CMB Examination Policy

See the current Graduate & Professional Bulletin for details concerning administration of examinations and requirements for submitting specific forms to the Graduate School Office including graduation requirements.

Final MS Examination – The final examination will be oral and is conducted by the student’s Graduate Advisory Committee that is chaired by his/her advisor. The examination for Plan “A” is primarily a defense of the student’s thesis. The examination for Plan “B” is based upon the completed course work and the topic selected for the final report due under Plan “B”. A copy of the thesis/report must be circulated to the student’s Graduate Committee at least two weeks before the final examination. All CMB faculty and students are invited to attend. The graduate student has the responsibility to check with each committee member in order to schedule a suitable time and place for the oral examination, and to inform the CMB Administrative Assistant so that the CMB faculty can be notified at least two weeks in advance of the examination.

Preliminary Examination for PhD Degree – After formal acceptance into a PhD degree program and completion of major course requirements, a comprehensive preliminary examination is administered to determine if the student is qualified to continue toward the doctorate degree. This examination should ascertain the student’s potential to become a research scientist capable of making significant contributions to his/her field of learning. Therefore, during the examination the student will be expected to demonstrate his/her ability to interrelate knowledge and concepts acquired in undergraduate and graduate courses, with emphasis on the specific courses listed under Minimum Graduation Requirements, and to be able to apply these concepts to a fundamental research investigation.

Students are expected to have knowledge beyond the scope of the research area with which they are affiliated. Students will be expected to demonstrate an understanding of material taught in the required core courses and the completed elective courses. These subject areas are considered to be the basic foundation for cell and molecular biologists and are covered on the oral preliminary examination.


The comprehensive preliminary exam is to be administered by the end of the 5th semester in the graduate program (Fall semester of 3rd year) by which time the student should have completed all of the required classes.  For students transferring from MCIN, the preliminary exam should be completed by the end of the 5th semester after enrolling at CSU.  For students transferring from other programs (e.g. Resident/PhD students) the timeframe for completing the preliminary exam should be defined through discussion with the GAC and the CMB Program Office notified of the expected date of completion.  Failure to comply with these requirements will result in the CMB Graduate Education Office placing a hold on registration.  Exceptions may be made in extraordinary circumstances but must be approved by the CMB Academic Committee and the CMB Program Director.  The student is responsible for notifying the CMB Program Office of intent to hold the examination. In addition, the student will provide the CMB Program Office with documentation (copies of the GS 16 – Report of Preliminary Examination for the PhD Degree form, the proposal and the examiners’ evaluation) upon completion of the exam, regardless of the outcome.

A suggested timeline of the examination process is provided below, additional explanation contained below the table:

Early Fall Semester of Second year All Second year students should attend a Preliminary Exam Information Meeting during which the format and timing of the CMB Preliminary Exam will be discussed.
Fall or Spring Semester of Second year The student should prepare a research proposal on their own project, either as part of a grant writing class and / or in close collaboration with the primary advisor. This proposal should be shared with the examination committee at least one week ahead of a Pre-Exam Committee Meeting along with a copy of the “Guidelines for the Comprehensive Preliminary Exam” (this document).
Spring / Summer of Second year or Early Fall of Third year A Pre-Exam Committee Meeting should be held at which the first research proposal will be approved / discussed. In addition, the role of the advisor, chair of the committee and format and date of the exam will be finalized. This committee meeting may also double as the student’s annual committee meeting.
Seven weeks prior to the exam (and before the last week in October) The student should provide the examination committee with a one page document describing the Specific Aims of their independent proposal.
Six weeks prior to the exam The committee should provide comments on the specific aims to the student (by email).
Four weeks prior to the exam Any revisions to the Specific Aims should be approved by the examination committee (by email). The CMB Office should be notified of intent to take the examination and the date. The student should allow two – three weeks of full time effort to complete the proposal.
One week prior to the exam The final independent proposal should be handed to each committee member for evaluation, along with a copy of the preliminary examination evaluation form. The student will also provide the committee with a completed Assistance Form detailing the contributions of others to the proposal.
Day of the Exam (must be completed by end of Fall semester in the Third year) Student and committee meet for the oral examination. Committee members provide their written evaluation forms to the chair after the exam.
Within two days after the exam The original, signed GS 16 – Report of Preliminary Examination form, must be submitted to the Graduate School. Copies of GS 16 and the proposal will be provided to the CMB Office. Copies may be electronic.
Within one week after the exam The chair of the committee will provide the student, other committee members and the CMB office with a summary statement describing the student’s performance in the examination.

