Skip to main content

1) Preliminary Written Examination

Typically around April of the first year, BBSP students officially choose the Cell Biology and Physiology Curriculum as their PhD program when they choose a corresponding thesis lab.

In the CBP Curriculum, the Written Qualifying Exam focuses on the ability to read and understand published articles. The exam is designed to test comprehension, ability to evaluate and interpret data, synthesize results, formulate hypotheses, and devise tests of hypotheses.
The exam is created and assessed by a committee of six CBP Curriculum faculty selected by the DGS to represent the breadth of cell biology and physiology. Each faculty member serves for two years and two members are appointed as Co-Chairs. Each committee member assigns a research paper that addresses a topic of their choice. Committee members are reminded that students may not have had formal coursework in the area assigned. Students are given the reading list two weeks before the exam, during which time they are expected to become thoroughly familiar with the assigned papers. It is expected that for each topic students will delve deeper into the literature to best understand the conceptual and mechanistic advances claimed by each paper. Each committee member prepares a set of short-answer, essay questions designed to require about two hours to answer. These questions are reviewed by Co-chairs for appropriateness, which entails the ability to objectively determine a student’s knowledge and analytical skills. The exam is administered by e-mail on day one with 6 questions/topics. Answers must be returned to the Student Services Manager by 5:00 PM the second day. Per UNC Graduate School policies, a student who does not pass the exam is given another opportunity, which will occur no earlier than 3 months since the previous exam and no later than, or concomitantly with, the administration of the Written Qualifying Exam the following year. A second failure of the exam results in academic ineligibility to continue in the Ph.D. program. The Written Qualifying Exam is typically taken in May at the end of the first year in graduate school, but under very rare circumstances can be postponed until the end of year 2, usually if a student hasn’t completed the core courses. This determination is made when the student joins the Cell Biology and Physiology Curriculum, during their initial consultation with their advisor.

2) Report of Doctoral Committee Composition

The student assembles a dissertation committee in the second semester of the second year of training. Committees consist of at least five faculty members, a majority of which (typically 3/5) must be members of the CBP Curriculum. Others outside the Curriculum or the University are permissible, provided they are full members of the UNC Graduate Faculty or made “Fixed Term Appointees” by the Graduate School. This provision allows students to tap into expertise at Duke, NC State, and NIEHS; it is not uncommon for members of these institutions to serve on our students’ committees. The composition of the Dissertation Committee has to be approved by the DGS and the Graduate School. Therefore the composition of the Dissertation Committee should be formulated in full consultation with the thesis advisor and approved by the DGS well in advance of the first Committee meeting. A member other than the advisor is chosen to Chair the committee, and the Chair must be an active training Faculty in the CBP Curriculum. The Chair runs all committee meetings, including the preliminary oral exam (see below).

The first committee meeting (optional but encouraged)- ideally should be held in the Spring semester or early summer of year 2. The first meeting is for “meet and greet” purposes, so the students do not need to defend their work. This first meeting is to assemble the committee, exchange ideas and discuss future plans. A student may change the composition of their committee, if needed. The Oral Preliminary Exam/Dissertation Proposal, which must be held before the end of the fifth semester (i.e., December of Year 3) is typically the second meeting. After passing the Oral Preliminary Exam, each student is required to hold a dissertation committee meeting at least once every twelve months. However, more frequent meetings may be desirable, especially during periods of either rapid progress or unanticipated difficulties in the project. Meetings typically begin with a 5-10 minute private discussion between the Committee Members and the thesis advisor. Next, the thesis advisor is asked to leave the room to allow for a private discussion between the student and the Committee Members (for the dissertation proposal meeting, at the end, the student is asked to leave briefly while the thesis committee discusses the performance and the result of the examination, before asking the student to return to the room). Then, the student and their committee are required to discuss progress, goals and a timetable for the next meeting, and the status of work toward a publication. No later than one week following any meeting, a written summary of these discussions is prepared by the student and submitted to the Committee Members and Student Services Manager, who will keep these records in the student’s file. (The student should provide this brief written summary for all formal committee gatherings except the thesis defense)

