Comprehensive Exams

As required by the university, to advance to Ph.D. Candidacy, the student must pass three Comprehensive Examinations: I) comprehensive oral exam, II) comprehensive written exam, and III) final thesis defense. For timelines of when the oral and written exams need to be scheduled, please refer to Important Deadlines; the final thesis defense is completed at the conclusion of the student's graduate work.

I. Comprehensive Oral Exam


  1. Follow NIH F31 Guidelines.  Your proposal should be in a format that could be submitted to NIH.
  2. Page limits should also meet F31 Guidelines.
    • Project Summary: includes an Abstract (no more than 30 lines of text, with aims listed) and statement of Relevance to Public Health (no more than two or three sentences)
    • Specific Aims (no more than 1 page)
    • Research Strategy (no more the 6 pages, including figures) Includes sections on a. Significance, b. Innovation, and c. Approach
    • References (no page limit) Includes the names of all authors, article title, journal title, volume number, page numbers, and year of publication.
    • Proper formatting Arial or Helvetica font, 11 points or larger, half-inch margins, single spaced"
  3. Proposals are due to your Advisory Committee during Spring semester (usually mid April).  One copy should be emailed to each member and one paper copy given to the Lisa Phillippie.  Committee Members and Lisa Phillippie must receive them by 5:00pm on the assigned due date. Electronic proposals should be in pdf format.


  1. Your Committee should consist of 5-6 faculty with one being your adviser.  Three or more committee members must come from the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.
  2. Committee Members and Specific Aims must be submitted to Lisa Phillippie during Spring semester (usually in March).
  3. Department Director of Graduate Studies will identify a member of the Departmental Faculty to chair the Committee prior to your oral defense.
  4. You have the responsibility to schedule the committee meeting and schedule a location and any presentation tools you need for the meeting.  You can get help with room reservations from anyone in the administrative office. 
  5. You will need to inform Lisa Phillippie and all your Committee members of the date and time of your meeting.
  6. You must pick up forms from Lisa Phillippie before your first meeting.  Your Committee must sign these forms indicating whether you passed your oral exam and add appropriate comments.  Forms should be returned to Lisa Phillippie by the chair of your committee within 48 hours of the meeting.
  7. Oral exams should take place before Summer term (usually before the end of June).
  8. Meetings must be held yearly thereafter.  An annual progress report must be completed and submitted by the Committee Chair following each meeting.


  1. Your uninterrupted presentation should be 20-30 minutes in length.
  2. However, during the actual exam, you should expect to be interrupted by questions during your presentation, with a general discussion and question session after the presentation.
  3. The presentation should walk your committee through each section of the proposal (i.e. Background, Significance, Specific Aims, and Experimental Design, etc.).  They will want to know what you are proposing and how you will achieve your goals.
  4. You should not have more than ~30 slides, although you can have additional data slides on hand if you anticipate detailed questions on any particular experiment.  For the main presentation, you must decide which experiments are the most important to explain your work and consider carefully how to present these clearly and succinctly..
  5. You should allow two hours for the entire exam. 


  1. The Committee is responsible for advising the student.
  2. The Committee chair is responsible for turning in signed forms to Lisa Phillippie within 48 hours of the oral exam and Committee meeting and for summarizing on that form the closed discussion of the Committee on the student’s performance and any recommendations made to the student.
  3. The committee chair is also responsible for emailing a summary to the student of each meeting that details progress and future goals. 

II. Comprehensive Written Exam

The comprehensive written exam is an open-book exam to test your knowledge, comprehension, and analytical ability. Passing is required to remain in the program. It is suggested that students take the written comprehensive exam in their second year.  Several weeks prior to the exam, relevant reading materials are provided to students by the faculty exam committee.  The combination of these readings plus the core course requirements is sufficient to prepare students to succeed in the exam requirements for their chosen track (Biochemistry or Biophysics).  Students typically have one week to complete the exam.

SECTION I: Biophysics, Enzymology,
Structural Biology

SECTION II: Molecular and
Cellular Biology

  • A questions - probe comprehension and ability to critically evaluate scientific work
  • B questions - analyze, interpret and/or devise scientific experiment(s) to address unresolved issues.

Question 1: A-type

Question 1: A-type

Question 2: A-type

Question 2: A-type

Question 3: B-type

Question 3: B-type

Question 4: B-type

Question 4: B-type

    Each student answers 5 total questions to complete exam:

    • Biophysics Track student answers all four questions in Section I and chooses one question from Section II.
    • Biochemistry Track student answers all four questions in Section II and chooses one question from Section I.

    III. Final Thesis Defense

    The final oral thesis defense will be held only after all members of the committee have had adequate opportunity to review a draft of the doctoral dissertation. The dissertation advisor is responsible for determining that the draft is in an appropriate form for committee evaluation. If substantial revisions are necessary, they should be completed before the final oral defense is scheduled. All committee members are expected to be present at the defense. 

    The final oral defense may be open to the public or limited in attendance to the candidate and the committee. Questions that relate the dissertation to the field are appropriate. A dissertation is accepted only after the approval of a majority of the examining committee members. At the conclusion of the final oral defense, all committee members should sign Part III of the Doctoral Exam Report Form.

    At the time of the final oral defense, but no later than the oral, the committee may require alterations and corrections, but these should constitute relatively minor changes agreed to by a majority of the committee members. The dissertation advisor is responsible for verifying that the changes required by the committee have been made. When changes have been verified, the advisor should sign Part IV of the Doctoral Exam Report Form.  

    *For M.S. candidacy, the student must pass either the Comprehensive Oral or Written Exam.  A Final Thesis Defense is not required. For more information, please refer to the Masters Degree Requirements section.

    For more information, please refer to the Graduate School’s Thesis and Dissertation Guide.