Preliminary Examination Information Meeting

During the fall semester, all second year CMB students should attend an information meeting during which the format and timing of the CMB preliminary examination will be discussed.


In order to pass the preliminary exam the student must be able to independently formulate a hypothesis and design experiments to test this hypothesis.  In addition, the student needs to be able to concisely and coherently convey their ideas to the examiners both orally and on paper.  To develop these skills prior to the examination the student should prepare a research proposal (Thesis Proposal) on their own project in collaboration with the primary advisor and / or as part of a grant writing class.  This proposal should be shared with the examination committee prior to the Pre-Exam Meeting to allow them to evaluate whether the student is adequately prepared for the examination and familiarize themselves with the student’s research area.

 Pre-Examination Committee Meeting

Once the student has completed the Thesis Proposal on their own research and it has been approved by the primary advisor and / or received a passing grade in a grant writing class, they should arrange the Pre-Examination Committee Meeting.  This committee meeting may also serve as the student’s annual committee meeting and all committee members should be present.  In addition, the CMB Program Director (or Chair of the CMB Academic Committee) should attend this meeting in order to describe the CMB Preliminary Exam and the purpose of the meeting to the Committee.  The purpose of the Pre-Exam Meeting is:

(i)                  To Approve the Thesis Proposal.   The committee should determine whether the Thesis Proposal meets expectations and demonstrates that the student is ready for the Preliminary Examination.  The student may present the proposal orally as part of CM 793 or during the committee meeting, if desired.  If the proposal does not meet expectations, the committee should provide detailed guidance as to what is needed to bring it up to standard.

(ii)                To Select a Chair of the Examination Committee.   The chair will communicate directly with the student during preparation of the independent proposal and provide a comprehensive written evaluation after the examination.  The Chair of the Examination Committee may be the primary advisor if the rest of the committee agrees.

(iii)               To Define the Role of the Primary Advisor(s).  The Committee as a whole will determine whether the student’s major advisor(s) may be present for the oral examination, whether they may actively participate in the examination, and whether they may vote as to whether the student passes or fails the exam.  If the committee decides to exclude the primary advisor(s) from the exam process then an alternate examiner should be identified from among the CMB Faculty.  In this case, it will be necessary to submit – in writing – a petition to the Graduate School requesting the temporary change of committee personnel and / or obligations.  If a permanent change in committee make up is necessary, a GS 9 – Change of Committee form should be submitted to the Graduate School as soon as possible, and no later than the GS 16 form is submitted.

(iv)              To Establish Acceptable Practices during the Writing Process.   Although the primary advisor may NOT collaborate with the student on the independent proposal, the committee may specify whether the proposal can be discussed with peers, whether the student may obtain assistance with English language editing (this should generally only be considered for those students with English as a second language or a disability such as dyslexia), and may also provide a list of acceptable topics.

(v)                To Determine a Date and Time for the Examination.  The decisions made at this meeting should be documented on the form provided (Pre-Examination Form, Page four of these guidelines) and the student should provide the CMB Office with a copy.

Format of the Proposals

Both the Thesis Proposal and the Independent Proposal should be in the format of an NIH R03/R21 application and use the template provided on the CMB Program Website.  The entire document should not exceed seven single-spaced pages including one single-spaced page allocated to the Specific Aims.  Margins should be no less than 0.5” and the font should be no smaller than 11 pt Arial. The main proposal should be divided into Significance, Innovation and Approach sections.  Figures should be embedded in the text and have a font size of no smaller than 8 pt. Use of color figures is acceptable and encouraged.  References are not included in the seven page limit.  If a grant writing course specifies a different format for the Thesis Research Proposal,  that format is acceptable for that document, but the Independent Proposal should still follow the guidelines outlined above.

Preparation of the Independent Proposal

The independent proposal should be prepared by the student, without discussion of the approach or hypothesis with the advisor(s).  The student should rely on the literature and their own background knowledge to develop a strong, original hypothesis and design an experimental approach to test it.  Potential pitfalls and alternative approaches should be considered and the techniques proposed should be appropriate and state-of-the-art.   The experimental approach should rely mainly on techniques other than those the student routinely uses in their own research.  For example, if the student’s research project extensively utilizes ELISA assays and flow cytometry, these types of assay may not form the bulk of the experiments in the proposal, although they need not be completely avoided.  Additional guidelines are provided on the CMB Program Website.

