Doctoral Qualifying Exam

The BIomedical Engineering doctoral qualifying exam is an important evaluation of a student’s mastery of broad, coursework-based knowledge and their ability to analyze, synthesize, present, and discuss contemporary concepts in a specific area of research.

  • These skills are fundamental for high-impact, creative doctoral research.
  • The qualifying exam is an opportunity for students to demonstrate their capacity for critical thinking and for the faculty to identify any areas that need strengthening.
  • The qualifying exam is distinct from any individual course or exam, emphasizing the use of fundamental concepts in research as appropriate for a graduate student. It is also distinct from the dissertation proposal and defense, as it does not require original research by the student.

The qualifying exam consists of the following three components:

  1. Written component (6-8 pages): summary, critical analysis, and syntheses of three papers from literature, and description of the state of the art in the chosen research problem/topic of interest.
  2. Oral presentation (between 30 and 45 minutes):  summary, critical analysis and synthesis of three papers within the context of a chosen research problem.
  3. General examination (approx. 60 minutes) in which the candidate answers questions posed by the examination committee.

I. Eligibility

To be eligible for the Qualifying Examination, a candidate must:

  • Be admitted to the doctoral (PhD) or MS leading to doctoral (MS/PhD or MD/PhD) degree program
  • Have completed 30 credits but no more than 45 credits with a cumulative GPA of greater than 3.2 (the GPA calculation excludes all research credit)
  • Have received permission from his/her thesis advisor to take the qualifying exam.  

II. Preparation

Please consult with your advisor on how to prepare for the written and oral component of the exam, including the preparation time and balancing against coursework and research. From past history, two months is a typical preparation time, but the time may vary, depending on your background. 

III. Format

Selection of papers (by November 30)  With your advisor, select three papers from the literature.  You are encouraged to select papers related to your intended thesis research.  The papers should not include your PI or any research faculty in the BME department as an author.  At least one of the papers must have an extensive mathematical basis.  You will have to explicitly state in the email which area of mathematics is being covered.  It should be within the topic areas of your graduate mathematics classes (excluding statistics).  Sample topics are: "partial differential equations", "vector calculus", and "linear algebra".  Topics not normally accepted are statistics, or purely equations fitting experimental data without an underlying mathematical or physical model.  During the examination, you should be prepared to describe the mathematical framework from first principles in the written paper, oral presentation, and/or general examination.  Send the 3 papers (PDFs) to Helen Cen, and cc the advisor.  The advisor will have to respond to Helen to confirm their approval for this step to be complete.

Selection of examination committee (by November 30)  Work with your research advisor to form an examination committee of three BME faculty members: 1) your advisor; 2) the qualifier examiner appropriate for your track (listed at the end of this document); and 3) a BME research faculty at large.  If your advisor is also the qualifier examiner for your track, include a member of the graduate committee (also listed below) as the third member.  Please invite each potential committee member by email, and after you confirm, please email the committee membership to Helen.

Written component (by January 12)  Write a paper that describes the cohesive topic represented by the three selected papers.  Students should express the impact, scientific method, and technical details of the selected papers, and critique the strengths and limitations of the papers.  It is important to put the papers in the context of an overall research approach or question; the students should synthesize multiple, discrete studies as parts of a single, cohesive concept.  The title of the written component and oral presentation should reflect this cohesive research question or concept.  This document is to be 6 to 8 single-spaced pages, with 11 pt font and 1” margins, including original figures (students should avoid unnecessarily posting figures directly from the papers) but excluding references.  The document should follow this format:

  • Description of the cohesive research question or concept
  • Significance of research questions
  • Background (focusing on the 3 selected papers, and including other papers as needed)
  • Critiques of strengths/weaknesses of papers
  • Outline of future research to address research question (student should apply information from the background section and courses to describe research approaches that could further tackle the research question; detailed experimental designs are not expected)

Although others can provide input on the written component, the entire document must ultimately be written by the candidate alone.  A PDF of the written component, and PDFs of the three selected papers, must be emailed to all committee members by January 13.

