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Comprehensive Exam

Comprehensive Examination for Ph.D. candidacy (2003 and later)

The Department of Molecular Pharmaceutics administers two major exams required of all Ph.D. students.

    All students are required to take the department's written comprehensive examination within six months of completing their department core courses. The comprehensive exam(s) for a given core course(s) must be completed within three weeks of the end of the semester in which the course was offered. This deadline is generally not flexible but can be changed under extenuating circumstances (e.g., if one or more core courses are cancelled within a given academic year due to insufficient enrollment) with Department chair’s approval.

    Students will be evaluated for their written performance and demonstrated advanced profiency on questions relating to relevant topics in the field and core content including:

    1. Physical chemistry, physical pharmacy and dosage forms, including solvent theory, equilibria, thermodynamics, mass transport, colloids and surface science

    2. Physical organic and polymer chemistry, chemical kinetics and reaction mechanisms

    3. Drug delivery, including targeting, internalization and intracellular trafficking

    4. Pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics

    5. Pharmaceutical Biotechnology

    6. Appropriate pharmaceutical characterization and analytical methods

    7. Appropriate data handling, statstical methods and experimental design

    There will be one question for each of the core Pharmaceutics core courses (PHCEU 7010, 7011, 7020, 7021, 7030 & 7040).  Questions will be written and graded by Department faculty members selected by the Chair or exam coordinator.  Students are required to submit their own independently worked electronic file responses to the exam questions as separate, clearly identified .pdf file answers to each exam question.  These should be computer-generated (text-typed, equation-edited, but not hand-written and scanned) documents.  Students have three days to answer each question (e.g., a total of six days for 2 questions) from the date of exam distribution to the exam coordinator in the department.  A student-named electronic folder containing all .pdf-generated answer files with identifiers linked to each submitting student can be conveyed to the Department Graduate Program Coordinator via the Comprehensive Exam  canvas course using a filename format such as “STUDENT_NAME_PHCEU7020.pdf” for each answer submission. No paper hardcopies of answers are accepted for exam answers (note: all photocopying required for any exam needs is not done at department expense).  No answer revisions will be accepted after the submission deadline.  Students are expected to conform to all policies regarding academic honesty and integrity in producing their answers: essentially that all work submitted is their own with all external supporting materials and resources clearly cited in the exam answers.  Each submitted answer file will be reviewed by Turnitin for originality of writing and possible use of AI.  If either is at an unacceptable level, students will be asked to rewrite the answer file.

    Faculty will have three weeks from the date the exam answers are received to grade them. Grading of each question will be on a scale of 0-100, with a score of 80 considered to be a minimum passing score for each question. Results will be conveyed to the student in writing by the exam coordinator.  Students may appeal the grading of a particular question. In such cases, three faculty members (other than those who wrote the question) will be selected by the exam coordinator to re-grade the question being challenged.

    Students passing all written questions will receive an unconditional pass for the comprehensive exam.

    Students failing to pass one or two of six cumulative written questions will receive a conditional pass for the comprehensive exam and will have one month to submit correct answer(s). The faculty will then have one month from the date that the revised answers were submitted to re-evaluate them. Failure to answer one or two questions correctly in the resubmission, or missing any deadlines, will require the student to repeat the entire comprehensive exam at the next scheduled date.  The second comprehensive exam will be the final opportunity to pass this requirement.

    Students failing to pass three questions will fail the comprehensive exam. These students will be required to repeat the entire comprehensive exam at the next scheduled exam date. The second comprehensive exam will be final.

    Students who fail the second exam are no longer eligible to continue in the doctoral program.



    To advance to Ph.D. candidacy, all students must pass a qualifying examination that consists of both an original written research proposal and an oral examination by their supervisory committee. This must be completed within one year of passing the comprehensive exam. This deadline is generally not flexible but can be changed under extenuating circumstances with Department chair’s approval.Circumstances including a sudden radical change of research support or project theme could justify such a change. The student should consult first with their research advisor to confirm a suitable topic for their research proposal.  The research proposal topic may be based on either (1) their own research but with new aims not proposed by or originating from their advisor (see below), or (2) new original pharmaceutically relevant research (not previously submitted for funding by anyone) that falls within the broad categories listed above (under comprehensive exam topics, see Section VII.B.). The written research proposal will be evaluated for content, significance, accuracy, technical proficiency, and maturity by a qualifying exam committee comprising four faculty from the student’s supervisory committee, but not the student’s research advisor.  The supervisory committee shall select one of these four as the chair of the qualifying exam committee at the time of the oral examination.  Committee member substitutions are allowed at the discretion of the department chair.  To satisfy this requirement, the student’s research proposal follows the current NIH's current SF424 instructions for submitting an R01 grant application (see this link for the SF424 forms for various proposal components). The following sections are required: proposal abstract, table of contents, detailed first-year budget, budget justification budget for entire project period, biographical sketches for student as PI and advisor as consultant or co-I, other research support, resources and facilities, specific aims, full research strategy section per the current NIH SF424 proposal format, vertebrate animals justification section if appropriate, and complete references in required format, including article titles. 

