Ph.D. Qualifying Exam


All full-time students in the PhD program are expected to join a research group and to establish a four-member supervisory committee (SC) by the end of the second semester.  They are required to take and pass the PhD qualifying examination (QE) by the end of their fourth semester. The examination is a two-step process that consists of a mini-proposal based on an original research topic that the student submits to the SC by the end of the third semester. Upon approval, the student prepares for a full proposal followed by an oral defense before the SC. Students are allowed two attempts at the qualifying examination but must pass it by the end of the fourth semester. Students passing this examination at the PhD level are judged to be qualified to continue in the PhD program. Students who fail the PhD qualifying examination can choose to graduate with a M.S. degree.

Supervisory Committee

A student’s supervisory committee (SC) will provide advices through the student’s entire duration of the PhD program. The composition of the SC is as follows:

  • Two (2) faculty members from the sub-division/discipline in which  the student plans to obtain his/her degree;
  • One (1) faculty from any other sub-division/discipline;
  • One (1) external  member.

A student is expected to schedule the first meeting with his/her SC by the end of the 2nd semester to discuss plan of study.

M. Sc. students who plan to continue to PhD should go through the same process.

Exam Requirements

  • At the beginning of the 3rd semester, each candidate must share with the SC one (1) original research idea (as a 2-page whitepaper). This document is considered a mini-proposal and is independent from the actual graduate research project  (from the advisor’s lab).
  • Once the SC approves the mini-proposal, the candidate develops the original idea into a maxi/full proposal, which s/he will present and defend before the SC by the end of the 4th semester. Three chances are given.
  • The candidate appearing before the SC for the QE must send the maxi-proposal  document to the members of the SC at least one (1) week prior to the exam day.
  • The Graduate Study Committee recommends the candidate(s) to structure the  document based on the format from the National Science Foundation.
    • Maximum of 15 pages (double-spaced is acceptable).
    • A) Summary/Abstract; B) Introduction & Motivation; C) Specific Aims; D)  Research Methodology; E) Preliminary Results (if any, or from computational   assessments); F) Expected Results and Challenges; G) Research Timeline (3  years, with description of tasks to be executed); H) References.
    • An optional page that describes the requested budget and/or funding source(s).
  • The Presentation of the maxi-proposal before the SC is followed by Q&A. The presentation may be held in public, but the Q&A session is done closed-doors with members of the SC only.
  • The SC may allow the candidates to take the QE up to 3 times. A Ph.D. candidate who fails the maxi-proposal exam (3 times) will leave  the graduate program with a M.Sc. degree.

Advice for Preparation

  • Start the exam process early on at the beginning of the 3rd semester;
  • From your second semester, read research articles on the potential topic, which you will propose for the QE;
  • Take CHEM584 at least once to learn how to draft a proposal and give an effective presentation;
  • Seek assistance from senior students or postdocs to discuss or practice your defense seminar before you appear in front of the SC

Beyond the QE

  • After you pass the QE and become an “official” Ph.D. candidate, you must take the comprehensive exam (CE) the following year (year 3 of the PhD study).
  • The CE is considered as the pre-PhD oral/defense exam, where your SC reviews your research performance (results and publications or manuscripts in preparation) and gives you the green light to wrap up your research project and take the final oral/defense exam (within 2 years or by the end of year 5).