Molecular & Cell Biology Graduate Program

Tharun Sundaresan, Ph.D.
Director of MCB Graduate Program
Phone: (301) 295-9324

Rachel Cox, Ph.D.
Director of MCB Recruitment & Admissions
Phone: (301) 295-9791

Frank Shewmaker, Ph.D.
Assistant Director of MCB Recruitment & Admissions
Phone: (301) 295-3527

Tina Finley
Administrative Officer, MCB Graduate Program
Phone (301) 295-3642
FAX (301) 295-1996


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Advancement to Candidacy

Advancement to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree in Molecular and Cell Biology is expected to be achieved by the beginning of the third year, and requires: 1) completion of the formal course requirements and laboratory rotations); satisfactory performance in laboratory research as judged by the student's thesis research advisor; and 3) satisfactory completion of the MCB Qualifying Examination.

Qualifying Examination

Upon completion of required course work, and in no case later than the end of the second year of study, a Qualifying Examination in Molecular and Cell Biology will be administered to the student. The student must have completed 48 hours of graded course credit and be in good academic standing. The qualifying examination committee will consist of no less than 4 faculty members appointed by the Director of the Molecular and Cell Biology Graduate Program, in consultation with the student. The committee will be constituted according to the procedures described in the Molecular and Cell Biology Graduate Program Handbook.

The purpose of the qualifying examination is to evaluate the student's suitability for advancement to candidacy. The exam will require the student to write a proposal, similar to a grant proposal, on the topic that the student intends to pursue for their thesis research. The scope of the research project should be reasonable for the student and a technician to accomplish over a 3 year period in a well-equipped and well-funded environment. The student will develop a Research Plan not to exceed 15 pages that meets the general criteria defined in PHS form 398, and will include the following sections: Specific Aims, Background and Significance, and Research Design and Methods. The pages normally devoted to the Preliminary Studies Progress Report section should be used for a thorough and comprehensive Background and Significance section. Because the student will be required to describe all methods in complete detail, extra pages for Method description that exceed the 15 page limit are permitted. These pages can be included in an appendix to the proposal. In addition, a Literature Cited section of unrestricted length and a concise one page Summary are required. Other sections normally included in the Research Plan (Human Subjects, Vertebrate Animals, Consortium Arrangements and Consultants) will not be required. Likewise, administrative descriptions (Budget, Performance Site and Personnel, Biographical data, "Other Support", Resources or University forms) are not needed. Specific formatting guidelines will be made available to the student.

The chairperson and members of the examining committee will provide advice and guidance on the preparation of the proposal. The student's major adviser will serve on the committee, but cannot serve as its chairperson. In consultation with the mentor the student will select the topic upon which the grant proposal will be based and prepare the "specific aims" prior to meeting with the committee to discuss their suitability. The student must submit a draft of the "specific aims" to the entire committee two days before the meeting. If the "specific aims" are generally acceptable to the committee, the student then has 4 weeks to write the grant proposal. If the "specific aims" require major revisions, the student has one additional week to revise them. The revised aims will then be sent to the entire committee, and will be judged for suitability in consultation with the chairperson.

The student must write the proposal but can receive oral advice and comments from their mentor, committee members or other members of the scientific community. However, no written editing or revision of the document by anyone other than the student is allowed. In particular, the student should avoid reiteration of elements of the mentor?s grant applications. Two weeks into the writing of the grant proposal the student is encouraged to meet with committee members to report on their progress and seek advice. At the end of the 4-week period, the student will submit the finished grant proposal to the entire committee, who will then have 1 week to evaluate it. If, in consultation with the chairperson, the committee considers the proposal generally acceptable, the student will then schedule an oral presentation of the proposal to the committee to take place a week after approval of the document. If the grant proposal is considered unacceptable, the committee will meet with the student to discuss it, and the student will then have 2 additional weeks to revise the proposal before resubmitting it to the committee.

The oral examination will consist of a brief, 20-30 minute presentation by the student of the project, followed by a period of questions from the examining committee. The committee will ask questions relevant to the proposal to elicit a demonstration of the student?s understanding of the background, hypothesis and the experimental plan. However, the committee will not be restricted to the material in the proposal for the subject areas of their questions.

A simple majority vote of the examining committee will determine satisfactory performance. If the student fails the qualifying exam, either at the stage of the "specific aims", the written grant proposal, or the oral presentation, the committee has the option of either immediate disqualification of the student from further advancement, or will allow the student to spend 6 months in the mentor's laboratory conducting research, upon which the student will be required to write and defend a revised grant proposal as described above. This means that the student may take the qualifying exam only twice. A second failure to pass the qualifying exam will require withdrawal or disenrollment from the program.