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Purpose of the examination

The Graduate School requires a doctoral preliminary oral 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 require;
  • discover any weaknesses in the candidate’s knowledge that need 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 qualifying examination includes an oral exam that is a defense of the student’s written dissertation proposal. This exam is used to determine whether the student can reasonably be expected to successfully achieve a PhD in the curriculum and allows the dissertation committee to approve the feasibility of the proposed dissertation project.


The exam must be administered before the end of the Fall Semester in the student’s third year. Failure to schedule the exam, or have an extension approved by this deadline will result in a grade of L (Low Pass) in CBPH 994. Graduate School rules determine a student academically ineligible to continue in the PhD program after 9 credit hours of L.

Students are required to be enrolled during the semester they take this exam. Therefore, students may not take this exam during the summer unless they register and pay tuition for CBPH 994 during the appropriate summer session.

Extensions requests are considered on a case-by-case basis. Written requests signed by the student, advisor(s), and committee chair should be sent to the Student Services Manager for approval by the DGS.

Students are required to be registered in CBPH 994 the semester they take the oral qualifying exam. Therefore, students may not take the oral qualifying exam during the summer session unless they register for CBPH 994 and pay tuition for the appropriate summer session.

Exam Format

The exam consists of a written proposal and an oral examination.

The written proposal is formatted in the style of a NIH/NRSA, NSF, or AHA fellowship grant, at the discretion of the dissertation committee chair. The written proposal must be delivered to all committee members at least two weeks in advance of the oral exam date. The written proposal must contain all of the following components:

  • Specific Aims page.
    • Limited to a single page. The specific aims page must succinctly list the proposal’s specific objectives. References are not required in the Specific Aims page (but may be included), and any statements of fact should be elaborated on and properly referenced within the Research Strategy
  • Research Strategy
    • Limited to six total pages including all figures and diagrams. This section should be properly referenced, and the list of references is not included in the six-page limit. Clearly divide the Research Strategy into two sub-sections: Significance and Approach.
      • Significance: Should describe the current state of the field and contain necessary background. Gaps in the field that the proposal aims to address should be clearly identified. Potential advancements upon successful completion should also be highlighted.
      • Approach: A detailed and explicit strategy, methodology, and analysis plan for addressing the specific aims of the proposal. Potential difficulties and weaknesses, alternative strategies, and limitations should be discussed.

The oral examination is administered as a dissertation committee meeting and is run by the Dissertation Committee Chair. After private discussions amongst the committee and with the committee and the student, the student will present and defend their written proposal to the committee. The committee, including the advisor(s), is expected to frequently question the student during the presentation. Questions can be specific to proposal and/or broad to test the student’s understanding of key topics the committee expects the student to have mastered by this stage of their graduate training. Questions from committee members should not be answered by the advisor(s) unless specifically addressed to them by a committee member.

Outcome Determination

After the presentation and questioning by the committee, the student will be asked to leave the room. The committee, led by the committee chair, will discuss the student’s performance. To pass a student is expected to excel in all aspects of the oral examination, including:

  • having a written proposal that is of a quality to be competitive for funding if submitted to the appropriate agency and
    • At this point students will have already completed CBPH 706, which provides them with in-depth grant writing skills on the topic of their doctoral research.
  • during the oral exam demonstrated:
    • a broad knowledge of general principles of cell biology and physiology,
    • competent familiarity with the background literature of their specific field of study,
    • an understanding of the scientific importance of their dissertation question, and
    • defend the scientific rationale for the experimental rationale selected.

A majority of committee members must vote that the student’s performance meets the expectations for a pass.

Failure and Re-examination

Students who fail the examination may take it a second time. A minimum of three months must pass before the exam can be retaken. Students who fail the examination 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 by the CBP Curriculum at the discretion of the DGS and CBP Executive Committee after discussion with the advisor(s) and dissertation committee.

Responsibilities of Student

  • Schedule the oral exam. This includes:
    • finding a time that works for all committee members,
    • reserving a room for the exam, and
    • notifying the Student Services Manager once scheduled.
  • Prepare a written proposal of your dissertation project and distribute it to all committee members at least two weeks in advance of the oral exam.

Responsibilities of Advisor(s)

  • Ensure the student adheres to the current Cell Biology and Physiology curriculum guidelines regarding the timing of the Qualifying examination.
  • Allow the student the proper time and space to prepare for the exam, including the time needed to write a defendable proposal which may temporarily reduce their research hours.
  • Limit input in student’s written proposal. It is understood that if submitted to a funding agency prior to the examination, your full input is required.
  • Abide by the instructions of the committee chair during the exam, which may include allowing the student to answer questions without your input.

Responsibilities of Dissertation Committee Chair

  • Run the oral exam meeting, ensuring that questions are directed to the student and the exam is rigorous and fair.
  • Lead discussion on the student’s performance at the end of the exam and solicit opinions on whether the student passed.
  • Convey the discussions around the student’s performance, including their strengths and weaknesses, and the committee’s decision on passing to the student.

Responsibilities of Other Committee Members

  • Read the written proposal carefully and provide feedback to the student.
  • During the oral exam, direct questions about background knowledge, rationale, feasibility of project and/or methods, etc. directly to the student.

In the case that a question must be asked of the advisor(s), be clear that the question is intended to be answered by the advisor(s).