Comprehensive Examination

The Comprehensive Examination Process

Students may begin the Comprehensive Examination after they have successfully completed all the course requirements.  The exam consists of the following:

Research Proposal
The Comprehensive Examination will involve the writing and successful defense of a research proposal.  In virtually every phase of professional life after receiving a Ph.D., the individual will be required to submit a grant proposal (or its equivalent) for support of a particular research project.  In order to adequately prepare our students for this task, the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has required the student to write and defend a research proposal.

Although the focus of this exercise will necessarily be the research proposal, students must also demonstrate mastery of the principles of biochemistry and molecular biology in order to pass this exam, hence the term "comprehensive examination."  Students should be prepared to demonstrate their knowledge of the theoretical and practical aspects of the methodologies and experimental approaches employed in their research proposal. 

Nevertheless, students will be held responsible for questions pertaining to all areas of biochemistry and molecular biology during the defense, and the examinee's responses to such questions will be given consideration when the committee discusses grading the examination.

The research proposal must be satisfactorily defended by no later than seven (7) months prior to the expected completion of the oral defense of the Ph.D. research dissertation.

2012-2013 Timeline for completion of writing research proposal
April 30 - Topic submitted to Graduate Committee
May 21 - Appointment of Examining Committee
July 23 - Approval of Specific Aims by Examining Committee
August 31 - Research proposal submitted to Examining Committee
October 1 - Critiques received back from Examining Committee
October 29 - Revised research proposal due to Examining Committee
December 3 - Defense of research proposal has occurred

These dates stipulate the maximum deadlines for completing the various stages of the examination.  Any student who so desires, may complete any of these stages prior to these deadline dates.  In that case, the time intervals between steps will be maintained.  If an examinee fails to meet a deadline, he/she will be notified by a letter from the Graduate Committee Chairperson.  This letter will describe the deficiency, specify the steps required to remedy the deficiency, and provide a timetable for remediation.  Copies of the letter will also be sent to the Chairperson of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the examinee's advisor.  If the examinee fails to remediate the deficiency, a copy of the letter will be sent to the Dean for Graduate Studies.  

Approval of Topic for Research Proposal and Formation of the Examining Committee
The research proposal topic can be in an examinee's related research area or other area of examinee's choice related to biochemistry and molecular biology,but may NOT be identical to the examinee's dissertation topic.  The examinee may identify a local faculty member who is knowledgeable in the area and will to serve as a consultant during the planning and writing of the proposal. 

No later than April 30, the examinee will submit to the Graduate Committee the grant topic in the form of a list of specific aims (not to exceed one page).  The Graduate Committee will meet within 2 two weeks to consider the topic, and if the topic is approved, the Graduate Committee will appoint an Examining Committee to decide on the acceptability of the specific aims.  The examinee will be notified of the composition of his/her Examining Committee by May 21.

The Examining Committee will consist of three members of the graduate faculty.  The examinee will confer with the Examining Committee to receive approval of the specific aims by July 23.  In considering the schedule for meeting of the Examining Committee, the examinee should bear in mind the possibility that more than one meeting may be needed to obtain final approval of aims.

Examinees must keep abreast of the literature in the area of the research proposal from the time of conceiving the idea through the defense.  The clock of progress does not stop at the time the Specific Aims are approved, and incorporation of new information with possible changes in the research plan is frequently required.

Instructions for Preparing the Research Proposal
A written research proposal will be prepared in such a manner as to show the examinee's:

  1. comprehension of a field of study,
  2. ability to develop hypotheses, and
  3. competence in the design and conduct of promising and significant experiments.

The proposal will follow the SF424 (R&R) NIH format.  The page limit for the research proposal is 12 pages plus 1 page for Specific Aims, excluding references.  You can find the SF424 (R&R) forms and instructions at

The examinee shall organize a research plan encompassing a three-year period devoting his/her efforts to the project along with one full-time technician.  In writing the research proposal, the examinee should bear in mind the following questions:

  1. What is the central hypothesis to be tested?
  2. Why is the work important?
  3. What has already been accomplished in this area?
  4. What do you propose to do? How are you going to do the work?  What are the expected results?  What contribution will your work make to scientific knowledge?

Review of the Research Proposal
By August 31, the examinee will submit his/her research proposal to the Graduate Committee, which will send copies to the Examining Committee.  The members of the Examining Committee will provide written critiques of the research proposal by October 1.  If needed, the Graduate Committee will seek outside experts to help review the proposal.  The Graduate Committee will receive the written Critiques and provide copies of them to the examinee and the Examining Committee.

Upon receiving the written critiques, the examinee will have until October 29 to submit a revised research proposal addressing the critiques received from the Examining Committee.  Using the current NIH format, a two-page Introduction will be submitted as part of the revised proposal.

Oral Defense of Research Proposal 
The examinee (in concert with the Examining Committee) will schedule the oral defense to be held by December 3.  The form "Request for Scheduling Qualifying or Comprehensive Examination", must be submitted to the Dean of Graduate Studies at least two weeks prior to the oral defense.    

At the time of the oral defense, the examinee will briefly review the proposal and then answer questions raised by the Examining Committee.  The criteria for judging the examinee's defense of the research proposal include:

  • Significance:  How significant is the proposed research?  Is it original?  If not, how important is the problem addressed by the proposal?  What knowledge gap does the proposed research try to fill?
  • Feasibility:  Does the proposed strategy adequately produce answers to the questions posed?  Does the examinee understand what the proposed methods and procedures can accomplish and what are their limitations?  Does the examinee provide logical alternative approaches when the primary approaches fail to yield the expected results?

The Examining Committee will then deliberate and decide whether the responses of the examinee are satisfactory.  If yes, then the examinee will be notified that he/she has satisfactorily passed the Comprehensive Examination.  If not, the examinee will be required to have another oral defense of the proposal.  The oral defense will be considered unsatisfactory if more than one member of the committee gives such grades.

Final Deliberation of the Examining Committee 
Each member of the Examining Committee will complete the departmental form "Results of Comprehensive Examination for the Ph.D. Degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology" and forward it to the Chairperson of the Graduate Committee for inclusion in the student's file.

The results of the Comprehensive Examination will be reported on the "Examination Report Form" and forwarded to the Dean of Graduate Studies and the Graduate Committee within 7 days after the examination.  If a student fails to pass the Comprehensive Examination, the Examining Committee shall write a letter to the Dean of Graduate Studies, with a copy to the Graduate Committee, reporting the failure and indicating what the student must do before becoming eligible to take another examination.  Any student who fails the examination twice will be dropped from the program. 

If the student passes the examination, the results shall be reported by the chairperson of the Examining Committee to the Graduate Office on the "Application for Admission to Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy."