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Purpose of the examination

The Graduate School requires a doctoral preliminary written examination for all students. The graduate student handbook describes the purpose of this examination as:

  • assess the extent and currency of the candidate’s knowledge in a manner that is as comprehensive and searching as the best practices of that field requires;
  • discover any weaknesses in the candidate’s knowledge that needs to be remedied by additional courses or other instruction; and
  • determine the candidate’s fitness to continue work toward the doctorate.

In the CBP Curriculum, the written 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 written examination is administered annually at the end of the Spring Semester. Students entering CBP through BBSP typically take the exam at the end of their BBSP year once they have joined the CBP curriculum. Students may take the exam at the end of their second year and this timing is determined with consultation with their thesis advisor and the CBP Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) based on their completion of the core courses (CBPH 852 and CBPH 853, although the exam does not test specific knowledge from either course).

Exam Format

The exam is created and assessed by the CBP Preliminary Exam Committee. The committee is composed of five CBP Curriculum faculty, selected by the DGS to represent the breadth of cell biology and physiology. Each committee member assigns a scientific research paper on a topic of their choice.

The exam is administered through a Canvas course. The five papers are distributed to students two weeks before the exam. During this two-week reading period, students are expected to become thoroughly familiar with the assigned papers. Students should delve deeper into the literature to best understand the conceptual and mechanistic advances claimed by each paper. Students may discuss the articles and topic areas with each other and colleagues but may not contact members of the Exam Committee.

Exam questions are released at 8:00 am two weeks following the release of the papers. Each assigned paper has a corresponding set of questions with a format left at the discretion of the Committee member. Each question set should take about 2-3 hours for a student ending the first year of their PhD training. Written answers for a question set should fit on a single page with 1-inch margins and single-spaced size 11 Arial font, with any diagrams or illustrations not counting toward this limit. Once questions are released students must not consult with each other or any other individuals.

For the 2024 Exam the schedule is:

  • May 6th at 8 am: all five assigned papers are released on the Canvas course.
  • May 20th at 8 am: all questions are released on the Canvas course.
  • May 21st at 5 pm: all answers must be submitted on Canvas.

Exam grading

Student answers will be graded anonymously by the Exam Committee. Each question set is graded out of 100 points (500 points total). Students must achieve an average of 70 points per question set (350 points total) to earn a passing grade. In line with Graduate School policies, a student who does not pass the exam can re-take it the next year. Students who fail the exam a second time are academically ineligible to continue in the CBP Curriculum PhD program.

Responsibilities of the student

Students taking the exam must adhere to the UNC Honor Code. This includes not consulting with previous exams, not consulting with others once questions are released, and following the generative AI policy for the exam.

Responsibilities of student’s advisor(s)

The written examination requires a significant amount of effort and time to be successfully completed. During the examination period (reading and exam portions), students will have a significant, although temporary, reduction in research hours.

Responsibilities of CBP Preliminary Exam Committee

  • Serve on the committee for two consecutive years.
  • Assign a single research paper that should be understood by a student ending their first year of graduate school who has taken CBPH 852 and CBPH 853. Students may be required to read additional papers but should not require the students to have taken additional courses.
  • Prepare a set of questions related to the assigned paper. A complete answer for the entire question set should be able to fit on a single page with 1-inch margins and size 11 Arial font.
  • Submit the assigned paper and question(s) to the DGS and Student Services Manager by agreed upon deadlines (deadlines are typically set in January for a May exam)
  • Grade student answers in an appropriate timeframe.