Doctoral Committees and Exams Process

Students are responsible for knowing all requirements of their program when they matriculate.

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Preliminary Examinations Committee

The doctoral preliminary exams committee must consist of at least four members, including the student’s advisor/s. All members appointed to the committee must meet the minimum standards established by the program and college. All members of the committee and the candidate must participate in both the written and oral preliminary examinations. Committee members and/or the student may participate remotely as long as all conditions for remote participation in the examination are met.

  • At least three members (including the advisor) must be from the student's major field.
  • At least one member must represent a field outside the major. If the student has declared a minor, the outside member, or one of the outside members, must represent the minor field.
  • Members cannot satisfy the requirement with respect to more than one field.

The doctoral preliminary exams committee is submitted online after the GDP/GPAS is approved.

This committee can also serve as the final oral exam (dissertation defense) committee, but is not required to.

Preliminary Written Examination

FIRST....assign your preliminary exam committee. See the above section. 

The written preliminary exam is the development of a research proposal on your proposed dissertation research OR on a topic closely related to your proposed dissertation research (see below for clarification). The research proposal must follow the guidelines and format of one of the following: NSF, USDA, NIWR, EPA, and NIFA. The preliminary written exam serves the dual purpose of evaluating a student’s intellectual proficiency in their intended area of research and their skilled proficiency at the construction of a complete research proposal in a timely fashion. The faculty recognize that the research proposal will not be submitted to an agency at this time and that the level of competency expected should be commensurate with a second or third year PhD student.

Recognizing that the written preliminary written exam is in the form of a research proposal according to the guidelines of a major funding agency, it is your responsibility and your committee’s responsibility, jointly, to ensure that you understand the purpose and structure of a research proposal BEFORE you begin the four week writing period. In your first two years in the program this may require you to 1) set up meetings with your committee where you discuss grant writing, 2) read and review other research proposals that may be shared by faculty or others, 3) consult written references on how to construct research proposals, and 4) attend seminars or workshops on research proposal writing. Your committee should help guide you on your preparedness to begin the written preliminary exam.

Once you are prepared, hold a meeting with your committee at which time the precise topic AND funding agency for the research proposal are discussed and agreed upon. There is no need to seek approval from the co-DGS. The chosen topic of the proposal may be the same as your dissertation research. However, in the event that your dissertation research has already been funded by a research proposal written by your academic advisor or someone else, it is not acceptable to simply submit a re-write of this proposal as the preliminary written exam. In this instance, a closely related topic should be chosen as the basis for your research proposal. The discussion should also identify the funding agency guidelines that you will follow. This should be informed by the nature of your dissertation research and your career intentions.

Once the precise topic for your research proposal is agreed upon, you will be allowed four weeks to develop and complete the proposal. During that writing period, you may approach your advisor or other committee members for clarification, but the proposal must represent your work only.

Budget - The research proposal must include all of the relevant parts called for by the chosen funding agency. This includes a budget and a current resume for the student. The budget should follow the format given in the proposal guidelines OR students can request a generic budget format from the Graduate Program Coordinator ([email protected]).  It is up to the student’s committee to decide the best option. In either case, it is NOT necessary to include fringe benefits or indirect costs in the budget. The proposal should NOT include affidavits and forms that would be attached to a proposal by the University Sponsored Projects Administration if it were actually submitted to the granting agency. The entire proposal should NOT exceed the page limits allowed by the funding agency. 

Exam - After you have completed the research proposal, send one complete copy to each committee member. The committee will have a minimum of two weeks to review the proposal.  The committee will rate the written exam (proposal) and relay their ratings to the advisor and the rest of the committee as (1) pass, (2) pass with reservations (meaning that some rewriting is necessary), (3) fail but can retake, or (4) fail without the possibility of retaking the exam.

