Qualifying Exam Information

Qualifying (Comprehensive) Exam

The Qualifying Exam is typically scheduled for during the 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, which 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 (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/funding/phs398/phs398.html) 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 Qualifying Exam Committee (QEC) Chair (Dr. Elferink, coelferi@utmb.edu).  The expectation is that students 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 from their mentors.  For each proposal, three reviewers (selected from the faculty in the PHTO graduate program) will be assigned to provide a written critique the proposal, and a score will be assigned using the NIH scoring format.  Written critiques will be made available to the students two weeks after the submission 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, but need not provide a description of the budget, resources, animal welfare, human subjects, biographical materials or personnel justifications.

A one page (or less) letter of intent briefly describing the research area being considered for proposal (eg. background and significance, hypothesis and specific aims) is to be submitted 2 months before the proposal deadline to Dr. Elferink for review by the QEC in order to evaluate appropriateness.

Oral Component

A 30-minute oral presentation on the proposal to the entire Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology—integrated into the departmental seminar series—will follow submission of the written proposal.  Scheduling of the oral component will be determined on an annual basis, but will occur no sooner than three weeks after submission of the written component.  Evaluation of the oral presentation will be based on clarity of presentation, and the student’s ability to address audience questions.

Student Evaluation

A committee comprised of the QEC members and the written proposal reviewers will convene (after the oral presentation) to assess the student’s written proposal and evaluate the oral presentation.  To pass the qualifying exam, students must receive an average score of 4 or better on the written portion, and receive a pass grade from the committee for the oral presentation.  The Chair of the QEC will chair the panel discussion, unless in conflict, whereupon an alternate will be assigned from the committee.  Student mentors are considered to be in conflict when their student(s) are being evaluated, and will be required to recuse themselves from discussions.


An average score >4 on the written component will constitute a failing grade.  The student will be afforded 3 weeks to revise the proposal (in response to the written reviewer comments) for re-review, and must receive an improved average score ≤4 to pass.  Failure on the oral presentation portion will require the student to once more present the proposal to the three reviewers of the written component, and earn a passing grade.  Remediation of the oral presentation will occur within 1 month of the first 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.