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Qualifying Examinations

Qualifying Examinations for Admission to Candidacy

The admission to candidacy for a Ph.D. in the Pharmacological Sciences requires successful completion of a two-part examination that serves to insure that students have mastered all of the information that has been conveyed in the required coursework (Phase I). Equally important, is that the students must be able to use these insights in new experimental settings; otherwise the information learned in coursework is not useful for their maturation as independent investigators. The major objective of Phase II of the Qualifying Examination is to evaluate the ability of the student to pose a scientific question, state a hypothesis, develop reasonable strategies to test the hypothesis, anticipate possible outcomes and forecast reasonable interpreta­tions of those outcomes. Acquisition of such skills is a crucial prerequisite for success in any sci­entific environ­ment and therefore must be developed and evaluated.


Qualifying Exam Phase I:  The Preliminary Examination

For Phase I of the qualifying exam, students will write a 6-page text document, supported with up to 9 figures in an appendix. This document will outline how fundamental concepts of pharmacology have been previously applied to elucidate a specific signaling or biochemical pathway relevant to the student’s general area of scientific research and in the development of a therapeutic that is currently on the market relevant to this area. The student will then undergo a 90-minute oral examination that probes their knowledge of the fundamentals of pharmacology as applied to this area and the written document.

In most instances, qualifying examination questions will provide raw data to the student and they will be asked for possible interpretations. During the oral examination, the interpretation of the data will be expanded to demonstrate whether a student not only has a knowledge of the specific details posed in the questions, but also can relate that understanding to issues related to receptor theory, drug metabolism and disposition, molecular signaling pathways, and other topics felt to be relevant to training in pharmacological sciences and introduced to the students during the required coursework. There will be four faculty each year on the Examination Com­mittee. Two will rotate each year, so there will always be two faculty in year (02) of their assignment, thus providing a “program perspective” on the level of performance expected in this examination, as well as two faculty who have just begun in year (01) of their assignment.

The students will be evaluated for their performance on the examination as pass/fail. A written summa­ry of their examination will detail strengths as well as deficiencies that were noted during the examination. This written summary is given to the student and a copy maintained in the student’s file. If there are deficiencies noted during the oral examination which are not sufficient to require re-examination, but which do represent areas where strengthened insights need to be achieved, these also will be noted in the formal summary. This summary will be made available to the student’s Dissertation Committee, so that these areas of concern can be probed during the oral examination of the proposal for the Ph.D. (discussion of that examination follows). If a student fails this first oral qualifying examination, they must retake the examination within six months. If they do not pass the second time, they will be dismissed from the program.

Sample Phase I Documents

Qualifying Exam Phase II:  The Dissertation Proposal Defense

Phase II of the qualifying exam is taken after passing Phase I and should be scheduled within 120 days of completion of Phase I.  For Phase II of the qualifying exam, students will write a 6-page dissertation proposal detailing their Specific Aims, Background and Significance, and Research Strategy. The student will then undergo an oral examination of their proposal, beginning with a short oral presentation of the proposal and preliminary studies and followed by 60-90 minutes of follow-up questions.  The phase II exam meeting is also the first dissertation committee meeting. It is expected that even for proposals that receive strong passing marks, some revision of a student’s Aims or Strategy may be recommended by the committee.

One purpose of Phase II of the qualifying examination is to ensure that the student, advisor and Dissertation Committee have a general concept of what the disserta­tion project will entail and how it will be conducted. This should prevent such unfortunate situations as: 1) the student “floating” from project to project for several months or years with only a foggy notion of his or her objectives, and 2) the Dissertation Committee belatedly recom­mend­ing major changes in Dissertation direction after one or two years of work by the student.  Steps to completing Phase II of the Qualifying Examination are outlined below.  As always, if you have any questions or need additional information, please contact first the Education Coordinator.


Step 1: Meet with your Mentor

Before beginning work on Phase II of the qualifying examination, the student and advisor should discuss together the direction that the Dissertation work will probably take and how the stated objectives will be achieved. The involvement of the advisor at this planning phase is essential, as it represents a critical component of the mentor-junior scientist dialogue that should continue throughout the dis­sertation research. The importance of close interaction between the student and advisor during the development of strategy cannot be overemphasized.

