Candidacy Exams

Written & Oral Candidacy Examination Format

Students who join the Biochemistry and Cell Biology (BCB) Graduate Program are required to take an on-topic candidacy exam in which the research proposal is based on the student’s intended dissertation project.

“On Topic” Ph.D. Candidacy Exam for the Graduate Program in Biochemistry and Cell Biology

A. Candidacy Examination Timing

BCB Graduate Program students, in most cases, must petition to take their Candidacy Examination by the end of the second semester of their second year at the GSBS. In addition, students must take their candidacy exam within 8 weeks of the approval of their Specific Aims page by the Academic Standards Committee. Most students will therefore take the exam in the summer of their second year of study. Students are encouraged to begin making arrangements for the exam during the spring semester of their second year. Students must have taken the exam by the end of the second year in graduate school. All BCB students will meet with the BCB Program Director at the beginning of the spring semester of year two to discuss timing and overall format of the Candidacy Examination.

B. Program Examination Committee and Student’s Examination Committee

The Program Director will nominate a Program Examination Committee (PEC). This shall consist of a Chair and at least nine other Program Faculty who are representative of the diverse interests of the Program. BCB students are required to choose 4 of their 5 examination committee members from this roster (including the Chair). The 5th member must be from outside the BCB program. The responsibility of the committee will be to ensure consistency and high standards of both the written and oral portions of the candidacy exam. The list of the 2018/2019 PEC members are listed below.

  • Harry Karmouty-Quintana, Ph.D. (Chair)
  • Kartik Venkatachalam, Ph.D. (Alternate Chair)
  • Rebecca Berdeaux, Ph.D. (Alternate Chair)
  • Xiaodong Cheng, Ph.D.
  • William Dowhan, Ph.D.
  • Kristin Eckel-Mahan, Ph.D.
  • Chia-An Mao, Ph.D.
  • Irina Serysheva, Ph.D.
  • Min-Sup Song, Ph.D.
  • Ching On Wong, Ph.D.
  • Liuqing Yang, Ph.D.
  • Yong, Zhou, Ph.D.
C. Format of the Candidacy Examination
  1. Proposal Conception
    As the first step in writing the research proposal, the student must develop several scientifically significant Specific Aims (anywhere from 2-4). These aims have to be reviewed and approved by the student’s advisory committee before being forwarded to the GSBS Academic Standards Committee for final approval. The student then prepares a full research proposal, based on the approved aims, to be defended in the Oral Examination. The format of the research proposal will follow that described for NRSA pre-doctoral applications ( and is described in detail below. The PEC chair can provide the student with a copy of SF424 and copies of successful proposals written by former students. The proposal should be turned in two weeks prior to the oral examination date. The topic of the research proposal will be related to the student’s anticipated thesis project. The advisor should not supply the student with their own grant proposals for the specific purpose of preparing the student’s research proposal. However, the specific aims of the student’s proposal may be developed in consultation with the student’s advisor, but should contain original material developed by the student. All other portions of the proposal must be written independently by the student.

    Preliminary data of any sort is not necessary for the development of the specific aims or any aspect of the proposal.

  2. Writing the Proposal
    The proposal should be prepared by the student without assistance from any faculty member. The completed proposal should be emailed to the members of the examining committee two weeks prior to the candidacy examination date. The Research Proposal should include: Title Page, Abstract (350 words or less), Specific Aims (1 page limit), Background and Significance (up to 2 pages), Research Design and Methods (up to a total of six pages, which includes the Background and Significance), and References (not counted toward total page count) as described below:

    • Specific Aims: State concisely and realistically what the research is intended to accomplish and/or what hypothesis is to be tested. Do not exceed one page.
    • Background and Significance: Briefly sketch the background to the proposal, critically evaluate existing knowledge, and specifically identify gaps, which the research is intended to fill. State concisely the importance of the research by relating the Specific Aims to long-term objectives. Do not exceed two pages.
    • Research Design and Methods: Briefly summarize the experimental design and the procedures to be used to accomplish the specific aims of this research. Include a description of the types of data to be obtained and how they will be analyzed to accomplish the specific aims. The Research Design and Methods plus the Background and Significance section should not exceed 6 pages (excluding references, abstract and title page, and Specific Aims page). Pages should be numbered.

    ** Preliminary results are not a requirement for the Candidacy Examination. If the student wishes to provide preliminary results to strengthen rationale, these results should be in the Research Design and Methods. Such preliminary results must bear directly on the Specific Aims of the proposal. As an alternative, the student may provide justification for the Research Design in the form of other published work provided that it is properly referenced and appropriate.

  3. Assessing Depth
    The oral exam will examine the student’s understanding of the intellectual basis for the research proposal, all pertinent background, details of the technical approaches and experimental strategy, interpretation of results, potential pitfalls and alternative approaches. The Examination Committee will carefully assess the student’s responses to evaluate the degree of contribution that the student made in the overall conception of the proposal.
  4. Assessing Breadth
    The responsibilities of the Examination Committee will initiate with a short, “study-section like” meeting held after submission of the written component of the student’s exam. This meeting will be held in order to devise a cohesive and fair plan to evaluate the breadth of the student’s knowledge base. The Examination will submit 3-5 questions each to the Examination Committee Chair prior to this meeting that they believe are related to the proposal but will effectively examine student breadth of knowledge. The Examination Committee will then discuss these questions briefly and choose the most effective questions to be used during the examination. During this examination, the Examination Committee Chair will be responsible for ensuring that breadth is assessed evenly and in accordance with topic areas held in value by the BCB Program as a whole.
  5. The oral examination format
    The oral examination is composed of an opening presentation of the research proposal by the student (20–30 min), followed by an oral examination (2-3 hr) covering the proposal, directly related areas, general and background information, and the pre-determined breadth questions devised during the study section that have not been provided to the student.
  6. Overall Performance Assessment
    The performance on the “breadth” and “proposal” sections are graded separately as un-conditional pass, conditional pass, re-examination, or fail. Both parts must be passed, but each can be remediated separately. The mechanism of remediation will be determined by the Examination Committee.