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Prelims: The P-word that Makes Every Second-year Graduate Student Cringe

February 17, 2019

Not only is it cold and dark outside this winter, second years have an added worry, the start of prelims season. Prelims is a necessary part of every graduate student’s career, and arguably one of the most stressful experiences in graduate school. Any older graduate student will say that during the entire prelim process the exam was a source of constant stress. However, looking back on it, many students find that the exam itself was not terrible, and in some instances, even enjoyable. Although most preliminary exams are taken in May, there are a few reasons behind starting the preparation process at the being of February. The simplest and most important reason behind early preparation is to get each graduate student to think critically about their potential thesis project. Faculty at Penn want their graduate students to develop as scientists; communicating your ideas through written and oral approaches exemplifies your development as a scientist.


Besides starting your background reading early, here are a few extra tips that might help you navigate through the prelim process.


Organize your notes on any scientific articles related to your prelims into sections of the proposal. During the prelim process you will read many papers, and it can be overwhelming with the amount of information you’re exposed to at any given time. Organizing your notes by sub-aim, alternative approaches, and general background is just an example of taking the wealth of information and distilling it into more manageable chunks that you can easily incorporate in your proposal.


Start using a citation manager to organize references if you do not already use one. EndNote and Mendeley are some of the most popular citation managers and have features such as Cite While You WriteTM, which adds references while you write. Both citation managers also offer online features that include grouping references by user-defined criteria.


Practice discussing your specific aims and cultivating a chalk talk with other graduate students in your cohort, as well as older graduate students. Presenting your findings to others may help you realize that your description of a molecular process isn’t that clear or may identify weaknesses in a specific area of background. It may also be helpful to discuss your aims and ideas with people outside your field to ensure you have a good grasp on your knowledge.


Conduct a practice prelim with volunteer faculty in your field. Although this might be difficult to do if faculty in your field have busy schedules, try to schedule a practice prelim under time constraints to mimic how the actual prelim will feel.


Take breaks. While most of your energy during this semester will be devoted to reading background information about your field, writing a specific aims page, creating an outline of your proposal, collecting data to use in your proposal, and summarizing your proposal in a 15-minute chalk talk, do not forget about life outside of prelims. Taking occasional breaks to enjoy your hobbies will not only give your brain a rest, it might help you maintain your focus while writing. 


Do not compare your progress to the progress of others in your cohort. Each student thinks and writes at a different pace. Some of your cohort might be done writing their entire proposal by early April, whereas others might still be tweaking their specific aims. The point is that you should focus on writing and thinking about your prelim project at your own pace. Do not be concerned that you might be at a different stage of writing or preparing than some of your peers.


Ask older graduate students for example proposals. It is much easier to write a proposal with both guidelines and examples from previous years. Having an example of formatting or language used within a proposal can be useful especially when you hit a frustrating point in your writing.


Just remember that you will spend many hours writing your proposal and preparing for your prelim exam, so you know your project better than anyone else! By the end of the prelim process you can apply to any fellowship with ease

More information about PHCP and the application can be found here. The PHCP seminar schedule is listed on the website, and attendance is open to all. Registration is required for MPH courses. Students interested in taking MPH courses may contact Hillary Nelson about enrollment.




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