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Qualifying Examination Guidelines

Purpose:  The goals of the qualifying exam (QE) are to: 1) Assess the student’s knowledge of basic science and cancer biology; 2) Evaluate the student’s ability to formulate a specific hypothesis; and 3) Evaluate the student’s ability to develop a research plan to test this hypothesis in a grant proposal format.

Proposal Topic:  The topic of the QE proposal is usually related to the student’s thesis research project, although an unrelated topic is also acceptable.  The student will generate a hypothesis based solely upon current findings in the thesis research lab or in the literature.  Additional preliminary data to support the hypothesis are not required and should not be included in the proposal. 

Qualifying Exam Committee:  The QE committee will consist of a minimum of 4 faculty members, including the Chair and the General Examiner. Only the Chair of the QE committee must be a member of the Cancer Biology Program. The thesis advisor cannot be a member of the QE committee. The General Examiner will be assigned by the GSBS (see attached information about General Examiners). The student should consult with their thesis advisor to select the members of their committee and chose a Chair.  Once the committee members have agreed to serve on the QE, the Qualifying Exam Committee Selection Form should be completed and submitted to the GSBS office.

Qualifying Exam: 

Phase One: Abstract

The student will prepare a one page, single-spaced outline of their proposal that includes the hypothesis to be tested, a brief background of the topic area that emphasizes the significance and novelty of the research, and the Specific Aims of the proposal.  Included in the Aims should be a brief description of the overall approaches and methodologies to be used.  The abstract should take the form of a “Specific Aims” page of a grant proposal. 

The student should consult with their thesis advisor regarding the scope and organization of the abstract.  It is expected that the thesis advisor will play an active role in mentoring the student during the preparation of the abstract.

The student will submit the completed abstract to the Qualifying Exam Committee and schedule an abstract meeting.  Once the abstract is approved at the meeting, the student must submit the written exam within 5 weeks.  The oral exam should be scheduled to occur within 7-14 days after submission of the written proposal.

Phase Two: Proposal

The student shall prepare a written proposal following the guidelines of an NIH F31 proposal with Specific Aims (1 page) and Research Strategy (6 pages).  Included in the Research Strategy section should be a brief discussion of expected results, anticipated problems and alternative approaches for each Aim.

The student shall not discuss the proposal with their thesis advisor after the abstract is approved.  The thesis advisor may not participate in mentoring the student after the Abstract and they will not be present during the exam. 

Committee members should alert the Chair before the exam if they have major concerns regarding the written proposal.  If concern is raised that the proposal is poorly written, the exam may be postponed to allow the student time to address this issue.  This should only happen if there are significant problems, and not for minor corrections or modifications.  Scientific concerns should be discussed during the exam.  

Phase Three: Exam

The student shall prepare a short presentation for the committee members.  In this presentation the student should provide a brief overview and background of the topic to be investigated and state the overall hypothesis to be tested.  The majority of the presentation should focus on the Aims and the experimental approaches that have been proposed to test the hypothesis.  Expected results should be discussed.  This presentation should not exceed 20-25 slides and if given without interruption, should not be longer than 30 minutes. 

The student should be prepared to defend their hypothesis and experimental approaches and to discuss their proposal within the broader context of the research area. The student should also be prepared to answer basic science and cancer biology questions.

At the end of the exam, the student will leave the room and the committee will complete the scoring worksheet.  A copy of this worksheet will be provided to the student and mentor.  The Chair will inform the student of the outcome and complete the Exam outcome form.  


1) Pass The student has written a logical and coherent proposal and has defended it well. They are able to answer questions on their specific research topic.  They have also demonstrated a general knowledge of cancer biology and basic cell and molecular biology.  The student may begin their thesis research.
2) Provisional Pass The student may enter into thesis research but must take and pass an additional course(s) as determined by the QE committee.
3) Not Passed-Revise The student showed some weaknesses with the written proposal. The Chair will provide a written critique describing the weaknesses within one week of the exam and the student must revise the QE proposal within two weeks of receiving this critique.  The revisions must be approved by the QE committee before entering into thesis research.
4) Not Passed-Retest The student showed some weaknesses with the oral defense.  The student must retest and pass a second oral exam within one month of the initial exam before entering into thesis research.  In  some cases, this may also require that the proposal be rewritten.
5) Fail The student will be dismissed from GSBS. 

Qualifying Exam Deadlines

Students are expected to complete their Qualifying Exam before the end of their 2nd year Spring Semester.  Any exceptions require justification by the student and thesis advisor.  They should discuss the circumstances with the Cancer Biology Program Director.  Approval will be made by the Program Director in consultation with the Dean of the Graduate School.

QE Coordinator: Leslie Shaw, Cancer Biology Department, LRB 409, 6-8675