Qualifying Examination and Thesis Committee Meetings
Qualifying Examination (QE) for Admission to Candidacy
The admission to candidacy for a Ph.D. in the Pharmacological Sciences requires successful completion of the Qualifying Examination (QE). The goal of the QE is to assess the student’s ability to think critically, solve problems, interrogate novel questions in pharmacology, and challenge conventional wisdom whenever warranted or possible. Students should be able to formulate questions and solve problems in their research area using their general foundational knowledge of pharmacology gained in their course work. Emphasis is placed on principles of molecular pharmacology and how they may be applied to the student’s area of research.
The QE has a written section followed by an oral exam. Initially, the student writes a grant proposal about their thesis research (see details below). This will ensure that the student is familiar with relevant literature, gains experience with scientific writing, and can formulate testable hypotheses based on foundational work in their field. Grant-writing requires that the student is able to design experiments with necessary controls, is familiar with principles and limitations of methods, has the ability to interpret data that may – or may not – align with their hypothesis, and is able to clearly explain their reasoning. Ideally, this document forms the foundation for a proposal that will be submitted to the NIH or another comparable funding entity. The subsequent oral exam of the QE should evaluate the student’s ability to think scientifically and apply fundamentals of pharmacology to research questions relevant to their proposal and the broader scientific field. While it requires a solid knowledge of pharmacology, it is not a didactic exam, nor a critique of the proposed research. The proposal indicates to the examiners the area that the student should be tested in and serves as a springboard for probing the thoughtfulness and scientific aptitude of the candidate. It examines how pharmacological principles play into the proposal and how these principles can be applied to address questions that might come up to further evaluate prospective data and adjust hypotheses. As always, if you have any questions or need additional information, please contact the DGS.
Preparation for the Qualifying Examination
In preparation for the exam, the student is expected to
- select potential members for their committee (in consultation with their research advisor; more on that below)
- get approval of the potential committee from the DGS
- ask the potential members of the committee if they are able to serve
- ask one of the Pharmacology committee members to serve as the chair and inform the DGS and the Program Manager about the choice
- send out a poll to find a date for the exam and inform the Program Manager and the DGS about the date
- work with the Program Manager to submit all necessary paperwork to the Graduate School and to reserve a room for the exam
- submit the grant proposal (“Written Proposal”, see below) to the committee at least four weeks before the exam
- meet with each committee member before the examination
- practice for the QE with peers
The Program manager has to be informed in advance of the committee composition and of the chosen date for the QE to file paperwork with the Graduate School and send out required paperwork to the chair. The Graduate School has strict guidelines about timing of required paperwork.
The Qualifying Exam (QE) Committee
All committees must be approved by the DGS. Students are encouraged to select examiners who will likely participate in their future Ph.D. thesis committee. This can include reviewers for the document developed in Scientific Communications II. The student’s research advisor cannot be on the QE committee and will not be present at the examination. Because the Graduate School considers a student’s QE committee identical to their Ph.D. thesis committee, Graduate School rules for thesis committees must be followed (see next), with the exception that the mentor will be part of the thesis committee but not of the QE committee.
Graduate School rules for Ph.D. thesis committees
Committees consist of not fewer than four members of the Graduate Faculty who possess a terminal degree (e.g., Ph.D., M.D.). Three of the members must be Graduate Faculty from the Vanderbilt Department of Pharmacology and one must be from outside the program. The outside member may be anyone who does not have an appointment in the Vanderbilt Department of Pharmacology (primary or secondary), internal or external to Vanderbilt University, and from any appropriate academic field. Faculty members from outside universities may be appointed to serve on a Ph.D. committee. This requires a short letter of justification explaining the expertise this person brings to the student’s committee along with a copy of the faculty member’s curriculum vitae.
The Written Proposal
All members of the committee receive the written proposal from the student at least four weeks before the exam. The written proposal is based on the document developed during the course “Scientific Communications II”, with careful incorporation and refinement through feedback and exercises provided throughout the course. The written proposal is formatted either as an NIH grant submission (F31 for PhD, F30 for MSTP students) – or a format such as NSF, AHA or other foundations. Formats to accommodate international students and individuals who are not eligible for research grants should include a specific aims page and 5-6 pages of approach section with literature citations in an addendum. Prior approval for non-NIH formats must be justified and obtained from the DGS and the course director of Scientific Communications II. An NIH-style document should contain a specific aims page, the full proposal and citations to support the student’s proposed research. Other sections, such as mentoring plans, resources, environment, etc. are not required and will not be reviewed or considered for the examination. The proposal will be judged on the appropriateness and timeliness of the topic, organization, clarity, and interpretation of previous work in the field that forms the foundation of these ideas. Strong proposals will have feasible aims with the potential to advance the chosen field and contain insightful background and rationale, ample justification for the specific aims, and detailed experimental strategies.
