MTM Qualifying Examinations


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Louis Gerstenfeld, Ph.D., Chairperson of the Qualifying Examination Committee

The qualifying examination is administered in two tiers that are each independent assessments of student abilities. Both are integrated with the overall learning goals of the Molecular and Translational Medicine (MTM) Program.  The MTM program is broadly focused on educational training in the basic scientific knowledge on which biological/medical research questions are developed and on the processes of translational medical research. Towards this end, the qualifying exam emphasizes understanding the development of scientific hypotheses and research designs and outcomes that help bridge basic science questions to human health and disease.

Qualifying Exam Timeline: Students typically complete the Tier 1 exam after the Fall semester of their second year. The Tier 2 exam is usually completed at the end of the Spring semester or early Summer of the second year, however, under mitigating circumstances the Tier 2 exam may be scheduled no later than the end of the fall term of the third year.  The Tier 2 must be completed prior to the first meeting of the thesis committee and may be used as the basis of the first thesis committee report.

Tier 1: Scientific Paper Review

The purpose of the Tier 1 qualifying exam is to demonstrate whether a Ph.D. candidate has mastered basic knowledge in the biological sciences and has developed the critical thinking skills to evaluate various aspects of a research project that are necessary to complete a Ph.D. degree.

Scientific Paper Review format: The exam is delivered as a manuscript critique and will be administered at the end of fall semester of your second year in the program. One week before the exam, students will be provided with a PDF of a published research article and any supplemental materials associated with that article. Students will have the opportunity to read this article and research background information about prior studies that lead to the current paper, technical aspects of the methods used in the paper and aspects of the findings of the paper and their translational potential.

Exam Administration:  The test is closed book, invigilated and access to the internet is not allowed. Students are permitted to use personal computers as well as make appropriate supplemental diagrams outlines or drawing on paper to compose responses. The exam will be limited to three hours. Test questions are designed to assess the following aspects of the selected paper:

  1. Hypothesis: What is the central hypothesis that is tested in the research study?
  2. Background: The background basic knowledge and specific prior finding upon which the current hypothesis is based.
  3. Research methodology. a) What are the basic scientific principles that underlie the research methodology that were used? b) What are the specific technical principles of the methods that were used in the study? c) What are supporting methods and data in the study that validate specific experimental findings? d) What are potential methodological deficiencies and alternative approaches necessary to validate the findings of the study?
  4. Basic and Translational Significance: Do the results of the study yield information that advances the basic understanding of a biological process/ technical approach to address a medically relevant problem? How could findings be translated into therapeutic or diagnostic/prognostic strategies and/or interventions?
  5. Understanding Limitations Deficiencies and Alternatives: a) What are strengths of the paper? Are the results novel or incremental? b) What are weaknesses of the paper? Are the findings supported by persuasive evidence? How would you judge the quality of the data? c) What are alternative explanations for the results? Are there issues or perspectives that were not addressed by the authors?
  6. Forward Thinking: Where do these studies go? What questions could next be addressed in further the studies?

This exam is graded on a 100-point scale with a pass achieved at 80 percentile. Prior to the exam, a question key is developed on which the major elements of the 6 parts of the exam are defined.  Upon completion of the exam your written answers are independently read and graded by the Chairman of the committee, the Program Chairman, and one outside reader. The answer key may be provided on request as a basis for performance comparisons.

Tier 2: Research Grant Proposal

In order to be competitive in the life sciences students must be able to write and defend scientific ideas. The Tier 2 exam is designed to evaluate student abilities to critically develop a scientific hypothesis and design experiments to test this hypothesis. In order to examine these abilities students will be required to write a research proposal in the area of study that they have chosen for their thesis research. Tier 2 exams will be evaluated on the quality of the written proposal, the oral presentation of the proposal, and the ability to address both general and specific questions about the proposal.

  1. At least six weeks prior to when students intend to take the exam please submit to the Qualifying Exam Chairman, the student ID, the name of the mentor and names of the other committee members (see below) who have agreed to sit for the exam. Please also contact the Committee Chairman to discuss overall expectations of the exam.
  1. Once the committee has been established and approved by the Committee Chair, establish a day and time for the committee members to convene to administer the exam. Erin McCarthy ( Program Administrator (Vose 224B) can help with scheduling the room and any required AV equipment.
  1. The written proposal (for Tier 2 exam) should be distributed no later than three weeks before the exam to the committee members. The committee will examine the document to determine whether the content meets the criteria for a well thought out proposal. Please see the grading section below for criteria. If the committee determines that the document is inadequate they will let the Chairman of the committee know what areas of the proposal need to be revised. Meeting with Dr. Gerstenfeld or the MTM director may be arranged to discuss the needed changes and to decide on the timeframe for a new exam.

Research Grant Proposal Format. The Tier 2 exam is evaluated on both written and oral elements that are outlined below:

Role of the Research Mentor (Primary Thesis Advisor).  The student’s advisor may provide guidance in development of the overall hypothesis and specific aims of the proposal as well as provide technical advice in the design of experimental approaches.  The Mentor may not contribute to the writing or editing of the proposal or during the oral test answers or provide leading questions to guide the student in their answers.

Requirements for the written element: The Tier 2 exam is an abbreviated NIH-style grant proposal, and should be formatted using single spacing, 11 size Arial font, with 0.5 inch margins and include the following elements:

1. Title page: including a Title, Student name, Name of the Mentors, and an abstract of the proposal that is no more than 30 lines.
2. Specific aims page stating your hypothesis and specific aims (1 page)
3. Research Proposal including Figures and Figure legends (6-10 pages)

a. Presentation of a definable hypothesis.
b. Specific aims that are independent and test the hypothesis.
c. Experimental design is sound, well controlled, and described with anticipated results.
d. Potential experimental pitfalls, unanticipated results and alternatives directions are also discussed.
e. The written element is presented in a professional, grammatically correct manner without spelling errors and use of common lab lingo.

4. Bibliography: no page limit.

Students may obtain examples of NIH-style grants from their mentors but they may not have received direct feedback about their proposal. Advice on potential issues should be addressed by Dr. Gerstenfeld directly.

Requirements for the oral element: Students should prepare a presentation of their proposal that can be delivered in no more than 30 minutes. Committee members will interrupt with multiple general knowledge and proposal-specific questions and clarification comments throughout the exam.

a. During the oral exam questions will be asked that relate to specific elements of the proposal as well as questions that test general knowledge of the medical sciences concepts and techniques.
b. The student needs to be able to accurately convey their proposal, including the general knowledge of their selected field of research, the reasoning and background for the development of the hypothesis and the methodology that will allow them to test their hypothesis.
c. Importantly, the exam is not designed to be an assessment of the preliminary data or quality of the experiments performed to date that support the stated hypothesis. The preliminary data can come from the literature, prior work in the mentor’s laboratory as well as any experiments that are completed by the date of the exam.

Tier 2 Qualifying exam committee composition The Tier 2 committee is comprised of six members;

1. Student’s research mentor
2. Students secondary MTM research mentor (or dissertation second reader)
3. Qualifying Exam Committee Chairman (Dr. Gerstenfeld)
4. MTM Program Director
5-6. Two more members from the standing committee listed:

Dr. Alan Fine (
Dr. Andy Henderson (
Dr. Matthew Layne (
Dr. Gustavo Mostoslavsky (
Dr. Lee Quinton (
Dr. Jennifer Schlezinger (
Dr. Deb Siwik (