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Preliminary Examinations

The Preliminary Examinations in Organic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry and Biochemistry are at least annually. Every prospective Ph.D. candidate must pass two (2) of the above four Preliminary Examinations within 1½ years of entry into the Ph.D. Program. One of the examinations must be either Organic or Physical Chemistry.  Details of the exams are given lower down on this page.

Exams are administered by a committee of at least three faculty members. Exams may be written or written and oral. The examination committee will decide whether the student passes or fails. However, if a student fails the same exam twice, any committee member or the student's major professor may bring the decision to the Chemistry Faculty for reconsideration.

In the event of failure, the student must take the examination again the next time it is offered. Two failures in the same examination will automatically revert the student to the Masters Degree Program. Additional rules are listed in the detailed description of the MS and PhD program.

The schedule for the 2012-2013 academic year is as follows:

Organic Chemistry

The Preliminary Exam in Organic Chemistry consists of two main parts:

  • Part 1 deals with spectroscopic identification of an unknown organic compound based on its IR, mass, and NMR spectra.  This is a written 2-hour exam and requires a detailed analysis of the provided spectra ultimately leading to a proposed structure. The level of detail required is similar to that encountered in textbooks dealing with this subject (e.g. Spectrometric Identification of Organic Compounds 7th ed. by Silverstein, Webster, and Kiemle).
  • Part 2 of the exam deals with mechanistic organic chemistry. This exam emphasis is exclusively on the step-by-step reaction mechanisms encountered in typical undergraduate courses in organic chemistry. The student is given a small number of problems (3 to 5) and is asked to prepare answers for them in a 1-hour preparation period immediately followed by an oral exam by the committee members lasting one hour. Students are expected to sketch their proposed reaction mechanisms on the board using the curved-arrow formalism encountered in all modern textbooks. Students will be questioned by the committee members on the how and why of their answers as they are being written on the board. In case of poorly thought out mechanistic paths committee members will try to steer the student in the right direction. The material covered for this exam can be found in nearly all modern two-semester textbooks of organic chemistry: e.g. Organic Chemistry 8th edition by Carey and Giuliano, pp 1 – 1115. [Students who have a different textbook can check with the chair of the examination committee, Dr. Paul Caluwe, for the corresponding page assignments.]

In the absence of time conflicts Part 1 and Part 2 are given on consecutive days. The pass/fail decision by the committee members is based on the oral part of this second exam (the written preparatory part is not examined) together with the result of the spectroscopic question under part 1. Although copies of old Preliminary Organic Exams are available from the Department Secretary, they were conducted under different rules and are not indicative of the present set-up.

Physical Chemistry

The Preliminary Exam in Physical Chemistry consists of both written and oral exams. The written portion is a single 4-hour exam covering three major areas:

  • Thermodynamics
  • Electrochemistry and Kinetics
  • Quantum Mechanics and Spectroscopy

Each portion of the exam is written by a separate faculty member, and has about 4 questions. Copies of old exams are available from the Department Secretary. The questions are at the undergraduate level, with the occasional question designed to test your thinking in non-standard problems.  If one is using the 9th edition of the text by Atkins and de Paula to prepare, then the relevant chapters are 1-14 and 20-21.  Note that the exam is weighted evenly in each of the three areas listed above, and does not reflect the weight of the material in these chapters of Atkins and de Paula.

The oral exam is given at least one day after the written exam and lasts approximately one hour. It starts with each of the three faculty on the Exam committee taking 15 minutes to ask you questions. Each faculty member's first questions are typically based on the exam questions they wrote and your answers, but will also address related material. Each of the three faculty will take a second period of 5 minutes to ask more questions on other topics or follow up on the first round of questions.The oral exam emphasizes concepts and your ability to reason through problems. One key to a successful oral exam is to thoroughly go over the written exam so that during the oral exam you can tell the committee what you did right and wrong.

To pass the Preliminary Exam in Physical Chemistry you need to demonstrate that you understand the fundamentals of all three topics listed above. There is no set score required for passing. A great performance on the written exam may or may not outweigh a mediocre performance on the oral exam (and vice versa).

Analytical Chemistry

The Preliminary Exam in Analytical Chemistry consists of an ACS standard exam covering traditional analytical chemistry plus instrumental analysis. The exam consists of 50 multiple choice questions. A score of 35 is sufficient to pass. As a study guide to the exam, look at a recent edition of the textbook by Harris or Skoog and West.  The exam takes two (2) hours.


The Preliminary Exam in Biochemistry consists of a written exam that is expected to take 4-6 hours to complete. The exam is currently based on the text book Voet and Voet, Biochemistry, 4th edition and covers the following:

  • Protein Structure
  • Enzyme mechanisms including co-enzyme mechanisms
  • Enzyme Kinetics
  • Carbohydrate Structure and chemistry
  • Carbohydrate metabolism with an emphasis on glycolysis and the Krebs cycle
  • Lipid structures and metabolism
  • Regulation of Metabolic pathways
  • Structure of nucleic Acids including DNA and RNA replication
  • Protein Biosynthesis and its regulation

Three faculty members each prepare a section of the exam that covers 3 of the 9 topics above, and each section usually has 3-4 questions. Copies of old exams are available from the Department Secretary, however anything covered in FCH 530, FCH 531, FCH 532 or Voet and Voet is considered fair game. Students are encouraged to reread the text book in its entirety. A detailed study guide prepared by the faculty giving the exam that year will be released 1 month prior to the actual exam.

To pass the Preliminary Exam in Bio Chemistry you need to demonstrate that you understand the fundamentals of all the topics listed above. There is no set score required for passing.   

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