Skip to main content

Qualifying Exam

Graduate Program



Course Requirements

Qualifying Exam

Guidelines and Procedures

Student Travel Guidelines


The Qualifying Exam comprises a written grant proposal and an oral examination administered by an individualized Examining Committee. The goals of the Qualifying Exam are: 1) to assess the student’s ability to formulate a series of hypotheses and specific aims to test these hypotheses that will likely constitute the basis for a Ph.D. dissertation, 2) to immerse the student in the scientific literature relevant to the Ph.D. dissertation, 3) to assess the student’s general knowledge base and aptitude for a research career, 4) to provide training scientific writing, and 5) to form a thesis committee to foster and monitor the student’s continued development.

Students begin preparation for their qualifying exam in the fall semester of their second year in graduate school, in the Scientific Communication class, where they are given significant guidance in preparing a Specific Aims page and a research proposal suitable for the qualifying exam.  The documents generated in the class may be used for the exam, or they may be updated or rewritten.


  1. Submit Committee Preference form and Specific Aims Page.  Near the start of the spring semester, the second year CDB graduate students will meet as a group with the DGS to discuss the Qualifying Exam.  The first step is to submit two documents, the QE Aims page and the completed Committee Preference Form, to the Program Manager, usually around mid-February.

The Qualifying Exam Committee Selection Form enables the student to suggest potential committee members, after consulting with his/her mentor. After the Qualifying Exam, the Exam Committee becomes the Thesis Committee, and so selection of the QE Exam Committee is important.  Each Committee consists of four members of the University Graduate Faculty, one of whom is not a member of the CDB Primary Faculty.  A tenured CDB faculty member will serve as Chair. The student’s mentor may not serve on the Exam Committee but must attend the qualifying exam meeting.  In the case where a student has multiple mentors, the co-mentor is invited to attend the Qualifying Exam as a non-discussant.  Students can meet with the DGS to discuss the selection of the Qualifying Exam Committee prior to submitting the Specific Aims and the Committee Selection Form.

The Steering Committee for Graduate Education makes final assignments for the Exam Committees.  It will consider issues of exam consistency, educational oversight, research topic, distribution of workloads, and the written requests of the Qualifying Exam Committee Selection Form.  After committee composition is determined by the Steering Committee, the Program Manager sends the student’s QE Aims page to each selected committee member, asking if they will serve.  After all faculty members have agreed to serve, the Program Manager formally communicates the Thesis Committee to the Graduate School.  Students are notified about their thesis committees usually about a month after they file the selection forms.

  1. Pre-examination meeting. After the Graduate Program Manager informs the student of their thesis committee, the student will introduce themselves to each committee member if necessary and then schedule the pre-examination meeting, which typically occurs in April or May of the second year. (It is advised that the student provisionally schedule the Qualifying Exam while they are scheduling the Pre-exam meeting.) The student will inform the Graduate Program Manager of the date and time immediately, and the Graduate Program Manager will schedule a room for the pre-examination meeting. The student will send a QE Specific Aims page to committee members a week before the Pre-exam meeting, using either the pre-existing document or updating it if desired. The goal of the pre-examination meeting is to determine whether the student’s anticipated research proposal (based on the Specifics Aims Page) will be “defendable” in a qualifying exam.  During the meeting, students are given advice about revising and fleshing out their Aims for the full proposal.  At the end of the meeting, students are usually given approval to schedule the Qualifying Exam, although it is possible that a second Pre-exam meeting may be requested if the Aims need substantial revision.
  2. The Qualifying Examination. Upon approval of the specific aims by the Exam Committee, the student, mentor, and Committee members will set a date for the oral Qualifying Examination, if it has not already been scheduled.  The examination should take place about four to six weeks after acceptance of the Specific Aims Page by the Committee, and usually takes place over the summer between second and third year. It is imperative that the Graduate Program Manager is informed as soon as possible about the date, as the Program Manager must file a request with the Graduate School for a student take the Qualifying Exam.  The Program manager will also reserve a room for a three-hour block of time for the Qualifying Examination.

The written component of the qualifying exam is a grant proposal. Following American Heart Association student fellowship guidelines, a total of six pages is allowed, including a one-page Specific Aims Page; and five pages containing Background and Significance, Preliminary Data (if available), the Research Plan, and any figures.  References are required and are not included in the six-page limit.  The student must adhere to NIH guidelines for the humane and ethical treatment of animals for any studies proposed.  Studies involving human subjects must adhere to institutional guidelines.  The Research Plan should assume a timeline of three to four years for the proposed experiments, which could be realistically accomplished with the available resources. The student is responsible for all scientific aspects of the proposal including background information, approach, experimental design, and methodology.  The student may consult anyone (concerning methodologies, format, references, etc,) during the writing and editing process.  Although the student must write the proposal themselves, they are free to have their mentors and other students or postdocs read and critique the proposal.  Readers may make suggestions to improve the format of the grant, the amount of detail in the methods, or the rationale for specific experiments. The student should provide an electronic copy (PDF format) of the finished research proposal to the Exam committee by email no later than one week prior to the oral qualifying exam.   For the oral exam, students should prepare a 20-25 minute presentation (typically about 12 content slides). The possible outcomes of the Qualifying Exam are Exemplary (pass), Satisfactory (pass), or Unsatisfactory (fail).  If the student does not pass, they have the opportunity to re-take the QE one time, usually within three months.  If the student passes, the first thesis committee meeting should take place six months later.


