Qualifying Examinations




Louis Gerstenfeld, Ph.D., Chairperson, Qualifying Examinations

Tier 1: Scientific Paper Review

The purpose of the Tier One qualifying exam is to demonstrate whether Ph.D. candidates have mastered basic knowledge in the biological sciences and critical thinking skills necessary to complete a Ph.D. degree. These goals will be accomplished by accessing a two part written exam. Candidates will be tested on:

A. General knowledge such as that presented in the Program in Biomedical Sciences (PiBS) core curriculum (FiBS Modules 1-4).
B. Written critique of a published research communication.

Tier One exam format:

The test will be administered in two parts. Part A will be closed book, invigilated, and no access to the internet except to email the responses to the Chair of the Exam Committee. You will be allowed to use your personal computer to compose your responses. Part B will involve a manuscript critique and will be administered in an open book, open web format. One day before the Part B exam, you will be provided with a PDF of a published research article and any supplemental materials associated with that article. You 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 papers and aspects of the findings of the paper and their translational potential.

Part A (2 hours)
All materials presented in the PiBS module can be used for examination purposes. Questions will be in multiple choice, fill in the blank, matching items, and written essay responses. This section of the Qualifying Exam is focused on assessing your basic knowledge of the biological and medical sciences. Core concepts involving protein structure and catalysis, genome structure and function, cellular architecture and biology, and mechanisms of cellular communication will all be tested.

Part B (2 hours)
The second half of the exam tests your ability to critically evaluate a scientific manuscript. Candidates will be given 24 hours to select and become familiar with one of the several potential papers that are provided by the Chair of the Exam Committee. During Part B of the exam candidates will receive questions designed to assess the following aspects of the selected paper:

1. Research methodology. For example, candidates may be asked to explain why the study methodology could be deficient and then be asked to provide an alternative approach to validate the findings of the study.

2. Significance of the research study. Do the results of the study yield information that could be translated into therapeutic or diagnostic strategies and/or interventions?

3. Identify strengths of the paper. Are the results novel or incremental?

4. Identify weaknesses of the paper. Are the findings supported by persuasive evidence? How would you judge the quality of the data?

5. Alternative explanations for the results. Are there issues or perspectives that were not addressed by the authors?

6. What steps could next be addressed to further the studies?

Tier 2: Mock Research Grant Proposal – Written Examination:

Intent of the examine:

In order to be competitive in the life sciences you must be able to write and defend scientific ideas. The Tier 2 exam is designed to evaluate your ability to critically develop a scientific hypothesis and design experiments to test this hypothesis. In order to examine these abilities you will be required to write a research proposal in the area of study that you have chosen for your thesis research. You will be graded both on the quality of the written proposal, your ability to present your proposal, and answer both general and specific questions about your proposal.

Committee composition:

The committee is comprised of six members. Your mentor, the person who will be the second reader on your thesis committee, Committee Chairman (Dr. Gerstenfeld) and the Program Director (Dr. Cruikshank). You need to then choose two more members from the standing committee listed below and contact them to arrange that they will serve on the committee.

2013/2014 Molecular and Translational Medicine Tier Two Qualifying Examine Committee Members

Dr. Deb Siwik (dasiwik@bu.edu)
Dr. Andy Henderson (andrew.henderson@bmc.org)
Dr. Caroline Genco (caroline.genco@bmc.org)
Dr. Alan Fine (afine@bu.edu)
Dr. Lee Quinton (lquinton@bu.edu)
Dr. Jennifer Schlezinger (jschlezi@bu.edu)
Dr. Nadar Rahimi (nader.rahimi@bmc.org)
Dr. Matt Jones (mattj@bu.edu)

Logistics of arranging your exam:

1) At least six weeks prior to when you plan on taking your exam please submit to the Qualifying Exam Chairman, your student ID, the name of your mentor and names of the other committee members who have agreed to sit for your exam. Please also contact the Committee Chairman to discuss overall expectations of the exam.

2) Once your committee has been established and approved by the Committee Chair, send around a doodle scheduler to your committee members to establish a day and time for the exam. Please then confirm the day and time with the committee members. Erin McCarthy (erin.mccarthy@bmc.org) Program Administrator (Evans 107) can help you with scheduling the room and any required AV equipment.

3) You need to distribute the written proposal no later than three weeks before the exam to the members of the committee. The committee will examine your document to determine whether the content meets the criteria for a well thought out proposal. Please see the grading the exam section below for criteria requirements. 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. You may arrange a meeting with Drs. Gerstenfeld or Cruikshank to discuss the needed changes and to decide on the timeframe for a new exam.

Formatting the written exam:

Your exam should be formatted to include the following elements:

a) Title page: including a title for the proposal, your name, your mentors name and an abstract of the proposal that is no more than 300 words.
b) Specific aims page stating your hypothesis and specific aims.
c) You may use the current NIH/NRSA pre doctoral fellowship format, or you may also use the older NIH grant format in which you have a background section. If you use the older format your background section should include a section that describes the medical significance of your project, its potential relevance to translational medicine, and what elements of the project are innovative.

Guidance to writing style and length:

a) The text is to be no longer than 10 pages excluding figures and bibliography.
b) Figures may need to be either embedded in the text or at the end of the presentation. Figures need to have self-explanatory figure legends.
c) Bibliography should be included with full author names, titles of articles and journal citations.

Grading of the Examine:

The examine is graded on two elements:

Requirements for the written element:

1) It presents a definable hypothesis.
2) It presents specific aims that test the hypothesis.
3) Experimental protocols are sound, presented with controls and are presented with expected outcomes, pitfalls and/or alternatives.
4) It is presented in a sound and professional manner. This means it is presented in a grammatically correct manner without spelling errors and use of lab lingo. In the age of word processing and page layout programs there is an expectation that your document looks “professional”

Requirements for the Oral element (2 hours):

Presentation of the proposal should be no more than 45 minutes.

1) During the oral exam questions will be asked that relate to specific elements of the proposal as well as questions that test your general knowledge of the medical sciences concepts and techniques.
a) General questions are meant to test your overall knowledge and will be reflective of what a 2nd year PhD student should know from their course work.
2) 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.
3) 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 your mentor’s laboratory as well as any experiments that are completed by the date of the test.