University of Nebraska Medical Center

Comprehensive Exam

Q: Why is the Comprehensive Exam important to my graduate education?

A: In virtually every phase of professional life after earning the PhD, you will be required to submit a grant proposal (or its equivalent) for support of a research project. In order to adequately prepare our students for this task, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has required students to write and defend a mock research proposal.

Q: What does the term "comprehensive" mean with respect to the exam?

A: Although the focus of the exercise will necessarily be the research proposal, students must also demonstrate a mastery of the principles of biochemistry and molecular biology to pass this exam, so you may expect to be tested on your knowledge in areas beyond the exam. In practice, the questions that arise during the oral defense of the proposal that test comprehensive knowledge often relate to specific elements of the grant proposal. For example, if you propose to use pulse-field gel electrophoresis in your proposed project, you should be prepared to explain the principles and theory behind how that technique operates. However, questions not related to your proposal may also be asked to test your mastery of the principles of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Q: How do I know that my grant topic is not too close to my research area?

A: The Graduate Committee will determine, based on your description of your proposal, whether the topic meets a subjective test of being distinct from your research area. For example, if your research area is on tumor antigens in colon cancer, then a grant topic on cell cycle control genes in colon adenocarcinoma is clearly too close to your field. However, a grant on cell cycle control genes in lung cancer would probably be approved. Obviously, this can be a tough call, but you can make the Graduate Committee's job easier by being very clear in describing your proposed project. You may even wish to include a cover letter that spells out exactly how your proposed grant topic differs from your research area.

Q: Why can't I just send a two-to-three-line summary of my idea for a grant topic rather than going to all the trouble of devising a hypothesis and the specific aims?

A: Developing the Specific Aims page of an NIH grant application is a very hard task for investigators as well as students. This page is by far the most important of the grant proposal. Most reviewers read this page and form a first impression of the proposal, such as its feasibility, significance, potential scientific contribution, and value to the NIH mission. It is relatively easy to summarize a research project in just a few lines because no structure or details are required. Being forced to state the hypothesis and then to develop aims to test may seem like you're being asked to write or at least to think through the whole proposal ahead of time. In fact, that's true, because the Specific Aims page encapsulates the project even better than the abstract.

Q: Will I be notified when the beginning of the exam is approaching?

A: Yes. Ordinarily, you will be notified by email just before you are scheduled to start the exam. This message will provide the overall schedule for the exam and information about the exam's format.

Q: What if I miss a deadline at some point during the exam?

A: If this occurs, it is important to notify Dr. Hyde and Ms. Hankins so that they can make appropriate accommodations. You should recognize that missing a deadline by a few days does NOT reset the clock for the next deadline. That is, a one-week delay in obtaining approval of your Specific Aims does not translate into a one-week extension of the deadline for submitting the proposal. Time lost in the delay comes from the time you would have to write the grant.

Q: What will be expected of me at my Specific Aims approval meeting?

A: Many students are caught off guard by this meeting if they are not ready, so it will pay to prepare for this meeting as if it is a preview of the real thing - the comprehensive exam itself. The stakes are lower and the committee will be friendlier and less familiar with the topic of your grant, but the mechanics are similar. The goal of this meeting is to present your Specific Aims in a clear and convincing way to the examining committee, which will be made up of a member of the Graduate Committee (as chair) and two content experts who are likely to have a working knowledge of the field you propose as topic of the grant. If there is a particular paper that catalyzed the idea for the grant, then it would do well for you to provide the reference to the committee in advance of the meeting so they can get up to speed.

You should come prepared with a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation that introduces your proposal. The presentation should take the committee through the same thought processes that you went through (only more organized!) to develop the proposal:

  • Provide a background that describes the state of the field and identifies the deficiencies in our knowledge that you intend to fill with this project.
  • Describe the significance of the project to the field and the state of human health.
  • Make a clear statement of the hypothesis.
  • Provide an overview of each of the aims with sufficient experimental description so the committee will be able to understand how the experimental approaches will work, whether the plan is feasible, and how long the project may take to complete.
  • The recommended time of about 15 minutes for the presentation does not account for discussion and questions, of which there will be many. Be prepared to spend at least 90 minutes in this meeting and then to have the task of revising the Specific Aims page afterwards. The most frequent problem encountered by students is the tendency to "bite off more than they can chew" and propose way too much work to accomplish in three or even five years. Scale back and keep it simple and manageable.

After the introductory presentation, the committee will ask questions regarding your proposal, procedures, experiments that will incorporate your working knowledge of basic biochemistry and molecular biology

Q: Would it be helpful to meet with the chair of the examining committee before the Specific Aims approval meeting?

A: Yes. The chair has the prerogative to direct the examination and may wish to stipulate how the format for the meeting that differs in some ways from that described above.

Q: What is meant by "keeping abreast of the literature in the area of the research proposal?"

