Qualifying Exam Information for BioSci
Department of Biological Sciences Qualifying Exam
The qualifying exam can be taken after a student fulfills the departmental course requirements and reaches a minimum of 24 didactic credits in good standing (cumulative GPA of 3.0 or above). All requirements must be completed before October 15 of the third year. The overall goals of the qualifying exam are 1) to assess the student's ability to formulate hypotheses and design specific aims to test these hypotheses, 2) to test the student’s knowledge in scientific literature relevant to the Ph.D. dissertation, 3) to assess the student's general knowledge base, 4) to provide training/feedback in the grant writing process, and 5) to form a thesis committee to foster and monitor the student's continued development.
Following are the requirements of the qualifying exam process in Biological Sciences. Throughout this document, DGS refers to the Director of Graduate Studies (currently Dr. Kathy Friedman) and GPM refers to the Graduate Program Manager (currently Ms. Leslie Maxwell).
1. Qualifying Exam Workshop. The department will hold an informational workshop in March. The DGS will ask two faculty members to participate each year on a rotating basis. The workshop will include specifics on how to prepare a grant proposal and administrative details of the qualifying examination. There will be an in-depth discussion of good grant writing practices and common concerns and mistakes. Example proposals will be provided. Attendance at the workshop is mandatory for students in their second year of graduate study. Any exceptions must be arranged with the DGS.
2. Topic Selection. The topic for the Qualifying Exam is the anticipated research topic for the Ph.D. dissertation and should be chosen by the student with guidance from his/her mentor. It is important to note that the research grant proposal is not a contract for either the student or mentor. Research objectives may be altered after the qualifying examination in consultation with the student’s mentor and with approval of the dissertation committee.
3. Qualifying Examination Committee. The Examining Committee will consist of four members of the University Graduate Faculty. One member must represent a field of research outside of the focus of the proposal and the committee must additionally include one member from outside the Department of Biological Sciences. The chair of the Examining Committee must be a tenured faculty of the Department of Biological Sciences. The student's mentor does not serve on the Examining Committee but must attend both the pre-meeting (see below) and the qualifying exam. The examining committee members and the mentor vote for a pass/fail on the exam. The Examining Committee should be appointed as early as possible in the second year, but no later than the end of the Spring semester of the second year. The student and mentor will submit a list of potential committee members to the DGS and indicate a potential chair for the committee. Students should consult with potential members prior to submission of their names. After approval by the DGS, the GPM will submit the names to the Graduate School.
4. Preparation of Qualifying Exam Specific Aims Page. The student will write the Specific Aims Page of his/her Qualifying Exam research proposal (1 page limit). This document should describe the hypotheses to be tested and list the specific aims designed to test these hypotheses. The general experimental approaches and methodologies to be utilized should be briefly described. The student is encouraged to discuss the research topic and experimental details with the mentor and the mentor (or other scientists) may read and critique the Specific Aims Page. However, the final product must be written by and represent the intellectual input of the student. The Specific Aims Page must be submitted to each member of the Examination Committee by email at least 1 week prior to the scheduled pre-examination meeting (see point 5 below). Failure to meet this deadline will require rescheduling of the meeting.
5. Pre-examination Meeting. A pre-examination meeting will be held not later than September 1. The goal of this meeting is to confirm that the student has met the academic requirements for taking the qualifying exam and to determine whether the student's anticipated research proposal (based on the Specifics Aims Page, see point 4 above) will be "defendable" in a qualifying exam. The meeting will last no more than one hour and will consist of the following sections. 1) In the student’s absence, the committee will review the student’s academic progress. The Chair will obtain the student’s file and transcript from the GPM prior to the meeting. The mentor will be invited to comment on the student’s progress, including particular strengths and weaknesses. 2) The student will give a ten-minute chalk talk (no pre-prepared visuals) that includes a very brief summary of the background and an outline of the proposed thesis work. Questions and discussion from the committee will be focused on the proposed aims of the project, including feasibility and scope. 3) At the end of the presentation/discussion, the student will be asked to leave and the Chair will poll each committee member as to the suitability of the proposed research plan. Possible outcomes are as follows: approval, approval with revisions, or significant revision of the Specific Aims Page necessitating a second pre-examination meeting. A timeline for completion of any requirements will be established. A brief description of the outcome of the meeting and any suggestions for changes to the Specific Aims page will be written by the Chair and distributed by email to the student and the GPM within three days of the pre-examination meeting.
6. Qualifying Exam The qualifying examination must occur before October 15. The student will inform the GPM of the date and location of the exam at least four weeks prior to the meeting and the GPM will forward this information to the Graduate School. The qualifying exam comprises two parts: written and oral.
