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Preliminary Written Examination (“qualifying exam” or “quals”)

This exam is typically scheduled in June for an August exam date. A very detailed description of the entire process (~a page) will be included when the exam committee is formed/scheduled and emailed to the student and committee. The student does not choose this committee. The exam has a written and oral component based on an assigned original research publication, typically not related to the student’s research. There are frequently small changes to the exam format, however, here is the general guideline.

Thesis Committee Meetings and Exams

Once a thesis committee is formed (after passing the preliminary written exam) the general procedures for the meeting are similar regardless of whether it is an exam meeting or not. At the very beginning the student steps out of the meeting for a short time, while the committee discusses the student’s progress and other matters. Then the faculty advisor leaves the room and the student returns. During this time without the advisor present, the student may be asked some general or specific questions. With the advisor absent, the student should feel welcome to convey any issues or concerns the student has whether personal, scientific or otherwise to the thesis committee. The thesis committee should also be a resource the student utilizes for help, support, and professional guidance. The advisor then returns and the meeting continues. (Since faculty may belong to multiple PhD programs with different meeting formats, do not be surprised if faculty ask you the purpose or format for the particular meeting.). Students may, at their own choosing bring food, but it is not expected nor will its absence impact the result of the meeting

If the meeting is an exam event, at the end of the meeting the student is asked to step out while committee discusses the student’s performance. The student is invited back into the meeting and results of the exam conveyed to the student. Whether an exam event or not, the student should as quickly as possible (no more than a few days) write up a paragraph summarizing the meeting/exam. The student should include summaries of the strengths and weaknesses of the performance or progress, future areas to focus on or exclude, and timeline for the next milestone, meeting, exam or professional development event. The student then emails this summary to the committee chair for approval or edits. The committee chair then emails the final document to the rest of the committee, the student, and the student services manager to keep the document on file.

The final oral exam/”thesis defense” should be scheduled with the student services manager to publicize the seminar. Following the seminar the audience leaves and the committee and student discuss the thesis. The committee may or may not ask the student to step out of the meeting briefly. If successful the committee will approve the final oral exam and possibly the final dissertation thesis (if edits were previously incorporated or there are no further edits suggested). There is no need for a written summary unless the student does not pass the final oral exam/”thesis defense.”

Please see Section 4 report of final oral examination for details of the public vs. private defense.

**NOTE: Faculty belong to multiple PhD programs and it will be part of your duty to remind/inform them of the purpose and procedure of each meeting.

Thesis Formatting Instructions

For whatever reason, more often than not the first thesis submission is not usually accepted. There are particular and extensive guidelines for order of components and formatting requirements. Anticipate the first submission may not be accepted. The approved thesis is electronically filed with the Graduate School, and they alone (not the DGS) determine whether the content components and formatting are acceptable. You can view full instructions at

Dissertation Boot Camp

The Writing Center at UNC offers a “Dissertation Boot Camp” four times a year (typically). It is meant for those actively writing their thesis who can commit to a one week Monday through Friday attendance of at least 4 hours of writing per day. Advance registration is required; possibly the semester before writing; snacks and lunch provided. For more information or to be added to the listserv, please visit