Cancer Biology Program Qualifying Examination Policy

Purpose:  The goals of the qualifying exam (QE) are to: 1) Assess the student’s knowledge of basic science and cancer biology; 2) Evaluate the student’s ability to formulate a specific hypothesis; and 3) Evaluate the student’s ability to develop a research plan to test this hypothesis in a grant proposal format.

Timeline:  All students will take the qualifying exam during before the end of the 2nd semester of their 2nd year.

Proposal Topic:  The topic of the QE proposal should be related to the student’s thesis research project. The student will generate a hypothesis based solely upon current findings in the thesis research lab and in the literature. Additional preliminary data to support the hypothesis are not required and should not be included in the proposal.

Qualifying Exam Committee:  The QE committee will consist of a minimum of 4 faculty members, including the chair. Only the chair of the QE committee must be a member of the Cancer Biology Program. The thesis advisor cannot be a member of the QE committee. The student should consult with their thesis advisor and the QE coordinator to select the members of their committee. The names of the committee members should then be submitted to the GSBS office. The form can be found on the GSBS website.

Qualifying Exam:
Phase One: Abstract
The student will prepare a one page, single-spaced outline of their proposal that includes the hypothesis to be tested, a brief background of the topic area that emphasizes the significance and novelty of the research, and the Specific Aims of the proposal. Included in the Aims should be a brief description of the overall approaches and methodologies to be used. The abstract should take the form of a “Specific Aims” page of a grant proposal.

The student should consult with their thesis advisor regarding the scope and organization of the abstract. It is expected that the thesis advisor will play an active role in mentoring the student during the preparation of the abstract.

The student will submit the completed abstract to the Qualifying Exam Committee and schedule an abstract meeting. Once the abstract is approved at the meeting, the student may schedule the qualifying exam. The exam should be scheduled within 5 weeks of the abstract approval.

Phase Two: Proposal
The student shall prepare a written proposal that is a minimum of 10 and maximum of 20 double-spaced pages, inclusive of figures but non-inclusive of references. The font should be no smaller than 12 point and the margins should be 1 inch on all sides. The overall format should mimic an NIH grant application and consist of the following sections: 1) Specific Aims (~1 page); 2) Background and Significance (~2-4 pages); 3) Research Design and Methods (~6-15 pages). Included in the Research Design section should be a brief discussion of expected results, anticipated problems and alternative approaches for each Aim.

The student shall not discuss the proposal with their thesis advisor after the abstract is approved. The thesis advisor will not participate in mentoring the student during this phase of the preparation of the proposal and they will not be present during the exam. The student shall submit the written proposal to the full qualifying exam committee within 1 week of the scheduled exam.

Committee members should alert the chair before the exam if they have major concerns regarding the written proposal. If concern is raised that the proposal is poorly written, the exam may be postponed to allow the student time to address this issue. This should only happen if there are significant problems, and not for minor corrections or modifications. Scientific concerns should be discussed during the exam.

Phase Three: Exam
The student shall prepare a short presentation for the committee members. In this presentation the student should provide a brief overview and background of the topic to be investigated and state the overall hypothesis to be tested. The majority of the presentation should focus on the Aims and the experimental approaches that have been proposed to test the hypothesis. Expected results should be discussed. This presentation should not exceed 20-25 slides and if given without interruption, should not be longer than 30 minutes.

The student should be prepared to defend their hypothesis and experimental approaches and to discuss their proposal within the broader context of the research area. The student should also be prepared to answer basic science and cancer biology questions.


  1. Pass -The student has written a logical and coherent proposal and has defended it well.  They are able to answer questions on their specific research topic.  They have also demonstrated a general knowledge of cancer biology and basic cell and molecular biology.  The student may begin their thesis research.
  2. Conditional Pass - The student showed some weaknesses with either the defense of their proposal or in answering general questions.  The student will be given the opportunity to have an oral re-test.  The outcome of the re-test will be pass or fail.  The student may be asked to take additional courses to supplement their knowledge.
  3. Fail - The student's written proposal is weak and they were not able to defend their hypothesis or to answer questions related to te topic of their research proposal.  The student could not answer general biology and cancer biology questions.  The student will be asked to withdraw academically from GSBS.

Qualifying Exam Deadlines
Students are expected to complete their Qualifying Exam before the end of their 2nd year Spring Semester. Any exceptions require justification by the student and thesis advisor. They should discuss the circumstances with the Cancer Biology Program Director. Approval will be made by the Program Director in consultation with the Dean of the Graduate School.

QE Coordinator: Leslie Shaw, Cancer Biology Department, LRB 409, 6-8675

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