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Qualifying Exam Guidelines

Qualifying (Comprehensive) Exam

The Qualifying Exam is typically offered annually during the Spring-Summer Term of Year II. Students are eligible for the exam after successfully completing (B or better) PHTO 6312 (ACC Pharmacology) and PHTO 6213 (ECT Pharmacology). The qualifying exam format involves the preparation of a grant proposal. Students will be asked to submit a written research grant proposal on any pharmacologically-related topic that can include the area related to their individual dissertation research. A second component of the qualifying exam is an oral presentation of the research proposal. Certain guidelines are to be met as listed below.

The Written Component

The research proposal will follow NIH PHS398 grant guidelines (
) as they pertain to the general ‘research plan’ limited to 10 pages, and should describe an original hypothesis/idea based on published literature, and a research plan to test the hypothesis.  Published research (with due consideration given to citing the work appropriately) can be used as supporting/preliminary data for the purpose of the proposal.  Original data generated by the student can also be used for this purpose in proposals related to their dissertation research.  The deadline for submission will be determined annually.  Proposals are to be submitted electronically as PDF files to the Pharmacology and Toxicology Graduate Program Administrative Coordinator (Ms. Nicole Bilotta) or the Qualifying Exam Committee (QEC) Chair (Dr. Elferink, by the deadline.  

A one page (or less) letter of intent briefly describing the research area being considered for the proposal (e.g. background and significance, hypothesis and specific aims) is to be submitted 2 months before the proposal deadline to the Pharmacology and Toxicology Graduate Program Administrative Coordinator (Ms. Nicole Bilotta) for review by the QEC in order to evaluate appropriateness.

The expectation is that student will 1) develop the proposal independently without involvement by the student’s mentor, and 2) continue to be research active during this time, unless granted leave by their mentor. For each proposal, three reviewers (selected from the faculty in the PHTO graduate program) will be assigned to provide a written critique of the proposal, and a score will be assigned using the NIH scoring format. Written critiques will be made available to the student two weeks after the submission deadline date. A preliminary average score will be assigned to each proposal.
The Written Component Scoring

Qualifying Written Exam Rubric

Reviews will focus on the following three specific criteria:
  • Significance: Does this study address an important problem? If the aims of the application are achieved, how will scientific knowledge be advanced? What will be the effect of these studies on the concepts or methods that drive this field?
  • Approach: Are the conceptual framework, design (including composition of study population), methods, and analyses adequately developed, well-integrated, and appropriate to the aims of the project? Does the applicant acknowledge potential problem areas and consider alternative tactics?
  • Innovation: Does the project employ novel concepts, approaches or methods? Are the aims original and innovative? Does the project challenge existing paradigms or develop new methodologies or technologies?

Proposals should also provide a brief (≤200 word) abstract and a separate Specific Aims page. These are not part of the 10-page limited research plan. The written proposal need not provide a description of the budget, resources, animal welfare, human subjects, and biographical materials or personnel justifications.

Oral Component

An oral presentation on the proposal will be presented to the entire Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology—as part of the departmental seminar series—following submission of the written proposal, predicated on passing the written component. The oral presentation will be 30 minutes in duration followed by questions from the general audience, and a separate question period limited to the Pharmacology and Toxicology Graduate Program Faculty. Scheduling of the oral component will be determined on an annual basis, but will occur no sooner than three weeks after review and successful completion of the written component.

Student Evaluation

Written exam evaluation. A committee comprised of the QEC members and other written proposal reviewers will convene to assess the written proposal(s). To pass the qualifying exam, a student must receive an average score of 4 or better on the written portion. A student must receive a passing grade on the written exam component before the oral exam portion can be taken. The Chair of the QEC will chair the panel discussion, unless in conflict, whereupon an alternate will be assigned from the QEC. Student mentors are considered to be in conflict when their student(s) is/are being evaluated, and will be required to recuse themselves. Oral exam evaluation. Evaluation of the oral presentation will be based on clarity of presentation, and the student’s ability to address audience questions. Oral presentations require that the seminar be attended by a quorum of at least eight graduate program faculty including the three reviewers of the written component.


An average score >4 on the written component will constitute a failing grade. The student will be afforded no more than four weeks to revise the proposal (in response to the written reviewer comments) for re-review by the same reviewers, and must receive an improved average score of ≤4 to pass. Failure to pass the written component precludes the student from taking the oral exam component. Remediation of the oral component will require the student to represent the seminar, at the earliest opportunity based on scheduling constraints, but within 1 month of the initial oral presentation. In the event that both the written and oral components need to be retaken, a total of 6 weeks will be allotted for remediation of both components.

Requirements for Entering Candidacy
A student must pass both the written and oral components to pass the qualifying exam and be considered for candidacy in the Pharmacology and Toxicology Graduate Program. Failure to receive a passing grade in either the written or oral component will constitute non-fulfillment of the qualifying exam requirements. Failure to meet administrative requirements—such as not adhering to deadlines—without obtaining prior written approval from the Chair of the QEC will result in the exam being administratively withdrawn from further consideration. Pending QEC approval determined on an individual case basis, a student who does not satisfy the qualifying exam requirements may be extended a one-time opportunity to retake the exam in the following year. Ultimately, unsuccessful completion of the qualifying exam will constitute failure to meet the candidacy requirements and result in termination from the Pharmacology and Toxicology Graduate Program.