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PhD Qualifying Examination

General information about the PhD timeline and the preparation and completion of the qualifying exam can be found on the GEPA website:  The information on this website should be consulted, as the procedures and requirements sometimes change.

General Procedures

The Qualifying Examination must be completed (i.e., written and passed) by October 31 of the third year to maintain good academic standing. Students must have completed 30 or more credit hours before examination can be scheduled. Provided here is an overview of the process, followed by detailed guidelines. Briefly, the student prepares a written research proposal and presents it to their thesis advisory committee. The proposal should describe a specific problem, provide pertinent background information, initial exploratory or feasibility studies, and a tentative outline of the work planned (this is described in greater detail below).

Qualifying Examination – Overview

The purpose of the Qualifying Examination is to determine whether the student is qualified and competent to conduct research on a specific project leading toward a PhD in Toxicology.  The examination serves as a means of determining the potential of the student for independent thought, comprehension of the generalities and the specifics of the field(s) related to the research area, and of the elements of logic necessary for hypothesis-driven scientific research.  Issues to be addressed in the document include identifying knowledge gaps and critical questions in the field that will be addressed, and cogent explanations of the critical experiments to be executed. Research should be chosen that will lead to publishable results, and must have clear linkage to toxicology and environmental or public health. As such, the significance of the work is an important consideration. In addition, the Qualifying Examination serves as a point at which the student’s overall breadth and depth of knowledge will be probed, and is an opportunity for significant feedback from the thesis advisory committee to enhance and/or modify the future path of the project. Extensive data are not necessary for the Qualifying Examination process to be initiated. Indeed, it is not necessary for the student to generate a large body of data prior to taking the Qualifying Exam.


Well in advance of writing and submission of the proposal, the student should meet with his/her Thesis Advisory Committee to discuss the overall ideas of the project, and obtain their approval to proceed with the exam. This meeting should provide an overview of the student’s thinking and draft Aims, but should not transform into the actual qualifying examination. At this meeting, it is strongly encouraged that a specific date for the exam be set. If not set at the meeting, then the student needs to work with the committee to set a date (e.g., via email or a Doodle poll). The examination can only proceed following the approval of all committee members.

Specific Procedures

The organization of the proposal is structured using a format that is similar to NIH research grants, since this is a common paradigm in biomedical research. Students must follow the guidelines as given below or the document will be returned to them.

  • The text should be single-spaced, and the size can be no smaller than 11 point Arial font, with ≥0.5 inch margins.
  • Pages must be numbered
  • Figures should be "full sized" with legible fonts (resist the temptation to excessively reduce the size of figures to fit into a tight space).
  • The required order and page limits for each of the various sections are given below. Do not exceed these limits.
  • A Table of Contents is not required and should not be included.

Cover page

This should provide the student’s name, name of the mentor, and a title of the proposed research project. This does not ‘count’ in the page limits and should not be numbered.

Second page

This page should contain two separate elements: j the project summary and k the statement of relevance.

Project Summary

Provide a succinct and accurate description of the proposed work when separated from the remainder of the document. State the broad, long-term objectives and specific aims, making reference to the health relatedness of the project. Describe concisely the overall hypothesis to be tested, research design, and methods for achieving the stated goals (do not provide methodological details, just an overview). This section should be informative to people working in the same or related fields, and insofar as possible understandable to a scientifically or technically literate reader. Avoid describing past accomplishments and using the first person. Do not exceed 3/4 page.


Using no more than two or three sentences, describe the relevance of this research to toxicology and environmental or public health. In this section, be succinct and use plain language that can be understood by a general, lay audience. Do not exceed 3 sentences.

Specific Aims

Concisely state the central hypothesis to be tested, goals of the proposed research, and summarize the expected outcome(s), including the likely impact that the results will have. Clearly indicate what is novel and important. Succinctly present the specific objectives (Aims) of the research proposed (e.g., to test a stated hypothesis, create a novel design, solve a specific problem, challenge an existing paradigm or clinical practice, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology).  Do not exceed 1 page.

Research Strategy (Do not exceed 12 pages for this section)

Organize the Research Strategy in the specified order, and adhere to the instructions provided below. Start each section with the appropriate section heading: Significance, Innovation, Approach. Cite published experimental details in the Research Strategy section, and provide the full reference in a separate References Cited section.

  • The Reference section does NOT count in the page limit; however, figures and tables are included within this page limit.
  • The guidelines below regarding the number of pages for each section within this 12-page limit are intended as guidelines (not rules). Depending on how you craft your document, the number of pages in each section may vary.

Significance (1-2 pages)

  • Explain the importance of the problem or critical barrier to progress in the field that the proposed research project addresses.
  • Explain how the proposed project will improve scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or environmental/public health.
  • Describe how the concepts, methods, technologies, etc. that drive the field will be changed if the proposed aims are achieved 

Innovation (~1/2 page)

  • Explain how the research challenges a current problem or will shift knowledge, research approaches, public health, or clinical practice paradigms.
  • Describe novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s) to be developed or used, and any advantage over existing methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s).
  • Explain any refinements, improvements, or new applications of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or interventions.

