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Comprehensive and Qualifying Exams

Qualifying Examination Overview

The BMMB Graduate Program administers an oral qualifying examination to assess whether the student is capable of conducting graduate research based on evidence of critical thinking skills, understanding of the scientific method, and knowledge of relevant subject matter. This two-hour oral examination will be based on a two-page research proposal prepared by the student. All examinations will take place during the fall semester of the second year.

In addition to passing the oral qualifying examination, students must display excellence in coursework, research and teaching to be eligible to take the comprehensive examination.


Graduate School Policy

BMMB Qualifying Examination Policy

The purpose of the qualifying examination is to assess whether the student is capable of conducting graduate research based on evidence of critical thinking skills, understanding of the scientific method, and knowledge of relevant subject matter.

Timing of the qualifying examination: All Ph.D. students are required to take the qualifying examination prior to November 15 of their second year. Ph.D. students must pass the qualifying examination to continue pursuing a Ph.D. degree.

Students are not required to have all of their coursework completed at the time of the qualifying examination. Coursework will be monitored by the Director of Graduate Affairs, and completed coursework will be discussed at the Qualifying Evaluation Meeting in January/February.

Note: All required coursework must be successfully completed by the end of spring semester of the second year. All required coursework must be successfully completed before a student can take the comprehensive examination. Successfully completed means "C" or better in all lecture and seminar courses with an average of 3.0 or better for all approved 400-, 500-, or 800-level courses.

  1. Overseeing the administration of qualifying examinations to all BMMB graduate students during the fall semester of their second year as described below. The committee will report a PASS or FAIL grade for each of the qualifying examinations to the BMMB Graduate Faculty.

  2. Evaluating the qualifying examination written documents for attainment of English writing proficiency as specified by the BMMB policy on English proficiency for Ph.D. candidates. The results of the English writing proficiency evaluation will be reported to the Director of Graduate Affairs as PASS or FAIL for each student taking the examination. Although a student may still pass the qualifying examination if they fail this written English proficiency assessment, remedial activities and re-assessment will be required prior to the scheduling of the comprehensive examination. This re-assessment will entail a supervised essay administered by the BMMB Steering Committee.

  3. Evaluating the oral qualifying presentation for competency of spoken English for any students who received a “FAIL” in BMMB 507 the previous fall semester. The Director of Graduate Affairs will provide the BMMB Steering Committee with a list of students who will need their spoken English evaluated during their qualifying exams by the faculty panel.

During the summer following their first year, all BMMB students will prepare a two-page scientific proposal. Literature citations may be placed on additional pages as necessary. A hard copy and an electronic copy of the proposal must be submitted to the Graduate Program Coordinator no later than 2 weeks prior to the scheduled exam date. The proposal may be written on any research topic within the field of BMMB, including the student’s own proposed research. The proposal uses content and formatting guidelines from the NSF GRFP Graduate Research Plan Statement.

  • Specific Research Problem: The summary should include a clear, concise and original description of the hypothesis(es) and questions to be addressed for the research.

  • Significance: The summary should set the work in the context of the field to demonstrate its significance.

  • Experimental Design: The summary should include a succinct description of the experimental approaches that the student plans to use for investigating the hypothesis. Appropriate backup strategies should also be described.

  • Expected Outcomes: The summary should include the expected outcomes of the proposed study, and how these results would be interpreted to design future studies.

  • Formatting Requirements: The document must be single spaced, 8.5” x 11” pages with one-inch margins and use 12-point Times New Roman font. 10-point font may be used for footnotes, figure captions, and text within figures. The use of complete sentences and well-structured paragraphs is essential.

  • Reference Guidelines: Students must use complete reference citations (all authors, year of publication, complete article title, journal name, volume, and both beginning and ending page numbers). All referenced papers need to have names or numbers at appropriate locations in the text to show what the references are being cited for, and there should not be any references in the list that are not cited at least once in the text portion of the research summary.

  • Figure Guidelines: Students may include figures, however images and text must be legible. Any figure from a published paper must be accompanied by an appropriate citation.

Students may request that their faculty research adviser, or other member of the lab group, read drafts to provide general comments and advice. However, the research summary should be the student’s own work.