A: From the time you submit the topic of your grant until the day you defend it, you will be responsible for incorporating any new information or findings that appear in the literature and take them into account as you design the research plan. Treat this area as you would you own research area. Visit PubMed to conduct up-to-date searches of the literature. Watch for papers from particular groups or scan for keywords. Sometimes it happens that a paper will appear that addresses or even invalidates all or some of your aims. All is not lost at that point, but you should notify the chair of your examining committee and seek the committee's advice to determine how to proceed. It may be necessary to delete or redesign an aim, modify your hypothesis, etc., to accommodate the new knowledge. Don't make the mistake of ignoring the event and hoping it will go away--members of your examining committee have access to PubMed, too!

Q: Where do I get the SF 424 (R&R) forms and instructions for preparing the proposal?

A: Forms and instructions are available online at National Institutes of Health website.

Q: What are the page, margin and font restrictions for the proposal?

A: Follow all instructions for completing the SF 424 (R&R), which stipulate the minimum font size for main text as 11-point Arial font. Margins must conform to one-half inch throughout the document. The length should not exceed 12 pages, in addition to the one-page Specific Aims and reference pages.

Q: Do I have to prepare a full, detailed budget or can I just do a modular budget?

A: As a young investigator, you would likely be limited to a modular budget, so you may use that format. Nevertheless, it is important to consider what the proposed research would cost as you decide how many modules to request. For example, a large mouse study can entail $50K per year of costs just for animal purchase and care. How much should you request in supplies for each member of your lab? $25K per year is clearly too much, $12-14K per year may be reasonable, depending on the type of work being done.

Q: Is there a sample grant that I can look at to get an idea if I'm on the right track?

A: Check with your advisor, the chairperson of your comprehensive examination committee or a member of the Graduate Committee to receive a sample grant to review.

Q: If my research involves human subjects or work with vertebrate animals, do I have to answer all the detailed questions on the NIH forms?

A: Discuss this issue with the chairperson of your comprehensive examination committee. If the question needs further discussion, you can pose it to the Graduate Committee.

Q: What are the criteria for making me rewrite my proposal before I defend it?

A: This is another of those very subjective areas that hides behind seemingly objective criteria. The intent is to allow the student to improve a proposal by correcting obvious problems identified during the first reviews, to avoid having students defend badly flawed proposals. The only way to make this call is by the scores provided by the reviewers.

Q: What do I do if I am required to rewrite the proposal before defending it?

A: If this happens, you will be provided with the written critiques from all the reviewers, so you will have a pretty good idea what they thought was wrong with the proposal. According to NIH guidelines, you should do your best to address their concerns and weaknesses by revising parts of the proposal. Any alterations that you make to the text should be marked by underlining, modified font style, or a bar in the margin.

The most important new section that you will need to write is an Introduction, which is limited to two pages. In the Introduction, you should list the major criticisms and then tell how you have addressed them within the Research Plan. You may rebut or present evidence from the literature to counter statements made by the reviewers, but of course, it is best to avoid becoming too argumentative. If the reviewers have made good points that you cannot get around, it is best to agree and go with that. Once you have done all this, much of the difficulty and stress of the defense should be reduced to a more manageable level.

Q: What is expected of me at the oral defense of my proposal?

A: This is the main event of the Comprehensive Examination and is open to the public and advertised to the departmental personnel. Actually, few will show up other than you and your committee, and anybody else who shows up for the exam will be warned that they are to be silent observers only. You should prepare for the exam as you did for the Specific Aims approval meeting--prepare a PowerPoint presentation (10-15 minutes) that provides a brief background and significance, statement of hypothesis and summarizes the research plan for the aims in brief. But the bulk of the presentation should be devoted to addressing the questions and concerns raised by the reviewers in their critiques.

Many students have found it helpful to organize this according to the aims of the proposal. Each concern can be stated at the top of a slide with your response listed on the same slide below. If data from the literature or a description of an alternative method or approach is needed, then these can be given in subsequent slides. Emphasize the major criticisms and those that were voiced by more than one reviewer. Be prepared to start off your presentation without much interruption, but then to be interrupted more frequently as you progress through the talk. There may come times during the examination when you feel as if you have lost control or when you temporarily lose your composure. At these times, it is important to regain some control and composure. Request that committee members repeat their questions--this gives you time to consider how to reply.

You may request a break for a few minutes if you need to rest or think things over. The examination is likely to last from one and a half to two hours. After all questions have been exhausted, the chair will ask you to leave the room for a few minutes so that the committee can discuss your performance and vote on Pass/Fail.

Q: What forms will be needed for the exam and who should bring them?

A: You will need to bring two types of forms to the exam. Don't leave this important task to anyone else. The main Graduate Studies document that must be signed by all examining committee members is the "Examination Report Form." The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program also will ask that each member of the committee sign a separate "Results of Comprehensive Examination for the Ph.D. Degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology" form. These forms may be obtained from Ms. Hankins. Once the forms are signed, they should be turned in to Ms. Hankins for further processing and placement in your file. When you pass the Comprehensive Examination, you will likely qualify for advancement to candidacy for the PhD. However, you need not bring that document to the exam; it will be circulated to and signed by the members of your Supervisory Committee in the days after the exam is done.