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.

Students are required to pass a comprehensive preliminary examination for admission to candidacy for the PhD.  This examination consists of preparation of a written research proposal and an oral exam which covers the candidate’s entire program of study. This document provides guidelines to be used by the student and the student’s graduate committee during preparation for, and administration of, the examination.

Final M.S. 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 Ph.D. Degree – Students are required to pass a comprehensive preliminary examination for admission to candidacy for the PhD.  This examination consists of preparation of a written research proposal and an oral exam which covers the candidate’s entire program of study. This document provides guidelines to be used by the student and the student’s graduate committee during preparation for, and administration of, the examination.

Timing

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 the required classes.  Failure to comply with this requirement 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 GS16 form, the proposal and the examiners’ evaluation) upon completion of the exam, regardless of the outcome.

A summary of the examination process is provided below:

Early Fall Semester of Second yearAll 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 yearThe 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 document does not need to contain an independent Specific Aim (see below) and it is not expected to be in its final, defendable form.
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 yearA Pre-Exam Committee Meeting should be held at which the research proposal will be approved / discussed. An independent Specific Aim does not need to be included at this point. In addition, the chair of the committee (not the advisor) and date of the exam will be finalized. This committee meeting may also double as the student’s annual committee meeting. The CMB Office should be notified of intent to take the examination, the planned date and the chair of the committee (see attached form).
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 proposal, including one Aim developed independently.
Six weeks prior to the examThe committee chair should provide comments on the specific aims to the student (by email).
Four weeks prior to the examAny revisions to the Specific Aims should be approved by the examination committee (by email). The student should allow two to three weeks of full-time effort to complete the proposal.
One week prior to the examThe final proposal should be handed to each committee member for evaluation, along with a copy of the preliminary examination evaluation form.
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 examThe original, signed GS16 form must be submitted to the Graduate School. Copies of GS16 and the proposal will be provided to the CMB Office. Copies may be electronic.
Within one week after the examThe 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 Exam 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 exam will be discussed.

Preparation

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:

  • 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 CM793 Seminar 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.
  • 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 may not be the major advisor or co-advisor.
  • To Establish Acceptable Practices during the Writing Process.   Although the primary advisor may NOT collaborate with the student on the independent Specific Aim of the final proposal, the committee may specify whether this part 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), and may also provide a list of acceptable topics.
  • 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 4 of these guidelines) and the student should provide the CMB Office with a copy.

Format of the Proposal

The Thesis Proposal, including an independent Specific Aim, should be in the format of an NIH F30/F31 application and use the template provided on the CMB Program Website. The entire document should not exceed 8 single-spaced pages including 1 single-spaced page allocated to the Specific Aims.  Margins should be no less than 0.5” and the font should be no smaller than 11pt Arial. The main proposal should be divided into Significance 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 page limit.  If a grant writing course specifies a different format for the Thesis Research Proposal then that format is acceptable for that document, but the Proposal should still follow the guidelines outlined above. Additional required parts of the proposal are (i) Respective Contributions (0.5 page), (ii) Authentication of Key Biological and/or Chemical Resources (up to 1page) and (iii) Data Management Plan (up to 1page).


Preparation of the Independent Specific Aim of the Proposal

The independent Specific Aim of the proposal should be prepared by the student, without discussion of the approach or hypothesis with the adviser(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 independent specific aim, 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 (including proposals from the adviser’s lab) will result in immediate dismissal from the PhD program.

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 within the independent aim 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 ~6 weeks prior to the oral examination.  In particular the committee should:

i.Evaluate whether the independent Specific Aim is relevant and within the realm of their own area of expertise. For example, a student working on replication of HIV-1 could propose to investigate a divergent aspect of the cell biology of this virus.  The committee is encouraged to use their discretion to determine whether the independent aim is appropriate. Finally, the independent aim of the proposal should not overlap significantly with other projects in the laboratory of their major adviser.  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 parts 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 a new specific aim if those submitted are considered unacceptable.

 The Examination

At the start of the oral examination the student will give a ~20min presentation covering the material in the 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 BC563 and/or BC565 or other graduate classes they have completed, as well as on material they presented in the Thesis Proposal. The CMB Program Director or Associate Director may be invited to attend the Preliminary Exam as an impartial observer and in an advisory capacity.

Note that the examination will be administered by the examination chair, which should not be the advisor. The chair is responsible for compiling examiner comments and completing the final evaluation form.

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 1 year 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 Ph.D. 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 for the purposes of the exam.  Approval can be obtained by contacting the Graduate School.

Last Updated June 25, 2021