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Qualifying Exam (QE)

All GBS students are required to pass a QE prior to being admitted to candidacy. Before scheduling the QE, you must have at least one committee meeting to get approval of the planned topic of your thesis research.

The QE has both a written and oral component. Students will present a written research proposal and orally defend it. Students are responsible for checking with theme director(s) regarding additional theme-specific requirements, including the attendance of theme directors or individuals who are not the student's committee members. 

The aims of the qualifying exam proposal do not constitute a binding contract for the successful completion of the dissertation project.

When a student arranges the schedule of the qualifying exam, the student will fill out the Pre-Qualifying Exam Form that will include the committee membership and email addresses. In addition, the agreed-upon dates for completion of the written portion and the oral portion will be entered. Submission of this form will trigger an email to all committee members (including the mentor) and theme director(s) indicating the dates of the written evaluation and the oral presentation. Importantly, the message will also detail the expectations of the meeting and all faculty participants.

Committee members will be encouraged to reach out to theme leadership or the Associate Dean with questions or concerns.

It is preferred that at least one theme director attend all qualifying examinations for theme students. The theme director may ask questions of the student, but does not have a vote on the student’s performance (unless the theme director is also an official member of the committee).

Intended Benefits

  • Separation of the written exam from the oral exam ensures that the committee knows the concept of the project prior to the oral, so less time is spent on “facts” and more is spent in examination.
  • Unified guidelines will provide an opportunity for the committee to be reminded of its key role in this process and articulation the expectations that this is an exam, not a meeting.
  • Presentation of unified guidelines to all GBS mentors will allow better appreciation of roles and understanding of the process prior to the defenses.
  • Remove confusion between themes and among faculty/students regarding rules for the qualifying exam.

QE Forms

Pre-Qualifying Exam Form
This form must be submitted two weeks prior to the scheduled QE to indicate the proposed written and oral QE dates.

Post-Qualifying Exam Form
Once the QE is complete, the student is responsible for completing the following Docusign form to be signed by each committee member.

This form is utilized for review between the student and committee. 

Admission to Candidacy
This AdobeSign form must be completed and approved by the Graduate School before you can register for research hours. Please indicate the GBS office in the Program Manager field. 

See the GBS Handbook for additional information. 

If you have further questions, please contact the GBS Program Administrator.


  • Timing
    Since fellowship applications are more competitive when students have completed their qualifying exams, it is suggested students follow the dates below for completion of written and oral portions of the exam during their second year. This is a suggested timeline, but there will be variability between students in actual dates of accomplishment. Students who require additional time to prepare can complete the exam later; however, this delay may negatively impact fellowship and T32 applications.
    • March 31st: Turn in written proposal to all committee members
    • April 30th: Committee members return comments to student
    • May 31st: Oral defense completed*
    *Due to difficulty in arranging schedules, students may schedule oral defense prior to successful completion of written portion.

    The final deadline for all students to complete written and oral portions of the exam is the end of the fall semester of the student's third year. If a student has not completed the qualifying exam at this time, the theme will arrange a meeting with the student and mentor to define a timeline for completion.

    Note: MSTP students follow a different schedule and should consult the MSTP manual for deadline information. However, the format of the exam will remain consistent with all other GBS students.

  • Pre-Qualifying Exam Form
  • This form must be submitted two weeks prior to the scheduled QE to indicate the proposed written and oral QE dates.
  • Committee Composition
    All committees are to be comprised of at least five faculty members, including the mentor, who have UAB Graduate Faculty status

    QE Committee Chair: A committee chair for the qualifying exam will be selected by the student in consultation with the mentor and potentially other leaders within the program. The mentor cannot serve as chair. The committee chair will serve as the primary point of communication between the student and the committee members for both the oral and written portions of the exam (relaying decisions such as pass, fail, or required modifications). It is the student’s responsibility to communicate with the chair of the committee and confirm their willingness to serve in that role. The GBS program will provide a description of duties/expectations to the chair and all committee members as soon as the dates of the exam are set.

    Mentor Participation in Meetings: The mentor is an important member of the committee and can freely participate in all regular committee meetings, but the mentor does not participate in the qualifying exam. The mentor may attend (to take notes and provide advice later), but cannot participate or answer exam questions from the student or the committee. In cases where factual interpretations are important for progress of the meeting, committee members may ask the mentor for clarification of a point.

