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Current Students

Preliminary Exam FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently asked questions about the HCDE PhD preliminary exam.

A: If you are asking this question regarding presenting in spring of your first year, we strongly encourage you to wait until autumn of your second year when the research is more developed. Research presented for prelims must be evaluated according to all criteria for prelims. It can be difficult to evaluate in-progress research according to these criteria, and so you may receive reviews that require you to retake prelims in the future when the work is further along. 

If you are asking this question in your second year, the same concerns apply. Students have successfully presented work at various stages (e.g., study designs, completed studies, literature reviews, and systems contributions), but to pass prelims, reviewers must be able to evaluate the work according to all criteria. Both the paper and the presentation must address the motivation relative to literature, the methods or approach, the (potential) results or insights, and the (anticipated) implications for the author's field(s). 

Consider, for example, a student who presents a literature review. If the literature review was intended as its own contribution -- e.g., with some synthesis or analysis -- reviewers can evaluate it as such. That literature review should communicate the motivation for the work, how the literature review was conducted, contributions of synthesizing the knowledge in this way, what the reader will learn beyond if they had individually read the papers included in the review, and implications for the field.

If, however, the literature review was intended as a preparation for a particular study that is in-work -- in that case, it will be important to communicate the overall research goals, how the literature review informs the study design (including intended methods with sufficient detail to evaluate them), potential results of the study, and what the in-work study could contribute back to the literature.

Also, one specific risk for in-progress work is that you can overstate claims before you finish the analysis. If you are presenting ongoing research, you may need to take extra care to communicate what you don’t yet know and which potential findings are still subject to further analysis.

Regardless of the state of the research, we also recommend using some of your reflection (and presentation) to orient your evaluators to the state of the work. This can help avoid misunderstandings.


A: Yes. You also do not need to be the first author. In your reflection, you should make your contribution/role clear. In your presentation, you might then focus more on the parts in which you had a greater role. 


A: If you have more than one option for submitting/presenting, that’s a great position to be in (though, yes, definitely comes with perhaps some stress around choosing!).

Some things to consider:

For some, it might make sense to choose the project/paper with which you are most comfortable and confident since that can reduce stress and ensure you enjoy the experience. For many students, this is the most complete work, since that’s often the most familiar “genre” of talk.

For some, it might make sense to choose the project/paper that is most closely aligned with the direction you are interested in going. In other words, you might choose based on what you want faculty and others to know about you. 

For still others, it might make sense to choose the project/paper that you are most interested in discussing with others. 


A: Presentations often have a different focus than the paper. For example, presentations often go into detail on just a subset of the findings. 

If some time has passed since you completed the work, you may wish to spend more of the presentation on ongoing extensions / future work from the publication (but you don’t have to!). If you do this, we recommend using some of your reflection to discuss this too, so your audience can better understand the connection between the presentation and the talk; also, make sure that the talk includes enough of the previous work and findings that the audience can appreciate the conversation about future or ongoing work.

We discourage presenting on a project or topic that differs from the paper topic. This confuses the audience/evaluators.


A: In the prelim, the reflection helps orient evaluators to your work. This can include: 

  • Describing your role in / contribution to the work
  • Describing the audience for the paper and how this work contributes to that audience.
  • If published, describing what has happened since the publication (any notable press? follow-on projects? next steps?)

You might also talk about some things you would do differently. For example, I (Sean) published a paper with one statistical analysis, but later learned that another method would have been more appropriate and updated that analysis in future reflections on the work.


A: As a milestone, the evaluative part of the prelim is meant to check that you are successfully engaging in research and in scholarly communities. As a result, the most successful prelims are the ones in which you do that: you share your work, help the audience learn from it, and get some good questions and feedback. 

Compared to papers and presentations you have done before, one of the biggest differences is likely to be that this paper and this presentation are about the knowledge generated (i.e., the research), and less about products created. The primary goal of your paper and presentation should be to communicate the knowledge generated (or, if it is in progress, the knowledge that will be generated) in a way that helps the audience learn from it, trust the results, and appreciate the value of the work.

Practice your talk. For your presentation, I (Sean) encourage you to consider four goals:

  • Feel: What do you want people do feel during the talk? A lot of bad academic talks (and writing, for that matter) make the audience feel stupid; don’t be that person. You might want the audience to feel inspired, you might want them to feel more cautious about a technology or technique, you might want them to feel curious.
  • Understand: What do you want the audience to understand during the talk? E.g., for a completed project, you will want people to understand your results, why your methods should make them confident in the results, why the problem is important, and the limits of your results.
  • Do: What do you want them to do as a result of your talk? Yes, for the prelim, you want the evaluators to recommend that you pass. You might also want them to start using a new method or design pattern, or to stop using a problematic one, or otherwise apply your findings. You might want them to give you advice on next steps, or to help you -- for in progress work -- choose among different possible analyses.
  • Remember: What do you want the audience to remember from your talk? People don’t remember most of even the best talks. Often, you want them to remember that you have some work on this topic that they can turn to when they need it in the future, or you may want them to remember that you are doing interesting work in this space so they check out your website to see your latest work in the future. 


A: Given that we have lots of time for Q&A (during which we can switch computers) and that changing computers can alter the appearance of slides in ways that aren’t fun, please plan to present from your own laptop. You may wish to bring / borrow a remote, as the room has a giant / awkward podium (really a cubicle, see website).

For connectors, the website lists an HDMI cable and a VGA cable as being available.