Skip to main content

Ph.D. Dissertation and Exams


The dissertation must be the result of independent and original research by the student, and must constitute a significant contribution to current knowledge in the Biomolecular Sciences, equivalent to multiple peer-reviewed publications. Ideally, the dissertation research should be accepted for publication in peer-reviewed journal(s) prior to the final dissertation defense.


  • Preliminary Exam: The preliminary examination is a series of written examinations that measures achievement by the student of an acceptable breadth and depth of knowledge in the Biomolecular Sciences. The preliminary examination is offered annually, following the end of the spring semester on dates (typically during the second week of the summer). A student should plan to take the preliminary examination prior to the fifth semester of study once they have attained regular status. The written preliminary exam consists of a series of questions covering topics from the core curriculum (BMOL 601, BMOL 602, BMOL 603) as well as PHYS 504 Molecular and Cellular Biophysics and BMOL 511 Advanced Cell Biology.  The questions covering program core courses will be “blended” or interdisciplinary-type questions designed to span the material presented in these three core courses. These questions will be collectively written by program faculty, and compiled by the faculty steering committee. The exam will consist of a series of questions in which students must pass a pre-determined number of questions (e.g., 6 out of 9).  The preliminary exam is graded as either pass or fail.
  • Comprehensive Exam: The comprehensive examination is taken early in the fall semester following successful completion of the preliminary examination. It assesses the readiness of a student to pursue doctoral research in the Biomolecular Sciences. In preparation for the examination, the student develops a written research proposal on a topic distinct from the student’s anticipated dissertation research, and submits the proposal to an examining committee the first day of the semester (typically in the 3rd year of study) by 5:00 pm MST. The examining committee consists of five members of the program faculty representing all three key departments (Biological Sciences, Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Physics).  The examining committee excludes the student’s major advisor. The comprehensive examination requires a private presentation of the proposal by the student to the examining committee.  During and after this presentation, the student answers questions posed by the committee; questions will be based upon the proposal and scientific thinking and scientific content related to the proposal. After this question and answer period, the examining committee will grade the written seminar and the oral defense as pass/fail, or request an additional session in which the student can address revisions to the proposal and/or the oral defense of the proposal.  If an additional session is held, there will be a required waiting period before it can be scheduled. At the end of this process, the examining committee determines the outcome of the comprehensive examination.

All official course descriptions/degree requirements/admission standards/program learning outcomes/etc. are published on the Graduate Catalog site