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Qualifying Exam Committee

In consultation with the Major Professor and approval by the Graduate Advisor, the student will choose a committee that will administer the Qualifying Exam (see below for details of exam format).  The committee must be chosen early in the third long (Fall or Spring) semester in residence, with the goal of taking the Qualifying Exam by the end of the third semester. The committee will consist of five faculty members, including the student’s Major Professor (and co-advisor, if any). The student and Major Professor(s) propose a list of names to serve on the committee, and this list is either approved by the Graduate Advisor, or the Advisor suggests modifications to ensure diverse membership. The student’s Major Professor serves as an observer.  In the spirit of the integrative nature of our graduate program, the remainder of the Qualifying Exam Committee should be chosen to represent diverse areas of research, but the GSC does not dictate what areas must be covered. At least four committee members should be EEB GSC faculty members. There is no requirement for an outside committee member, though this may be desirable for many students, depending on their research and educational goals. One Senior Lecturer can serve on the Qualifying committee with the approval of the Graduate Advisor. The Exam Committee is chaired by a faculty member other than the Major Professor, appointed by the Graduate Advisor from among the Committee members.

Qualifying Exam

The Qualifying Exam Committee described above (section on Student Advising) will administer the exam with the Major Professor acting as an observer but not actively participating.  The Graduate Advisor will choose the chairman of the Qualifying Exam Committee from one of the four members who is not the student’s Major Professor. 


PURPOSE: The purpose of Qualifying Exam is to assess whether students have the intellectual capacity, maturity, and background knowledge to conduct research. Specifically, the exam is supposed to:

  1. evaluate student ability to identify and justify interesting research questions, including formulating appropriate hypotheses,
  2. assess student ability to place research questions into context of current literature,
  3. assess student ability to plan strategies to answer research questions,
  4. evaluate the student’s ability to communicate their questions and knowledge in written and oral form,
  5. identify gaps in student knowledge and to recommend rectification, and
  6. provide an incentive for student to hone skills and knowledge necessary to proceed with research in their discipline. Assessment of more general subject-matter knowledge is achieved by grades from courses.

PREREQUISITES: Prior to taking the Qualifying Exam, students should have completed the 2-semester Subjects & Skills classes, and any courses that the First Year Guidance Committee requires the student to take before the exam. The Guidance Committee may also require that the student to take a course but not stipulate that completion of the course precede the Exam (for instance, when the course is offered irregularly).

SCHEDULING: The Qualifying Exam should take place by the end of the third long semester (typically the fall semester) of the student’s residence in the EEB program. All students are required to complete the Qualifying Exam before the end of their fourth semester.

FORMAT AND PROTOCOL: The Qualifying Exam consists of two parts, in the following order:

a)    The student will submit a written research synopsis on a topic that falls within the student’s general area of study. The synopsis should be 4 pages single-spaced in the format of an NSF pre-proposal; the literature cited section does not count toward this page limit and there may be one additional page of figures or tables. This synopsis is due a minimum of one week prior to the oral exam (see below). The topic addressed in the synopsis does not have to be directly related to the student’s eventual dissertation research, though such overlap is possible. The synopsis should not be specific on methodological detail, but should emphasize concepts, research objectives, hypothesis testing, rationale for experiments or observations, and implication of possible results. Students will not typically include preliminary data. Rather, the goal of the written synopsis is to demonstrate the student’s ability to:

  • identify an important open question suitable for research,
  • formulate clear hypotheses regarding this question,
  • clearly describe the conceptual foundations and motivation for the work, placed into the context of the existing literature,
  • conceive of a general plan for how to approach answering the research question; typically a student might propose two to four research objectives that address the question,
  • evaluate potential outcomes and their implications.

The document will be evaluated primarily for its clarity in describing the context and rationale for the work in light of relevant literature, and thus the student’s ability to IDENTIFY a significant research question. The focus, at this stage, is not on the specific research methods, which are the emphasis of the dissertation proposal defense. The emphasis should be on the questions addressed and their rationale, not on the detailed methods. Preliminary results are not required, and students are not committed to carrying out the proposed work.  

Students are encouraged to describe research they actually intend to pursue. However, students are in no way required to continue with this proposed work in their subsequent thesis work. Moreover, students are not expected to have any preliminary results pertaining to the work they propose, but they are allowed to present any preliminary results they may have. Finally, the proposed experiments or analyses need to be feasible with current technology, but they do not have to be limited to methods or resources the student currently has access to. However, the student needs to show an understanding of the resources required to complete the work.

