should be detailed and complete and will normally contain diagrams of any apparatus designed and/or built by the student, figures, tables, spectra, etc., as well as some background discussion, planned research efforts, and relevant references. As a guideline, the report should generally be 10-12 pages in length, exclusive of any references, figures, tables, etc.

The oral exam is a closed meeting, in which only the student and committee may be present.  The exam begins with a brief committee review of the student’s file and laboratory progress.  This review is conducted in the student’s absence, and usually does not exceed 5 minutes.  The student then presents a 30-minute research seminar, which is followed by a question and answer period focusing on basic chemical knowledge and on the student’s research.  Although present during the exam, the research advisor is barred from answering questions for the student, or in any way providing assistance that interferes with the committee’s ability to evaluate student progress.

In judging student oral exam performance, several factors will be considered. Specifically, the thesis committee will judge whether the student has:

1. An acceptable “fund” of chemical knowledge.

Questions of a general chemical nature are fair game. This includes any topic that is covered in undergraduate courses such as general chemistry, organic chemistry, basic inorganic chemistry, quantitative analysis, physical chemistry, or instrumental analysis as well as topics covered in graduate courses taken at CSU. Note that these questions will usually be related to material in the student’s presentation or written research report.

2. An acceptable understanding of the literature in his/her research area.

This includes basic knowledge of recent publications and advances, outstanding researchers in the field, and recent publications from the student’s own research group.

3. The ability to interpret results and plan research.

This is an ability to examine data critically, to identify trends in data, to explain data analysis procedures, and to offer possible explanations or mechanisms for observations. In addition, the committee also looks for the student’s ability to extend beyond the data at hand to identify the “next steps” in the research project, projected outcomes for planned experiments, potential pitfalls in planned research, and possible alternate research paths the student may take, should a planned experiment fail.

4. Evidence of substantial, tangible progress toward solving his/her research problem.

Examples of tangible progress include (but are not limited to): published or publishable results, building of an apparatus, progress on a multi-step synthesis, collection of data, progress on writing computer code, development of an analytical technique, etc. Tangible progress is not to be interpreted solely as publishable results; level of effort, persistence, and determination are key elements to this criterion.

Passing all four of these requirements is necessary to pass the oral exam. Students who have accomplished a great deal of research but who have a shallow depth of understanding will not pass; likewise, students who have a solid academic knowledge of chemistry but who have accomplished very little research will not pass.

The committee will take the exam timing into account in measuring research progress (i.e. those students who take the exam earlier in their careers will not be expected to have accomplished as much work as those who take it later).

After the oral exam, the committee will assign (by majority vote) either a passing or failing grade.


The preliminary examination has been satisfactorily completed, and the student advances to Ph.D. candidacy. In keeping with Graduate School policy, no “conditions” may be attached to the award of a passing grade.


The oral exam performance was comprehensively weak. With committee approval, students will have three to six months to retake the exam, and the committee may suggest additional coursework or experiences expected to improve student performance. Students may petition the GOC for an extension of the retake deadline, but typically this is reserved for problems beyond the student’s control (e.g. if the committee requires taking a course that is not offered until a later semester).

For all programs of study, once the preliminary examination has been completed (regardless of the pass/fail outcome), the student must complete and turn in form GS-16 to the graduate school within 48 hours.

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