BMCB GUIDELINES ON A-EXAM
(see BMCB Handbook for more details)
The written proposal
The proposal will describe the research the student intends to accomplish as a graduate student. The proposal should be well-formulated and presented in sufficient detail that it can be evaluated for its scientific merit. Include sufficient information to permit an effective review without readers having to refer to the literature. Brevity and clarity in the presentation will be considered indicative of an applicant's approach and ability to conduct a superior project. The proposal must be written following the format specified below.
1. Abstract. This should be on a separate page and not exceed three vertical inches (single spaced).
Sections (2) through (4) are not to exceed 10 pages (single spaced), including all tables and figures.
2. Specific Aims. (Typically no more than half a page)
3. Background and Significance. (Typically about 3 pages)
4. Research Design and Methods. Provide an outline of (1) research design and the procedures to be used to accomplish the specific aims; (2) tentative sequence for the investigation; (3) statistical procedures by which the data will be analyzed; (4) potential experimental difficulties and alternative approaches that could achieve the desired aims. (Typically about 7 pages)
5. Literature Cited.
1If you would prefer to write on a topic outside of your research area, discuss this with your major advisor and the DGS first. In this case, you will need to write a thesis proposal after completion of the A exam.
The oral exam
The oral component is a defense of the written proposal and it is expected that the majority of questions will be directly related to the proposal and to areas that are considered off-shoots of it. The Special Committee will likely ask the student to explain, in more detail than the written format permits, background material and experimental protocols.
The Committee will likely also ask broadly-based questions on basic concepts, to ensure the student has a strong command of foundational knowledge in BMCB. The Committee member representing the minor subject area is particularly responsible to ascertain that the student has achieved competency in that subject area.
In addition to the evaluation of the proposal, the A-exam is the time when the Committee will discuss and evaluate the potential of the student to achieve significant dissertation research in a timely manner. The Committee should discuss the course work and performance of the student in the laboratory, as well as the motivation of the student in research. To help the Committee have a more comprehensive knowledge of the student’s progress in the BMCB graduate program, the student must provides the Committee with his/her transcripts & Progress Reports prior to the exam. (The Committee can request 1st year rotation evaluations directly from the GFAs, Casey or Vic.)
**Note that the Field recommends that during the exam, the mentor (thesis advisor) should not ask questions or make comments except when asked by other Committee members or when clarification is needed. The intended goal is to dissuade the mentor, who may have a vested interest in the outcome of the exam, from stepping in to justify the research or the particular experimental approach being used. The student is expected to fully defend the proposal by him/herself. However, the mentor should participate fully in the discussion of the student’s performance, after the student is asked to leave the room. In making this recommendation, the Field is aware that the Special Committee may run the A-exam in whatever way it deems appropriate.
Some possible outcomes of the A-exam are described below. While one of these outcomes will apply in most cases, it should be noted that the final outcome is determined by the Special Committee and they are not limited to the examples given below.
Some factors that may be judged in evaluation of the A-exam are:
- course work
- performance in research project
- breadth of knowledge
- ability to respond to questions
- communication / presentation skills
- regarding the A-exam proposal:
importance of the problem chosen
demonstrating a command of the field.
evidence of creativity in formulating experimental approaches
feasibility of the proposed experiments
whether a range of different approaches are brought to bear on the problem
whether the scope of the proposed experiments is feasible for a 3-4 year project
adequacy of control experiments
clarity of the proposal
1. Unqualified pass.
2. Conditional Pass. This option will be exercised when the Committee judges that SOME aspect of the proposal and/or defense and/or the student's progress in the program needs substantial improvement. In this case, the Committee will specify the “condition” that must be reached within a certain time-frame before the student can receive a pass.
Some options for Conditional Pass:
(a) The Committee may specify that the entire proposal or that parts of it need to be revised within a certain time frame. The extent to which the major professor wants to be involved in the rewriting is up to him/her.
Some reasons for revision are:
- The writing needs to be improved (for example, grammar, clarity, or logical flow of ideas).
- Some aspect of the science needs to be rethought (for example, better controls, more cautious interpretation, or more detailed description).
- An additional section needs to be incorporated into the proposal.
(b) The Committee may specify that the student carries out additional literature review; e.g., weekly written report of a paper, participation in journal clubs, etc. This might be particularly helpful when the student appears to have weaker command of the literature surrounding an area.
(c) The Committee may specify that the student complete a piece of research / a particular sub-aim within a certain time-frame. This is particularly relevant when the Committee has some concerns about the ability and/or motivation of the student to complete the proposed research.
(d) Any other options that the Committee deems to be helpful for the further training of the student.
3. Fail. This option will be exercised when the Committee judges that MOST of the proposal and/or defense and/or the student's progress in the program is inadequate.
In that case, the Committee will usually recommend one of two actions. If the Committee has confidence in the overall ability of the student to complete the Ph.D. program, then they may recommend that the student retake the A-exam. In this case, they will specify whether an entirely new proposal on a different topic is to be written or whether they expect a major rewriting of the original proposal. Note that the rules of the Graduate School specify that a second A-exam cannot be scheduled earlier than 3 months after the first.
If the Committee has serious concern about the motivation or ability of the student to complete the Ph.D. program, they may recommend that the student complete a piece of research, write a Masters-level thesis based on that work, and then defend that thesis. If the student wants to continue for a Ph.D. degree, and his/her Committee judges that the Masters-level work and thesis defense demonstrates qualification, then the thesis defense may be accepted in lieu of an A-exam. In some cases, the Special Committee may specify that reentering the Ph.D. program requires retaking the A-exam.