model of molecular structure

Qualifying Exam Guidelines

Purpose of the Exam

To qualify for admission to Candidacy, Ph.D. students in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology must pass a Written and Oral examination administered by their Dissertation Advisory Committee. The objective of the Qualifier exam is to determine whether a student understands the principles of biochemistry and molecular biology, can read and comprehend relevant literature, and can construct convincing hypotheses and a cogent experimental plan. All of these are essential to a successful career in science and will be considered in grading the exam. After passing the Qualifier exam, the student is certified as a Candidate for the Ph.D. degree. Admission to Candidacy must occur at least one year prior to completing all requirements for the Ph.D.

Detailed Instructions

The Written and Oral components of the Qualifier exam should be completed by October 15 of the third year. An extension may be granted by the Director of Graduate Training with the recommendation of the mentor. If a Student does not complete the Qualifier exam by the deadline or receive an extension, they will be placed on academic probation. Students should set a proposal defense date with their Dissertation Advisory Committee and the Director of Graduate Training well in advance to avoid scheduling conflicts.

Written Exam

  •  Prior to the proposal defense, students will write two documents that will be examined by their Dissertation Advisory Committee.
    • Students will write a fully referenced literature review approximately 2,000-3,000 words in length, which provides additional background for the research proposal and may serve as a template for the first chapter of the student’s dissertation.
    • Students will also write a research proposal based on their proposed dissertation project, using an NIH-style format (see requirements below). Although extensive preliminary data is not required, a strong premise that supports the rationale for the research project is essential.
  • Proposal Requirements
    • 0.5-inch margins
    • 11-point font (Arial recommended)
    • Single-spaced text
  • Sections (and page limits)
    • Title
    • Specific Aims (1 page)
    • Research Strategy (6 pages total, including figures)
    • Significance
    • Innovation
    • Approach
    • Literature Cited (no limit)

Oral Exam

The student presents the dissertation proposal as a public seminar, followed by a closed oral defense before the student's Dissertation Advisory Committee and Director of Graduate Training. During the oral defense, the Committee will examine the student’s knowledge of both the proposed research project and fundamental concepts of biochemistry and molecular biology. Both Written documents (the review and proposal) will be submitted to the Student's Committee at least two weeks before the proposal defense to give them adequate time to review.

Grading of Exams

The written research proposal is scored by each member of the Dissertation Advisory Committee, with an average score of 70 percent or above required to pass. The literature review is scored pass/fail, and a passing grade is required by at least four members of the Committee. The Oral exam is evaluated according to the Oral Defense Rubric (PDF), which covers three major areas: quality of presentation, cognitive skills, and response to questions.

If either the written proposal or review fall just short of passing, but have no major deficiencies, the Committee may award a conditional pass. In this case, the Student will have one opportunity to revise the document and return it to the Committee for re-evaluation within one week. If one week is not sufficient to revise the document, then a failing grade should be awarded. After passing, the Committee may request minor revisions to the proposal or review, which should be completed within two weeks.

In the case of failure to pass any component of the Qualifier exam, the student may be permitted to retake the failed component(s) of the exam once, no less than one month and no more than one year from the time the decision was made. The time allotted prior to re-examination depends on how far the grade is from passing and will be decided by the Committee. Failure of the second examination will result in the termination of the student’s Ph.D. program.

Ethical Conduct

The purpose of the exam is to determine your readiness to be admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. As such, the proposal you submit must express your ideas and analyses in your own words. Presenting the words or ideas of others as your own is plagiarism, a form of fraud. It is grounds for failing the examination and may subject you to disciplinary action by the College of Graduate Studies. It is assumed that, as part of your preparation for candidacy for a Ph.D. degree, you understand the definition of plagiarism and the proper way to cite or recognize the words, and ideas of others. Changing a few words, but essentially copying the words and ideas of another, is still plagiarism, even when appropriately referenced. In general, you should be guided by the principle that the intent of the exam is to evaluate your ideas and abilities, including your ability to communicate. If, in the opinion of the faculty who grades your exam, your formulation of the proposal prevents proper evaluation of your skills, you will be given a failing grade. For example, extensive use of passages from other sources may prevent an evaluation of your writing skills.