Bioengineering PhD Oral Qualifying Examination

This document sets forth guidelines for the structure of the qualifying examination for students in Bioengineering, supplementing the description of the exam in the ​Policies of the Committee on Higher Degrees​.​ It is intended for students preparing for the exam as well as for members of the student’s examination committee.  Students should make themselves familiar with both this document and the school-wide policies for the exam.

Aim of the exam

Verifying that the student is prepared to perform research at the doctoral level and complete a dissertation.

Specific aspects of the preparation to be checked:

  • Ability to formulate and motivate a scientific or engineering problem
  • Demonstration of mastery of the fundamentals of the supporting areas of science and engineering

Composition of the committee

Four members including the advisor, per the Policies of the CHD. The exam will be chaired by the Dean's nominee, not the advisor.


At least a week in advance the student should provide a pre-reading document to the committee consisting of a brief (3-5 pp.) thesis proposal that includes an introductory review of the research field to be presented in the exam, motivation and potential impact of the proposed research field, specific research aims or goals, and any preliminary work towards these goals. It does not have to include everything that will be covered in the student’s exam presentation; rather, it is meant to frame the topic for the committee. The student should consult with their advisor on specific expectations.

The student should then prepare a presentation as described below, and be ready to answer whatever related questions may arise during the exam.

Format of the exam

  • The student gives a presentation (rehearsed length ~45 minutes) of the proposed dissertation research topic, the scientific background, the experimental/theoretical state of the art, and a plan toward answering the main research questions.
  • If the student already has some results, they should obviously be presented, but such results are not a requirement.
  • The committee may ask questions of clarification and elaboration throughout the presentation.
  • The committee may then probe the student's knowledge of the supporting fundamentals.
  • The student will be asked to leave the room so that the committee may deliberate.
  • The advisor will be asked to leave the room at the beginning, i.e., before the exam proper, so that the student and other committee members can discuss the student/advisor relationship and overall research group environment.  The advisor returns for the formal start of the exam.
  • The exam should not take more than two hours.

Possible outcomes and recommendations

1a. The student passes, with possible suggestions for sharpening the topic and the plan, for improving his or her presentation technique, and/or for firming up his or her knowledge in certain areas.

1b. The student passes, subject to satisfying specific conditions set by the committee, e.g., taking a certain course, or improving part of the presentation and re-presenting it at a later date, etc.

2. The exam is inconclusive. In a second exam, the student may need to present a new or sharper research topic and plan, or need to demonstrate firmer knowledge of the supporting fundamentals. More course work may also be required.

3. The committee decides that the student has not demonstrated ability to complete the Ph.D. program successfully and will be required to withdraw.

Note: the general requirements of timing and possible outcomes of the qualifying exam are provided by the SEAS Policies of the Committee on Higher Degrees.