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PhD Curriculum

Propositional/Oral Exam

After passing the written Qualifying Examination, each student is required to prepare and defend a Proposition.  Normally the written exam is taken in June and the Proposition examination is completed by April of the following year.  A Proposition is an assertion concerning some current question in biochemistry and molecular biology.  The student proposes an original mechanism or theory which could serve to explain a biological phenomenon in molecular terms.  In connection with the Proposition, the student also devises hypothetical experiments designed to test the proposal.  The Proposition may be in any area of biochemistry and molecular biology which interests the student, and can be on a topic that is related to the student's Ph.D. thesis.

One member of the Program faculty is designated Proposition Coordinator, and students who are ready to begin work on a Proposition will consult this person for further details concerning procedures to be followed and for informal advice about the suitability of possible topics.  (Note: A student's research supervisor does not participate in the preparation of the student’s Proposal, and is not present during the oral presentation to the committee).

A Proposal is submitted to the Proposition Exam Coordinator, and, if it is found to be acceptable in subject matter and scope, a Proposition Examination Committee is assembled.  The student prepares the Proposal with guidance from the Chair of this committee, and upon agreement of the Chair, the student presents the completed proposal to the Committee.  The proposal describes the topic in detail, and the hypothesis that is to be tested.  During the Proposition Examination the student’s ability to support his or her hypothesis and experimental approach is tested by the committee.

The student must submit the Proposition in sufficient time so that the oral exam can be scheduled not more than six months after successful completion of the Qualifying Exam, although extenuating circumstances can allow up to nine months for completion.  Students who fail to pass the Proposition Exam may, at the discretion of the Executive Committee, be allowed to remain in the Program by passing another examination on the same Proposition, or by submitting an entirely new Proposal.  The Proposition examination must be passed by the end of the second year in the program for a student to remain enrolled.


Detailed Review of the Proposition Examination

1. What is a Proposition?

A proposition is an assertion concerning some current question in biochemistry or molecular biology, i.e., a mechanism or theory which could be a biological phenomenon in molecular terms.  It involves the identification of an important question and a proposed experimental approach to answering it.  It requires a prediction as to what the answer might be, which the student is prepared to defend on the basis of existing evidence.  The Proposition is expected to test new areas of inquiry, and not meant to propose incremental advances to findings already available in the published data.  An idea for which published evidence is already substantial will be declined by Proposition Coordinator, or the Chair of the specific Proposition Committee that is assembled to test the student’s proposal.  The Proposal that is defended by the student should have some support from prior published work, and should not be clearly contradicted by other data.  The student is expected to propose experiments in the Proposal that will test these ideas using feasible methods.  Although these experiments are not ordinarily included in the initial one to two page submission to the Coordinator of the Proposition Examination, they will contribute significantly to the detailed write-up that is submitted later to the entire examination committee. 

2. Preliminary Preparation:

The first step is to review the current literature on the selected topic of interest, noting unresolved, unanswered and unexplained phenomena.  Possible explanations for some of these puzzles will occur to the thoughtful student, and these are the basis for possible Propositions.  Many will naturally be ruled out by further reading in the field, but others will be strengthened by the discovery of additional supporting evidence.  (Of course, a Proposition of a topic is later appears in a published paper can be ruled out, by the Chair of the Committee)

As soon as some concrete ideas have been formulated, the student should discuss these informally with the Proposition Coordinator of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Program (Dr. Chada), to evaluate their potential acceptability.  The Coordinator might consult other faculty members to establish the suitability of a specific topic.

It is important that the student consults the Coordinator as early as possible to avoid loosing time in developing a detailed Proposal that is subsequently deemed unacceptable.  The criteria for acceptance of a topic by the Proposition Examination Coordinator relates not only to the scientific merit of the questions, but also to its suitability as a basis for an examination covering significant areas of current research in molecular biology.

3. Formal Submission of the Topic

The topic that is selected by the student is summarized and submitted to the Chair of the Proposition Examination Committee.  This three-member committee is assembled by the Proposition Examination Coordinator, by identifying faculty with expertise in the topic.  One of these three individuals will serve as the Chair of the Examination Committee.  The Proposition itself should be stated briefly in a few sentences.  It should be accompanied by a brief (~ one page) explanation of the background and significance of the questions presented in the Proposal to the specific field of inquiry. 

4. The Detailed Write-up:

Within eight weeks after the mmittee Coordinator has approved the Proposition, and assembled a Proposition Examination Committee, the student must submit a detailed proposition that is prepared with the guidance from the Chair of the Proposition Committee.  The student will schedule a suitable date for the examination, and provide the completed proposal to each member at least 2-weeks prior to the examination.  The detailed proposal is typically less than 20-pages (double-spaced).  The organization will include a review of the background, followed by a statement of the hypothesis and experimental plan.  Expected outcome of the studies, with diagrams and charts describing likely results are expected.  A complete review of pertinent literature is required.  The student should justify the experimental approaches, and propose alternate approaches.  Potential pitfalls and difficulties should be considered.  The interpretation of the results, and their contribution to the field, should be discussed.  Modeling this proposal on the style of a research grant application is acceptable.

5. The examination:

The oral examination will test the student’s ability to defend the approach and scientific merit of the studies proposed in the proposal.  It is also intended to evaluate the student's general knowledge and understanding of areas of biochemistry and molecular biology related to the Proposition.  The possible results of the examination are as follows:

Pass: A satisfactory performance which shows that the student is ready to be promoted to candidacy for the Ph.D.

Conditional Pass: Moderate deficiencies in the student's performance are considered too serious to permit an unqualified pass.  The Examining Committee has considerable discretion and can specify particular remedies.  For instance, further study in certain areas may be recommended, followed by reexamination by some or all of the Committee.  Upon reexamination of the revised proposal the Committee might Pass of Fail the student.

Fail: This evaluation indicates an unsatisfactory performance which raised serious doubts about the student’s ability to successfully acquire a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.  The Examining Committee may recommend that the student be given an opportunity to retake the examination on the same or different topic, although the final decision on the student's continuation in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Program will be made by the Program’s Executive Committee on the basis of a full consideration of other relevant aspects of the student's record.

The Program’s Executive Committee can impose a Master’s status to students who have failed to fulfill any requirement of the Graduate Program in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, including, but not limited to, maintaining a GPA of 3.0 or higher, passing the Qualifying and Proposition Examinations.  Under these circumstances, a Master’s student will be expected to complete all course requirements and submit a written Thesis proposal to a committee of three faculty members assembled by the student’s mentor.