The Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences

MCIBS - Comprehensive exam

student presenting

Information about the MCIBS comprehensive exam


The goal of the comprehensive exam is to assess the feasibility of the student's proposed research and to determine whether the student is equipped to embark on the dissertation project. One of the skills assessed in this exam is the ability to write an independent grant-style research proposal. A research proposal is a plan for future work, and as this is an assessment of the student, it should be written entirely by the student.

The comprehensive exam is typically taken the summer between the second and third year or during the third year in the graduate program.

Composition of the exam committee:

Your comprehensive committee will become your thesis committee. After the exam you will meet with them once a year to get their input, and when you are ready to defend your thesis, they will be your thesis committee. Choosing the committee members is therefore a great opportunity to gather a group of people who will give you different perspectives on your project. You should talk over the selection of your committee members with your thesis mentor and choose people who you think will be helpful. Here are some specific things to think about as you choose the members of your thesis committee:

  • this is your thesis committee (not your adviser's) so think carefully about who you want to advise you
  • think about making someone other than your adviser the committee chair- this is standard in some departments and in some scenarios can be helpful
  • choose your committee with breadth of research areas and balance of power in mind- you don't want it to be dominated by one small area that is only a part of your thesis work, or only one strong personality

Guidelines on committee makeup:

You need at least 4 people total (4 or 5 is typical).

At least 3 members must be part of MCIBS.

1 member must be from a department that is not the home department of the thesis advisor.

These composition guidelines are based on the Graduate School Guidelines on committee makeup.

More information:

Students must be registered for classes (typically MCIBS 600) the semester they take this exam. The examination will consist of a written research proposal using an NRSA or NSF format, based upon the student’s proposed dissertation research, and an oral presentation of the proposed research. The proposal must include a timeline for the completion of the work that will be considered in the feasibility of the work.

dry ice bubblesSpecific recommendations from the program chair:

The Proposal

For the comprehensive exam you will write a thesis proposal. This proposal is an overview of the work you plan to complete and the rationale for why this is worth doing. It should include some preliminary data, and then a set of experimental aims you plan to complete over the next few years. You can discuss the scope of your project with your adviser, but the proposal should be written entirely by you! It is a great opportunity to get your thoughts in order about what you really want to accomplish, and to get feedback on your plan.

If you are submitting a fellowship application close to the time of your comprehensive exam, feel free to use the format of the application. It is a great opportunity to get feedback and improve your proposal.

If you are not submitting a fellowship, I recommend using the NIH R21 grant format. It is a fairly standard, compact format. Please make sure to choose a specific format for your proposal, and follow the guidelines; this gives you experience writing in the way a real grant is done. Please also tell your committee what format you are using and why so they know what to expect and can give comments that are appropriate for the format.

Again, the default format I recommend is R21. This is a short format. Since it is compact every word needs to be perfect and polished! If you go into your exam after handing in something that is short, but not polished, your committee will think you put in minimal effort. You do not want your exam to start that way!

Here are the basic guidelines:

Formatting guidelines

Font: Arial, Helvetica, Palatino Linotype, or Georgia 11 point or larger (I generally use Arial 11point)

Margins: 0.5 in

Figures: can use smaller font in legends. These should be included in the body of the proposal near where they are mentioned. In Word I recommend inserting the figure panel into one cell of a Table and placing the legend in a cell beside or below the figure. This way the legend and figure stay together. Figures and diagrams are a great way to make complex data and ideas simple and accessible for your committee. Use them effectively!

Content and length guidelines

Page 1 (and 1 page limit!): Specific Aims- the typical number of Aims is 3. This first page should give a brief introduction to the topic of your thesis, major questions you will address, and why they are important. You will also briefly outline each Aim- what is the specific question/hypothesis and how will you go about addressing it?

Page 2-7 (6 page limit total for this part): should include the following sections:

Significance- What is the problem you will address? Why is it important to work in this area? How will your work make key progress in this important field?

Innovation- How is your proposal particularly innovative

Approach- This is the main body of the proposal. You should include your preliminary data where appropriate. For each aim explain the key problem again briefly and then go into the experimental approach you will use. Use lots of diagrams! One way to structure the Aims is to divide each into 3 parts: 1) Rationale, 2) Experimental Approach, 3) Outcomes and alternatives. Using this structure can help remind you that you need to say why you are doing each experiment in the beginning, and at the end what you will do if it doesn’t work (alternatives), and what will be learned at the end of the studies.

References are included at the end and are not included in the page limit. Your committee will be evaluating your scholarship. Part of this is making sure you know the background in your field. This means you need to include plenty of appropriate references and be familiar with their content!

Use a reference manager like EndNote.

Please ask the program chair if you would like an example proposal!

The Exam

First, make sure to fill out the official paperwork to schedule the exam and committee paperwork.

You will give your proposal to your committee at least a week ahead of the exam. During the exam you will present some background and rationale for your proposed experiments, show your preliminary data and go through the experiments you proposed. Your committee will ask you questions as you go.

Final piece of advice:

You will have thought a lot about your proposal, and worked on it hard! Capitalize on this effort to actually submit a fellowship application!! NSF, NIH, and private foundations like AHA all fund graduate fellowships. There are search engines that can help you find funding opportunities. It is great experience, and, if you get a fellowship it is great for your CV and your PI will love you!