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Comprehensive Examination CMB Emphasis Area

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.

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 Committee.

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.

Oral Examination

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 Proposal.

Week 8:            Student submits the completed Research Proposal (due exactly 4 weeks after the previous committee meeting).

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.