3.8 Qualifying Examination

An oral qualifying examination must be taken by the fall Semester of their third year; any student who misses this deadline may be subject to academic probation. Students who fail either Part I or II must take a second examination approximately three months following the failure. Passage of the examination is a required for advancing to candidacy for the doctoral degree.

Qualifying Examination Committee
The oral examination is administered by a committee of four faculty members selected by the student by the end of their 2nd year with the advice of their Graduate Adviser and Research Mentor. The requirements are:

  1. All 4 committee members must be members of their academic senate**.
  2. The committee chair must be both a core member of the Group and of the academic senate of the student’s Home Campus.
  3. At least one other member of the committee must be a core Group member.
  4. One committee member must be from outside the Group, and also must belong to the Academic Senate on the student’s Home Campus.
  5. Both campuses (Berkeley and UCSF) must be represented on the committee. Both biomedical (or biological) and engineering disciplines must be represented.
  6. The student’s Research Mentor may not serve on the qualifying committee.

Information about membership in the schools’ academic senates can be found at:

Qualifying Exam Forms must be approved and submitted at least six weeks prior to the examination:
UCSF:  https://graduate.ucsf.edu/content/current-students-phd-progression-and-award-forms and
Berkeley: http://grad.berkeley.edu/academic-progress/forms

** A student may petition for one faculty member who is not a member of the Academic Senate.
UCSF: https://graduate.ucsf.edu/files/general-petition
Berkeley: http://grad.berkeley.edu/policy/degrees-policy/#f49-exceptions-to-policies-on-committee-membership

Content of the Examination

In this examination, students demonstrate their ability to recognize and attack research problems of fundamental importance, to propose appropriate theoretical, experimental or computational approaches to address these problems, and to display comprehensive knowledge of their disciplinary area and related subjects.

Part I of the Exam: is organized around the presentation of a research proposal for a project that should last 6-12 months and should not cover the student’s entire thesis. Proposals should be 3-4 pages in length, outlining the general goals of the project, their significance and the methods used to approach them; and submitted to the committee 3 weeks before the exam. This is typically presented in Powerpoint, but that is not required. Slides should be easily readable (22-24 point minimum font suggested) and references properly cited. Most students present approximately 25-35 slides, plus a few backup slides.

Q&A: The student’s presentation will be interrupted with in-depth questions probing the student’s grasp of the basic challenges and principles underlying the project, the details of their methods and competing approaches, the statistical methods employed, and the significance of the project within a wider context. Involved questions are often answered at the chalkboard or whiteboard. The Q&A is time intensive. Part I typically takes approximately 2 hours. The most common failure mode is to inadequately answer the questions of the committee.

Sample Structure of the Qualifying Exam Research Proposal Part I
While students may choose to depart from this sample structure, below is a typical Part I talk structure. The organization listed below is suggested and should not be taken as a rule. PLEASE TALK TO YOUR COMMITTEE ABOUT THE EXACT REQUIREMENTS.

  1. Motivation for Project: What broad clinical, engineering, or biological problem do you plan on tackling and why is it important?  Include information on your clinical, engineering or scientific collaborator(s) and how they will mentor you.
    Example: Type II diabetes has high morbidity, mortality and health cost burden.
  2. Identify your Open Challenge or Open Scientific Question and explain why solving it would be enabling in a clinical, engineering, or scientific sense –
    Example 1: the prevention of fouling of in vivo glucose sensors would allow for closed-loop control of a diabetic patient’s glucose levels, alleviating the disease’s trauma.
    Example 2: control of stem cell differentiation into insulin-secreting cells would make possible autologous pancreatic transplant therapies.
  3. Translate your Clinical, Engineering or Biological challenge into Quantitative Engineering Specifications and/or Scientific Study Design Constraints Here, you should provide quantitative specifications for devices, chemistry, algorithm or simulation.  For scientific studies, specify the size required for a statistically reliable study.
    Example 1: a useful in vivo glucose sensor needs 5% accuracy, 1-minute temporal response, safe in vivo recharging, and 1-year lifetime.
    Example 2: Optically imaged transplant stem cells must be detectable in vivo at 10^5 cells/mm^3 with 100-micron resolution and a scan time of less than 1 minute.
  4. Review Prior Work on the Problem and explain fundamentally why others have not fully solved the open challenge or answered the scientific question.
  5. Introduce your Approach with a high-level description that explains why your method or your study should fundamentally be superior to competing approaches. Disclose any drawbacks to your approach and planned workarounds.
  6. Describe the Implementation of your Approach with a detailed description, including progress and lessons learned.
  7. Show your Preliminary Findings including theory, simulations and measured data with appropriate controls. Justify your choice of control experiments. Describe your plans for collecting statistically meaningful data, mitigating risk, and improving performance. Note any conference or journal publications that you have submitted.
  8. Discuss your Plans for Future Work. How will you extend your project results to the broader challenge? List your key deliverables (e.g., presentations, manuscript submissions, patent disclosures, etc.) on a timeline.

Part II of the examination
Part II consists of questions exploring relevant areas of science and engineering, usually related to subjects of the major and minor identified by the student. Also included are questions pertaining to statistical questions and ethical aspects of Bioengineering. Part II of the exam typically takes 15-30 minutes.