Skip to:

Let's Talk About Prelims, Part 2: Lessons Learned and Others' Experiences

As April comes to a close as I finish writing this post, I’ll have had about two months of reflecting on my prelim experience. If I had the knowledge I have now about the process, I would’ve done some things a little differently. I feel like I waited until the last minute to start studying general immunology and due to the panic, ended up focusing too much on this section of the exam and studied way too much detail. Instead, I should’ve refined my specific aim presentation more and spent more time thinking about my proposal especially since half of our exam time was based on the specific aims.

As for my studying process, I’ve figured out the best ways I study over the last few years. I can’t focus or study in a group, but studying alone first and then reviewing in a group works perfectly for me. I know I’m better at remembering and recalling information when it’s in a diagram rather than text, so I draw everything out and repeatedly explain concepts, methods, etc., out loud to myself. Also, I highly, highly recommend reaching out to students in the program who’ve already taken prelims. While our format changed this year, the older students were able to ask us questions about our presentation as well as quiz us on general immunology questions, which gave me a better idea of what areas of immunology I really needed to go over. They also gave really helpful advice about how to answer questions and just listening to their experiences in general helped settle some of my nerves. They humanized the process for me to where it felt like “if they can do it, so can I!”

On a general positive note, this entire process definitely reinforced why I wanted to go to graduate school in immunology. Studying immunology reminded me of how cool and strange the immune system is and how what I’m studying fits into this larger picture. Last semester, I finished up my class requirements and was feeling a little stagnant in productivity and energy as well as feeling really boxed in to my research topic. So while stressful, prelims also ended up being a reenergizing and inspiring graduate student experience.

Also, if you’ve read any of my past posts, you know I’m a big fan of work-life balance, so if possible, I highly recommend having a non-academic “goal” for after prelims that you can look forward to, no matter if you pass the first time around. For example, planning a day trip for the weekend after prelims to get out of the area because you don’t have a group study session scheduled for that weekend. Or go get dinner with your cohort so you can associate a happy memory with them instead of a cramped library study room. So I decided that no matter the outcome of the exam, as a double treat (birthday in February + finishing prelims), I’d buy myself the turntable I’d been eyeing for two years, which ended up being the best idea ever.

Throughout these blog posts, I’ve mentioned several times how all prelim experiences will vary, so I reached out to a few fellow (biology) graduate students and they kindly took the time to summarize their experience and/or advice.

Format? Wrote a short [10-page] two-aim proposal for a research topic unrelated to my potential area of interest for graduate study. Had an oral defense of the proposal and of basic concepts relating to immunology.
Reflections/thoughts/advice? You'll always feel nervous before taking the prelim because there is always more you could know. I'd like to say study early to make sure you have enough time, but with classes and most of our procrastinating ways this isn't realistic. One to two months of studying the field of work and working specifically on topics relating to my proposal was more than sufficient. I did find that most questions were focused around topics that related, even if sometimes just barely, to my proposal.
- 5th year, Immunology, U-M

Format? We had to write and defend a grant on a topic that was completely different from our research and our PI's research. We also had 30 minutes of questions on any topic in immunology.
Reflections/thoughts/advice? Think of it as a fun way to explore a new field. It is often the case that your own research progresses into new territory that you never thought about initially or heard of. This is good practice for this. Also, you won't get too many chances to have professors from different fields looking at your grant from different views. The committee members are not really out there to get you, but actually help you. You are already admitted to grad school and they don't really want to kick you out, just challenge you and make you stronger. When I entered the room I was nervous but as it progressed, I realized that I didn't know everything and was comfortable saying I don't know (please don't make anything up if you don't know; they intentionally pick at you to get to the point that you don't know) but also could try to think on my feet and make connections. Actually, it was pretty anti-climactic at the end. But, the experience varies based on the professors in your committee. Make sure to do research on their expertise to get an idea of what they will ask.
- 5th year, Immunology, U-M

Format? 10 page grant-style proposal for a topic that is not your thesis project but can be related in terms of background. Oral defense of this proposal (presented for 20 min - an hour) and 30 min+ oral exam of basic immunology topics.
Reflections/thoughts/advice? It was a great learning experience, extremely stressful however. Before taking the prelims, I felt very pressed to demonstrate my qualifications, but afterwards I think I realized they just wanted us to learn a lot... and make sure our basic immunology is strong. All in all, I don't think I'd trade the experience off because I did in fact feel that I learned how to read papers quickly and think hard about my questions in science. :D
- 3rd year, Immunology, U-M

Format? Specific aims page was submitted about a topic not in your field and written was due a month later and the oral was scheduled between 1-2 weeks after that.
Reflections/thoughts/advice? I would highly recommend picking a topic from 1-2 papers but make sure to skim through the literature to make sure the project has never been done before. Once the specific aims piece is done, do a lot of background reading before starting to write. It is a stressful time, but take time for yourself and decompress!
- 2nd year, Molecular and Cellular Pathology, U-M

Format? Presentation with slides on proposed [thesis] research project.
Reflections/thoughts/advice? I was given two key pieces of advice from more senior graduate students: 1) to take a full month off before quals to just study 8-12 hours a day and not do lab work, and 2) to give as many practice talks as possible before the actual exam. Due to some experiments I was running, I ended up only taking off three weeks to study. Furthermore, I scheduled my exam for the week after people got back from winter break, which turned out to be a horrible idea because I couldn't give practice talks until a week before my exam. Needless to say, my exam did not go very smoothly.
- 3rd year, Bioengineering, UC Berkeley

Thanks for reading!