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A Brief Guide to Qualifying Exams

Qualifying exams encompass a stressful time during your Ph.D. We know, we’ve experienced them. It can feel like an insurmountable mound looming in the distance. But this doesn’t have to be the case, and we know you will pass. DBBS Interim Associate Dean Steve Mennerick has written up the following document as a means to help demystify the QE.


A brief guide to DBBS qualifying exams

Steve Mennerick, interim Associate Dean, DBBS

I thank the following contributors for input, discussion, and commentary: Alex Stinson, Lucia Capano, Marwa Mikati, Joel Dalton, and students at Wednesday Wraps. My acknowledgement does not indicate that these generous commentators endorse the sentiments expressed.

This document is designed to serve as a broad primer on Qualifying Exams, for students in all DBBS programs.  Program specific guidelines can be found here. I have been in discussions with program directors to make expectations, process, and rationale as clear as possible. Some have been updating guidelines on the site.  For instance, BBSB has posted several new documents, so check back, and let your program directors know what you find missing.

What is the QE designed to test?

DBBS students are expected to acquire broad knowledge of their field as well as specific knowledge of their own research topic.  Programs navigate these poles differently, and this is one reason that QEs differ in form and content. Some programs expect an off-topic exam to bolster general knowledge, while others expect an on-topic exam to move toward the specifics of one’s research interest. Both expectations are valid. In addition to content, QE learning includes navigating the vagaries of peer review systems.

Despite the differences among programs and the complexities of scientific arguments, there are some simplifying principles. Keep in mind that science, at its essence, requires evidence for an assertion. Whether you are writing a review, a specific aim for a mock grant, or are critically evaluating primary papers, make clear assertions that you can support with evidence. For a review-format exam or for a primary paper evaluation QE, evidence will come in the form of critically evaluated published work. In the case of a specific aim in a mock grant, published data, preliminary data (as allowed), and appropriately designed experiments will yield your evidence. This assertion-evidence rule can also apply to the justification of your choice of QE topic. If your QE needs to be off-topic, offer evidence that your choice is off-topic. Make sure that you understand the definitions, as defined by your program.

Preparation and handling stress.

QEs can be complex and stressful to navigate, but rigorous preparation and strong understanding of your own work are key to alleviating concerns. Below are some ideas and resources to consider:

  • Studying and preparing for the QE requires rigorous planning and time commitment. Start early.
    • Don’t wait for faculty QE committees to form or for details to be released. Some programs wait to release details so that you can concentrate on classes, lab work, and other important facets of your training. However, there is enough information on the DBBS website and from your program peers to get started. Also, reach out to your program directors.  
  • Know your program guidelines. Each program has a description of the QE format and timing on the DBBS website (link above).
    • If your program does not provide an evaluation rubric, ask your program directors how consistency of evaluation is maintained and what competencies the exam is designed to evaluate.
  • Talk to older students about what worked for them and what did not.
    • You may get different answers from different people, but look for commonalities in their suggestions and for ideas that resonate with your style.
    • Keep in mind that format and content of the QE may change from year to year.
  • Talk to your PI or rotation lab about talking a certain amount of time to prepare or reducing your hours in lab to help manage your time. Open dialogue with your lab PI is important, and if you run in to problems, talk with your program director or program coordinator.
  • Still feeling overwhelmed? Reach out and speak with a mental health counselor – they are here for you and can help you build the toolkit you need to succeed.

Getting Started on your QE.

  • Think about the questions that interest you. It will aid your commitment and interest in your QE preparation. If you have an off-topic QE, look for the importance in the topic to the field, and try to place yourself in the position of those in the field.
  • Form testable hypotheses.
    • What exact phrasing of the hypothesis will allow supporting evidence to be gathered?
    • Try this video, or review Petra Levin’s session from GRF course.
  • For literature review-style QEs, what holes in knowledge remain after weighing the balance of evidence in the literature?
    • These holes may serve as the basis for future experiments, and committees love this level of analysis.

Planning ahead.

  • Iteratively edit your specific aims and your approaches to evidence gathering until there is an airtight match. This will take longer than you think – but you can do it!
  • Discuss your proposed work with other students for constructive criticism, as allowed by program guidelines.
    • Leave plenty of time to do the thinking and editing implied by these suggestions.
  • A clearly and cogently designed live, oral presentation is important for many QE formats.
    • We have assembled resources on Canvas from the GRF course for help with giving presentations and writing Specific Aims. These resources should be available to all 2020-21 GR1 students who took GRF.
    • This series of videos includes particularly helpful tips for developing internal confidence and projecting external confidence.
      • Practice, practice, practice!
  • Students are offered a second opportunity for passing QEs, but this is not an excuse to underprepare.
    • Failure rate is small on QEs, but failure is not a judgement on your value as a person. Students who have left their program upon failing qualifying exams have gone on to varied, satisfying careers.  Some have joined other advanced training programs that were better suited to their skillset.

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