Fundamental Topic Preliminary Exam

All PhD students must successfully pass the oral fundamental topic preliminary exam, which is intended to assess the potential to successfully complete a PhD in mechanical engineering. It is designed to evaluate analytical skills, appraise knowledge of mechanical engineering fundamentals, and to gauge potential for creative independent research. The exam requires students to consolidate their grasp of the fundamentals of mechanical engineering and to demonstrate an aptitude for communicating knowledge during an oral presentation. The content of the examination reflects consensus across the department faculty. The examination is administered by the Graduate Committee, acting on behalf of the entire faculty. 

All PhD students are required to take two from a list of multiple topic exams. The department will organize peer-led oral exam practice efforts to facilitate growth with the oral defense. The list of topics and their corresponding preparatory courses are listed below:

  • Dynamics and Controls: MCEN 5448 Linear Systems
  • Fluid Dynamics: MCEN 5021 Introduction to Fluid Dynamics
  • Heat Transfer: MCEN 5042 Heat Transfer
  • Materials: MCEN 5024 Materials Chemistry and Structures
  • Mechanics: MCEN 5023 Solid Mechanics
  • Thermodynamics: MCEN 5022 Classical Thermodynamics

Details regarding the content of each topic exam are provided in the Appendix of the Graduate Program Handbook. The preparatory courses are strongly recommended prior to taking the oral preliminary exam, although they are not required.

The exam is oral and delivered by a committee of at least two faculty. The committee cannot include a student's faculty advisor, and advisors are not consulted when making final decisions on exams. 

Research Preliminary Exam

The research preliminary exam is an oral presentation of research to a committee of three that must include a PhD student’s research advisor. Two of the three committee members must be mechanical engineering faculty members. Students should view this as an early thesis proposal and should complete it within one semester of passing (or conditionally passing) the Oral Fundamental Topic Preliminary Exam.

Typically, the research preliminary exam consists of a roughly 30-minute oral presentation by the student on a research topic, followed by roughly 30 minutes of questioning by the exam committee. In nearly all cases, the total exam time will be, at most, one hour. 

The exam will consist of a literature review, a presentation of preliminary results, and a plan for future research. The committee will ask challenging questions of the student in order to test the bounds of the student’s knowledge and research potential. Additional details on the exam can be found in the Graduate Program Handbook.


  • Students will schedule this exam on their own, reaching out to to request a conference room.
  • At least one week prior to the exam, students must send a 5-page written report, including title, figures, and relevant references, to all committee members.
  • At least one week prior to the exam, students must submit the research preliminary exam form to and include 1) the exam date, 2) their advisor's name, and 3) the names of the other two committee members. 
  • The student's graduate advisor will put the exam form into DocuSign and have it sent to the committee on the day of the exam.