Preliminary Exam

Astronomy graduate students are expected to take the examination at the end of the second academic year. The prelim exam must be passed in order to continue as a graduate student in Astronomy at UW-Madison. If there is a need to boost the knowledge in a topic, there is a chance to delay taking the preliminary exam for an extra year.


These exams are a chance for the students to express the knowledge that they have gained since becoming a graduate student at the University. This is also a chance for the professors to make sure each student has made satisfactory progress in their research and overall understanding of astronomy in general.

Candidates for the Ph.D. are required to pass a preliminary examination before beginning their formal thesis work. This examination covers all fields of astrophysics and consists of both written (one full day) and oral (two hours) testing. The examination is not a test on a particular series of courses, but rather on the whole subject of astrophysics and related fields in physics. Candidates are expected to be familiar not only with the contents of textbooks, but also with research results as reported in scientific journals and departmental colloquia and seminars.

Our prelim exams are composed of two parts:

  1. The first is a written exam composed of long and short questions. The short questions are drawn from all areas of astronomy (not necessarily covered in one of the core classes). The long questions are written by professors who have taught one of the core classes to the examinees, and pertain to class content. Old written exams are available.
  2. The second is an oral exam in which the student is expected to display in-depth knowledge of topics related to their research. The first part of the oral exam consists of a presentation on the student's research. The second part is in a question and answer format in which the faculty committee members pose questions related to the talk and astronomical topics related to the student's area of research to the student.

Location and date:

Since there are generally less than 10 students in each class, the exams are held in one of the conference rooms in our building.

The Chair sets the date of the Preliminary Examination after consultation with the faculty and with the students who will take it. The examination will normally be given only once for all of the students who complete their second academic year at the same time. The student will be informed at least a month before the date of the Preliminary Exam if the exam will be of a substantially different form (in the distribution and nature of the written and oral parts) from the previous exam.

The exams are normally held a few weeks after finals. In the past, exams have been spread over two days (with one day for written and one for oral). These days are not necessarily back-to-back for each student, but they are generally close together. After each student has completed the exam, the professors meet to discuss the results.

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