Qualifying Exam


Student Advisory Committee

At some point during the student's first year of study, the student must select an advisor. Before registering as a second-year student, the students shall have their first Advisory Committee meeting by August 15. The Graduate school has an online form for students to complete and submit online.


The Advisory Committee must have a minimum of four members. At least three members of the committee must be from the Department of Toxicology and Cancer Biology graduate program (TCB) (core or joint faculty). The fourth member shall have relevant experience but they shall not be a member of the TCB Graduate School faculty. At leaset on of the three TCB committee members must be tenured (that is, a full member of Graduate School faculty).

Curriculum and Grade Requirements

A core curriculum, described in the TCB current curriculum, is required for all doctoral students before the qualifying exam. A proposed curriculum, prepared by the Chair of Advisory Committee (i.e., the student’s mentor) in consultation with the student, should be approved by the student’s Advisory Committee by December 15 in the students’ second year of study.

The student should complete all of the required courses and most of the elective courses (with a minimum of 36 graduate credit hours) with a 3.0 GPA or better, and have satisfied the residency requirements of the Graduate School before the qualifying exam. If a student receives two Cs or one E, it is required that the student's major advisor, the DGS and the student's advisory committee assemble to consider whether the student shall be subject to dismissal.

The Qualifying Exam


During the fall semester of each student’s second academic year, each student must submit to his or her committee an abstract (one page) describing a topic that can potentially be developed into an NIH-style grant proposal. The abstract should contain enough information (including hypotheses and/or preliminary specific aims plus general strategies) for the committee to discern whether a proposal on the topic is reasonable. If the original topic is not satisfactory, the student can be asked to modify his or her topic and/or submit a new one. Before the start of the 2nd year spring semester, the committee must approve  a specific topic and abstract for further development by the student into a grant proposal. This topic and abstract will be the basis of the student's written grant proposal for the Toxicology grant writing course TOX 780 in the spring semester of the 2nd year and should be used subsequently for the qualifying exam. The student shall provide documentation that their topic and abstract have been approved by their committee members on the first day of class for the TOX 780 grant writing course. This abstract may be modifyied during the course for content and formatting.

The primary goal is for the student to develop an independent proposal, form their own hypotheses and design the experiments to test them. The topic can be related to but not identical to the student's thesis research project and should not have been developed/tested to any significant degree in the scientific literature, in the mentor's lab, or in grant proposals submitted by the mentor or by other members of the laboratory. The student is encouraged to consult the mentor and other committee members regarding selection of a suitable topic. However, such consultations should be limited to discussions of general themes that might be interesting for further research (and helpful for the student's development).

Structure of qualifying exam grant proposal:

The proposal is to be organized in an NIH style R21 format.


The proposal should include the following:

  1. Abstract (1/2 page)
  2. NIH current style Biosketch
  3. Budget and budget justification
  4. Specific Aims (1 page maximum). The specific aims shall be hypothesis driven with clearly described rationales.
  5. Research Strategy (6 pages). The Research Strategy shall include the following:
    • Background (describes the reasoning and provides references to prior work in the field) (1-2pp)
    • Significance/Innovation section (0.5 pp)
    • Experimenta Approches section (ca 4 pp). The student shall develop the specific aims in the Approach Section. Each Aim shall be supported by at least three experimenta approaches and shall include a section that describes potential pitfall/alternative approaches. The Approach section shall include a section on statistical analysis, and if the student proposes to use animals or human subjects, a justification or prospective power calculation needs to be performed. A brief timeline of the proposed studies shall be included.
  6. Literature Cited (no page limit)
  7. A Checklist of All Components will be supplied to each student for them to complete.

Once the Tox780 proposal has been submitted and graded, a copy of this preliminary proposal will be sent to the student’s mentor.  After modification /expansion / improvement of the proposal based on critiques provided in TOX 780 and other feedback, the student must submit the proposal to the committee by June 15 of the summer after the TOX 780 course. All members of committee (excluding student’s mentor) should provide their individual (e.g.one page each, in bullet format) critique to the student by July 15. No additional oral or written feedback on the proposal from the mentor or committee members is permitted. The student will be given 6 weeks to revise the proposal. The deadline for final resubmission is no later than September.1. If a majority of the members of the committee agrees that there are serious problems with the final proposal, the committee by a majority bore can postpone the qualifying exam and request that a final revison of the grant proposal be submitted within a month of their decision. Under extenuating circumstance, an extension of the September 1 deadline for submission of the final proposal can be considered, and must be approved by both the committee and the DGS.

Qualifying Examination

The students shall schedule the qualifying exam in relation to the date of final submission of the proposal. The request to schedule the qualifying examination must be submitted to the Graduate School a minimum of two weeks in advance of the planned date. The oral exam shall take place no earlier than one week and no later than one month after submission of the written proposal. The students can consult the DGS about forms to be submitted ahead of time to the Graduate School specifying the date, time, and location of the oral qualifying exam.


During the oral exam, the student shall deliver an oral presentation (about 30 min) on the proposal. Although present, the student's mentor is not allowed to question the student or respond to questions during the oral examination. For the purposes of this meeting only, the mentor will designate another committee member to preside over the questioning of the student. The committee members will question the student on issues regarding the proposal and other related areas about which the student is expected to be knowledgeable (e.g., from the classes the student has taken).

Once the student has completed the oral defense and left the room, the mentor can discuss or provide clarification about questions other committee members might have. All committee members will then vote on whether the student (i.e, the candidate) has passed or failed this oral exam. If the candidate does not pass, the committee should recommend methods by which the candidate may strengthen his/her weaknesses and prepare for the re-examination within the time frame stipulated by the Graduate School (no earlier than of 6 months and no longer than one year). If the candidate passes the exam, the committee may also make recommendations regarding how the student can make improvements or take addtional coursework if needed.