Student Handbook - Qualifying Examination

Qualifying Examination

(To be taken by June 1 of the second year)

Formation of Thesis Committee

Students will assemble a Thesis Advisory Committee consisting of the Thesis Advisor and three members of the MCB Graduate Program training faculty during the fall semester of the second year. The purpose of the committee is to provide the student with diverse perspectives on the thesis work, and the composition of the committee should be developed in consultation with the thesis advisor. When contacting prospective members, the student should be prepared to briefly discuss his or her proposed thesis work along with a rationale for including the faculty member on the committee.

By the end of February in the second year, the student will convene a first meeting with the Thesis Advisory Committee. At this meeting, the student will briefly present an outline of the proposed thesis research and identify additional areas to study at an advanced level for the qualifying examination. These topics should cover areas related to the proposed thesis work with the goal of complementing and strengthening the development of the thesis. One topic should be proposed for each faculty member on the committee. After the meeting, each committee member will work with the student to develop a reading list of journal articles relevant to the topic in preparation for the qualifying examination (see below). During the first committee meeting, the Chair of the committee will complete the "First Committee Meeting Report".  The First Committee Meeting Report form includes information about the composition of the Thesis Advisory Committee, the reading topic for each committee member, and the date of the Qualifying Examination. Immediately after the meeting, the Director of the Graduate Program should be provided with a copy of this report.

Goals of the Qualifying Examination

The goals of the qualifying examination are:

  1. To evaluate the student’s comprehension of the scientific literature in the area of the thesis research and in related areas identified at the first thesis committee meeting.
  2. To evaluate the student’s ability to define scientific questions and to develop experimental strategies to answer them.

    Structure of the Examination

    1. Students must complete the qualifying examination by June 1 of the second year.
    2. The examination committee will be composed of all of the members of the Thesis Advisory Committee excluding the Thesis Advisor. The members of the committee will assign a Chair before the examination begins if this has not already been done during the first committee meeting.
    3. After the first committee meeting and as far in advance of the Qualifying Examination as possible, the student will develop a reading list on each topic in consultation with each member of the Thesis Advisory Committee, including the Thesis Advisor.
    4. At least two weeks before the scheduled examination, the student will submit a written research proposal (not to exceed 10 pages including text and all figures, charts, tables and diagrams) to each member of the committee. The written proposal will be formatted with font size of 11 points or larger and page margins of at least 0.5 inches on all sides. The thesis advisor should work closely with the student to develop the ideas in the proposal through discussions, and may make general comments on proposal drafts, but may not edit proposal drafts.
    5. The proposal will consist of the following sections:
      1. Title
      2. Abstract: A one paragraph summary of the proposal, not to exceed 300 words
      3. Background (2-3 pages): An introduction to the biological question that will be addressed in the proposal. This section should be brief. The proposal introduction should not be an exhaustive discussion of the literature, but rather it should highlight the background necessary to understand the small area of a field that will be addressed with the proposed experiments. The members of the committee will most likely not be in the same field, and it is important to explain why the system, question and approaches proposed are interesting, important, and feasible.
      4. Preliminary studies (1-2 pages): A brief presentation of the data collected by the student in support of the proposed experiments. Variation in the quantity of preliminary data is expected among students, particularly at this early stage of their graduate careers, but students should detail the work that they have accomplished in the laboratory up until the point of the examination. Only data directly relevant to the proposed research should be included.
      5. Hypothesis and Specific Aims (1 paragraph): A concise statement of the hypothesis to be tested by the proposed work, including 2-3 numbered sentences that state the specific aims of the work
      6. Proposed Experiments (4-6 pages): A detailed outline of the proposed experiments including 1) a discussion of the possible results and their interpretations and 2) the potential pitfalls of the proposed experiments and how they will be circumvented
      7. Conclusions and Perspectives (1-2 paragraphs): A brief statement of the importance of the proposed work for the field
      8. References (excluded from the 10-page limit).
    6. At the examination, the student will answer questions on the reading topics (concepts and experimental approaches) and defend the thesis proposal. For the defense of the proposal, students will prepare an oral presentation, not to exceed 10-15 minutes, to serve as a summary of the experimental aspects of the proposal with only a brief introduction (1 slide for background and 1 slide for hypothesis and specific aims). The thesis advisor may be present for the examination if he/she chooses, but is a silent observer and may not speak or in any way try to influence the responses given by the student unless given permission by the other members of the committee. At the conclusion of the examination, the student and advisor will leave the room in order for the committee to freely discuss the outcome of the examination.


    The student will be evaluated on the content, plan, presentation and defense of the written proposal as well as the ability to answer questions on areas related to the thesis research. The written proposal and the oral defense will each be given an overall rating of "pass" or of "conditional pass." A "pass" evaluation for both components of the Qualifying Examination indicates that the student has satisfactorily completed the examination requirements and is admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. For a "conditional pass" on either part of the examination, the Thesis Advisory Committee will provide additional requirements designed to make up deficiencies revealed by the initial examination and a deadline for completion of these addtional requirements, usually within a month of the initial examination and before August 31. Additional requirements for a "conditional pass" could include re-writing the proposal, repeating the oral examination, or making a written or oral presentations on specific topics. Satisfactory completion of the additional requirements by the deadline will result in a new evaluation of "pass" and admission to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. Failure to satisfactorily complete the additional requirements by the deadline will result in declined candidacy for the Ph.D. degree and dismissal from the Program.

    The student will be informed of the committee’s decision at the end of the initial examination. In addition, the Chair of the committee will complete the Qualifying Exam Report evaluating the student’s performance on the examination and explaining any additional requirements and deadlines for a "conditional pass," and collect signatures from the committee members, at the end of the initial examination. A copy of the completed form will be given to the Director of the Graduate Program immediately after the examination. For "conditional pass" outcomes, the Chair of the committee will provide the Director of the Graduate Program with a second version of the Qualifying Examination Report form after the additional requirements have been evaluated, indicating the final outcome of the examination.