The Comprehensive Exam will comprise a) a written portion in which the
student prepares and submits an NSF-style Research Proposal on a topic
different than her/his doctoral dissertation research and b) an Oral
Examination during which the student defends the research proposal as
well as her/his knowledge of the fundamental concepts of molecular
biology, cell biology, and biochemistry. The written portion of this
examination will test the student's ability to integrate a large body of
information, develop significant hypotheses, devise an experimental
strategy to test these hypotheses, interpret data, and clearly and
concisely convey scientific information to the audience. The oral
portion of the examination will evaluate the student's comprehension of
the overall significance/objectives of the proposed research and the
student's proficiency of the basic principles of molecular biology, cell
biology, and biochemistry. Hence, this exam will be truly
Comprehensive Examination Committee
The Comprehensive Examination Committee consists of four members of the
UMSL Biology graduate faculty. Prior to beginning the process, a
student should identify and contact potential committee members. The
“director” of the committee cannot be the student's doctoral
dissertation advisor, but should be familiar with the student's chosen
research topic and willing to serve as a consultant during the planning
and writing of the proposal. The Comprehensive Examination Committee
will not necessarily be the same as the student's Doctoral Dissertation
Submission and Approval of the Research Topic
Students are expected to finish their coursework at the beginning
of the graduate program. In the semester following the last semester
of coursework, students will complete their comprehensive exam. For
most students, the comprehensive exam will occur in semester four;
students entering with a MS degree will begin sooner. Students may
choose to do the exam earlier if desired. To meet the Biology
department requirements, this exam must take place by the end of the
summer following the second year. Failure to take the exam by this
date will mean that the student is placed on academic probation for the
fall term of year three.
To initiate the process, the student will submit two potential
topics for the Research Proposal (a preferred topic and a backup topic)
to the Comprehensive Examination Committee. The topics cannot be
within the area of the student's dissertation research. The committee
has one week to review and approve the topic. If neither is suitable,
the student will be advised of the problems/concerns and asked to submit
another topic, within a specified period of time. Each topic
submission should include a general overview of the field and several
open questions that need to be addressed. Submissions should be ~1 page
in length and contain the appropriate references.
Start Writing the Research Proposal – Generate an Outline and a Set of Specific Aims
Upon approval of the Research Topic, the student has two weeks to
work on the Research Proposal, during which time s/he should generate
an outline of the proposed research and identify her/his set of Specific
Aims. At the end of week 2, the student will submit to the
Comprehensive Examination Committee a 2 page summary of the overall
objective of the proposal and the specific aims to be tested. Each
specific aim should clearly and concisely state what hypothesis is being
tested, how this will be accomplished, and what information would be
gained. The committee will provide feedback to the student within one week.
Finish Writing the Grant Proposal
After the committee has approved the Specific Aims, the student has 4 weeks to complete the Research Proposal.
Guidelines for Preparing the Grant Proposal
The Research Proposal will be written following the NSF format.
The proposal cannot exceed 15 single-spaced pages, including figures but
excluding references. In accordance with the NSF guidelines, the font
should be not less than 11 point and margins should be at least 1 inch.
The proposal should be prepared in such a manner to demonstrate the
student's 1) comprehension of the field, 2) ability to develop
hypotheses, and 3) competence in experimental design. A research plan
should be developed that would cover a three-year period, with her/his
efforts devoted to the project along with those of one full-time
technician. The student can assume that all pieces of standard or
specialty equipment and any published reagents or strains would be
available for the project. A budget is not required.
The following questions should be considered while writing the
proposal: 1) What is the overall objective of the research? 2) Why is
this work important? 3) What has previously been done in this field? 4)
What do you propose to do? 5) What are the expected results? 6) What
contribution will this work make to the field? The techniques being
used should be included, but extensive descriptions of methods are not
necessary. For instance, you would say that you will use western
blotting with a particular antibody to look at protein accumulation in a
certain sample following this treatment, but you do not need to include
what buffer you will use or the number/length of the wash steps.
Review of the Research Proposal
This is an examination! Therefore, the work must be your own. However,
you are welcome to talk about general ideas with others, and others may
read your document to correct spelling/grammar issues. Committee
members will give advice during meetings and answer questions about the
process or general grantsmanship, but will not assist with document
preparation or scientific questions.
The student will present a brief overview of the Research
Proposal and then answer questions raised by members of the
Comprehensive Examination Committee. The student must demonstrate a
thorough understanding of her/his proposed area of research and the
theoretical and practical aspects/limitations of the proposed
experiments, as well as demonstrate proficiency in the general fields of
molecular biology, cellular biology, and biochemistry. The criteria for
judging the examination will include:
Significance: How significant is the problem addressed by
the proposal? Will the proposed research make a significant contribution
to the field? Is the proposed research original? What gap in knowledge
does the proposed research seek to fill? Does the student understand the
broader field of this work?
Feasibility: Will the proposed research strategy produce
answers to the questions posed? Does the student understand what the
proposed methods and procedures can accomplish? Does the student
understand the limitations of the proposed methods and procedures? Can
the student provide logical alternative approaches if the primary
approaches fail to yield the expected results?
Breadth of Knowledge: Does the student understand the
basic principles of molecular biology, cellular biology, and
biochemistry? Can the student clearly convey scientific information and
principles in both written and oral forms?
The committee will then deliberate, in the absence of the
student, and decide whether the performance and responses were
satisfactory. There are three possible outcomes: 1) pass, 2) provisional
pass, and 3) fail. A student granted a pass will be considered a Ph.D.
candidate in the department. A student with a provisional pass, based
on issues with either the written document or the oral presentation, may
be required to repeat one or both sections. Alternatively, the
committee may decide on a provisional pass and require the student to
make up perceived deficiencies via another forum, including repeating
coursework or additional studies in an area of weakness. The student
must satisfactorily complete the specified components within the
deadline imposed by the committee or she/he will be dropped from the
program. A student with a fail, based on serious flaws in the proposal
or background deficiencies, will be allowed to retake the examination
one time. The student must satisfactorily complete the repeat
examination by the end of the following semester or she/he will be
dropped from the program.
Suggested Time Line
Week 0: Student submits Research Topic(s).
Week 1: Committee meets to approve topic. Student
commences preparation of the Specific Aims.
Week 3: Student submits the Specific Aims (due exactly 2
weeks after the previous committee meeting).
Week 4: Committee meets to review Specific Aims.
Student continues preparation of the Research
Week 8: Student submits the completed Research Proposal
(due exactly 4 weeks after the previous
Week 10: Oral examination.
For each step, students are responsible for scheduling a meeting
at a time agreeable to all committee members and reserving a room.
Scheduling notes: Due to end-of-the semester scheduling issues,
oral examinations will not be scheduled between May 1 and May 21 or
December 1 and December 31. Prior to starting, please confirm that your
10 week schedule will not end during these time periods. Students
completing the exam during the summer semester should confirm that
committee members will be present for key dates prior to starting.