Comprehensive Examination


The purpose of the comprehensive examination is to evaluate the ability of a student to formulate an original research problem, to develop an appropriate experimental approach for solving that problem and to demonstrate independent, creative and critical scholarly ability in presenting and defending the proposal.

Scheduling of the examination

Comprehensive exams must be completed by June 30th of the appropriate year, but may be completed earlier if a student has completed the relevant coursework and gathered sufficient preliminary data.

MSTP students, are required to complete the comprehensive examination by June 30 of the first year in the program.

Students admitted directly to the doctoral program are required to complete the comprehensive examination by June 30 of the second year in the program.

All courses of the Core Curriculum receiving a letter (A- F) grade must be satisfactorily completed prior to taking the comprehensive exam (MSTP students will typically not have completed Principals of Scholarly Integrity, graded S/ U, prior to taking the Comprehensive Exam, but must do so to subsequently complete the Training Program). By regulations of the Graduate College, students can not take a comprehensive exam in a semester in which they are on academic probation.

The student must contact the director of graduate studies with regard to scheduling of the oral examination. Because of busy faculty schedules, students are encouraged to set the date for the comprehensive exam as early as possible; the examination must be scheduled a minimum of two weeks prior to the examination date. The Comprehensive Exam must be held within departmental space of Bowen Science Building; students should work with the graduate studies secretary to reserve an appropriate room. As explained in the sections below, the exam is also subject to additional scheduling constraints.

Schedule summary

  • Six months prior: Pre-consultation with DGS (recommended)
  • Four months prior: Submit names of proposed thesis committee to DGS
    • DGS confirms member participation
    • DGS collects conflict of interest statements
    • Faculty vote and DGS appoints committee chair
    • Three to four weeks prior: Consultation with chair (recommended)
  • Two weeks prior: Last day to set exam
  • One week prior: Last day to distribute proposal

Comprehensive examination committee

  • a 4-5 person committee is required
  • at least two must be primary faculty
  • at least one must be a faculty member from outside of the department

Selection of the comprehensive committee is the responsibility of the student with recommendation from the student’s thesis research adviser. Members of the comprehensive examination committee also constitute members of the putative thesis committee. In considering possible members, both the expertise and long-term availability of members should be considered. For example, the advantage of having senior faculty with very active research programs serve on a committee should be weighed with the disadvantage of scheduling meetings around multiple travel schedules.

Each faculty member should verbally agree to serve on the comprehensive committee and on the subsequent thesis committee. The prospective list of committee members is then submitted to the director of graduate studies who will obtain formal approval from the departmental faculty.

Once approved, the director of graduate studies will provide the student with the name of the chair of their comprehensive exam. At this time, the student can schedule a date for their exam. To allow sufficient time for this process, students planning to take their comprehensive exam by June 30 should submit the names of the faculty for their proposed committee to the director of graduate studies well in advance (typically by March).

Chairperson of the comprehensive examination committee

One member of the committee is designated by the Director of Graduate Studies to serve as chairman. The duties of the chairman are to:

  • Ensure that the examination is conducted according to departmental and Graduate College guidelines.
  • Inform the student concerning the outcome of the examination.
  • Complete and return the Report on the Doctoral Comprehensive Examination to the Office of Graduate Studies.

Structure of the examination

The comprehensive examination for the Ph.D. degree in Molecular Physiology and Biophysics consists of two components: a written proposal in the form of a National Research Service Award application based on the candidate's proposed thesis research, and an oral examination on this proposal and related areas. Students are prohibited from providing food or beverages at committee meetings and examinations.

The written proposal

The student is expected to prepare an original research proposal according to current NIH instructions for a F31 NRSA grant proposal, using current guidelines for its sub-sections and following current limits for page length and all formatting. The proposal must contain: a cover letter, Specific Aims page, Research Strategy section, a Bibliography and References Cited section, and a response to ONE of Vertebrate Animals, Protection of Human Subjects, or Resource Sharing Plan. The proposal must include at least 1 Specific Aim that is distinct from Specific Aims contained in previously submitted grants. The purpose of this requirement is to give students a clear opportunity to demonstrate their development as independently thinking scientists to the exam committee.

The written proposal must be distributed to the committee members at least one week prior to the scheduled date of the oral examination.

Cover Letter: The cover letter required for this exam is a hybrid of elements that might be used to accompany a submission to a granting agency. For purposes here, please summarize the strengths of the proposal and delineate which experiments are distinct from previously submitted grants. Also include 1 stand alone paragraph labeled “Lay Description” and describe in non-technical language the purpose of your proposed work and how it aims to address an issue impacting human health. This paragraph should be readily understood by anyone with a high school level education and should be limited to a few sentences. Together, the entire Cover letter is limited to 1 page.

Specific Aims: The Fellowship Applicant must describe concisely the Specific Aims, broad, long-term objectives and the goal of the proposed research to test a stated hypothesis. The Specific Aims section is limited to 1 page. Although there is no specific rule regarding the number of Specific Aims allowed, 2-3 is typical.

