November 2013 - Updated Ph.D. Qualifying Exam Procedure

Once the student passes the comprehensive examination, the student becomes eligible to take the qualifying examination for advancement to Ph.D. candidacy.

The Ph.D. Candidacy Examination

The purpose of the oral candidacy examination is to give the student the opportunity to demonstrate:

  • the ability to formulate a research problem and to comprehend its significance;
  • the ability to design appropriate experimental approaches to solve the problem;
  • the ability to write and defend a research proposal;
  • an understanding of the research area in which the student is interested.

Ph.D. Research Proposal

At the end of the student's third year, the student is expected to have spent at least two years working on a research project in the laboratory of the dissertation advisor. At this time, the student, in consultation with the dissertation advisor, will prepare a proposal in the format described below that outlines the background of the project, the hypothesis to be tested, the research accomplishments to date and the research to be completed to fulfill the requirements of a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences. It is the student's responsibility to submit the Research Proposal to each member of the dissertation committee at least two weeks prior to the oral exam date.

The Research Proposal must be double-spaced, in 12-point Arial or Palatino, and include:

  • Specific Aims: State concisely and realistically what the research is intended to accomplish, what hypothesis is to be tested, and specific aims to address the hypothesis. Do not exceed two pages.
  • Background and Significance: Briefly sketch the background to the present proposal, critically evaluate existing knowledge, and identify gaps that the proposed research is intended to fill. State concisely the importance of the research by describing the overall significance to the field of each specific aim. Do not exceed 10 pages.
  • Preliminary Research. Summarize preliminary data relevant to the proposed research, and briefly describe other research accomplishments. Do not exceed 10 pages.
  • Research Design and Methods: Briefly summarize the experimental design and the procedures to be used to accomplish the specific aims of this research. Include a description of the types of data to be obtained and how they will be analyzed to accomplish the specific aims. Students must be prepared to discuss potential pitfalls in the experimental design and contingency plans in the event that the data run counter to expectations. The description of each experiment must explain its significance to the overall goals of the project. Do not exceed 15 pages.
  • Literature Cited: All citations must include all author names as well as article titles. A suggested format (the standard for Journal of Cell Science for EndNote users) is:
  • Mazaki, Y., Uchida, H., Hino, O., Hashimoto, S. and Sabe, H. (1998). Paxillin isoforms in mouse. J. Biol. Chem. 273, 22435-22441.

Exam for admission into candidacy for the Ph.D. (Qualifying exam)

The exam will be administered by the student's dissertation committee, excluding the student's primary research advisor. If a student has co-advisors with major roles in supervising the student's research, the co-advisors may not serve on the examination committee. If a student whose research is supervised by someone outside the Department has an advisor of record who does not play a primary role in supervising the student's research, the advisor of record may serve on the exam committee. The exam commitee must have at least four members, and at least two of the members must have primary appointments in Biological Sciences. Temporary members may be added to the dissertation committee to meet these requirements. It is not necessary to have a member of the exam committee from outside the Department.

Since the primary advisor for the dissertation will not be present during the examination, the student must choose an examination committee chair from among the remaining members. The chair will be responsible for the conduct of the exam and the completion of a detailed report outlining the student's strengths and weaknesses, as well as any suggestions for alterations to the research proposal after the defense.

At the oral defense, the student will present the background and significance of the work, the hypothesis to be tested and the preliminary data collected. The majority of the presentation should be devoted to explaining the research to be performed in the two years remaining in the student's degree program. Students should plan on a 30-45 minute presentation, throughout which the committee will ask questions. At the conclusion of the formal presentation the committee will evaluate the student's scientific background as well as the scientific validity of the proposed research project. It also is essential that the student demonstrates the ability to make a significant intellectual contribution to the project.


A student's performance will be regarded as satisfactory only if the student:

  • demonstrates an adequate knowledge of the field in general as well as the research specialty in which the student is interested;
  • formulates a research problem, the solution of which will make a substantial contribution to our existing knowledge;
  • demonstrates that the experimental design and methods proposed are appropriate to solving the problem;
  • writes and defends a proposal that meets the scholarly expectations of the field.

After the oral examination, the examination committee will determine an appropriate grade. Four grades are possible:

  • Unconditional pass. The student will be admitted into candidacy and should arrange for the appropriate paperwork to be filed with the graduate office.
  • Conditional pass. The student was deficient in one or more areas. The examination committee will prescribe conditions that the student must complete. Once the condition is fulfilled, the student is responsible for informing the Biology Graduate Program Director so that the student can be admitted into candidacy.
  • Re-examination. Deficiencies are severe. The student must re-take the exam at a time to be determined by the committee, but no later than 6 months after the initial exam. The possible outcomes of the re-examination are unconditional pass, conditional pass or failure. The student may not take the qualifying exam a third time.
  • Failure. This outcome would indicate that examination committee considers the student incapable of completing Ph.D. training. The student's academic progress will be reviewed by the Graduate Affairs Committee, who will make recommendations to the Department Chair regarding the student's enrollment status. The Chair may recommend to the Office of Graduate & Professional Education that the student be dismissed from the Program immediately, or may recommend that the student be transferred to the Master's program and be ineligible for the Ph.D. in Biological Sciences.