    The complete research strategy component shall consist of these sub-sections from a typical NIH R01 proposal format: specific aims (max. 1-page), plus a 12-page maximum section of significance, innovation, research design and methods, and preliminary data (typically from relevant literature, but could be the student’s own data, or a mix). Preliminary data should be clearly designated as taken from cited literature, work from others in the lab, or the student’s own work.  A well-designed, detailed, scientifically credible experimental design with appropriate modern procedures is essential in this 12-page research strategy description (note: specific Aims are one additional page).  Expected technical deliverables and brief alternative approaches are also encouraged.  Timeline table and NIH-style budget and justification components are required.  A vertebrate animal section and co-personnel vitae are to be supplied when necessary. Proposals not following the prescribed formats or page limits for the R01 format will be returned.  Students may use proposals developed for a grant writing class, but all written research proposals submitted for the exam will contain at most, one (1) currently existing technical aim taken from a currently existing research proposal.  Remaining aims (at least one or more) must be distinctly new with sufficient original research plan development to support them and address their technical requirements.

    Importantly, all students must receive pre-approval from their supervisory committee for all aims and their working hypothesis in the written proposal before proceeding to independently write their research proposal.  Student-drafted aims and hypothesis (one page maximum, NIH format) must be submitted to their committee at least 10 days prior to a scheduled supervisory committee meeting seeking full committee approval to proceed to writing the proposal.  The student must attempt to convene the entire committee for consensus and recommendations on hypothesis and aims for approval before writing their own original research proposal.

    Any data or text material taken from another existing proposal or any other source must be clearly cited as such to avoid plagiarism issues. Proposals should be written for a 3-year timeline with the student as principal investigator (PI). A budget considering expected personnel, equipment, services, supplies and expendables, and other necessary items for research should be included.  This budget can be itemized or modular but should be clear, accurate and descriptive of the proposed work.  The student’s advisor (or other committee members) may read the written proposal and provide limited and general recommendations and feedback once without explicitly altering or substantially re-writing the proposal for the student.  However, the student must develop the entire proposal on their own without appropriating substantially from an existing proposal, as well as their original technical aims (as stated above) or the original research (as stated above on his/her own).   Philosophically, the entire proposal should represent the student’s own original writing, technical analysis and ideas, not that of a faculty mentor.  Copying text or materials from other proposals without formal citation or attribution is considered plagiarism and punishable under University guidelines.

    The complete written research proposal is assembled according to the order of the required pieces specified in the NIH table of contents document and in electronic format as a single .pdf file. This research proposal in electronic (single .pdf file) and (optional, by faculty agreement only) hard copy (printed) format should be distributed to the supervisory committee members at least one week before the scheduled oral exam meeting.

    Oral exam on the written research proposal. The student must orally defend their research proposal within a year from the date that the student was informed of his/her comprehensive exam grade.  In the case of a conditional comprehensive exam pass, the oral exam deadline will not be extended to one year beyond the time required to comply with the comprehensive exam conditions.  Students who do not comply with the deadline will have only one chance to pass their exam.  The student should arrange a mutually acceptable oral exam date for the oral proposal defense with their committee and then schedule it through the department staff seminar coordinator. Additionally, an announcement of the oral exam should be posted to the department’s electronic seminar website and e-mailing list at least one week before the proposal defense.  Please contact the department’s Graduate Program Coordinator about preparing this announcement with these timelines. 

    On the day of the oral proposal defense, the student will first provide a detailed oral technical presentation (approximately 45 minutes in duration) of the proposal.  This presentation is open to the public.  Following the presentation, the exam committee conducts the oral examination in a closed session with the student.  Each committee member will question the student about the proposal and/or other scientific concepts and topics related to the broad categories listed above.  The student’s research advisor may observe the closed portion of the oral examination, but may not actively participate.  There is no strict time limit on the exam, but a duration of 90 minutes in the closed session is often appropriate. Immediately after the oral examination, the committee will meet and evaluate the student’s performance.  Three outcomes are possible – pass, conditional pass and fail.  These outcomes are described below.  The student must provide the official Department form (Supervisory Committee Report on the Ph.D. Qualifying Exam) to the committee to report the outcome of the qualifying examination. The chair of the qualifying examination committee will write a letter summarizing the consensus of the committee’s critique and informing the student of the outcome, and what revisions (if any) are required for any conditional pass.  This letter will also document specific reasons for a conditional pass or failure.  The letter will be sent within one week of the examination to the student, advisor and department chair, and be filed in the student’s official dossier.

    Students who receive a pass will advance to Ph.D. candidacy. No further work will be required - the student has completed the exam in full. The committee must unanimously agree upon a pass.

    Students judged to be deficient in certain areas of the proposal and/or the oral examination committee will receive a conditional pass and will have 4 weeks from the date of issue of their committee's proposal defense evaluation letter to correct deficiencies in the proposal and/or fulfill other requirements as stipulated by the committee. Students may solicit feedback from their committee members and advisor while revising their proposal. The revised proposal should include an introduction section that details specific changes made in the revised proposal (see PHS form 398 for detailed instructions). The revised proposal should be submitted to both committee members and the department office on or before the 4-week deadline. This submission will be final (i.e., subsequent revisions will not be considered). Committee members will then have 3 weeks to review and judge the revised proposal. Un-reviewed proposals will automatically receive a pass. The final decision (pass or fail) will be decided by a majority of the committee. In case of a split vote, the committee chair will make the final decision. In the event of failure, or if the student's 4-week resubmission deadline is missed, the student will have one more opportunity to retake the exam.

    Students who fail the preliminary exam will be required to submit and defend a new research proposal. The second submission will be final. The due date of the second submission is at the discretion of the committee, but no longer than 6 months from the date of the original proposal examination date.