The proposal should be written in English.  Students who feel they are deficient in their written language skills are encouraged to consult the CSU Writing Center for assistance.  Students are also cautioned that the proposal should be an original, independently prepared document. Plagiarism of ideas or inappropriate use of passages from published documents will result in immediate dismissal from the PhD program.

At the time the proposal is submitted to the committee, the student should also submit the Assistance Form (Page Five) describing the contributions of other individuals (if any) during the preparation of the proposal.

Evaluation of the Specific Aims

The committee or advisor may provide the student with a list of four or five acceptable areas of study if they wish but experimental approaches and specific problems to be addressed should not be discussed. The committee is asked to evaluate the Specific Aims before the student prepares the main proposal. Comments and suggestions should be communicated to the student by email approximately six weeks prior to the oral examination.  In particular the committee should:

(i)                  Evaluate whether the student is proposing research in a relevant area that is neither too close, nor too far from their own area of expertise.  For example, a student working on replication of HIV-1 could propose to investigate replication of an alphavirus, or perhaps examine immunity to HIV-1, but it would be inappropriate to focus on the replication of a related retrovirus such as FIV.  Equally, it would be unsuitable for this student to propose experiments on plant pollination as this topic has no obvious connection to the student’s chosen field of study.  The committee is encouraged to use their discretion to determine whether aims are appropriate. Finally, the proposal should not overlap significantly with other projects in the laboratory supervised by their major advisor.  In general, the subject matter of the proposal should be close enough to the student’s own area that the knowledge garnered will enhance the student’s understanding of their own research.

(ii)                Give the student guidance regarding the scope of the specific aims and make suggestions that could help focus the proposal.  For example, if the student proposes too broad a study the committee members could suggest which Aims should be discarded and which expanded.

The committee should not overtly suggest better experimental approaches or better hypotheses; although it is acceptable to ask that the student formulate another hypothesis and develop new specific aims if those submitted are considered unacceptable.

The Examination

At the start of the oral examination the student will give an approximately 20 minute presentation covering the material in the independent proposal.   The committee will then question the student to determine how well they understand the literature in their chosen field of study as well as the background information relevant to the written proposal. The committee will also test the student’s ability to think creatively and communicate their ideas orally.  In addition to the material presented in the proposal, the student can expect to be questioned on material taught in BC 563 and / or BC 565 or other graduate classes they have completed, as well as on material they presented in the Thesis Proposal. The CMB Program Director should be invited to attend the Preliminary Exam as an impartial observer and in an advisory capacity.

Overall Evaluation

An evaluation form is provided on the CMB Graduate Program Website.  The independent proposal should not be evaluated as if it were being considered for funding.  One goal of the preliminary exam is to ascertain whether the student understands their chosen field of study sufficiently that they can formulate an interesting and original hypothesis and develop a means to test it.  The exam also tests the student’s ability to communicate their ideas effectively orally and on paper.  The written proposal, the oral presentation and the student’s performance in the questioning period will all be evaluated.

Failing the Examination

The student must pass both the written and oral parts of the examination in order to pass the preliminary exam. If performance in either portion is inadequate, the student fails the examination.  In this case, if the committee agrees, the exam may be administered a second time no sooner than two months and no later than four months from the date of the original examination.  The requirements to pass the second exam should be clearly defined by the committee and may include rewriting the proposal, taking additional classes and/or repeating the oral defense.  If the student fails the second examination they will be immediately dismissed from the PhD program.

Final PhD Examination: The final examination will be oral and is conducted by the student’s Graduate Advisory Committee that is chaired by his / her advisor. The examination is primarily a defense of the student’s thesis.  A copy of the thesis must be circulated to the student’s GAC at least two weeks before the final examination. All CMB faculty and students are invited to attend. The graduate student has the responsibility to check with each committee member in order to schedule a suitable time and place for the oral examination, and to inform the CMB Program Coordinator so that the CMB faculty can be notified at least two weeks in advance of the examination. All committee members must participate in the examination either in person or remotely.  If a committee member is unable to participate, the exam should be postponed or the missing member can be replaced by completing and submitting the GS 9 – Change of Committee form, submitted and approved by the Graduate School.  A GS 9 should be submitted as early as possible, and not later than with the GS 24 – Report of Final Examination.