The goal of the pre-exam meeting is to determine whether the student’s anticipated research proposal (based on the specifics aims page) will be “defendable” in a qualifying exam. The meeting is scheduled to last one hour. The student gives a ~15 minute presentation (10 slides, brief background and outline of proposal) interspersed with discussion of the logic, feasibility, and scientific merit of the proposal. This meeting is not an evaluation, but rather a chance for the student to meet with the Exam Committee members in a less stressful atmosphere.  The committee ideally gains a clear understanding of the student’s plan for the proposal, and the student ideally gains a clear understanding of the committee’s expectations with regard to the qualifying exam (both written and oral components). It is the chair’s prerogative to ask the student to leave the room so the committee can discuss the Aims at the end of the meeting. Possible outcomes are as follows: approval of Aims, approval with revisions, significant revision of the Aims necessitating a second pre-examination meeting.


The Qualifying Examination should take place about four to six weeks after acceptance of Specific Aims Page by the Committee. The Qualifying Exam meeting should last approximately two hours, including the oral exam and closed discussion at the end. The Qualifying Exam comprises two parts: written proposal and oral exam.

The written proposal is submitted to Committee members one week before the exam.  Within that week, if any member of the committee finds the proposal to be unacceptable, the chair will confer with the other committee members and the DGS, and the Qualifying Examination may be delayed until after the student revises the proposal.  Criteria for assessing the proposal include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Is it hypothesis-based, scientifically sound, logical?
  • Is there sufficient background/review of field?
  • Are the aims sufficiently independent?
  • Is there an explanation of expected outcomes and consideration of alternative approaches?
  • Is it well-organized and clearly written with proper grammar/spelling?

The proposal is formally evaluated at the end of the meeting, when the chair polls each member.

The oral exam consists of a ~20-25 minute presentation (~12 slides, brief background and specific aims) given by the student, typically following the flow of the written proposal. Questions are interspersed throughout the presentation, often from the beginning.  Roughly two-thirds of the overall exam time should correspond to the proposed research. Questions from the committee ideally probe the student’s ability to pose a scientific question, state a hypothesis, develop reasonable strategies and alternatives to test the hypothesis, anticipate possible outcomes, and interpret these possible outcomes. Roughly one-third of the overall exam time (spread throughout the exam) should be used to probe the student’s knowledge of the general principles of cell and developmental biology and knowledge of his/her field of specialization. Committee members ideally prepare in advance for the meeting by reading the entire proposal and identifying several lines of questioning (on both the proposal itself and general background) to pursue during the oral exam. All committee members should actively participate in questioning the student. The student’s mentor is expected to remain silent during the oral exam unless specifically addressed by the committee or granted explicit permission by the committee to speak briefly.  Although a wide variety of questions may be deemed appropriate during the oral exam, the committee’s focus should be to ascertain whether the student has established a critical knowledge base essential for understanding their research project and for achieving success as they progresses through graduate school. The chair is responsible for keeping everyone “on track” in terms of time, lines of questioning, and overall direction.

Upon conclusion of the oral exam, the committee confers in the student’s absence to evaluate the student’s performance and written proposal. Both the student’s written proposal and performance during the oral exam must be deemed satisfactory by all committee members. Disapproval of the proposal and/or inadequate performance by the student in the oral exam (either in defense of the proposal or in general knowledge) is grounds for failure and will necessitate a redrafting of the proposal, a second oral exam, and/or additional remediation. In such cases, it is the chair’s responsibility to delineate (with input from the committee) what remedial steps are most appropriate for a particular student and how the committee will evaluate the student a second time. Examples of remediation used successfully in the past include the following: providing student with a specific reading list to augment background knowledge relevant to his/her project followed by a second oral exam to test understanding of the assigned material; having the student meet with an assigned faculty member for “tutorials” to remedy specific gaps in knowledge (e.g. mouse genetics) or to improve breadth of understanding of fundamental cell and developmental biology topics (e.g. discuss chapters from Alberts textbook).

After the qualifying exam, the chair will prepare a brief report summarizing the student’s performance and outcome of the exam. The chair will ask for input from all committee members and then provide the report to the Graduate Program Manager within one week of the exam who will forward to the mentor, the student, and the Director of Graduate Studies.  If the committee recommends a meeting in three months or the student must repeat the examination, the Graduate Program Manager will schedule the committee meeting.  Otherwise, it is the student’s responsibility to schedule the first regular committee meeting six months after the Qualifying Exam.