HDFS Preliminary Exam

Purpose of the Prelim Exam

The doctoral preliminary examination is designed as a summative evaluation and preparatory process. The exam consists of one question, which has been designed to integrate components of theory, content, and research methods, which students answer in a 25-30 page paper. The goals are (1) to ascertain that students have the relevant knowledge and scholarly skills necessary for completing a dissertation and (2) to advance understanding and thinking related to their chosen area of scholarship.

Steps and Timeline for the Prelim Exam

The prelim process begins during your last semester of PhD coursework (excluding research credits) and involves the following steps:

  • Prelim preparation by student: Prepare a statement of research interest; statement of career goals; updated CV; and initial reading list for committee review.
  • Prelim planning (candidacy) meeting
    • Review and approve PhD checklist;
    • Develop individualized prelim question based on research interests and career goals.
  • Prelim writing (1-1.5 semesters)
  • ***Request your prelim warrant from the SoHE Graduate Program Coordinator at least 3 weeks prior to the defense***
  • Prelim defense

The table below outlines the steps in the prelim process, and offers a suggested timeline. An individual student’s timelines and deadlines should be determined in consultation with the prelim committee.


Step Deadline Examples  
Finish PhD course work in Fall 2022 Semester Finish PhD course work in Spring or Summer 2023 semester
PhD Candidacy (Planning) Meeting Beginning of last semester of PhD coursework September or October 2022 February or March 2023
Prelim question and reading list finalized Following PhD Candidacy Meeting October or November 2022 March or April 2023
Writing Begins End of last semester of PhD coursework (last day of classes) Early December 2022 Late May 2023
Written prelim due Four weeks prior to end (last day of classes) of following semester Late April 2023 Early November 2023
Oral Defense Two weeks after written prelim is submitted Early May 2023 Late November 2023
Re-examination Four weeks after the original oral defense Early June 2023 Early January 2024


In some cases, it may make sense to initiate the Prelim process prior to the last semester of PhD coursework. This should only be considered if there is clear rationale for doing so from both advisor and student, and the student has limited coursework remaining (e.g., one class).

Students do NOT need to take the full allotted amount of time to complete prelims. Students who complete PhD course work in a spring semester should consider completing prelims over the summer. Similarly, students who complete PhD course work in a fall semester should consider completing prelims over the winter break. These are often ideal times for writing.

Prelim Committee and Responsibilities

The committee must include a minimum of three members, at least two of whom must be HDFS faculty. A third member may come from outside the department but must be a part of the UW-Madison graduate faculty.

The entire three-person prelim committee will develop and approve the final question.

The prelim committee chair will coordinate the prelim process and be responsible for ensuring that the exam question has adequate balance, breadth, and depth.

Ph.D. Candidacy Meeting (aka Prelim Planning Meeting)

During the last semester of PhD course work (with the exception of research credits), a PhD Candidacy meeting between the student and prelim committee occurs. It is the student’s responsibility to set up this meeting and it should be scheduled for 1-2 hours to ensure there is enough time. Two weeks prior to the meeting the student will give the committee members: 1) a written statement of research interests (up to 1 page, single-spaced); 2) a brief paragraph summarizing career goals; 3) an up-to-date CV; 4) initial reading list of key articles, books, and resources that they will draw on for their written prelim.

During the meeting, the committee will provide feedback to the students related to achieving their career goals, CV, and the focus of their research interests. The committee, with input from the student, will develop the written prelim exam question. The committee will also review the student’s initial reading list and offer additional suggestions.

This meeting should occur toward the beginning (e.g., September or October in the fall semester; February or March in the spring semester) of the last semester of PhD coursework; re-writes of the statement of interest and/or a follow-up committee meeting may be necessary to formulate a focused topic. At the end of this process, the committee will approve the final wording of the prelim question.

Prelim Question

The candidacy meeting will result in an individualized prompt that the student will follow in writing their prelim. The prompt will take the following format:

Review and critique the literature on [individualized focus area developed during the candidacy meeting]. In the process of this critique, synthesize what is known and convey how well it is known theoretically and empirically, identify gaps in knowledge, evaluate the methods used, and provide conclusions regarding next steps for research or to advance the field.

The committee may make modifications to the question if needed to fit a student’s focus. If using a specific theory, this can be incorporated into the blank space. Example: “Review and critique the literature on the impact of poverty on toddler language development using Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory. In the process of this critique……”

Finalized Prelim Reading List

Following the PhD Candidacy meeting, the student must finalize their reading list of the key articles, books, and resources that they will draw on for their written prelim. This reading list represents the student’s formulation of their chosen area of expertise and is intended to help ensure that the student is ready for the written prelim. The expectation is that students have read and thought about the resources listed (this is not a to-do list of new material to read). The reading list is a guide, not a required citation list – students do not need to cite every article and chapter on the reading list and can cite additional literature as needed. Students must email the updated reading list to the committee members no later than the last day of class of the last semester of PhD course work.