Written component: The written component of the qualifying exam must be submitted to the members of the Examination Committee no later than two weeks prior to the scheduled examination (the student should contact committee members about whether electronic and/or hard copies are preferred). Failure to meet this deadline will require rescheduling of the exam. The written component is in the form of a grant proposal and will comprise a total of 10 single-spaced pages, including the Specific Aims Page, Background and Significance, Preliminary Data (if available) and Research Plan. The 10-page limit, excluding references but including any figures, is strictly enforced. The student should assume a timeline of three to four years for the proposed experiments, which should be realistically accomplished with the available resources. The student is responsible for all scientific aspects of the proposal including background information, approach, experimental design, and methodology for all experiments, but may consult anyone in the development of these ideas. A student may ask his or her mentor, other students, or postdoctoral fellows to critique the content, format, and style of the proposal. However, the Examination Committee members may not be asked for specific feedback on the written document during the time between the pre-qualifying meeting and the qualifying exam.
Oral exam: The qualifying exam meeting should last approximately two hours, including the oral exam and closed discussions. At the beginning of the meeting, the student will be asked to step out while the committee discusses whether the written proposal is satisfactory. The mentor will be asked to give an evaluation of the extent of his or her contribution to the design and editing of the document. Criteria for assessing the document include (but are not limited to) the following: hypothesis-based, scientifically sound, logical, sufficient background/review of field, sufficiently independent aims, explanation of expected outcomes, consideration of alternative approaches, well-organized, clearly written, proper grammar/spelling. The Chair will poll each member and the mentor to reach a consensus as to whether the written proposal is acceptable or requires revision. The student will then return and begin their oral defense of the proposal.
The student will prepare a PowerPoint presentation that contains no more than 10 slides covering the background and significance of the project (~4 slides) and the specific aims (~6 slides). Questions from the committee will ideally probe the student's ability to pose a scientific question, state a hypothesis, develop reasonable strategies and alternatives to test the hypothesis, anticipate possible outcomes, and interpret these possible outcomes. The first 30-60 minutes of the exam will be used to probe the student's knowledge of the appropriate background area as well as knowledge in his/her field of specialization. The remainder of the exam will focus on the Specific Aims of the proposal. Committee members will ideally prepare in advance for the meeting by reading the entire proposal and identifying several lines of questioning (on both the proposal itself and general background) to pursue during the oral exam. All committee members should actively participate in questioning the student. The student's mentor is expected to remain silent during the oral exam unless specifically addressed by the committee or granted permission by the committee chair to speak briefly.
Although a wide variety of questions may be deemed appropriate during the oral exam, the committee's focus should be to ascertain whether the student has established a critical knowledge base essential for understanding his/her research project and achieving success as he/she progresses through graduate school. It is the Chair's responsibility to keep everyone "on track" (in terms of time, lines of questioning, and overall direction) during the oral exam. Upon conclusion of the oral exam, the committee will confer in the student's absence to evaluate the student's performance. The mentor will be given an opportunity to offer his/her opinion of the student’s performance. The pass/fail decision will be based upon a majority vote among the Examining Committee members and the thesis mentor. To achieve a “pass,” both the student's written proposal and performance during the oral exam must be deemed satisfactory, with no remediation required.
Disapproval of the proposal and/or inadequate performance by the student in the oral exam (either in defense of the proposal or in general knowledge) is grounds for failure and will necessitate rewriting of the proposal, a second oral exam and/or additional remediation (to be completed within 90 days or by October 15, whichever comes first). In such cases, it is the Chair's responsibility to delineate (with input from the committee) what remedial steps are most appropriate for a particular student and how the committee will evaluate the student a second time. Both the Graduate School and the Department of Biological Sciences allow a student to retake the qualifying exam one time. The outcome of the qualifying exam must be recorded on the form provided by the Graduate School and signed by all committee members (the GPM will provide this form to the Chair prior to the exam).
7. Exam report and subsequent committee meeting After the qualifying exam, the Chair will prepare a brief letter summarizing the student's performance and outcome of the exam. The Chair will ask for input on this written document from all committee members and email the letter to the GPM within one week of the exam. The report will be forwarded to the mentor, the student, and the DGS. If the student passed, the report should indicate the time frame for scheduling the student's first regular committee meeting based on the committee's recommendation (typically 12 months, but can be sooner). It is the student’s responsibility to schedule the first regular committee meeting within the time frame recommended by the committee. If the student failed the qualifying exam, the letter will indicate a specific plan for remediation and a timeframe for scheduling a retake.