Preliminary Qualifying Exam (PQE)

The preliminary qualifying exam format is a written proposal and potential dissertation project to be presented, discussed and defended by the student. The proposal is written in the format of an NIH post-doctoral application with a limit of 10 pages. The goal of the PQE is to evaluate the student’s potential and ability to think independently and creatively in laboratory experimentation. The student must also demonstrate solid knowledge in the background of their proposed topic and an overall knowledge of the immune system. The written proposal, in conjunction with the oral defense, will be evaluated in this light.


Students are to complete this exam by December of their second year of graduate study. By October 15, students should email their list of proposed PQE Committee members to Shiv Pillai ( and Wendy Garrett ( Along with their proposed PQE members, they should also include a brief description (few sentences) on the topic of their project. One week prior to the exam, students must email their written proposal to each member of their PQE Committee and the immunology program administrator. 


The PQE Committee must include at least one faculty member of the Immunology Graduate Committee, who will also serve as the Chair. PQE Committee members most often become the Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC) members, though this is not required, and changes may be made following the PQE. Collaborators should not be on the Committee. Once the Committee has been approved by Michael Carroll, students may schedule their PQE exam. Students should contact the immunology program administrator as soon as they arrange a date for their PQE or if they need any assistance with the scheduling process. Using to schedule the PQE is highly recommended.



The proposal should be a description of what the student’s proposed dissertation project will be. It is important to clearly convey what questions you are asking, why they are significant, and whether the approaches and techniques you propose are the best ones currently available to answer them. The student may include relevant preliminary data from your own work or from others in the lab, if available, but this is not an essential requirement. 



The student is encouraged to initially discuss the overall aims and format of the proposal with his/her dissertation advisor however the proposal must be authored solely by the student. Once the student and dissertation advisor are in agreement on the aims and format of the proposal the student should receive no further input or feedback from faculty members in writing the proposal or preparing for the oral defense. Students can seek input from graduate students and postdoctoral fellows on their written proposal and presentation for the oral defense.


Guidelines for the Written Proposal (PQE)

The written proposal should be no longer than 10 pages in length, single-spaced, and with size 12 font.  Organization of the report should be as follows:


A. Background and Significance:  ~2 pages.  Summarize what is known about the field, emphasizing how your proposed research will fill in gaps in our knowledge and advance our understanding of the biological process involved.  After a succinct literature review, it is useful to structure this section as follows: xx is not known – it is important to know it because – a good system and appropriate reagents are available (or could be developed) to answer this question – how we will answer it is summarized in specific aim yy.


B. Specific Aims:  1 page or less.


C. Preliminary Results:  This should be a description of the experimental system you will use, which will most likely be established at least to some extent in your lab or in other labs working in the field.  Preliminary data that you yourself have generated is useful, if available.  Otherwise, relevant work from others in the lab may be included.  In the event that you are starting up an entirely new system in the lab, you may include specific data/ experimental information from the literature that would not be appropriate to include in the background section. 


D. Experimental design and methods:  Organize these according to your specific aims.  For each aim, provide a brief rationale for the experimental approach and then provide a conceptual description of the techniques involved (no lists of buffers please!) with a discussion of what controls will be performed and how the data will be analyzed.  Next, summarize what the different experimental outcomes might be and how you would deal with each.  Remember that the best experiments are those in which every outcome provides interpretable information; occasional yes or no experiments will be tolerated but you should try to avoid fishing experiments in which the likelihood of an interesting outcome is remote.  


You are expected to work with your dissertation advisor and seek his or her advice in the preparation of the aims and format of your proposal, however, the actual writing must be your own. As stated above, once the student and dissertation advisor are in agreement on the aims and format of the proposal the student should receive no further input or feedback from faculty members including the dissertation advisor. Students are encouraged to seek input from graduate students and postdoctoral fellows on their written proposal and presentation for the oral defense.


Final copies of your written proposal must be emailed to all members of your PQE Committee and the immunology program administrator at least one week prior to the date of your PQE. 


Oral Exam

For your PQE meeting, you will prepare a presentation of your proposal, including an abbreviated Background section with a focus on the Specific Aims, Preliminary Results and Experimental design and methods (10-15 slides should be sufficient). You should schedule 2 hours for this exam.


You should be prepared to defend, that is, discuss in depth and answer questions regarding all aspects of your proposal at your PQE. You need to be familiar with all pertinent or related techniques, concepts and areas of research; exam questions will not necessarily focus on just the proposal itself.  


Before the exam, see the immunology program administrator for the PQE evaluation form to be completed by examiners during the exam. This form must be returned (by the student or DAC Chair) immediately following the exam.



You will be informed of the result (pass, conditional pass, or fail) at the end of the meeting.


  • Pass.  No further work on the PQE will be required.


  • Conditional.  A student will receive a conditional if the committee feels that he/she would benefit from additional preparation. The additional preparations may include:


1. A re-write of the proposal - a deadline for the submission of the rewritten proposal must be made clear to the student as well as suggestions for improvement.

2. Additional coursework - specific coursework that will address the individual student’s deficiencies must be assigned. Coursework must be addressed at the earliest possible opportunity.

3. Additional study - specific articles/journals that will address the individual student’s deficiencies must be assigned.


Terms of the conditional pass, as well as a completion due date, will be set during the PQE meeting and included on the evaluation form. Once this work is completed to the satisfaction of the PQE Committee, the Chair will notify the student and the immunology program administrator that he/she has fulfilled the requirements and the result is changed to a “pass.”


  • Fail.  A student will receive a fail if there are serious concerns based on the written proposal and the oral exam. The student will be given the opportunity to rewrite the proposal and retake the oral exam following completion of additional recommended work.


It is expected that the work will be done in parallel with your thesis project.



After passing the PQE, the student will assemble a Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC). PQE Committee members most often become the DAC members, though this is not required, and changes may still be made at this time or if the project changes direction. The first DAC meeting should take place within 3-4 months of passing the PQE, and no later than 6 months after the PQE. At each DAC meeting, the DAC members will suggest a date for the next meeting to take place, keeping the Timeline to Degree (see to the right) in mind.

Graduate Committee Members

Click here to view Graduate Committee Members eligible to serve as your chair


Timeline to Degree


G-1 Year: Coursework and Lab Rotations


G-2 Year: Lab declaration, Teaching Requirement, Complete PQE & Set up DAC


G-3 Year: DAC meeting by the end of August of 3rd year


G-4 Year: DAC meeting by the end of May of 4th year


G-5 Year: DAC meeting by the end of December or within 6 months of previous DAC.


G-6/Above: Meet every 6 months with DAC


Final DAC Meeting: 

Any year, but typically 4/5 years total enrollment & no more than 6/7 years: The DAC decides when student should begin writing the thesis. A suggested endpoint for graduation, though this is at the discretion of the individual DACs, is two submitted manuscripts

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