Links to compiled information to assist in the studying process for preliminary exams are at the left.
In January, all first-year Ph.D. students are required to take preliminary examinations. These consist of three 40-minute oral exams covering material in three main areas:
- Transport Phenomena
- Kinetics and Chemical Fundamentals
The graduate student handbook describes the material as, "basic principles and concepts in chemical engineering and chemistry normally included in accredited undergraduate chemical engineering curricula in the United States... Students who have taken a graduate-level course in any of these areas may also be tested on such graduate-level material. The examination attempts to probe and assess the student's understanding of chemical engineering concepts and ability to apply this knowledge to the solution of chemical engineering problems."
Prelims are graded on a letter scale with A and B being passing grades. Two passing grades are required (out of three) to pass the exam; however, professors will take into consideration the student's performance in coursework and a statement from the research adviser when determining passing status. Unfortunately, people do fail:
- 2013: 5/26
- 2012: 2/24
- 2011: 1/19
- 2010: 1/22
- 2009: 2/21
- 2008: 5/36
- 2007: 2/15
- 2006: 1/15
- 2005: 1/20
in which case you take the exams again the following year and must complete a thesis research M.S. degree. Most people who do not pass the first time accomplish these steps while making normal progress in research towards a Ph.D. degree.
As for preparation, students generally begin studying two weeks before the exam. Working in study groups is very helpful, as is practice quizzing by older graduate students and colleagues. There are a number of copies of old prelim exam questions running around the department in various research groups (and many sections from them are posted on this website).
It has been said that first-year students benefit from a sufficient dose of advice and scary stories from older students who have already taken the exams. With this goal in mind, we have developed a general overview of the prelim process. The information here is for you. We hope that it will help you to improve your prelim experience.
A suggested timeline:
During Winter Break:
Have a good time. Eat, sleep, play, and enjoy being with your family and friends. Don't study.
Returning To Berkeley:
Try to return about two weeks before the exams. Philosophies vary from person to person, but past students have found two weeks is enough to work through all or most old questions, read a few textbooks, and get in some good oral quizzing. Once into the swing of things, most people who study intensely find that they burn out after about 10 days. In short, know thyself.
Study groups are highly encouraged; often, people meet in the chemistry library, the study rooms that you can check out in Doe library, or in the conference rooms within or between labs. Gather up all of the old prelim questions you can find from older students inside and outside of your research groups. Many older students have comprehensive "prelim notebooks" which may or may not be useful. These often contain tidbits of helpful information (e.g. lists of dimensionless numbers, descriptions of helpful mnemonics, etc.). However, beware that not all information in the binders is accurate.
Some suggested textbooks include:
- Transport Phenomena:
- Bird, Stewart, and Lightfoot, Transport Phenomena
- Denn, Process Fluid Mechanics
- Cussler, Diffusion: Mass Transfer in Fluid Systems
- Kinetic, and Chemical Fundamentals:
- Fogler, Elements of Chemical Reaction Engineering
- Smith & Van Ness, Intro to Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics
- A physical chemistry text
- Austin, Shreve's Chemical Process Industries
- Peters & Timmerhaus, Plant Design & Economics for Chemical Engineers
- Perry's Chemical Engineering Handbook
- Stephanopolous, Chemical Process Control
The exam schedule should be emailed to everyone in early January. Keep your committee in mind as you study, but do not study exclusively for your committee.
Use the old questions as a way to focus your studying efforts. As you approach each question, refresh your memory by reading the texts. Memorizing answers to questions will not help you in the exam, but familiarity with the underlying concepts undoubtedly will. By the time you've worked through the sample questions, you have exposed yourself to most or all of the important underlying concepts.
Practice talking through solutions to questions. Work them out at the blackboard. Get together with one or more of your study group members and alternate answering questions you have not yet worked out. The key is to learn how to verbalize your thoughts.
The first week is usually dedicated solely to studying; practice at the board begins during the second week. For the last few days, it's a good idea to practice as much as possible with older students, and moreover, to watch other people practice. Older students will often quiz much harder than the professors, so a successful practice should give you extra confidence. Again, you may feel silly or ill prepared, but persevere.
Practice verbalizing your thoughts. This is a key goal in the preliminary exams, and will likely be the key to your success. It may feel uncomfortable at first, and you may feel that you have not studied enough. Keep at it, and you will soon be able to expound with seeming knowledge and confidence on any chemical engineering topic.
Support your group members.
The Night Before the Exam:
Relax. You have worked hard and deserve a break. Go out to eat, see a movie, take a walk.
Get a good night's sleep. Although obvious, this is the most helpful thing that you can do. Believe those who have already take the exams, two or three extra hours of cramming will not help you.
There are three 40-minute oral exams covering undergraduate material in the three main areas.
In general, two professors proctor each exam. Exams are held in professor's offices or small rooms with blackboards (such as 109 Gilman Hall).
Attire is up to you, and formal attire is not expected or necessary. Wear comfortable shoes -- you will be standing up most of the day.
Do not speculate on the results of your exams while the exams are still in progress. This will only stress you and other students unnecessarily. You will have plenty of time to reflect on the silly things you said after the exams. Remember, you start out fresh in each exam.
Remember, professors want you to pass the exams. Often they will help you if you help yourself. As in practice sessions, verbalize your thoughts. Talk through each question and use the blackboard.
Each exam consists of three to four broad questions and lots of side questions. Occasionally, you'll be let out early if the professors are satisfied with your performance.
Carry yourself with confidence. If you have studied hard, you should have all of the necessary tools to pass the exams. It is certain that speaking confidently and thinking out loud are very helpful to your grade.
Getting the Results:
Official notification will come in email form from the Department Chair of Vice-Chair as soon as it becomes available, usually in the evening of the exam day (or evening of the second exam day if held over two days).