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Qualifying Examination

Becoming a Ph.D. Candidate

The Qualifying Examination should be completed no later than October 1st of the fifth semester (3rd year) of graduate studies. By this time, the student must have completed at least 28 credit hours of courses, seminars, and research.

The purpose of the Qualifying Examination is to evaluate whether a student has sufficient knowledge and competency to continue studies toward a Ph.D. in Translational Biomedical Science. The student must show potential for independent thought, a solid approach to investigate a significant scientific problem, and general knowledge in their selected area of study.

The first goal of the Qualifying Examination is to evaluate the student's written Thesis Proposal. The student is encouraged to research and organize the background knowledge that serves as the basis for the research proposal and to devise a series of experiments or research program that will investigate a significant and novel problem in the student’s area of interest. Regardless of the research area and methodology chosen, all research proposals must address the following questions: What do you plan to accomplish, why you want to do it, and how you are going to do it?

The second goal of the Qualifying Examination is to assess the student’s basic theoretical and practical knowledge in their chosen field of study. During a closed meeting, the appointed Advisory Committee will ask the student questions to evaluate whether the student’s basic theoretical and practical knowledge is sufficient for the student to pursue a Ph.D. in Translational Biomedical Science. Accordingly, the questions will test the student’s foundation of (i) general theories and paradigms (ii) classical and current literature and (iii) experimental techniques related to the student’s Thesis Proposal, as well as their chosen field of study.

Writing a Thesis Proposal Using a NIH F30/F31 Grant Application Format

In brief, the proposal will be written in the format of an F30 for dual degree candidates (MD/PhDs), and the format of an F31 for doctoral trainees (PhDs). Students should speak with the primary advisor and committee members to get further proposal examples and guidance with formatting.

Although the written proposal is the intellectual output of the student, the student is encouraged to consult with others – the primary advisor, other faculty members, thesis committee members, postdoctoral fellows, other students, or investigators outside the University – in preparing the written proposal. It is recognized that there may be substantial input by the student's advisor, since the thesis generally reflects research activities in the advisor's laboratory or research program. However, the actual written proposal is to be the intellectual output of the student, and plagiarism from publications or grant applications written by the advisor or others is strictly prohibited. When the student has completed the written proposal, the advisor must review it before the Qualifying Examination is scheduled. While the advisor and other thesis committee members may suggest modifications in the written proposal, all revisions are to be done by the student.

Completing the Qualifying Examination Paperwork

  1. Appointment Form for PhD Qualifying Exam announces date, time, and location of the exam, the student’s program, committee members and proposal title. This form is prepared by the TBS coordinator and signed by one of the TBS co-directors.
  2. Proposal Title Page is a cover page for the thesis proposal abstract. It is one page in length and it is usually not numbered.
  3. Specific Aims and Research Plan for the thesis proposal, based off of a NIH F30/F31 or R01 grant style.

The Qualifying Examination committee will (in almost all cases) be the committee that was present at the Pre-Qualifying Meeting, and will go on to serve as the Dissertation Advisory Committee. The Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs will appoint a for the examination.

Submit Qualifying Examination Paperwork

Paperwork for the qualifying exam (listed above) is due to the Program Coordinator and Program Director at least 15 full working days prior to the exam. If the paperwork is late, students will be required to select a new date. 

Qualifying examination paperwork is reviewed to ensure that all required information has been provided, including the appropriate department or program signatures. An audit of coursework and research is then completed to determine if at least 28 credit hours have been satisfied. If the audit is satisfactory, the program of study is approved by the Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs. The Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs also reviews the proposal aims and the composition of the exam committee and determines which member will serve as Chair for the exam.

Ten Days Prior to the Exam

The student is required to distribute the thesis proposal document, comprised of the specific aims and research plan, to the exam committee at least 10 full working days prior to the exam to allow the Qualifying Examination Chair to request feedback from all committee members to determine the acceptability of the thesis proposal document. If the Chair determines that each member of the committee finds the thesis proposal document to be of sufficient quality, the exam proceeds. An affirmative answer means only that committee members find that the proposal is sufficient on the whole and does not commit to agreement with every sentence or paragraph. Moreover, an affirmative answer that the document is of sufficient quality to defend does not preclude changes to the document after the exam.

If the thesis proposal document is determined by the committee not to be of sufficient quality, the student may be asked to make revisions and to reschedule the exam for a later date.

The Examination

The student is expected to present an overview of the thesis research proposal for the first 20-30 minutes. The committee then commences the oral examination. A typical exam will take approximately two hours. The student is judged on several criteria: the written and oral proposal presentation, a grasp of fundamental research issues, the ability to apply the background from formal course work to problems related to the proposal, a demonstration of critical assessment of results and an understanding of how the proposed research can be translated to clinical care and populations. It is important to recognize that while the written proposal serves as a focus for the oral exam, questions about peripheral research-related areas will be raised. Following the oral examination, the Qualifying Examination Committee will meet in closed session to evaluate the student’s overall performance (including the oral examination, academic record, and laboratory performance). 

The committee will determine if the student has passed the exam, passed pending modifications to the thesis proposal, or did not pass the exam. The Chair of the Qualifying Examination Committee will notify the student, the TBS Program Coordinator, Co-Directors and the Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs in writing that the student has passed, failed, or received a contingent pass of the Qualifying Examination.

  1. If the student passed the exam, he/she will be admitted to candidacy for the PhD degree This status is required by University regulations.
  2. If the student passes pending modifications to the thesis proposal, 14 calendar days will be given after the exam to make necessary revisions. When the requirement has been satisfied, the student must send written documentation of this to the TBS Program Director and Coordinator, and to the Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs.
  3. If the student did not pass the exam, an opportunity may be granted to take a second exam after a period of five calendar months. This is determined in consultation with the advisor, Program Director, and the Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs. If the second examination is failed, a third will not be administered in the School of Medicine & Dentistry, and the student will no longer be able to participate in the doctoral program.