Cell Biology Preliminary Exam Format

Preliminary Exam Form

Scroll to the bottom of this page for information about prelim practice sessions! 

Research Proposal:

The proposal should be relevant to your anticipated thesis project. A successful written proposal should devise specific research aims that seek to answer an important scientific question, as identified by the student through a careful reading of the literature, including that encountered in formal coursework and lab rotations.

The research proposal will be in the form of an 11 page research proposal, excluding references. The format of the proposal will consist of 5 sections:

  1.     Title Page with a brief abstract.
  2.     Three pages of Historical Background.
  3.     Specific Aims page.
  4.     1 - 1.5 pages of Significance and Innovation.
  5.     4.5 - 5 pages of Research Approach.

The proposal follows the NIH/NRSA guidelines with the additional 3 page historical review.

The formatting should be 11-point Arial with 0.5-inch margins on left, right, top, and bottom and single spaced.

The proposal is to be emailed as a PDF document to the DGS and committee members 10 days before your scheduled exam date. Your DGS's E-mail is: scott.soderling@duke.edu.

Oral Exam:

The oral exam is scheduled to last 2 hours and begins with the student's brief 20-minute PowerPoint presentation of the proposal, in sufficient background and experimental detail for the committee to determine significance and feasibility. Following the presentation the exam will primarily focus on a critical evaluation of the research proposal and the student’s background knowledge of Cell Biology as it relates to their coursework and thesis proposal.  This part of the examination is designed to determine the limits of the student’s knowledge and test their ability to think logically and critically.

Research Proposal Tips and Guidelines:

2. Historical Background:  3 pages

The review needs to have a historical perspective, tracing the current project from the key, founding observations to the present, and should highlight the most important discoveries, models and paradigms, detailing why they are significant and how they advanced the field. Your background should:

  • Note the key findings that brought the field to its current state.
  • Offer a critical perspective - if you feel that the field needs redirection, say so. If you feel that the field is embracing important but untested assumptions, say so. If you feel that particular groups or individuals have made particularly remarkable contributions to the field, say so. If you can identify landmark studies that you feel greatly influenced the field, highlight them and note why they are (were) significant.
  • Conclude with how the background has led to the hypothesis or statement of unmet need that will form the basis of your Thesis Proposal and Specific Aims.

3. Specific Aims:  1 page 

State concisely the goals of the proposed research and summarize the expected outcome(s), including the impact that the results of the proposed research will exert on the research field(s) involved.

4. Significance and Innovation:  1 – 1.5 page 

  • (a) Significance
    • Explain the importance of the problem or critical barrier to progress in the field that the proposed project addresses.
    • Explain how the proposed project will improve scientific knowledge, technical capability in one or more broad fields.
    • Describe how the concepts, methods, technologies that drive this field will be changed if the proposed aims are achieved.
  •  (b) Innovation
    • Explain how the application challenges and seeks to shift current research paradigms.
    • Describe any novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s) to be developed or used, and any advantage over existing methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s).
    • Explain any refinements, improvements, or new applications of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or interventions.

5. Approach:  4.5 – 5 pages

  • Describe the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project.
  • Discuss how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted.
  • Discuss potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success anticipated to achieve the aims.

** A note on preliminary data:  A student is allowed to utilize their own preliminary data related to their proposal, however, preliminary data is not required or expected for this exam.  Properly cited published data from others can and should be used to inform project feasibility.

Q: So, what is a practice exam, and why should I consider doing one?

A: The practice exam group is essentially two fold...

Part 1: Before prelim season, we go through what to expect in a prelim, how to prepare, what goes in your document, choosing your committee, best practices in designing your talk, etc. This all happens over the course of two-three meetings.

Part 2: During prelim season, we have each second year schedule a practice prelim. In this practice, the student presents their project to their peers. The audience (open to any cell bio student) probes the presenters knowledge and understanding of their project by asking questions, ideally similar to what they experienced in their prelim.

The benefit to all of this is for the prelim-ers to know what to expect, diminish nerves, encourage better preparation, and provide a support system during this stressful process. For the older students, this group provides a productive way to interact with and meet the second years, serve as mentors, share their experiences, see what other labs in the department are starting to work on, and promoted a scientific community for the department.