From a practical perspective, what the student does from the time the written qualifying exam is completed is to register for the course “Research” (PHTO 6097), usually for two or three consecutive terms, during which you spend full effort working in the laboratory of your chosen mentor/advisor (future Supervisory Professor). The written qualifying examination is taken in May of the second year. After that term, usually only Research, Journal Club, and Seminar are taken. The basic task to be accomplished is to develop a dissertation proposal, a written plan of the research to be conducted to satisfy the doctoral degree. This needs to be written and defended within one year of passing the qualifying exam. Our program requires that this proposal be written in the format of a complete NIH R01-type research grant application (PHS398). Specific information about this grant may be found on the web at http://grants1.nih.gov/grants/forms.htm.
Why is the dissertation proposal so important and why do we want the proposal done in the style of an NIH grant application? The dissertation proposal is basically a research plan -- an account of what hypotheses will be tested, the design and sequence of experiments to be done to examine the hypotheses, a convincing demonstration that you have the ability to do the experiments and interpret the results properly, and an explanation of the significance of the studies to be conducted and why they are important. An NIH research grant application is designed to elicit this information in an orderly, rational sequence. Completing the proposal in the NIH format not only assures that all the relevant information is present, it also provides an opportunity to practice developing a grant application, one of the major tasks that most researchers do as part of their routine work. If you complete an NIH grant application, this indicates that you have done all the necessary preparation to make your future work succeed. Since all the research we do should be planned and executed rationally, a properly prepared dissertation proposal is no more (or less) than an explicit description of the research one wishes to pursue. In many ways, laying out the experimental plan is at least as difficult and demanding as doing the actual experiments, but if one does not first have a detailed and thoroughly reasoned course of action, it is likely that the experiments will either fail or be inefficient and wasteful. Thus, a great deal rests on developing an appropriate proposal, and when it is done well, it indicates that you have accomplished most of the critical skills necessary to perform meaningful research.
The evolution of the proposal occurs gradually. First you must read a great deal about your area and work very closely with your faculty mentor to learn important concepts and to practice experimental skills and strategies. You will have to execute many experiments to hone your abilities and to accumulate enough preliminary data to convince others that you have the capability to do the experiments you are planning. As the time approaches for actually writing the proposal, you should be thinking about other faculty members who will advise and assist you in your work. Your mentor and these other faculty members will eventually become the Supervisory Committee, the group who will oversee the proposal and the dissertation work.
For regular (non-MD-PhD) students, the Supervisory Committee consists of five members: three from the Pharmacology and Toxicology Graduate Program Faculty, including your mentor (who is called the "Supervisory Professor" and may serve as chair of the committee), and two other faculty members from the pharmacology and toxicology graduate program, and another member whose primary area of scientific expertise is different from that of the Supervisory Professor. In general, this person will be from a Graduate Program other than Pharmacology and Toxicology, but in some cases a faculty member who holds an appointment within the student’s program may qualify. The fifth member of the Supervisory Committee must be from another institution. The three pharmacology and toxicology faculty and the member from off campus are generally supposed to be individuals who are familiar with your field and who can make useful contributions to your success, either by verbal input and/or by assisting with special techniques or approaches. The on-campus faculty member from outside pharmacology/toxicology may also be familiar with your field of work, but this is not necessary. This person also serves for general advice and to represent the graduate school to be sure that the entire process is conducted well. The Supervisory Committee for MD-PhD students is the same as that for regular students, except that two additional requirements exist: this committee must include an MD-degreed faculty member with a primary appointment in a clinical department and a member of the MD-PhD combined-degree advisory committee. These members may be one of the five individuals required by the Graduate School or may be a sixth member -- if a sixth member, he/she does not have to be a member of the Graduate Faculty. All students are advised to discuss potential membership of the Supervisory Committee not only with their mentor but also with the program director, the MD-PhD advisory committee (when appropriate) and even the dean before finally settling on the membership composition.
The membership of this committee should be determined well before the actual proposal is developed because each of the members should be able to offer constructive advice and each must approve the proposal before it is turned in. There is a set sequence of events that must occur as the time for presenting your dissertation proposal comes about. The critical event is an oral presentation (seminar) by the student for the entire program faculty, including the Supervisory Committee that describes the proposed work. This seminar is followed by a formal meeting of the student with the Supervisory Committee, at which time the committee performs an oral examination of the student, a final test to be certain the student is prepared to do the proposed work. If the committee members have been properly informed about the project in the preceding weeks and were given drafts of the proposal and thus were able to provide feedback to the student before the seminar and exam, then this final oral examination by the committee is routine and generally confirmatory of the proposed work, although last-minute suggestions for improvement in the proposal or experimental plan may occur. Under ideal circumstances, it is appropriate that all members of the Supervisory Committee should be present for the seminar and oral examination. Practically, however, it is often the case that scheduling or expenses prohibit the off-campus member from being present. This is permissible (see below, however), but it is not generally appropriate for any other member not to be at the seminar and exam. This means that the student (and mentor) should plan this meeting well in advance to accommodate everyone’s calendars.
After the seminar and Committee meeting, the student should prepare the final draft of the proposal (the NIH grant application). The original and one copy of the complete NIH R01 grant application is turned in to the program director’s office along with the following items, each of which is absolutely required:
- A letter to the program director from the Supervisory Professor (mentor) stating that he/she is willing to supervise the student’s work and that all members of the Supervisory Committee have approved the proposal, and that the committee (except possibly the off-campus member) examined the student orally after his/her seminar regarding the proposed work and agree that he/she is ready for admission to candidacy.
- A separate letter to the program director from the Supervisory Professor (advisor) stating how the advisor intends to provide financial support for the student while he/she is doing the dissertation research in the lab. It is the responsibility of the Supervisory Professor to provide (typically from grant funds) the student’s stipend.
- A completed form for Admission to Candidacy for the Doctoral Degree, with the Proposed Supervisory Committee form.