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Qualifying Exams

Doctoral Comprehensive Exams and Admission to Candidacy


Before a student can become a PhD candidate, he or she must pass a comprehensive qualifying exam, which is comprised of two parts; the first is a written exam and the second is an oral exam. Both exams are designed and graded by the Advisory Committee of each student. These exams must be scheduled by March 1st and completed by May 31st of the student’s second year. An extension beyond May 31st may be requested in writing to the graduate coordinator. Students should keep in mind that most faculty have very limited availability during the summer months. Once the oral exam is scheduled, the student must let Susan White know of the details so that she can inform the Graduate School.


Beginning with students who enter the Department of Genetics in the 2015-2016 academic year, the format of the qualifying exam in Genetics will be as follows.


1. The written exam will be in the format of a research proposal based on the research the candidate expects to complete to obtain their PhD. The proposal should be a maximum of 10 single-spaced pages, including figures but excluding references. All margins must be one inch and the font in Times New Roman 12, Arial 11, or equivalent. The proposal should consist of the following sections:

a. 1 page summary of the project, hypothesis/statement of problem, and statement of specific aims/goals.

b. 2-3 page background/introduction to place the project in context.

c. 4-6 page section on methods, experimental approaches, and how these address the specific aims.

d. Up to 1 page recognizing alternative outcomes and how those will be addressed.


The proposal must be written in the student’s own words and without substantial editing from the advisor. However, feedback on aspects such as experimental design of the project and clarity of writing should be obtained from the advisor.


Students must email the written proposal to their committee and to Susan White no later than three weeks before the scheduled oral exam date. Committee members will have two weeks to review the proposal and return a pass/fail grade to the student and his/her advisor. If the grade is a fail, comments explaining this grade should be provided. If a committee member does not provide a grade within two weeks then it is assumed the grade is a pass. If the student receives more than one failing grade the oral exam will be cancelled and the student must retake the written exam. If the student fails the written exam or if the oral exam is cancelled or postponed for any other reason the student must immediately notify Susan White so that she can inform the Graduate School of the change.


2. The oral exam will last at least two but no longer than three hours and will consist of questions covering both specific and general knowledge for the student to complete his or her proposed research. To start the discussion, the student should prepare a ~15 minute presentation with a maximum of 20 slides that summarizes his or her proposed research. The slides are intended to serve as a framework for discussion. The chair of the oral exam committee will be a committee member in Genetics who scored the written proposal with a passing grade. The student’s advisor will not participate in the discussion unless granted permission by the committee chair.


General guidelines:


To advance to PhD candidacy, we expect that you can identify a problem and explain why it is interesting, grasp the relevant literature, design experiments to test your hypotheses, and then interpret your data to determine whether your experiments worked and what it means if they did or did not. Substantial preliminary data are not necessary and you will not be graded based on the amount of preliminary data you present.


Continuation to doctoral candidacy requires no more than one “fail” grade on each portion of the exam. If one part of the exam results in more than one “fail” grade, that portion of the exam can be re-taken in the subsequent semester. A student may only re-take a portion of the exam once. A failure to continue to candidacy requires that the graduate committee evaluate options for terminal MS degree, or removal from the Department of Genetics graduate program, in concert with the graduate coordinator.

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