Although a cooperative effort between stu­dent and advisor is strongly encouraged during the development of ideas and, while permissible to obtain feedback from others during the writing process, it is the responsi­bility of the student to compile and defend the written proposal himself.

Step 2: Select your Dissertation Committee

The Dissertation Committee is formed prior to Phase II of the Qualifying Examination.  While the student is preparing the proposal (or even earlier), he or she should select a Dissertation Committee consisting of at least five graduate faculty, four with primary or secondary appoint­ments in the Department of Pharmacology (including the student’s advisor) and one with an appointment in some other basic science department (Biochemistry, Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, Cell Biology, Molecular Biology, Microbiology & Immunology, Pathology). The DGS will serve in an ex officio capacity, unless chosen as an official committee member, in which case the Associate Director of Graduate Studies would serve as ex officio on the committee.

The student and dissertation advisor propose the composition of the Dissertation Committee to the DGS, who then evaluates it and, if approved, sends it to the Dean of the Graduate School for final approval.  The Dissertation Committee is crucial to the trainee’s research progress and professional advancement, and thus its composition should be based on sound scholarship and service to the student.

From the four Pharmacology faculty members, you will need to select a Chairperson of your Committee (he or she must have an appointment in Pharmacology and CANNOT be your Mentor.  The chairperson will be responsible for providing written feedback to the student (with a copy for the student’s file in the Education Coordinator’s Office) after each Dissertation Committee meeting and to serve as an additional contact. Please discuss your selection in advance with your Chairperson and ask him/her to provide you with written acceptance of this position.  This will avoid much confusion later!

The Dissertation Committee serves as a working team to help the student in any number of ways, including participating in the Qualifying Examination evaluation process, offering suggestions about experimental technique and design, and providing continual encouragement to be innovative and take risks, characteristics that are crucial to long-term success in research.  Therefore, it is important that the Dissertation Committee be carefully selected, with consideration of the scientific training, intellectual interests, and research activities in the laboratory of each Committee member.  The diversity of intellectual activity that will be present in a student’s research project should be reflected in the composition of the Dissertation Committee.

Step 3: Schedule a Date to Meet with your Committee

Once the committee is approved by the DGS, the student should immediately set a date to meet with his or her Dissertation Committee to conduct the oral examination. After the date for the oral examination is set, the Education Coordinator should be informed of the committee’s composition and the date of the oral examination (see attached Committee Meeting Information Sheet form that MUST be completed prior to any and all committee meetings) at least three weeks in advance.  If you need assistance in securing the location for the examination, please see the Education Coordinator.  She will then notify the Graduate School of the date of the oral examination.

Step 4: Write your proposal

The written proposal should be according to NIH guidelines for Individual NRSA grant proposals.  The formatting of the document should be according to the following guidelines (as stipulated in the Instructions for NIH Individual NRSA applications)

Use an Arial, Helvetica, Palatino Linotype, or Georgia typeface, a black font color, and a font size of 11 points or larger. (A Symbol font may be used to insert Greek letters or special characters; the font size requirement still applies.)

Paper Size and Page Margins
Use standard paper size (8 ½” x 11).
Use at least one-half inch margins (top, bottom, left, and right) for all pages. No information should appear in the margins.

Figures, Graphs, Diagrams, Charts, Tables, Figure Legends, and Footnotes
You may use a smaller type size but it must be in a black font color, readily legible, and follow the font typeface requirement. Color can be used in figures; however, all text must be in a black font color, clear and legible.

Use English and avoid jargon.
If terms are not universally known, spell out the term the first time it is used and note the appropriate abbreviation in parentheses. The abbreviation may be used thereafter.

Page Limits
Observe the page number limits give in the following section.

The written proposal should consist of the following parts:

1)   Specific Aims (Page Limit: 1):
State concisely the goals of the proposed research and summarize the expected outcome(s), including the impact that the results of the proposed research will exert on the research field(s) involved.

List succinctly the specific objectives of the research proposed, e.g., to test a stated hypothesis, create a novel design, solve a specific problem, challenge an existing paradigm or clinical practice, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology.

