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Qualifying Exam


The Ph.D. qualifying exam is an oral examination based on a recent research paper selected by an exam committee. It will be administered in the fall and spring semesters, generally early November and April. Students may take the examination two times and must pass before the end of their fourth semester. It is recommended that the student take the examination in their second and (if necessary) their third semester. The students are expected to demonstrate their understanding of the research paper, fundamental knowledge of the selected subject matter, and critical thinking and analysis skills to the committee of four faculty members during the oral exam.


At least several weeks before the examination, the student should register by filling out a google form that will be emailed to all eligible students. Only students who intend to pursue a Ph.D. should register for this exam. M.S. with thesis students fulfill their comprehensive exam requirement with their thesis defense. M.C./M.S. non-thesis students may fulfill their comprehensive exam requirement with a different oral examination. Students will be assigned a committee based on their subdiscipline. After the committee has been determined, the committee chair will schedule the exam’s date, time, and location.


The student’s research advisor should propose 3 papers to form the basis of the examination. The papers should not be directly related to the student’s research area. They should be recently published, within the last 5 years. They should be from in journals aimed towards a broad audience that at least encompasses a subdiscipline, providing a suitable platform for committee members to ask questions related to the subdiscipline. Suitable journals include JACS, Analytical Chemistry, Biochemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, Journal of Organic Chemistry, the Journal of Physical Chemistry, and Macromolecules. For the purposes of evaluating the students’ critical thinking skills, it may be preferable for the papers to have a logical flaw or take a controversial position. The rest of the committee will then select one of the papers. The committee chair will inform the student of their choice no more than two weeks before the scheduled examination. During these two weeks, the advisor should not assist the student in their presentation or in understanding or analysis of the paper itself. The student and advisor may discuss general issues, such as how to perform a specific experimental technique and interpret its data. Students may discuss the exam with others.


The examination will include a presentation of about thirty minutes followed by a discussion. The total examination will take about one hour. The presentation will include a description of the paper’s background, motivation, methods, results, and conclusions. The student should also present a critical analysis similar to a peer review of an unpublished manuscript. For example, they can discuss whether the experimental methods and design are sound, whether conclusions are justified by the data, and how the results may or have impacted the field. In addition to the review, students should also suggest potential future research directions related to the paper.


After the presentation and a discussion with the student present, the student will be asked to leave the room. Based on a holistic evaluation, including performance on coursework, research, and the oral examination (according to the rubric below), the committee will determine whether the student has achieved an M.S. pass or Ph.D. pass. If the student is not awarded a Ph.D. pass, the committee should prepare a brief statement describing the student’s weaknesses.


To succeed in the oral examination, students should understand their research from a big-picture perspective. Reading review papers can help develop this understanding. Students can also regularly read and analyze papers that not only directly pertain to their projects, but in related fields.

Students should also have good oral presentation skills. These skills can be developed by observation and practice of scientific presentation through courses such as CHEM 585 (Chemistry Colloquium) and CHEM 584 (Graduate Seminar in Chemistry). Other courses may also include presentations. Research groups may also offer informal opportunities to practice, such as journal clubs and research update presentations.

Evaluation Rubric for Ph.D. Qualifying Exam

Presentation. Students are expected to i) give a polished and dynamic presentation; ii) prepare an appropriate number of well-organized slides for a 30 min talk; ii) clearly outline contents and highlight main points; iii) make descriptions succinct and comprehensible; iv) cite references properly; v) use accurate terms and acronyms where applicable; vi) avoid grammatical, typographical, and formatting errors; vii) maintain confidence, interest, focus, and eye contact throughout presentation. Presentation slides are suggested to include an outline, introduction, methods and results, analysis and discussion, conclusions, and acknowledgement.

  • Excellent - All content, including main points, are outlined explicitly and presented articulately and comprehensibly. Slides are exceptionally well-prepared and organized.
  • Very good - All content, including main points, are outlined clearly and presented effectively. Slides are well prepared and organized.
  • Good - Main points are outlined and presented with reasonable clarity. Slides are prepared in an organized format but contain minor errors.
  • Fair - Main points are outlined but often presented with less or little clarity. Slides are somewhat disorganized and contain insufficient or excessive text and major errors.
  • Poor - Main points are poorly outlined and unclearly and ineffectively presented. Slides lack organization and have insufficient or excessive text and many errors.

Understanding. Student demonstrates understanding of the paper, of concepts and background related to the paper, and possesses fundamental knowledge in the subject matter.

  • Excellent - The scientific argument of the paper is clearly presented. All questions related to the paper, background, concepts, and fundamental knowledge are answered clearly.
  • Very good - The scientific argument of the paper is clearly presented. Student may need guidance to answer some questions, but demonstrates a rational approach.
  • Good - The scientific argument of the paper is clearly presented. Student may be unable to answer a few questions, but demonstrates a rational approach overall.
  • Fair - The scientific argument of the paper is presented with some logical holes. Student may be unable to answer several questions.
  • Poor - The scientific argument of the paper is presented poorly. Student is unable to answer many questions.

Analysis. Student demonstrates critical thinking in the interpretation of data and results and provides critical evaluation on the hypothesis, approach, discussion, and conclusions described in the paper. Student provides an insightful perspective on significance, limitations, and contribution of findings to the field, analyzes the paper critically, and proposes reasonable research directions.

  • Excellent - Student demonstrates an outstanding critical thinking and an advanced ability in critical analysis. If there are logical flaws, student identifies all of them and maybe even proposes ways to rectify them. Proposed research could be the basis of a grant proposal.
  • Very good - Student offers sound critique and reasonable research plans.
  • Good - Student offers sound critique or reasonable research plans.
  • Fair - Student offers critique or proposed research but cannot justify it.
  • Poor - No critique is offered. No research directions are proposed.

Excellent = 5
Very good = 4
Good = 3
Fair = 2
Poor = 1

Ph.D. pass: 12 or more points (average of very good)
M.S. non-thesis pass: 9 or more points (average of good)

Performance in coursework and research will be strongly considered. For research performance to be considered, the research advisor should provide the committee with evidence such as posters, papers, or presentations prior to or at the time of the exam.