Oral presentation (between January 20 and February 10)  Schedule a 2-hr period for this exam, in consultation with your committee members. Oral exams will be given priority for scheduling in the BME conference rooms during the designated period.  

In the first component, student will present the three papers.  The presentation itself should last no longer than 30 minutes (or about 45 minutes total with questions).  The format of the presentation should follow the outline set out above for the written component.  Committee members may ask questions at any time during your presentation.  Questions can focus on your understanding of the techniques used in the papers, critique of the authors’ conclusions, and presentation of these papers as different facets of a single research direction.

In the second component, the students will undergo an oral "general exam".  Committee is encouraged to begin the line of questions with topics related to the papers presented, but questions can be broad-ranging.  Questions will include at least one with a quantitative physiology basis, and one with a mathematical basis.  Additional questions can come from all topics of biomedical engineering, with an emphasis on the following list of topics, as guided by the students proposed area of research.  The level of expertise expected in each area is illustrated by the suggested list of courses (although the questions will not be taken directly from any one class).

Mathematics (APMA E4001, APAM E4200):

  • vector algebra and calculus, partial/ordinary differential equations, linear algebra, Fourier series
  • mathematical models that relate to the topic presented by the student

Physiology/Biology (BMEN E4001/E4002/E6003, BIOL 2005/2006):

  • molecular-, cellular-, tissue- and system-level physiology
  • mathematical models and quantitative analysis of control mechanisms

Biomechanics Track (BMEN E4300, BMEN E4305, BMEN E4340, and BMEN E4702)

  • solid mechanics; fluid mechanics; musculoskeletal biomechanics, cardiac mechanics,  cell mechanics

Biomedical Imaging Track (BMEN E4410, BMEN 4420, BMEN E4898, ELEN E4810, BMEN E4893, BMEN E4430):

  • digital signal and image processing; image formation and contrast mechanisms, including tomographic reconstruction in X-Ray CT, SPECT, and PET; magnetic resonance imaging and spectroscopy; radiography; ultrasound; optical tomographic imaging; optical microscopy and spectroscopy; image analysis, quantification and evaluation

Cellular and Tissue Engineering Track (BMEN E4501/E4502, BMEN E4210; BMEN E6001):

  • biomolecular processes (enzymatic reactions; molecular-, cell-, and organ-level transport; drug delivery, thermodynamics; electrochemistry; signal transduction)
  • cell function (cell adhesion, migration, apoptosis, proliferation, and differentiation; cell-cell, cell-matrix, and cell-material interaction)
  • design at the molecular-, cellular-, and tissue-level (biocompatibility; biomaterials; scaffold design, bioreactor design; assay design)

IV. Exam grading

Immediately after the oral examination, the committee votes to pass, conditional pass, or fail.  The results will be reviewed by the faculty in mid-February, with final decisions reported to the students shortly after.

In issuing the final recommendation, the committee will explicitly consider each of the following five grading components:

  1. The student accurately presented the results of the papers.
  2. Was the student able to synthesize the papers into a cohesive concept?
  3. The student demonstrated technical ability to carry out doctoral level research in Biomedical Engineering.
  4. The student demonstrated knowledge of biology and physiology required to carry out doctoral level research in Biomedical Engineering.
  5. Quality of written component

For any deficiencies, the committee should distinguish whether they are due to the scientific aptitude as opposed to language barrier.

In a conditional pass, the student may (for example) be requested to take a specific course and receive a minimum grade.

If the student fails, he or she may have one more chance to take the exam, upon approval by the graduate committee.

Please contact your advisor or Prof. Sam Sia with any questions or concerns.   

2017-2018: graduate committee:

Samuel Sia, Henry Hess, Elisa Konofagou, Helen H. Lu, Elizabeth Olson, Ken Shepard, Qi Wang, Joshua Jacobs, and Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic.

2017-2018: qualifier examiners:

Josh Jacobs, Henry Hess, Sam Sia