You must have at least 3 Cell Biology and Physiology Curriculum faculty from this page:

List of Cell Biology and Physiology Curriculum Faculty 

3) “Preliminary” Oral Examination/Approval of Dissertation Project

In the CBP Curriculum, the Oral Preliminary Exam is the defense of the dissertation proposal and is used to determine whether the student can reasonably be expected to be successful in achieving a PhD in the Curriculum. At the same time, the Oral Preliminary Exam provides a forum for the dissertation committee to approve the feasibility of the project.

The Oral Preliminary Exam consists of a written proposal, formatted in the style of a 6-8 page NIH/NRSA, NSF, or AHA fellowship grant that is presented and defended in an oral presentation to the Dissertation Committee. The Dissertation Committee will meet to hear the thesis proposal no later than the end of the Fall semester of Year 3. Changes to this timing must be pre-approved by the DGS and CBP Curriculum Executive Committee. The written proposal should be delivered to the committee members AT LEAST two weeks in advance of the meeting. The oral component of the exam occurs in the format of a Dissertation Committee Meeting and is run by the Chair of the Committee (who is not the thesis advisor). The student will present and defend the proposal, during which time Committee members (including the advisor) are expected to frequently question the student during the presentation. Questions will be specific to the proposal and they will also broadly test the student’s knowledge of key topics the committee expects the student to have mastered. Questions from the committee should not be answered by the advisor unless specifically addressed to him or her by a committee member.

To pass, the student is expected to excel in all aspects of the oral exam. The proposal should generally be of a quality that might reasonably be expected to be competitive for funding if it were submitted to an appropriate agency or funding source. In this regard, students will have already completed CBPH 856, which provides them with in-depth grant writing skills on the topic of their doctoral research. During the Oral component of the exam, students will be expected to demonstrate a broad knowledge of general principles of cell biology and physiology and demonstrate competent familiarity with the background literature of their specific field of study. The student is expected to convey the scientific importance of the thesis question and to understand and defend the rationale for the experimental approach that has been selected.
Students who fail the oral exam may take it a second time. A minimum of three months must separate the first and second attempts.
Students who fail the exam twice become ineligible for further graduate work. The Graduate School may permit a student a third and final opportunity to take the exam. Such requests are made at the discretion of the Director of Graduate Studies and the Cell Biology and Physiology Executive Committee after consultation with the advisor and dissertation committee.

In general, students must have thesis committee meetings at least once every 12 months beginning Fall of their 3rd year or whenever they pass their oral exam, whichever is sooner.

4) Report of Final Oral Examination (“Thesis defense”) and Report of Final Dissertation

In the CBP Curriculum, the oral examination for the Dissertation defense will occur as formal seminar, open to the public, followed by an approximately 30-40 minute private discussion and examination of the work between the members of the Dissertation Committee and student. However, the exact length of time is entirely up to the committee. The student should give the committee the written thesis at least 2 weeks before their private discussion and examination. It is in the student’s best interest to get the written thesis to the committee as early as possible, so suggested edits can be incorporated sooner rather than later.

Notify the student services manager of the public seminar defense date so they he/she may publicize.  At the private discussion and examination, the student will be questioned extensively and judged for mastery of the thesis material. The earlier the student gets the written thesis to the committee, the more likely that thesis can be accepted as a final document at the private discussion. The student services manager should be informed before the public defense to provide the appropriate signatory forms to the student beforehand. Although the Graduate School is very particular for formatting the thesis, the committee in consultation with the student determine the content and organization.

Graduate School Thesis Components 

Graduate Career Documents

You do not need to have the forms below; the student services manager keeps a hard copy on file during your PhD career and will provide them (with signatures) for each event. Do immediately give newly signed versions to the student services manager to file and record with the graduate school. Do let the student services manager know when you are having a thesis exam event to get the proper form to bring to the meeting.