  1. Pass - If the proposal is rated unanimously as a pass, the reviewers will provide their reviews and comments to the advisor who will relay this to you and report the outcome of the exam to the Co-DGS. If the vote is not unanimous, the committee will deliberate and may even request a meeting with you to seek clarification of certain aspects of the proposal before deciding the outcome of the exam. At least three votes for pass are required to pass.
  2. Pass with Reservations - If two or more committee members vote to pass with reservations, the pass will carry reservations. The student must satisfy the committee’s reservations before proceeding to the oral preliminary stage. This involves revising the proposal (or portions thereof) to meet specific concerns raised by the committee and resubmitting a corrected proposal to the review committee. For a pass with reservations, the examining committee will provide further instructions to the student regarding what needs to be done. The committee will have two weeks to provide this information. Once the committee has provided this information, the student will have two weeks to complete the revisions. The committee will rate the revised proposal.
  3. Fail But Can Retake - In the case of a fail but can retake, an entirely new proposal is required. The new proposal must not contain components from the previous proposal.
  4. Fail - In the event that a student fails their exam without the possibility of retake, they will be terminated from the program.

Reporting the Results - The day before your Prelim Written Exam, contact the WRS Graduate Program Coordinator to receive a Preliminary Written Examination Report form. The results of the examination are reported on this form, signed by your advisor, and sent back to the GPC for the Co-DGS signature before being processed.  It is then the student’s responsibility to schedule the preliminary oral examination. The preliminary oral exam cannot be scheduled before the results of the written examination report form are reported to GSSP by the WRS Graduate Program Coordinator. 

Submitting Final Copy - Committee members’ comments should be incorporated into the proposal and a final copy must be submitted to the WRS Graduate Program Coordinator for your file. 

Preliminary Oral Examination

The oral preliminary exam and its accompanying dossier is the last major milestone before Ph.D. candidacy. The oral exam consists of two parts:

  1. Seminar-like presentation to your committee on your proposed dissertation research, and
  2. Committee questions, which pertain to the presentation but also extend across your areas of expertise.


The exam must be scheduled with GSSP at least one week in advance (click here to schedule). The seminar presentation should be scheduled to last about 30 minutes or less, but because the committee may ask questions during the presentation, it may last longer. The question-answer phase may last for several additional hours. A minimum of three hours should be reserved for the preliminary oral exam.

It is your responsibility to find a time at which the committee can meet for the exam, to arrange an appropriate exam room, and to see that the necessary audio-visual facilities are available. Exams are usually held in the building where the student and advisor’s office and lab are located.


The written “preliminary dossier” must be prepared and provided to your committee and to the WRS Graduate Program Coordinator at least two weeks before the oral preliminary exam. Your dossier should include the following components:

  1. Copies of your graduate and undergraduate transcripts
  2. Copy of your approved GDP or GPAS
  3. Statement describing the areas of Water Resources Science and related fields in which you have specialized and thus are prepared to demonstrate expertise
  4. Examples of scholarly work (e.g., reprints of published papers, an abstract of your M.S. thesis, summaries or abstracts of technical reports you have written)
  5. Research prospectus that describes the scope, objectives, and basis for the proposed dissertation research and summarizes progress to date
  6. Description or outline of the proposed dissertation

Item 5 may be included as part of item 4. The proposal prepared for the written preliminary should serve as the basis for the research prospectus, but in many cases, some additions and changes will be needed (e.g., because the dissertation research will include aspects not covered in the proposal). The research prospectus should be no longer than 20 pages. You may ask your advisor or the Co-DGS for examples of previously prepared dossiers to better understand how this should be assembled.

How to Prepare for Exam

Committees and advisors vary somewhat in the way they conduct the question-answer part of oral preliminary exam, and in the amount of information they are willing to provide the student in advance on the range and nature of the questions they are likely to ask. It generally is a good idea to meet with each member of your committee before the exam date to obtain their perspectives on what you will be expected to know. You might ask each person ‘How do you suggest I prepare for the oral exam?’

You should be prepared to explain your research plan and the scientific principles behind any methods you will be using and demonstrate knowledge of the fundamental concepts in the core areas of water resources science, as well as in your areas of expertise. While committee members may test the limits of your knowledge, they do not do so with the intention of finding a question that you cannot answer so that they can fail you.

At the conclusion of the examination, the committee votes, discusses, and votes again, following the rules prescribed by the Graduate School on the exam form (sent directly to the committee chair).

Possible outcomes are: pass, pass with reservations, or fail.

  • The committee may decide to allow a person who fails the preliminary oral exam to retake it one time. 
  • Pass with reservation indicates that the committee was not satisfied with some aspect(s) of the student’s knowledge or preparation; the specific deficiencies and requirements for rectifying those deficiencies (e.g., additional coursework, writing a review paper, etc.) must be explained to the student immediately after the exam, and a written explanation provided within one week of the exam. The reservation must be lifted before the student can proceed to the final defense.