    The mentor is not required to attend the exam. In cases where the mentor prefers to be absent during the examination, the committee of at least 4 faculty members will conduct the exam and inform the student of their performance.
  • Written Proposal
  • Submit written proposal to committee (F31 format = 1 title page, 1 aims page, 6 pages of research strategy). In addition, the student will provide an updated biosketch and career goals. References are not included in the 6-page limit. For guidance, many training opportunities (scientific writing courses) are available on campus. Examples of successful F31 proposals are available through UAB CCTS and the NIH. Mentors can provide general guidance and structure for the student during the writing process, but the student cannot mimic or copy the mentor’s proposals. This is an original proposal, by the student.
  • The schedule allows at least 30 days for complete review of the written proposal.
  • Each committee member (excluding the mentor) submits a written NIH-style critique of the proposal to the committee chair using this form. Importantly, this critique is focused on the strengths and weaknesses of the written proposal. Only significance, innovation, and approach will be scored. Rather than a numerical score, each committee member will choose one of three options:
    1. Pass without revision
    2. Revise and submit a response to reviewer’s criticism
    3. Rewrite and resubmit both a response and revised proposal for full review.
    In addition to the NIH style critique, the committee member can provide a marked-up version of the proposal (electronically or hard copy) to aid the student in revision.
  • The chair of the committee will collect the evaluations. In the event that a unanimous decision is not reached, the chair will discuss the written document with committee members (in person or electronically, depending on the preference of the committee) and reach a mutually agreeable decision (pass, revise, or fail).
  • If a response to critiques is requested, the student will have two weeks to submit this document. The response is limited to two pages in length.
  • If a re-write is required (in sum or in part) the committee will determine the time allotted for the re-write, pending the amount of revision required. It is expected that the time required to re-write will be less than four weeks, at the committee’s discretion.
  • If the revised document is unacceptable to a majority of the panel, this will be recorded as a “fail”. At this point, the mentor, the committee chair, the theme director, and the student will meet and create a timeline for repeating the process. The timeline will be written and agreed upon by all parties.
  • A second failure of the process will result in dismissal from the program.
  • The written and oral portions of the exam are independent of one another; however, the first evaluation of the written portion must be completed by the committee and responses returned to the student at least 1 week prior to the oral exam. This ensures that the student has sufficient time to adjust the oral presentation and the committee is informed of the details of the proposal.
  • A committee member may choose to withhold certain criticisms of the written work from his/her written critique, in order to address this issue in the oral defense. However, major concerns (e.g. “fatal flaws”) evident in the written portion must be described to the student prior to the oral defense.
  • QE Written Review Form
    This form is utilized for review between the student and committee. 
  • Oral Defense
    • The format of the presentation is tailored around the major features of a research proposal:
      1. What is the question being addressed?
      2. Why is this question significant?
      3. What research aims will be examined to address this question?
    • The student should respond to any major shortcomings identified in the committee’s critiques of the written proposal during the oral exam.
    • Since this is an exam, the committee is expected to ask questions relevant to the project but also relevant to general knowledge for a modern scientist.
    • The committee is encouraged to ask questions probing experimental design and creative concepts.
    • The student is evaluated on their ability to think and reason, not simply understand their project.
    • After completion of the defense, the committee will hold a closed session to discuss the performance. There are three possible outcomes:
      1. Pass without exception
      2. Pass with additional requirements (for example a certain course or training module can be required to fill an area or need, or certain sections of the oral defense can be redone)
      3. Fail and re-schedule.
    • In the closed door discussion, the committee chair must work to reach a resolution acceptable to all committee members. The mentor can participate in this discussion to provide insight to the committee, but if a vote is taken, the mentor will abstain.
    • The result of the meeting will be recorded on the GBS Qualifying Exam form, and this form will be signed by each committee member and delivered to the GBS office within two business days.
    • In the event of a failure, the student is permitted one more attempt at the oral defense. A second failure will result in dismissal from the program.
    In addition, the student will provide an updated biosketch and career goals. References are not included in the 6-page limit.

  • Post-Qualifying Exam Form
  • Once the QE is complete, the student is responsible for completing the following Adobe Sign form to be signed by each committee member.
  • Admission to Candidacy
    Admission to candidacy is an important transition during doctoral education. Advancement into candidacy reflects completion of the first stage of training and transitioning into dissertation research. Passage of the qualifying exam is one part of this transition. Students should reference the Graduate School's Candidacy Deadlines prior to submission.

    Advancement to Candidacy Requirements:
    • Successful completion of all first-year courses (earning a B or better)
    • Completion of ethics training (e.g. GRD717)
    • Successful completion of one of the approved biostatistics courses (earning a B or better)
    • Completion of 48 semester hours of coursework and pre-dissertation research (see the UAB Graduate School policy for further details and exceptions)
    • Successful completion of the written qualifying exam
    • Successful completion of the oral qualifying exam

    The student is to verify that these requirements have been met by contacting the GBS Curriculum Manager. Once all of these milestones are achieved, the student may call a meeting of the committee together, discuss the research plan (as any normal committee meeting), and have the committee verify advancement to candidacy by signing the official Graduate School Admission to Candidacy form.

    It is the student's responsibility to notify the GBS Finance Manager when the official admission letter is received from the Graduate School, so that the student can receive the $1,000.00 increase in stipend.

    Application for Admission to Candidacy
    This docusign form must be completed and approved by the Graduate School before you can register for research hours. Please indicate the GBS office in the Program Manager field.