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Comprehensive Exam

The Comprehensive Exam is one of the devices by which the faculty monitors the progress of a student toward the Ph.D. degree. The goal of this exam is to test in a comprehensive fashion whether the student has assimilated formal studies and research experiences in a manner and to a degree that indicates adequate progress toward becoming an independent research scientist.

The exam is administered by the student’s committee members with the student’s mentor being replaced by an ad hoc member chosen by the graduate affairs committee. There are two formats for this exam to choose from.

Exam Format 1- Six weeks prior to the exam, each committee member presents the student with a research question/topic suitable for the design of a hypothetical grant proposal. After a period of preliminary literature searching (usually no longer than one week), the student selects one topic for the focus of the exam. The student then informs the chair of the exam committee of the choice of topic and proceeds to develop a research proposal related to that topic.

Exam Format 2- The student writes a research proposal based on their own research. At least five weeks prior to the exam, the student presents their exam committee with a short 1-2 page white paper. The committee will then determine the independence of the proposal and provide feedback (typically within 1 week).

For both format, the student prepares the written portion of the exam in the form of a grant proposal using the NIH or NSF guidelines. The grant proposal should have the following properties:

  • A face page with the title of the project.
  • A project summary.
  • A research project plan.
  • A list of references with titles and names of all authors.

A copy of the written proposal is delivered to each member of the exam committee 1 week prior to the exam. On the day of the exam, the student then prepares a 50-minute seminar which is presented to departmental faculty and students. The oral presentation ordinarily occurs during the regular Monday Graduate Research Colloquium. The oral examination and defense before the exam committee takes place on the same day after the seminar.  Details concerning the comprehensive exam are available in the Graduate Student Handbook.