At the beginning of the fall semester, the BMMB Steering Committee will meet to assign a qualifying examination panel for each of the second-year students. All members of the BMMB Graduate Faculty are eligible to serve on exam panels, but advisers and co-advisers are excluded from serving on panels for their own students.

The student is responsible for contacting each member of the assigned qualifying examination panel to schedule a date, time, and location for a two-hour oral examination. The examination must be completed before November 15.

The student should prepare a 15-minute presentation of the research proposal for the oral examination. This presentation should explain the hypothesis, an experimental overview, an analysis of expected data and its interpretation, and a discussion of possible follow-up studies. The student may prepare 5 slides for the presentation. These slides must be provided to the exam panel chair at least 2 days prior to the exam. No notes other than the proposal may be used by the student during the oral exam. This ban includes PowerPoint-style presenter’s notes. Students may use the blackboards or whiteboards in the examination room during their presentation.

Written Research Proposal

  • Does the research proposal indicate that the student has a good understanding of the scientific significance of the project?

  • Does the proposal include a testable hypothesis and experiments that will refute or support the hypothesis, including important controls?

  • Does the proposal explain how data will be interpreted and present a clear idea of where the research might lead?

Oral Exam

  • Has the student demonstrated an ability to answer questions regarding approaches, interpretations, and rationales?

  • Does the student’s oral performance indicate a reasonable starting-level understanding of the relevant scientific literature?

  • Has the student demonstrated a good faith effort in all aspects of conscientiously preparing for the oral examination?

Additional Considerations

  • Since students will have just started their doctoral research and will be in the early stages of developing their projects, panel members should not expect students to be able to display the same level of mastery that would be expected at a comprehensive exam. No data generated by the student is required or expected for the research proposal, even if the proposal is on the student’s own research project.

At the end of the examination, the panel members may discuss the student’s performance, but they should not discuss their intentions with regard to voting. The panel members will then individually grade the performance by secret written ballot, indicating Good, Fair or Poor. An average of Fair will constitute a passing performance, with the understanding that a Good and a Poor vote is equivalent to two Fair votes. Two Fair and a Poor vote will be considered a failing performance. The vote will be reported to the chair of the BMMB Steering Committee. The qualifying panel chairperson will also provide the student, the research advisor, and the other panel members with a written synopsis of the student’s performance on the exam regardless of outcome. A copy of the synopsis will also be placed in the student’s folder.

Students who fail their examination the first time must re-take and pass the examination by January 15 of their second year to continue in the PhD. program. Students who have not passed the qualifying examination on their first or second attempt by January 15 of their second year will be designated as terminal M.S. students. Students failing their first examination may elect to have the second examination administered by the same faculty panel, or they may choose to have an entirely new panel appointed by the BMMB Steering Committee.

English writing proficiency will be evaluated prior to the oral qualifying examination by the BMMB Steering Committee. In the case of a student who received a “FAIL” in BMMB 507 the previous fall semester, the qualifying examination panel will also judge at the end of the examination whether the student has acquired competency of spoken English. This vote is independent of the results of the qualifying examination. See Assessment of English Competency for more information.

Qualifying Examination Outcomes

The BMMB Steering Committee will meet in January to confirm the qualifying status for students who have passed their oral examinations. Prior to the meeting, input will be solicited from all faculty who wish to comment on a student taking the qualifying examination. This input should be provided in writing to the Graduate Program Coordinator. The decision to pass will be based on completed coursework, teaching, research, and passing the qualifying examination. Research advisors will be required to submit a written evaluation of the student's research to the Graduate Program Coordinator at least one week prior to the meeting. It is the prerogative of the committee to deny qualifying to students who have passed the oral examination if they feel that other considerations warrant that denial.

NOTE: The meeting will be announced to the BMMB faculty and all BMMB faculty members are welcome to attend this meeting. Advisors may inform their own advisees whether they have passed or failed after this meeting, but should not discuss the fate or relative standing of other students who were under consideration.

A simple majority vote of the BMMB Steering Committee is required for all decisions.

The BMMB Steering Committee will notify the students of the outcome of the qualifying decision by letter within seven days of the qualifying decision meeting. The possible outcomes are listed below.

