University of Nebraska Medical Center

Comprehensive Examination

Students may begin the Comprehensive Examination after they have successfully completed all 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 PhD, 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 months prior to the expected completion of the oral defense of the PhD research dissertation.

Sequence for completion of writing research proposal

  1. Orientation meeting
  2. Deadline for specific aims submission
  3. Appointment of examining committee by graduate committee
  4. Deadline for specific aims approval (Specific aims defense)
  5. Deadline for research proposal submission
  6. Critiques of proposals due
  7. Deadline for submission of revised research proposal
  8. Deadline for defense of research proposal

Specific deadline dates will be set every year by the graduate student committee. 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 Chairman. 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 Chairman 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 the examinee's related research area or other area of examinee’s choice related to biochemistry and molecular biology, but may NOT be the same as the examinee’s dissertation topic, the topic of a student’s previous work, such as a master’s thesis, or a project that is currently being developed in the students lab. The examinee may identify a local faculty member who is knowledgeable in the area and willing to serve as a consultant during the planning and writing of the proposal.

The examinee will submit to the Graduate Committee the grant topic in the form of a complete specific aims page (not to exceed one page). The Graduate Committee will meet within 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.

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 at two months after topic approval. In considering the schedule for meetings 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
  3. Competence in the design and conduct of promising and significant experiments.
The proposal will follow the NIH format for F31 applications.

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

The examinee (in concert with the Examining Committee) will schedule the oral defense. Graduate students must log into Seguidor and complete the "Request for Scheduling Qualifying and Comprehensive Examinations.” This must be electronically submitted in Seguidor at least two weeks prior to the oral defense.

At the time of the oral defense, the examinee will briefly review the proposal, describe any changes made to address reviewer comments and answer questions raised by the Examining Committee. The criteria for judging 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 passed the Comprehensive Examination. If not, the Examination Committee will outline appropriate remediation activities for the student. The oral defense will be considered unsatisfactory if more than one member of the committee gives such grades.

Final deliberation by the Examining Committee

Members of the Examining Committee will input the exam results into Seguidor after the student has completed the exam. The results of the Comprehensive Examination will be reported online and forwarded to the Dean of Graduate Studies and the Graduate Committee within seven 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 and Research, with a copy to the Graduate Committee, reporting the failure. Students will be allowed to retake the Comprehensive Exam, pursuant to Graduate Studies policy. Failure to pass the Comprehensive Exam a second time may be grounds for termination from the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program.

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

Review Frequently Asked Questions About the Exam