Comprehensive Exam

PhD in Pharmacology & Physiology

The Oral Comprehensive Exam for the PhD Degree in Pharmacology & Physiology uses the NRSA format. It typically occurs in the second summer somewhere in July to September. This takes the form of a mock grant proposal. The proposal should be similar in format to an NRSA Predoctoral application, with clearly defined hypotheses, an abstract, specific aims, background & rationale, and experimental design. The proposal should be a maximum of 6 pages, excluding the abstract.

The student should expect questions on all aspects of the proposal, including methods utilized in the proposal, statistical analyses of the data, as well as basic pharmacological principles. The course ‘Survival Skills & Ethics for Scientists’, taken in spring of Year 1 prepares students to write this proposal.

The examination committee consists of four faculty members from the training programs in pharmacology and physiology. Any faculty member who has had significant input into the crafting of the proposal should not be a member of the examination committee. Discuss, with your potential thesis mentor, which faculty to recommend to be members of the committee. Submit these names to the Program Director at least two weeks prior to the exam date. More information on the exam and how it is evaluated can be found in the Student Handbook

  • Compile, evaluate, and critique a body of literature
  • Integrate the acquired information into broad conceptual schemes
  • Develop testable hypotheses and devise experiments to evaluate them
  • Consider what data will be collected, and how those data would be analyzed statistically
  • Understand the scientific methodology chosen and its limitations
  • Demonstrate the communication skills required to present and defend scientific ideas in oral and written formats.
  • Though the temptation is great, mentors must resist answering questions for their mentees.

Background and Rationale: The student demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of the relevant background information that leads to the proposed experiments. The student clearly explains why the proposed experiments follow logically from previous work in the field. The student explains the significance of the work, and how scientific knowledge will be furthered by the completion of the proposed work. The student conveys the innovative aspects of the work.

Experimental Design: The student clearly explains the methodological procedures required for the completion of the proposed experiments. The student explains why those methods were chosen to answer the specific aims (i.e., why a particular dose, behavioral paradigm, assay, etc.). The student understands the methods used and what the data collected will look like. The student explains what controls were chosen and why. Emphasis will be placed on Experimental Design.

Interpretation, Alternative Approaches, Pitfalls, Follow-Ups: The student demonstrates logical reasoning and critical thinking. The student is able to discuss what both positive and negative outcomes mean. The student anticipates potential pitfalls that may arise and explain how he or she plans on handling them. The student explains other approaches that could be used to investigate the proposed aims (e.g., if the proposed experiments do not go as planned). The student explains potential follow up experiments for the different outcomes.

Statistical Analyses: The planned statistical analyses are appropriate. The student can explain why he or she chose these analyses and discuss alternative approaches (if appropriate)

Presentation: The student demonstrates strong communication skills (clarity, precision, completeness, professionalism).