Group 1 - possibilities for students who passed the oral qualifying examination:

  1. Qualifying effective immediately. (GPA must be 3.0 or higher and have successfully completed teaching requirements.)

  2. Qualifying to be awarded upon successful completion of teaching requirements (GPA must be 3.0 or higher).

  3. Qualifying to be awarded if so recommended by the thesis committee upon successful completion of an M.S. degree.

  4. Qualifying decision deferred if GPA is less than 3.0 and coursework is not complete at the time of the qualifying decision meeting.

  5. Qualifying not awarded if the required 19 credits of coursework are complete and GPA is less than 3.0.

  6. Qualifying not awarded because of poor performance in research and/or teaching.

Group 2 - outcome for students who failed the oral qualifying examination:

  1. Qualifying not awarded on the basis of having failed the oral qualifying examination twice.

The Associate Department Head for Graduate Education will notify the Graduate School if students are qualified to take the comprehensive exam.


Comprehensive Examination Overview

The purpose of the comprehensive examination is to determine whether the student has transitioned from a novice to an advanced Ph.D. student. The examination is designed to assess the student’s broad conceptual knowledge of their discipline, the deeper knowledge of their field, critical thinking skills, experimental and computational skills, communication skills as well as their vision and motivation to complete the Ph.D. program.

To be eligible to take the comprehensive examination, students must have passed their qualifying examination and all of the required coursework for the degree must be successfully completed. Successfully completed means "C" or better in all lecture and seminar courses with an average of 3.0 or better for all non-research, non-teaching 400- or higher-level courses. The dissertation committee at the time of the comprehensive exam should evaluate the student’s performance in coursework.

All students are required to demonstrate high-level competency in the use of the English language (reading, writing and speaking) and must meet the English competency requirement of the Graduate School prior to taking the comprehensive examination. The procedures for assessing English competency are described here. The Graduate Program Coordinator will supply documentation confirming that the English competency requirement has been met along with the rest of the examination packet.

The oral comprehensive examination must be taken before the end of the spring semester that follows passing the qualifying examination. The qualifying examination is typically completed in the spring semester of the student’s second year; therefore most students will complete the comprehensive exam by the end of the spring semester of their third year.

The oral comprehensive examination is given by the student’s PhD committee. As part of this examination, the student must write a research proposal in their area of research. The research proposal will serve as a focus for the examination, but the examination is comprehensive in nature and may deal with a wide variety of topics relevant to the student’s chosen academic discipline(s).

The written proposal is limited to ten double-spaced pages, including text, figures and tables. References are not included in the page limit. The proposal must be presented to the PhD committee members at least one week prior to the examination. The proposal must contain:

  1. Title of proposed research project

  2. Introduction including a survey of the current literature relevant to the problem

  3. Specific objectives of the research

  4. Research plan including experimental methods and procedures as well as possible outcomes and their interpretation(s); preliminary data may be included, if available, but it is not required

  5. Potential importance of the project

The PhD committee members will vote pass-fail at the end of the examination by secret ballot.

The Graduate School is enforcing a policy that if they receive an Exam request form less than two (2) weeks before the date of the exam, they will require a memo with an explanation as to why it was sent under the two-week deadline.

If you plan to schedule a defense or a comprehensive exam please let the Graduate Program Coordinator know the date, time, place, location, committee members, and your PSU ID# at least 3 weeks in advance, so that the Graduate School can process the needed paperwork in time.

IMPORTANT: Room reservations are now submitted through CollegeNET, a new university-wide system. There is also a wait time for a confirmation. It is very hard to find open rooms now, so BMMB asks that students send the Graduate Program Coordinator at least two dates and times for the comprehensive exam. Students may also schedule exams themselves through CollegeNET. However students still need to inform the Graduate Program Coordinator of the date, time, and location 3 weeks before the exam.

The Graduate School will mail the “Report on the Doctoral Comprehensive Examination” to the Graduate Program Coordinator. The Graduate Program Coordinator will send the examination notice and three copies of the “Report on the Doctoral Comprehensive Examination” form to the student’s adviser, along with a copy of the student’s transcript, and a copy of the English competency letter. Following the examination, two completed “Report on the Doctoral Comprehensive Examination” forms must be returned to the Graduate Program Coordinator so the report can be sent to the Graduate School. The adviser should keep the third copy for their records.