 Approach (~10 pages)

  • Describe the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Include how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted.
  • Discuss preliminary studies, knowledge, data, and/or experience pertinent to this application.
  • Discuss potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success (i.e., what to you expect to learn, what are limitations of the methods you plan to use, are there ways to deal with technical limitations, how will you know you have achieved your goals, what will you do if you encounter unexpected results?).
  • If the project is in the early stages of development, describe your strategy to establish feasibility, and address the management of any high-risk aspects of the proposed work.
  • Point out any procedures, situations, or materials that may be hazardous and precautions to be exercised


Integration of information within and across these sections can be done effectively using many approaches. Reading some qualifying exams and research grants is highly recommended. Herein a few suggestions for effective organizational strategies are presented as a guide. Most research projects have more than one Specific Aim. It is generally clearer to readers to have Significance and Innovations sections for the overall project, and then write a separate Approach subsection with details for each Aim. Within the Approach section, an effective style is to have the following sub-sections within each Aim: (1) Rationale and Hypothesis, (2) Experimental Approach, (3) Possible Experimental Outcomes (and how they would be interpreted or used to move you forward), and (4) Possible Difficulties and Alternate Approaches.



Provide the complete citation for all literature cited in the Research Plan. A summary of current practices and expectations for an acceptable format for the Qualifying Exam is outlined below:

  • For peer reviewed papers, review articles, and other print (including e-print) materials: each reference must include the name of all authors (in the same sequence in which they appear in the publication), the article title, journal or book title, volume number, page numbers, and year of publication.
  • For solely web-based citations, provide the author(s) if known, the date posted (if indicated), the source, the URL, and the most recent date accessed by you.
  • It is important to be concise and to select only those literature references pertinent to the proposed research. As a guideline, 30 references would be too few, yet 300 would be too many.  Do not reference a paper that you have not read.
  • Formatting: Use one of the following two methods:
  1. At the end of the sentence, within parentheses, indicate the last name of the first author and the year published. If there is more than one author, include et al., after the name. For example: (Smith, 1998). List all cited work in alphabetical order (by the first author’s last name) in the References section.
  2. At the end of the sentence, within parentheses use a number to denote each reference. For example: (1). List all cited work in numerical order in the References section.


Select a top-tier journal in your field and carefully review their Instructions to Authors regarding the correct format for literature citations


Graphs, diagrams, tables, and charts that further support the proposal may be included in this section. The use of graphical material is encouraged, provided that it aids in the interpretation and effectiveness of the written material.  However, be cautious to not use this section to circumvent page limits for the exam.

Scheduling the Exam

When the date has been selected, the student needs to inform the Program Coordinator of this date. This notification must be officially made in writing (email is acceptable) at least 21 working days in advance of the exam. Failure to follow this rule may result in the need to postpone your exam. The Program Coordinator will help find a room for the examination, and work with the student to get the required paperwork filed with the Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education’s office.

Submission of the Written Document

The written document must be delivered to the entire committee no less than 10 business days before the date of the oral exam (i.e., roughly two weeks before the exam). Hard copies are typically provided to the committee members; however, if a committee member prefers electronic version, then this is acceptable.


It is strongly advised to have someone, (i.e. a more senior lab member familiar with the area of study) read your Qualifying Exam document before submitting it to your mentor and committee. In fact, it is wise to have more than one person provide you with constructive feedback on your document. Moreover, you are encouraged to obtain input and guidance from your faculty mentor; however, they are not permitted to write sections for you.

It is strongly advised to have several peers (e.g. students who have passed the exam and/or postdocs familiar with the broad topic area) conduct a mock oral exam, to practice answering questions ‘on your feet.’ The faculty mentor and members of the Thesis Advisory Committee are, of course, not permitted to participate in this practice oral exam.

The Qualifying Examination

The Qualifying Examination consists of a closed session with the Thesis Advisory Committee, with one member selected by the Senior Associated Dean to serve as Chair of the Examination process.  The oral examination usually lasts between 2 to 3 hours. The candidate is judged on the following criteria:

(1) Written and oral presentation of the thesis proposal;

(2) Grasp of the fundamental issues and theoretical basis for the experimental approaches;

(3) Knowledge of alternate approaches to achieve the outlined goals; and

(4) Ability to critically evaluate a research area, to propose a relevant hypothesis, to design critical experiments to test the hypothesis, and to critically assess potential results of proposed experiments. 

The Committee will meet separately at the conclusion of the oral examination, determine whether or not the student has passed, and formulate a report to the Senior Associate Dean’s office. Directly after this discussion, the committee, led by the committee Exam Chair, will meet with the student to discuss strengths and weaknesses of the exam, and may make specific recommendations. The student will be informed of the examination results at this time.

Failure of the Qualifying Examination, as designated by a recommendation for such by only two of the four examination committee members, requires one of two possible actions based on the final guidance of the Thesis Advisory Committee:  (1) dismissal from the graduate program in Toxicology, or (2) repeat of the qualifying exam.  Except under unusual circumstances, the second should most often be the case.  If a repetition of the Qualifying Examination is required, the University requires a waiting period of 6 months before the Qualifying Exam may be retaken. Failure of the examination the second time will result in dismissal from the program, but again this decision is subject to the recommendation of the advisory committee and the Program Director.