When a student has successfully completed the preliminary written and oral exams, they become official “Ph.D. candidates.”

Final Examination Committee

The doctoral final oral committee must consist of at least four members, including the advisor(s). All members of the committee and the candidate must participate in the final oral examination. Committee members and/or the student may participate remotely as long as all conditions for remote participation in the examination are met. More details can be found on the University's Policy page. In short:

  • At least three members (including the advisor) must be from the student's major field.
  • At least one member must represent a field outside the major. If the student has declared a minor, the outside member, or one of the outside members, must represent the minor field. 
  • Members cannot satisfy the requirement with respect to more than one field.
  • The chair of the committee must not be the candidate’s advisor or co-advisor.
  • At least two members of the committee must be tenured or tenure-track University faculty members who hold earned doctorate degrees or designated equivalents in appropriate fields from an accredited institution. At least one of the committee members must be a tenured University faculty member.

The Doctoral final oral (defense) exam committee will be established after successfully completing program requirements and preliminary exams. Doctoral Final Committees can be assigned online and must be completed at least one month before the proposed exam date. For the final oral exam, the advisor (or co-advisor) cannot serve as the committee chair.

Final Examination

The final oral exam is a defense of your dissertation.

Specific formatting guidelines for your thesis are available on the Graduate School website.

After your advisor has approved your dissertation, provide copies to all committee members, including your Thesis Reviewers (see above). Allow a minimum of two weeks for the reviewers to read your dissertation. The Reviewers Report form must be activated and completed before the examination. Students may schedule their exam with GSSP before activating the Reviewers Report form.


First and very importantly, you must review and follow the Degree Completion Steps (formerly known as the Grad Packet).

  • You must apply to graduate during the month before the month you plan to defend.  Example:  If you schedule your defense for August 23rd, then you must apply to graduate in July for August.  Waiting until August to apply will mean you are applying for September.
  • If you plan to defend at the end of August or the end of December, be prepared for the possibility of having to register for the next semester.  Talk with the Graduate Program Coordinator immediately to make sure you understand you situation.

Doctoral students are expected to schedule their defense at least one week in advance online.

Your Final Oral Examination will include the following components, all done one right after the other (same day):

  1. A seminar (approximately 45 minutes) which is open to the public, where you will present your major findings
  2. A question and answer session (reserved for after your presentation) with your audience
  3. A closed-door meeting with your committee, consisting of questions focused on your dissertation.  This is immediately following the public seminar.

It is your responsibility to arrange the exam time with the committee, schedule the exam room, and see that the exam announcements are distributed. Supply the WRS Graduate Program Coordinator with the title, an abstract, and a photo so an announcement can be distributed to the WRS email lists at least one week prior to the exam. You may also contact the WRS Graduate Program Coordinator if you need assistance with scheduling an exam room.

Difficult Times of the Year to Schedule
  • Final oral exams may be scheduled in one month, but revisions and final paperwork often take students into the next month.  This becomes an issue for exams scheduled in late August or late December.  Students finishing in September or January MUST register for the next semester even though they don't need the entirety of it.  Contact the WRS Graduate Program Coordinator early to plan accordingly.
  • If final oral exams need to be scheduled in the summer, make sure to allow extra time in planning as many staff and faculty are off-campus.

Results and Final Steps

At the conclusion of the examination, your committee discusses and votes to pass or fail. A failing grade on the dissertation defense ends the person’s Ph.D. program. A grade of pass may still involve a need to make changes to the dissertation before it is acceptable. All committee members must sign the original Final Exam Report form, indicating their decisions. New Graduate School policy indicates that committee members may delay signing the form until all appropriate revisions are made.

Once all required changes are made, you may prepare final copies of your dissertation. The Graduate School requires electronic submission of dissertations. You must also submit one electronic copy to the WRS Graduate Program Coordinator, and you may need to submit a copy to your advisor as well. 

Be sure to fill out all required forms (dissertation abstracts, student survey, copyright, etc.) and pay all appropriate fees by the end of the month in which you expect to graduate. The Graduate School will not date your graduation until all requirements are met and fees are paid.