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Preparing for Doctoral Exams

Preparing to take your doctoral exams may feel like a challenging or overwhelming process, but luckily there are individuals and units across campus to support you and help you succeed! If you are preparing to take a preliminary or final exam, we have a few tips to help you get started.

Talk to your adviser and make a plan.

Meeting with your adviser to discuss the requirements, expectations, and timing of your exam is an important first step. This will help you as you prepare for the exam and work with your adviser and department to determine the members of your committee.

Do a little prep work for the meeting. You might consider drafting a possible timeline leading up to your exam. This can be a great tool to help you work together to plan the next steps. It’s also a good idea to write down some questions you have about the exam. For instance, what is the format of the exam? What tips do they have for preparing for the exam? What are some challenges that you should be aware of?

Learn about preliminary and final exam policies.

As you start to think about the faculty members who will serve on your committee, it is a good idea to look at the Graduate College’s policies regarding doctoral committees and exams. In our handbook, you can learn about the requirements for committee membership, committee member roles (such as Committee Chair and Director of Research), and the exam results. If you have any questions about these policies, please reach out to

The Graduate College does allow departments to request that individuals who are not members of the UIUC Graduate Faculty to serve as voting members on committees. To learn more about this process, visit our Submitting a Doctoral Committee Request page. Please note that committees including external members require additional review. Please allow additional time when requesting a committee with external members.

Your department may have additional requirements for you to be aware of, so it is important to check your departmental handbook. If you have any questions, departmental staff can help.

Submit your preliminary and/or final exam request.

Doctoral students start their own preliminary exam and final exam appointment requests through the Graduate College Student Portal. These requests will be sent to the department or program for additional review, before being routed to the Graduate College for approval. Our Submitting a Doctoral Committee Request page will give you an overview of the process.

You should submit your committee appointment request at least three weeks before your intended exam. This is essential so that your committee can be reviewed and approved by all relevant units before the exam. If your committee is not appointed before the day of the exam, it could mean that your exam will need to be rescheduled.

Determine the logistics.

Work with your adviser and department to discuss the logistics of the exam. You will want to discuss if it will take place in-person, online, or in a hybrid format. Reach out to your department to discuss who will arrange room reservations and Zoom links. If you are preparing for an online or hybrid exam, take a look at our Conducting Exams Remotely page for tips and advice. You can read about one former graduate student’s experience in our blog, "How to Defend Your Dissertation, Virtually: Tips on Preparing, Presenting, and Celebrating from a New PhD."

Now is also a good time to make sure you are registered. The Graduate College requires that you be registered for the semester that you take your preliminary or final exam. You can learn more about registration requirements in the Graduate College Handbook.

Do a little investigating.

Talk with other graduate students in your program or alumni about their experiences taking preliminary and final exams. While every experience is different, they might give you some advice, tips, and encouragement that will help you prepare. Final exams are open to the public, so you might check with your department to see if there are any upcoming exams that you can observe.

Take care of yourself.

Preparing for exams and writing a dissertation can be a stressful time, but there are units on campus to help support you. The Counseling Center has resources to support students including workshops and individual appointments. You can also learn about stress management on the McKinley Health Center website. Make sure that you are taking regular breaks, eating and drinking enough, and getting a good night’s sleep. Time spent away from work is just as important as time spent working, because it gives your mind a chance to relax and recharge. When you approach your work later, you will be stronger and refreshed.