Formal “qualification” for the Ph.D. degree takes place by passing the Dissertation Proposal, a tripartite examination focused upon the student’s dissertation research plans. This exam should be taken at a point at which the student has completed most course work and has research well underway. The student should aim to complete this exam by the end of the third year of graduate study. The three parts of the exam, each of which will be evaluated separately by the full Advisory Committee are:

I. A written proposal
II. A seminar presentation on the proposal
III. A closed-door question and answer session with faculty

A student who demonstrates acceptable performance on all three parts of the examination, evidenced by a majority vote of the full Advisory Committee to pass on all three sections, “qualifies” for the Ph.D. degree, and continues on that track of study. A student who does not make adequate progress, evaluated by a majority vote of the Committee, may be asked by the Committee to repeat any sections of the examination to achieve a full pass. In cases of inadequate performance on the examination, the Committee may also recommend transfer to one of the Master’s of Science programs.


(For Genetics and Genomics doctoral scholars in MCB)

The written proposal has a ten page limit (excluding references) and the following suggested sections. All figures, tables, charts, and diagrams are included in this 10-page limit. This format is based on current grant submission formats for most federal agencies, which range from 4-12 pages total, preparing the student for succinct presentation and defense of their scientific premise.

You must submit this Proposal two calendar weeks (10 business days) before the scheduled examination to each of your committee members. The thesis advisor may read and make general comments on this document prior to submission, but may not edit it. For some guidelines on writing, Helpful Hints on Scientific Writing.

Cover page: This is not included within the 10-page limitation.

It will include: Title, date of submission, date of scheduled exam, student name, committee members’ names and affiliations.

I. Significance. What are the broad implications of the research that you propose? What is its importance? The significance section should “funnel” consideration from the global to the specific project at hand. One warning: everything you mention in this section is fair game for questioning. Keep focused on the issues you identify as really important. (1/2 – one page)

II. Specific Aims/Goals. Make use of numbered, concise statements of hypotheses/questions. This will immediately focus the reader on precisely what you will be doing, and place the background in context. Keep in mind that this does not have to reflect historical chronology, but rather should present a series of logical steps. (1/2 -one page)

Sections I-II is the total content of Page 1 and cannot exceed one page.

Pages 2-10 Consist of the Following Sections:

III. Background and Preliminary Data. Provide a brief synopsis of the relevant background the reader needs to interpret your proposed research. (2 pages or less) This should not be an exhaustive literature review, but rather should highlight the background needed to place the area of research into context to understand your experimental hypotheses and approaches.

Keep in mind not all members of your committee are in the same area of research; it is critical to explain why the system/question/approaches proposed are interesting, important, and feasible.

In the preliminary data component of this section, a brief presentation of the data collected by the student in support of the approach and aims should be included. Note that considerable variation in the extent of data among students is expected, but only include data relevant to the proposal.

IV. Approach. This section is the bulk of the proposal (4-5 pages). It is a good idea to have a subsection for each hypothesis/question posed in each specific aim. In this section, you are tasked with defending why you should continue for the next 2-4 years on your project. In other words, convince your readers that this work is worthwhile, feasible and will contribute to the field.

Include the following subsections under each aim in the approach section:

A. Rationale. This is a statement of the logic behind your experiment. Include in this section any thinking that went into your hypothesis, any synthesis you might have made.

B. Experimental Plan. Include in this section the strategy you plan to use to address the hypothesis, as well as information about procedures and protocols in general terms. Your committee is more interested in the logic than in the details – reference common procedures. Focus on those aspects that are conceptual rather than technical, but be aware of any limitations of the methodology you select.

C. Interpretations and Alternative Approaches. Make sure you interpret results critically. Showing alternative meanings indicate that you have thought the problem through and are able to meet future challenges. Call attention to potential difficulties you may encounter with each approach. Propose alternatives that would circumvent possible limitations. Committee members will be aware of possible problems; convince them you can handle such circumstances.

For example:

Specific Aim 1: To…

1.A. Rationale – why do this?
1.B. Experimental Plan – how will I do this?
1.C. Interpretations and alternative approaches what will it mean if I see X or Y? If it does not work because of the following reason…I will perform….to overcome this problem

IV. Timeline and Impact.

In this section, briefly lay out your timeline of experiments for the remainder of your thesis, including anticipated milestones such as publication submissions, conference presentations, and other seminar opportunities. Do not include courses, teaching and other duties not directly relevant to the work.

The impact statement should summarize (2-4 sentences total) what your body of work would contribute to the field, highlighting the advances it makes over existing knowledge.

II. SEMINAR PRESENTATION of PROPOSAL (see Presentation Skills)