Upon receipt of the document, QE committee members will review the document as soon as possible – within the first week – and decide if the document is of sufficient quality to proceed. If the document is acceptable the QE will proceed as scheduled. If the committee deems it not satisfactory they will inform the student which modifications are needed. Modifications will focus on logic, reasoning, and foundational literature and will not be about the field or specific experimental approaches (unless those experiments do not have appropriate controls or logic). The student will have two weeks to make the changes and will send the document back to the committee for approval. Once approved the exam can be rescheduled, either for the initial date or a later date, if necessary. As with all meetings, the Program manager has to file paperwork with the Graduate School in advance and needs to be informed by the student of all dates and all changes to dates.
The Oral Exam
The oral exam should be scheduled for May or June after successful completion of the second year of coursework. The exam begins with a ~5 min presentation by the student based on the significance, background and rationale of the written component. Students should also touch on the approach, but not go into minute detail. This is intended to build confidence and relieve nervousness. The student will be allowed to finish the presentation without interruptions. After the presentation, questioning will begin. The student will be examined on the application of pharmacological principles to their scientific area of interest. While the student requires a solid knowledge of pharmacology, the exam is not a didactic exam, nor a critique of the proposed research. The proposal indicates to the examiners the area that the student should be tested in and serves as a springboard for probing the thoughtfulness and scientific aptitude of the candidate. The committee examines how pharmacological principles play into the proposal and how these principles can be applied to evaluate prospective results, adjust hypotheses, and use pharmacological approaches to test further hypotheses. The questioning aims to probe the student’s ability to appropriately develop and test hypotheses as well as accurately interpret data. General knowledge of pharmacology, cell signaling, molecular biology, and statistics is needed to address these questions.
The total time for the oral exam will be approximately 90 minutes.
Even the Best Student Can Have a Bad Day…
A student who fails the QE will have one more opportunity to take the exam. In most cases, the student is expected to retake the QE within 4 weeks. However, the DGS will confer with the examination committee, the oversight committee (if necessary), and the student, and allow for more time, if needed. A written set of comments outlining areas of deficiencies must be given to the student and the retake exam does not need to cover areas where the student already showed competence. All faculty in the Pharmacology Program are committed to individually mentoring the student to rectify any deficiencies. Per Graduate School rules, a student is allowed only two opportunities to pass the qualifying examination, though in the past 15 years, all students in the program who failed on the first try passed on the second try. Should a student fail twice, the DGS of the Pharmacology Program will help to examine other options that may be available.
Thesis Committee, First Thesis Committee Meeting, and Subsequent Committee Meetings
After passing the QE, the student needs to set up their thesis committee. See Graduate School rules for Ph.D. thesis committees, above, for the minimum requirements for a thesis committee. The DGS is ex officio on the thesis committee unless the DGS is on the committee. In that case, the Associate DGS will serve ex officio. The mentor is a member of the thesis committee but cannot be chair of the committee.
In setting up the thesis committee, the student needs to
- select potential members for their committee (in consultation with their research advisor)
- get the approval of the potential committee members from the DGS
- ask the potential members of the committee if they are able to serve
- ask one of the Pharmacology committee members to serve as the chair (this cannot be the mentor) and inform the DGS about the choice
- send out a poll to find a date for the first meeting
- work with the program manager to submit all necessary paperwork to the Graduate School
The Program manager has to be informed in advance of the committee composition and of the chosen date to file paperwork with the Graduate School and with the chair in advance of the meeting.
The first committee meeting should be within 3 months (90 days), and not exceed 4 months (120 days) of passing the QE. The student will present their specific aims and research approach (an updated version of the NRSA/grant proposal) and have the committee approve them as the basis of the dissertation work. The student will present their overall research plan, experimental approach, and preliminary data (if any). The updated NRSA/grant proposal has to be e-mailed to the committee no later than 2 weeks before the scheduled meeting, and slides used for the student’s presentation should be submitted 24 hours before the meeting. This meeting is intended as an in-depth discussion of the student’s research project. After that meeting, all subsequent meetings need to be no more than 6 months apart. A progress report has to be submitted to the members of the thesis committee no later than 2 weeks before each meeting. Slides used for the student’s presentation should also be submitted 24 hours before the meeting. While the format for the progress report is open and will change as the student progresses, it might contain the following:
- short overview of the project (each time)
- short summary of data shown at previous committee meeting(s)
- modifications to the research plan
- formulation of the research question(s) that was (were) addressed since the last committee meeting and how it fits into the project
- data that were collected since the last committee meeting to address the research question(s)
- plans for the next months
- list of manuscripts, papers, and presentations the student was/is involved in
- scientific meetings attended or planning to attend
- other professional development
- committee assignments
- community service
The student needs to set up the next committee meeting no more than 6 months from the previous meeting and inform the program manager of the date.
The program manager has to be informed in advance of the date of the next meeting and will help with finding a room. The program manager will send out the required Graduate School documentation to the committee chair. This has to happen in advance of the meeting.