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2nd Year Qualifying Exam in Pharmacology

Graduate students in Pharmacology must complete a qualifying exam in the Spring semester of their second year. Students are required to prepare a written research proposal based on their prospective thesis project and to defend it orally before a qualifying exam committee. Students must enroll in PHAR 540b, Qualifying Exam Prep Course for Pharmacology where they will receive instruction on conceiving, writing and defending a grant proposal. This course is offered in the Spring semester and timed to integrate with the student’s preparation for their qualifying exam - at the end of the course, students will have made substantial progress toward completing the written portion of their qualifying exam.


Students must arrange the schedule of their exams within the timeframe outlined below and should ensure that they complete their qualifying exam before the end April of their 2nd year.

Fall semester 2nd year: In consultation with the thesis advisor the student will decide on prospective thesis topics, initiate lab research in this area to generate preliminary data, and delve into the published literature on this and related topics. A detailed knowledge of the literature will be required to identify key unanswered questions and to develop central hypotheses to be tested in the thesis work. The student will be expected to be knowledgeable on the background literature related to their chosen topic at the time of the exam.

By Feb 1st: In consultation with the thesis advisor, the student should identify 3 potential members of their qualifying committee. The committee should contain two members of the Pharmacology faculty; the third member may be from outside the department but must have a graduate school appointment. It is anticipated that the qualifying committee will become the student’s thesis committee. The qualifying committee must be submitted to the qualifying exam coordinator (currently David Calderwood SHM B395C, 7-2311) for approval.

By March 1st: The student should provide the exam committee and the qualifying exam coordinator a brief specific aims summary (1 page maximum) outlining the proposal title, the hypothesis to be tested, why it is important, and how it will be addressed (Specific Aims). A date in late March or April for the in-person oral exam should be set – this requires the student, all three committee members plus the exam coordinator – thesis advisors will not be present during the exam. The graduate registrar can help with reserving a room if needed.

At least 1 week prior to the oral exam: The student should complete the written proposal and provide it to the exam committee and to the exam coordinator. If the written proposal is not satisfactory the committee can postpone the exam.

Role of Thesis Advisor

The advisor will not be present in the oral exam and the student is responsible for conceiving, writing, and defending the proposal. The original idea for the thesis project may however come from the advisor, and the advisor is expected to provide constructive feedback as the student develops their proposal. In this way, and through their participation in PHAR 540b, the student will learn how to write a compelling research proposal. With this in mind, the student should allow sufficient time for several rounds of revision in response to advisor suggestions prior to submission of the proposal. The advisor is expected to have read and approved the final version of the proposal before it is distributed to the qualifying committee.

Written Proposal

The qualifying exam written proposal is modeled after a fellowship or grant application to the National Institutes of Health and is designed to test your ability to identify important innovative research questions in the context of the existing body of knowledge, to develop appropriate methods and approaches to test these questions, and to convey your ideas in a concise written document. The proposal should include a 1-page specific aims section followed by up to 6 pages outlining the background, significance and methods. Figures should be embedded in this text as needed. Formatting should ensure a maximum of 60 lines per page with 0.5-inch margins. Use a standard font, such as Arial 11 point. The proposal should be organized as described below:

  1. Title
    Provide a concise description of the proposed project.
    (Up to 200 characters including spaces)

  2. Specific Aims
    Briefly describe the subject of your proposed research, and the major unanswered questions you hope to address. Using a single sentence, state the overall HYPOTHESIS TO BE TESTED. Using one or two sentences, state the overall objective of the proposed research, and how it relates to the hypothesis. Using single sentences, enumerate the Specific Aims. For each aim, use no more than a few sentences to describe how it relates to the hypothesis and describe the approach, rationale, and anticipated results.
    (This section should be no more than 1 page)

  3. Significance
    Give a brief overview of the background leading to the proposal, critically evaluate existing knowledge, and specifically identify the gaps that the project is intended to fill or barriers to progress that the project will address. State concisely the significance of the topic, the importance of the proposed research and how the proposed project will improve scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice in one or more broad fields.
    (This section should be approximately two pages)

  4. Approach
    Describe the research design and the procedures to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Include how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Describe the methodology in enough detail to allow a knowledgeable reviewer to understand what you will do, without providing excessive extraneous information (there is usually no need to list buffer compositions, PCR temperatures, oligonucleotide sequences, etc.). It is important to discuss potential difficulties and limitations of the proposed procedures and to describe alternative approaches to achieve the aims. Preliminary data are not required but, if available, you should include any data that you have obtained which establish the feasibility of the proposed studies and support your ability to perform the work.
    (This section should be around four pages)

  5. Literature Cited
    Each reference must include the names of all authors, title, book or journal, volume number, page numbers, and year of publication for all cited works. Published preprints can be included in citations. The reference should be limited to relevant and current literature. There is no page limit, but it is important to be concise and to select only those literature references pertinent to the proposed research.
    (Not included in page limit)

Oral Exam

Two hours are allotted for the oral exam. A qualifying committee member with an appointment in Pharmacology will act as the committee chair. Prior to the start of the exam the committee will ask the student to leave the room while they discuss the proposal.

You will begin by presenting a 30-45 minute oral summary of your proposal. It is wise to use only about 5 minutes for basic introduction. Spend the rest of the time presenting the details of your experiments. The faculty committee will interrupt with questions as they arise and may ask general questions designed to determine whether you have mastered the goals outlined below.

In preparation for the oral exam think of criticisms that external reviewers might raise and decide how to overcome them. Remember the kinds of questions that are asked after rotation talks as these are the sort of questions that you may be asked. Be prepared to present the possible outcomes of your experiments, how they may be interpreted, and why the strategy you have designed is better than other alternative approaches. An effective way to organize your summary talk is to introduce a list of specific questions to be answered and then present lines of experimentation that will address each question. It is a good idea (nearly essential) to practice before a group of experienced graduate students. Be sure to review areas of basic pharmacology that you will need to know in order to defend your experiments (e.g., enzyme kinetics, ligand binding theory, cell regulation, hormone/receptor action, molecular biology, etc.).

After the exam, the examination committee will confer and arrive at a pass or fail decision. In the case of disapproval, the examination committee will then decide whether the student may retake the qualifying examination. If necessary, the examination committee will assign a time, usually within a two-week period, in which you will retake the qualifying examination. The examination committee may ask you to revise the written proposal, retake the oral exam, or both. A pass on both the written and oral must be attained to pass the qualifying examination.

Criteria for Evaluation of the Qualifying Exams

  • Does the student have a sound understanding of the Scientific Method?
  • Can the student formulate a testable hypothesis?
  • Can the student test the hypothesis with controlled experiments, collect, analyze and interpret data using the principles of statistics?
  • Does the student have the creative ability to recognize important problems in pharmacology and to develop an original research plan that poses specific questions to address them?
  • Has the student acquired an ability to search, read and critically evaluate the primary research literature?
  • Can the student design experiments and propose the use of appropriate experimental methodology?
  • Is the student developing the ability to communicate effectively with other scientists?
  • Can the student write a cogent and coherent research proposal?
  • Can the student orally present ideas and complex information to an audience and answer criticisms of those ideas?