2)   Research Strategy (Page Limit:  6):
Organize the Research Strategy in the specified order using the instructions provided below. Start each section with the appropriate section heading — Significance, Innovation, Approach. Cite published experimental details in the Research Strategy section and provide the full reference in the Bibliography and References Cited section.

1.   Significance

·     Explain the importance of the problem or critical barrier to progress in the field that the proposed project addresses.

·     Explain how the proposed project will improve scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice in one or more broad fields.

·     Describe how the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field will be changed if the proposed aims are achieved.

2.   Innovation

Fellowship applications should not include an Innovation section unless specified in the funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA).

3.   Approach

·     Describe the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Include how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted as well as any resource sharing plans as appropriate.

·     Discuss potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success anticipated to achieve the aims.

·     If the project is in the early stages of development, describe any strategy to establish feasibility, and address the management of any high risk aspects of the proposed work.

·     Point out any procedures, situations, or materials that may be hazardous to personnel and precautions to be exercised.

·     Include any courses that you plan to take to support the research training experience.

If an applicant has multiple Specific Aims, then the applicant may address Significance, Innovation and Approach for each Specific Aim individually, or may address Significance, Innovation and Approach for all of the Specific Aims collectively.

As applicable, also include the following information as part of the Research Strategy, keeping within the three sections listed above: Significance, Innovation, and Approach.

Preliminary Studies for New Applications.

For new applications, include information on preliminary studies, if any. Discuss the applicant’s preliminary studies, data and/or experience pertinent to this application.

When applicable, provide a succinct account of published and unpublished results, indicating progress toward their achievement.

3)   Bibliography & References Cited (no page limitation):
Provide a bibliography of any references cited in the Project Narrative. Each reference must include the names of all authors (in the same sequence in which they appear in the publication), the article and journal title, book title, volume number, page numbers, and year of publication. Include only bibliographic citations.

The references should be limited to relevant and current literature. While there is not a page limitation, it is important to be concise and to select only those literature references pertinent to the proposed research.

Copies of Proposal to Committee Members

A copy of the pro­posal (either electron or hard copy) must be given to each member of the committee at least one week in advance of the sched­uled meeting. If, for any reason, a copy of the proposal is not given to committee members at least one week prior to the scheduled examination, the student will be required to reschedule the meeting.

Step 6: The Oral Presentation

During the meeting with the committee, the student is expect­ed to give a brief (approximately 20 minutes) oral presentation of the proposal and then to answer specific questions about background, strategy, protocol design, methods, etc. If the committee approves the proposal and finds the performance of the student laudable in answering questions, out­lining strategies appropriate for addressing the questions and anticipating outcomes/interpreta­tions, the student is officially designated a Ph.D. candidate.

The oral defense of the dissertation proposal is not a perfunctory exam. It represents the formal examination of whether a student can go beyond satisfactory performance in didactic coursework and exam-taking and truly articulate questions and strategies as a scientist. Until the committee is convinced of the certainty of this aspiration, candidacy will not be granted. The outcome of the examination is followed up by a written summary of the evaluation of the student’s performance by the Dissertation Committee chairperson, which summarizes areas of strength and identified areas of focus for continued growth, such as increased scholarship in certain areas in the scientific literature, improved focus on discriminating experiments, etc. This written summary is approved for faithfulness to the discussion by the faculty on the Dissertation Committee following the oral examination by each committee member and is then provided to the student for constructive criticism and as a guideline for effort before the next meeting of the committee.

Along with this letter, the student receives an evaluation form with numerical scores for several important aspects of the progress in research project and the level of student’s professional development.  These scores are reached by a consensus of the committee.  Students are encouraged to further discuss the recommendations of the committee and this evaluation with committee members, if necessary.

Disapproval of the pro­posal or of the student’s performance in outlining and defending the proposal will necessitate a redrafting and re-defense of the proposal. Students are permitted to be examined twice. A second unsatisfactory performance results in dismissal from the graduate program.

Step 7: Relax and Research

After the successful completion of both parts of the qualifying examination, the Graduate School must be notified (see the Education Coordinator for the appropriate form), so that official designation as a Ph.D. Candidate occurs.