Comprehensive Examination

Why is the Comprehensive Exam important to my graduate education?
The Comprehensive Examination serves several purposes. First, in virtually every phase of your career after earning the PhD, you will be required to submit research proposals for grants (or their equivalent) for support of a research project. As an introduction to this task, Pathology and Microbiology students are required to write and defend a research proposal on a topic different than their actual research project. This exercise helps the student learn to focus a research project and present it cogently to an audience generally less familiar with the specific issues. The exercise forces the student to learn in-depth background in a somewhat different area of science, and, as a result, improve their self-learning skills. The examination provides the Committee a structured venue through which to evaluate the student’s understanding of the scientific method and how to employ the scientific method to address a new problem. Through questions/answers related to experimental design, the Committee can evaluate the depth of technical knowledge and understanding, as well as the student’s ability to design adequate controls and provide appropriate interpretation of anticipated results. And, by questioning the student in areas of his/her coursework, research training, and general knowledge of their chosen field and discipline, the Committee can evaluate the student’s preparedness for an independent future in a research/science career. 

What does the term “comprehensive” mean with respect to the exam?
Although the focus of the exercise will necessarily be the research proposal, students must also demonstrate a mastery of the principles of basic courses taken during Pathology and Microbiology graduate studies to pass this exam, so you may expect to be tested on your knowledge in areas beyond the exam. The comprehensive examination is not a repetition of course examinations but is an investigation of the student's breadth of understanding of the field of knowledge of which his/her special subject is a part. 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 enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay in your proposed project, you should be prepared to explain the principles and theory behind how that technique operates.

How do I know that my grant topic is not too close to my research area?
The Supervisory Committee will determine, based on your description of your proposal, whether the topic meets a subjective test of being distinct from your research area. The goal on this distinction is to ensure that each student has the experience of developing a research proposal exploring a new topic of research but it does not have to be completely out of the field of the student’s research for his or her thesis. 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. A grant on a new type of cell signaling utilized by cell cycle control genes (but not a part of your proposed thesis research on tumor antigens in colon cancer) would also probably be approved. In the end, your examining committee (which includes your supervisory committee and an outside member) has the final call on how close the focus of your research proposal can be to the focus of your thesis research. This varies a good deal because each committee is looking at the specific situation of each graduate student in order to maximize the training of that student for their future scientific career. You will want to make sure that you propose your specific aims very clearly to your committee at an early date. You may even wish to include a cover letter that spells out exactly how your proposed grant topic differs from your thesis research area.

Why can’t I just send a 2- to 3-line summary of my idea for a grant topic rather than going to all the trouble of devising a hypothesis and the specific aims?
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-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 it requires that you at least think through the whole proposal ahead of time.

Will I be notified when the beginning of the exam is approaching?
Yes. Ordinarily, you will be notified by email that you should consider planning for your comprehensive exam.

Who will be part of the examining committee?
The examining committee will consist of the student’s PhD Supervisory Committee and one faculty member outside the student’s Supervisory Committee (often but not necessarily selected for expertise in the area of the research proposal) as well as a member of the Graduate Committee, to both review and participate in the examination.  The examining committee will select a member other than the mentor to serve as chairperson during administration of the comprehensive examination.

Any member of the Graduate Faculty may participate in the examination, but only the examining committee members, in closed deliberations, determine whether you will be passed and admitted into candidacy for the PhD

What will be expected of me at my Specific Aims approval meeting?
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. 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 that they can get up to speed. You should come prepared with a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation that takes the committee through the same thought processes that you went through (only more organized!) to develop the proposal:

  1. You should 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.
  2. Describe the significance of the project to the field and, as appropriate, the state of human health.
  3. Make a clear statement of the hypothesis.
  4. Provide an overview of each of the aims with sufficient experimental description so that 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 30 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 3 or even 5 years. Scale back and keep it simple and manageable. The second most common mistake is to propose aims that are not experimentally addressable with available knowledge or tools.

What is meant by “keeping abreast of the literature in the area of the research proposal?”
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!

Where do I get the SF 424 forms and instructions for preparing the proposal?
Forms and instructions are available online at National Institutes of Health.

What are the page, margin and font restrictions for the proposal?
Follow all instructions for completing SF 424, which stipulate page limits, minimum font size for main text as 11 point with no more than 20 characters per inch. Margins must conform to one-half inch or more.

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

Is there a sample grant that I can look at to get an idea if I’m on the right track?
Yes. There is a sample student grant proposal available in the Pathology and Microbiology (DRC II 7001A office). You should ask for assistance from Ms. Tuire Cechin to see that grant.

If my research involves human subjects or work with vertebrate animals, do I have to answer all those detailed questions at the end of SF 424?
It will depend on the recommendation from your examining committee.

How and when do I schedule the exam?
You will need to schedule the date and time first with your supervisory committee members. You will also need to reserve a lecture room from UNMC room scheduling. Ms. Cechin can assist you with scheduling an appropriate room for your exam.

The request for scheduling the Comprehensive Examination must be submitted via Seguidor no later than two weeks prior to the examination. Graduate Studies Office verifies student’s eligibility to take the exam before the approval.

Please let Ms. Cechin know that you are scheduling it at this time so she can send email announcements to the department.

What do I do if I am required to rewrite the proposal?
If this happens, you will be provided with the written critiques from all the examiners, 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 2 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 examiners 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.

What are the criteria for making me rewrite my proposal and retake exam?
There are no formal specific criteria for deciding whether a student has passed or failed the Comprehensive Examination, or whether he/she will be afforded the opportunity for retaking the examination. The Examination Committee has several options for determining the result of the Comprehensive Exam. The student may pass and be admitted to candidacy for the PhD The student may pass, with recommendations that deficiencies be remediated (sometimes by additional coursework) prior to admission to candidacy. The examination may reveal significant deficiencies for which remediation is not appropriate or adequate (e.g., a badly flawed and indefensible research proposal with otherwise adequate performance with demonstrated understanding of the field). In this case, the Committee may fail the student with recommendation that the student be allowed to repeat the comprehensive examination within a specified time. In some cases, the student's preparation, knowledge and understanding is found to be so deficient that re-examination is not an option and the student is failed. No student is permitted to take the examination more than twice.

What is expected of me at the oral defense of my proposal?
This is the main event of the Comprehensive Examination. You should prepare for the exam as you did for the Specific Aims approval meeting—prepare a PowerPoint presentation 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 will be devoted to addressing the questions and concerns raised by the examiners. Many students have found it helpful to organize this according to the aims of the proposal. 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 1.5 to 3 hours.

After all questions have been exhausted, the chair will ask you and graduate faculty other than the committee to leave the room for a few minutes so that the committee can discuss your performance and reach a consensus on your preparedness for admission to candidacy for the degree.