Research Strategy: This section should address the Significance of the proposed studies, including the background leading to the present application; and the Approach (including preliminary studies, if any) to provide experimental support of the proposed hypothesis. This section, including tables, graphs, figures, diagrams, and charts, is limited to 6 pages.

Importantly, the proposal must include at least 1 Specific Aim that is distinct from Specific Aims contained in previously submitted grants. The purpose of this requirement is to give students a clear opportunity to demonstrate their development as independently thinking scientists to the exam committee.

Bibliography and References Cited: Provide a bibliography of any references cited. The references should be limited to relevant and current literature. While there is not a page limitation, it is important to be concise and to select only those literature references pertinent to the proposed research.

Vertebrate Animals, Protection of Human Subjects, Resource Sharing Plan: Although a full NRSA application would require all of these items, for the purpose of the comprehensive exam, please address ONE of these items.

If the proposal uses vertebrate animals, complete this item.

If vertebrate animals are not used, complete either the Protection of Human Subjects or Resource Sharing Plan, whichever is more pertinent to the proposal. This section is limited to 1 page.

The written proposal should contain relevant background information and must focus clearly on specific hypotheses and how they will be tested experimentally. An extensive review of the literature does not constitute an acceptable research proposal. Although a student is free to consult with his/her thesis advisor, lab members, and classmates, the proposal MUST be in the student's own words.

Students are also free to organize a “mock-comps” with their classmate peers, and are in fact encouraged to do so. Students unfamiliar with this tradition are encouraged to discus it with senior graduate students in the department.

Roles of the Thesis Advisor through the Comprehensive Exam:The thesis advisor may give general feedback to the student, but he/she should not revise or correct the proposal. The thesis advisor has the option to read/not read the proposal. 

Students should consult ( to confirm current guidelines and instructions.

All students are strongly encouraged to submit their grants, or modified and improved versions of them, to the NIH and other funding agencies for potential funding.

Evaluation of the written proposal

The written research proposal will be evaluated on the basis of, but not limited to, the following criteria:

  • Adequate review of appropriate literature and how it relates to proposed research.
  • Merit of specific hypotheses being tested and the validity of the experimental approach proposed to address those hypotheses.
  • Appropriateness of interpretations of predicted experimental results and theoretical conclusions.
  • Evaluation of any potential problems regarding experimental techniques and/or design.
  • Overall originality and significance of the research proposal.
  • Appropriate regard to ethical considerations.

The oral examination

The examination begins with a brief private meeting of the members of the exam committee, during which time the student will be asked to briefly leave the room. During this time, the chair of the exam committee will briefly review the student’s academic progress to date, including coursework (a transcript copy will be provided by the Physiology Office) and the advisor’s overall perception of progress (to be provided prior to the exam by the thesis advisor). Upon returning to the room, the student will give an uninterrupted Powerpoint presentation, not to exceed 15 minutes, to discuss the appropriate background and experimental design. At this time, the student may also show preliminary experimental data related to the proposal. Committee members then ask questions on topics generally or specifically related to the proposal. The student may only use a black/white board to address these questions. The chair of the committee ensures reasonable progression of the examination, which typically will be completed within two hours.

At the conclusion of the examination the student will be asked to leave the room and the committee members will discuss his/her performance. During this discussion, committee members should make known the reasons (if any) for dissatisfaction with the performance of the student. There are three potential outcomes of the exam: Satisfactory, Reservation, or Unsatisfactory. In most instances, committees will have near or complete consensus, but if discrepencies are present, the outcome is dictated by the lowest outcome receiving two or more votes (Satisfactory > Reservation > Unsatisfactory; for example, two Unsatisfactory votes constitutes a failure). If the result of the comprehensive examination is “Satisfactory”, the student has passed the exam. Students are encouraged to submit versions of their exam to the NIH for funding consideration. Students passing their comprehensive exam are expected to present regularly in the Workshop series, with a first public presentation typically coming within 2-4 months after the comprehensive exam.

If the result of the comprehensive examination is “Reservation”, the chair of the examination committee will submit to the student, office of graduate studies, and graduate college a letter specifying reservations to be met and a deadline for their removal.

If the result of the comprehensive examination is “Unsatisfactory” the candidate may be allowed, at the discretion of the department, to repeat the comprehensive examination once, though not before four months from the initial date of the examination. If the option to repeat the examination is not offered or the result of the reexamination is not satisfactory, the candidate's enrollment in the graduate Ph.D. program will be terminated.

Evaluation of the oral examination

The oral examination will be evaluated on the basis of, but not limited to, the following criteria:

  • Ability of the student to present and defend his/her research proposal in a clear and concise manner.
  • Ability of the student to clarify or elaborate on statements or concepts presented in the written proposal.
  • Ability of the student to discuss feasibility of proposed research and recognize alternate experimental approaches which may be required.
  • Ability of the student to foresee future directions of proposed research.
  • Ability of the student to defend assumptions made in the proposal.
  • Ability of the student to respond effectively to questions on related and general topics.
  • Ability of the student to respond appropriately to questions related to biomedical research ethics.