Comprehensive Exam

student explaining research


The goal of the comprehensive exam is to assess the feasibility of the student's proposed research and to determine whether the student is equipped to embark on the dissertation project. One of the skills assessed in this exam is the ability to write an independent grant-style research proposal. A research proposal is a plan for future work and, given that it is an assessment of the student, it should be written entirely by the student. The comprehensive exam is typically taken during the summer between the second and third year or during the third year in the graduate program.

Composition of the Exam Committee

The comprehensive exam committee becomes the student's thesis committee. Choosing committee members is therefore a great opportunity to gather a group of people who will give the student different perspectives on his or her project. Students should talk over the selection of their committee members with their thesis mentor and choose people who will be helpful. Here are some specific things to think about as you choose the members of your thesis committee:

  • This is your thesis committee (not your adviser's), so think carefully about who you want to advise you.
  • Think about making someone other than your adviser the committee chair; this is standard in some departments and in some scenarios can be helpful.
  • Choose your committee such that it contains a breadth of research areas and a balance of power; you don't want it to be dominated by one small area that is only a part of your thesis work, or only one strong personality.

Guidelines on Committee Makeup

  • You need at least four people total (four or five is typical).
  • At least three members must be part of MCIBS.
  • One member must be from a department that is not the home department of the thesis adviser.

These composition guidelines are based on the Graduate School Guidelines on committee makeup.

Timing of the Exam and Thesis Committee Meetings

The graduate school requires a thesis committee meeting within a year of passing the Qualifying Exam, and then you should have one per year after that. One way to meet this initial requirement is to schedule the Comprehensive Exam within a year of passing the Qualifying Exam (alternately you can have a committee meeting first, then comps later. Taking the comps within a year is recommended). Paperwork to identify your committee members and schedule the exam should be filed with the Huck Grad Office in 101 Life Sciences. Once you have passed the comprehensive exam make sure to meet with your committee once a year. They are there to give you important feedback on your progress and can be a great resource.

More Information

Students must be registered for classes (typically MCIBS 600) during the semester in which they take the comprehensive exam. The examination consists of a written research proposal in grant format based upon the student’s proposed dissertation research and an oral presentation of the proposed research. The proposal must include a timeline for the completion of the work that will be considered in the feasibility of the work.

Specific Recommendations from the Program Chair

The Proposal

For the comprehensive exam, you will write a thesis proposal. This proposal is an overview of the work you plan to complete and the rationale for why the work is worth doing. It should include some preliminary data, along with a set of experimental aims that you plan to complete over the next few years. You can discuss the scope of your project with your adviser, but the proposal should be written entirely by you. It is an excellent opportunity to get your thoughts in order about what you really want to accomplish, and to get feedback on your plan.

If you are submitting a fellowship application close to the time of your comprehensive exam, feel free to use the format of the application. It is a great opportunity to get feedback and improve your proposal.

If you are not submitting a fellowship, I recommend using the NIH R21 grant format. It is a fairly standard, compact format. Please make sure to choose a specific format for your proposal, and follow the guidelines; this gives you practical grant-writing experience. Please also tell your committee what format you are using and why so they know what to expect and can give comments that are appropriate for the format.

Again, the default format I recommend is R21. This is a short format. Since it is compact, every word needs to be carefully selected. If you go into your exam after handing in something that is short, but not polished, your committee will think you put in minimal effort. You do not want your exam to start that way.

Formatting Guidelines

Font: Arial, Helvetica, Palatino Linotype, or Georgia 11 point or larger (I generally use Arial 11 point)

Margins: 0.5 in

Figures: Can use smaller font in legends. These should be included in the body of the proposal near where they are mentioned. In Microsoft Word, I recommend inserting the figure panel into one cell of a table and placing the legend in a cell beside or below the figure. This way the legend and figure stay together. Figures and diagrams are a great way to make complex data and ideas simple and accessible for your committee. Use them effectively.

Content and Length Guidelines

Page 1 (1-page limit): This first page should give a brief introduction to the topic of your thesis, major questions you will address, and why they are important. You will also briefly outline three aims and identify your specific question/hypothesis and how will you go about addressing it.

Pages 2-7 (6-page limit): These pages should include the following sections:

Significance - What is the problem you will address? Why is it important to work in this area? How will your work make key progress in this important field?

Innovation - How is your proposal particularly innovative?

Approach - This is the main body of the proposal. You should include your preliminary data where appropriate. For each aim, explain the key problem briefly and then describe the experimental approach you will use. Make use of diagrams. One way to structure the aims is to divide each into three parts: 1) Rationale, 2) Experimental Approach, 3) Outcomes and Alternatives. Using this structure can help remind you that you need to say why you are doing each experiment in the beginning, and at the end what you will do if it doesn’t work (alternatives) and what will be learned at the end of the studies.

References - These should be listed at the end of your proposal and are not counted as part of the page limit. Your committee will evaluate your scholarship. Part of this is making sure you know the background in your field. This means you need to include plenty of appropriate references and be familiar with their content. Use a reference manager like EndNote.

Please ask the program chair if you would like an example proposal.

The Exam

First, make sure to fill out the official paperwork to schedule the exam and committee paperwork. You will give your proposal to your committee at least a week ahead of the exam. During the exam you will present some background and rationale for your proposed experiments, show your preliminary data, and go through the experiments you proposed. Your committee will ask you questions as you go.

Final Piece of Advice

You will have thought a lot about your proposal and put in tremendous effort. Capitalize on this effort to actually submit a fellowship application. NSF, NIH, and private foundations like AHA all fund graduate fellowships. Search engines exist that can help you find funding opportunities.