Prelim Warrant

The SoHE Graduate Program Coordinator must obtain your Prelim Warrant at least 3 weeks before you defend your prelims. It is recommended that you request the Prelim Warrant about the same time you receive your question. To request the Prelim Warrant, submit the signed “Instructions to obtain the PhD Prelim Warrant & Minor” form, and your signed PhD Checklist to the SoHE Graduate Program Coordinator. The SoHE Graduate Program Coordinator will fill out the paperwork to order your Prelim Warrant, and will contact you (by email) when it arrives. This Warrant is signed electronically by your committee after your prelim defense. The Graduate Program Coordinator will be notified when all electronic signatures have been received and the signed warrant will be submitted electronically to the Graduate School for dissertator status processing.

Written Prelim Exam

Format and Length of the Prelim Exam

The written exam must be 25-30 pages double-spaced, Times New Roman Font 12, and 1 inch margins (not including references, tables, figures, or appendices). In the exam, students will be required to demonstrate proficiency in the scholarly skills and knowledge listed below.

  • An in-depth understanding of the content of their chosen area of expertise
  • Ability to use theory to understand a topic, conceptualize a research question, and/or design outreach/intervention programs
  • Understanding of contextual factors (e.g., ecological factors)
  • Synthesis of research findings across studies, including an understanding that some studies should be emphasized and relied on more than others
  • Ability to use studies to tell a coherent story, rather than reviewing studies without a narrative to link them together
  • Critical evaluation of the quality and meaning of methods used in the research studies
  • Scholarly writing
  • Demonstration of appropriate breadth and depth of coverage of selected studies
  • Ability to identify gaps in knowledge and propose future directions through identifying key research questions, establishing program goals, or developing evaluation plans

Students may use any references or handbooks, published articles, or drafts to answer prelim questions, but are not permitted to receive direct assistance from other individuals in the completion of this examination (for example, assistance from the Writing Center is not permitted). However, to clarify prelim questions, a student is encouraged to contact the prelim committee chair, who will then get feedback from other committee members

A doctoral candidate may use a copy editor only under special circumstances (e.g., if English is a second language) and with the approval of the committee. The copy editor must be from outside the field. If copy editing is approved, the doctoral candidate must turn in their original written prelim and then be granted additional time for copy editing. They will then also submit the copy-edited version to the committee.

The written prelim exam is due four weeks prior to the end (i.e., last day of classes) of the semester following completion of PhD coursework (with the exception of research credits). For example, if coursework is completed in a fall semester, the completed prelim is due four weeks prior to the last day of the spring semester. This will allow time for re-examinations, which is not an uncommon outcome, prior to the beginning of another semester.

In planning PhD course work and scheduling the prelim, students should remember that they need to be enrolled in a minimum of eight credits per semester prior to successfully passing the prelim examination.

Oral Defense of the Prelim Exam

The oral defense of the prelim, which is a meeting between the students and their committee, should occur about two weeks after the written exam has been turned in. This will serve as an oral exam and feedback session. It is the responsibility of the students to schedule this meeting in advance and turn in the exam accordingly, so give the committee about two weeks to read the written exam prior to the oral defense. The meeting should be scheduled for 2 hours to ensure there is enough time. The purposes of the oral defense are (a) to clarify possible shortcomings in the written exam, and (b) to initiate in-depth discussions to move forward the student’s thinking.

The following decisions can be made following the oral defense: Pass, Pass with minor re-writes, Re- examination (i.e., major re-writes), or Fail. If the decision is Fail, the student is terminated from the program. The decision is made at the end of the oral defense, after the student has had the opportunity to respond to questioning, and following committee discussion. The decision is not based solely on the written exam, but on the written and oral exam together.

At the end of the prelim defense, the committee should complete the following:

  • In consultation with the committee, the student’s advisor will complete the “Preliminary Examination Outcome Summary Sheet” at the end of the preliminary exam oral defense. The student’s advisor will discuss the outcome and feedback with the student. A copy of the form will be kept in the student’s departmental file.The faculty advisor and prelim committee members should complete the prelim assessment after the prelim exam. Committee members will evaluate the prelim exam (including in the oral defense) using the HDFS Preliminary Examination Assessment Form. The student should send these forms (qualtrics link) to each prelim committee member. Students will not receive completed copies of these assessment forms, but will get feedback about their performance during the defense and from their advisor.

Re-examinations of the Prelim Exam

Re-writes are not uncommon. If the decision is a Pass with minor re-writes, then the student has two weeks to turn in a revised written prelim to all committee members with a cover letter outlining changes in response to issues raised by committee members.

If the decision is Re-examination, then the student has four weeks to turn in a revised written prelim to the committee members with a cover letter outlining changes to the prelim in response to issues raised by committee members. A second oral defense will be scheduled. A decision of Pass or Fail will be made following the second oral defense. Under exceptional circumstances, the prelim committee may allow a longer timeline for completing the re-examination.


School of Human Ecology Graduate Programs Handbook Copyright © 2022 by Michelle Holland. All Rights Reserved.

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