Qualifying Exam

MCIBS students in snow outside MSC


The purpose of the MCIBS qualifying exam is to test the student's knowledge about their chosen area of study and critical thinking skills. The exam consists of both written and oral components, and is based primarily on the student's ability to critically read, understand, and communicate the key findings of a current research paper selected from the literature. The exam is taken in the fall semester of the student's second year.

Exam Procedure

A Qualifying Exam Organizing Committee oversees administration of the exams. At least one faculty member from each of the MCIBS emphasis areas, appointed by the elected emphasis area representatives, serves on the committee for 1-2 year terms. The organizing committee assembles a three-member faculty exam committee for each student. In addition, the organizing committee identifies 3-5 scientific papers that are appropriate to the MCIBS program and its emphasis areas that serve as the basis for the exams. Finally, the organizing committee prepares a separate written exam corresponding to each of the papers. To facilitate this process, the organizing committee may seek input from the larger pool of exam committee members, both during the paper selection process and for the purpose of formulating exam questions. Exam questions may include, but are not limited to, those that test knowledge of the background concepts underlying the paper and the emphasis areas, test the understanding of methods and techniques used in the paper, test data interpretation skills, or test the ability to apply knowledge gained from the paper toward novel problems.

Ten days prior to the written exam date, the organizing committee forwards to each student the 3-5 scientific papers that have been selected for the exams. Students may examine all of the papers, but must choose one that will form the basis of his or her qualifying exam. On the day of the written exam, each student will declare which paper he or she has selected, and will then be provided with (1) the written exam corresponding to that paper, and (2) a printed copy of the paper. No other written materials or electronic devices may be used during the written portion of the exam. Students are given three hours to complete the written exam. Copies of the completed exams are provided to the exam committee members that have been assigned to each student in preparation for the oral exam.

Oral Exams take place within two weeks following the written exam. The organizing committee notifies each student of the composition of the three-member faculty exam committee that has been assigned to him or her. The students is responsible for scheduling a date, time, and location for the oral exam. On the day of the oral exam, the student provides a formal presentation of the paper and answers questions raised by committee members related to the written exam, the oral presentation, and the paper in general. Upon completion of the oral exam, exam committee members reach a consensus regarding whether the student has passed the exam. In the event that the student does not pass the exam, a second-chance exam is provided. Within two weeks of completing the second-chance written exam, the student takes the second-chance oral exam. A new exam committee is formed for the second-chance exam, drawing from faculty members who serve on the organizing committee and/or serve as emphasis area representatives. Failure to pass the second-chance exam results in termination of the student’s tenure in the MCIBS Ph.D. program.