The Biochemistry and Cancer Biology Comprehensive Examination

Composition of the comprehensive examination committee (CEC)

During the first year of laboratory study the student and mentor should establish a student advisory committee (SAC) composed of the major advisor and 4 graduate faculty members who have sufficient expertise to form a supportive team for the student. If a majority of the SAC has primary affiliation in BCB, then they can serve as the CEC, which requires a minimum of 4 members including the major advisor. In most circumstances the CEC will be identical to the SAC in order to ensure that the SAC members are all engaged in the students’ progress. However, if the SAC has too few BCB faculty, then the SAC and the CEC chair should identify additional BCB faculty to ensure that the majority of the CEC have primary appointments in BCB.

The Graduate Program Director is responsible for oversight of the graduate program’s Comprehensive Examinations and will serve as chair of the program’s CEC. In cases of real or perceived conflict of interest regarding the student’s performance, appointment of a faculty member other than the Program Director as Examination Committee chair is required, but must be approved by the Dean. The major advisor cannot serve as the CEC chair under any circumstances.

Responsibilities of the CEC

Before the end of the sixth semester as a student at Augusta University (second semester in the BCB program), the student should meet with their SAC to acquaint them with possible avenues of research and to define the specific knowledge-base that will set the stage for the Comprehensive Examination. The CEC will work with the student’s Major Advisor to create that student’s Comprehensive Examin a manner that will test: (1) the student’s mastery of their chosen field of study, and (2) the student’s ability to thoughtfully and critically integrate this information into coherent questions that can be addressed experimentally.

The Examination Committee chair serves as liaison to the Dean’s Office and sees that all procedures of the examination are conducted within the policies and guidelines of the College of Graduate Studies. Scheduling the Comprehensive Examination should be done at least two weeks prior to the proposed date using the Comprehensive Exam Pre-Approval form, which is submitted through the CEC chair (generally the Program Director) for approval. Once confirmation of the proposed examination is obtained, the director will provide the student with the approved form. The results of the examination are submitted for approval to the Department Chair on the Comprehensive Examination Form. The Department Chair forwards the form to the Dean.

It is the responsibility of the Examination Committee, the Graduate Program Director, and the Department Chair to determine whether or not the student has passed the examination. The examination is expected to be administered by the end of the seventh semester at Augusta University. Students who do not complete this important milestone will receive an “incomplete” grade on the BCMB 9210 course. In the event of failure, a student will be afforded one opportunity to retake the exam after additional study, typically within three months. Failing the retake of the examination will result in the student being considered for dismissal from the graduate program and School of Graduate Studies.

Structure of the Comprehensive Examination

The comprehensive examination is composed of two sections as described below:

Written Component:

The student will prepare a realistic research proposal relevant to their interests and within the realm of their chosen laboratory. The proposal should not be overly focused on technical details, but should illustrate a solid knowledge of experimental approaches, and thoughtful attention should be given to expected outcomes and the impact of the project on the field as a whole. The proposal should conform to established NIH post-doctoral fellowship guidelines without administrative and budgetary paperwork (see detailed instructions in the BCB written Comp Exam Instructions). The document must be the student’s independent work and not excerpts from the Major Advisor’s grant proposals or manuscripts. The Major Advisor may provide minor input in the form of grantsmanship and suggestions on content and organization, but should not directly edit or revise the document. The SAC will grade both written and oral portions of the examination using the “-1, 0, +1” scale, (unacceptable, basic understanding, outstanding respectively).

The main objective of this written component of the Comprehensive Examination is to assess student aptitude as an investigator, and therefore the work proposed is not binding as a thesis plan. It is equally important to note that the dissertation Research Proposal is a separate requirement of the College of Graduate Studies that is independent of the Comprehensive Examination. Generally the Research Proposal can be compiled when the student’s research efforts have produced sufficient data to outline significant research aims that will form the framework of their thesis (not later than the end of the 9th semester). However, under rare circumstances, the CEC may recommend to the student and SAC that the written component of the Comprehensive Examination could form the basis for the official Research Proposal, and possible submission to an external funding agency.

Oral Component:

No more than five weeks following submission of the written component of the Comprehensive Examination, the student and CEC should convene a meeting to administer the oral component. This will consist of a brief oral presentation by the student that is based upon the written proposal (approximately 30 minutes), followed by sequential questioning by the CEC members. The question/answer period can be from 30-90 minutes, for a maximal examination time of 2 hours. When all questions have been addressed, the student will take a recess from the room while their performance during the oral component is graded in terms of their knowledge-base and their understanding of the relevant experimental design and ability to interpret results. After deliberation, the student can re-enter the room for a briefing on their performance and any recommendations for improvement.

Members of the CEC will also use the “-1, 0, +1” system to grade the oral presentation component, and the final grading of the Comprehensive Examination will be based on combined scores from both written and oral components. The combined scores from both written and oral components of the exam must be equal to “+2”. A passing grade of “+1” for each of the oral and written components will therefore produce an overall passing grade of “+2”, but greater performance in either component can compensate for the other (e.g. “+2” written but “0” oral).