The synopsis should come from the student, not the Major Professors, but a student may consult other faculty and other students for advice.  THE MAJOR PROFESSOR(S) SHOULD NOT EDIT THE DOCUMENT.

b)   The student will take an oral exam, starting with a 20-minute presentation concerning the subject of the research synopsis. The exam is expected to take 2-3 hours. During the oral part of the qualifying exam, the student first presents the research plan outlined in the synopsis, including relevant background information. Subsequently, the committee will ask the student questions on the research plan, on related research topics, and on any other background material from the areas of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, as the committee members see fit. In the exam, faculty will evaluate:

  1. student knowledge in areas potentially relevant to the proposed work
  2. the ability of the student to think through the implications of the research and possible results and their implications
  3. less emphasis is given to the students’ technical skills needed to conduct the research, although the committee may ask some questions in this area in order to make recommendations about technical training needed to proceed with such a research topic.

c)     If faculty identify areas of weakness or concern during parts (a) and (b), the committee may choose to assign written essays answering questions provided by committee members following the oral exam. The goal is to provide a means to evaluate a student’s knowledge in more depth and encourage the student to master specific areas. The length of the essays and allotted time may be set by the committee, but typically students would have one week per question to research and write, and the typical essay will be up to 4 pages not including citations. This requirement is not intended to indicate that the student failed the exam generally, merely that there are particular subject areas that the committee is concerned about and wishes to evaluate more fully, or as a written rather than oral format. This may be a commonly applied request.

OUTCOMES:  At the end of the oral exam, the Qualifying Exam Committee discusses both the written synopsis and oral exam, and reach a recommendation. Depending on student performance, the Committee may recommend:

  1. Pass the student unconditionally.
  2. Pass the student with requirements that must be fulfilled either before or after advancement to candidacy. Requirements may include, but are not limited to, taking additional lecture courses or seminars, or writing the short essays described in part (c) above. If written answers are required, then the faculty will subsequently read the essays, provide written feedback, and then communicate in person or by email to change the grade either to a pass (i) or not pass (iii-v). A decision to not pass at this stage would require an in-person committee meeting with the student.
  3. Fail the student and require that the student retake one or both parts of the exam.
  4. Fail the student and terminate their pre-doctoral program, with approval to pursue a master's degree.
  5. Fail the student with dismissal from the graduate program.

Immediately following the exam, the Qualifying Exam Committee will put its recommendation in writing, have it signed by the student, and file it with the Graduate Coordinator. If the full GSC concurs with either recommendations (i) or ii), the student is authorized to make formal application to the Office of Graduate Studies for admission to candidacy for the Ph.D. after the proposal defense has taken place.


A student who wishes to schedule a Qualifying Exam must prepare a Proposed Program of Work for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy.  This is a list of the courses completed, ongoing, or proposed that are to be counted toward the Ph.D.  A sample is shown in the Appendix, and a blank form is available from Tamra Rogers.  The Plan of Work includes an approximate thesis title (in order to give the GSC an indication of the student’s interests), but a research abstract is not required at this time.  A draft of the program of work should be approved by the Graduate Advisor at least two weeks before the Qualifying Exam is scheduled to occur.  The draft will then be distributed by the Graduate Coordinator to the entire GSC for comments and recommendations.


In its deliberations, following the oral portion of the exam, the Qualifying Exam Committee may consider not only responses to questions during the exam, but also the successful completion of formal coursework, prior research experience, and other evidence of academic achievement.  Any comments received from other members of the GSC on the proposed plan of study will also be considered.  When the committee has completed its deliberations on the student's performance and has decided on a recommendation, the student will be invited back before the committee to discuss the results of the examination.        


Program of Work

Prior to Part 1 of the qualifying exam, you must fill out your Program of Work form, listing the courses that you have taken or will take toward fulfilling your degree requirements. For each course, provide the course number, course title, professor, institution, semester taken, and grade. The Graduate Coordinator will provide you with this form as a Word document; use Word to fill out the form – do not hand-write.

Note that coursework is to be divided into MAJOR and SUPPORTING WORK. Your Supervising Professor or the Graduate Advisor can help you classify your coursework. Research courses such as BIO 382 should not be included, nor should courses with a grade of C. However, do include BIO 999R and 999W and indicate that they are to be taken. The Program of Work should only include courses that count for credit in Graduate School at UT Austin.


On a separate page, list advanced biology courses you have taken at other universities, noting the course, year, and grade as required for the program of work. The Graduate Advisor has to sign the Program of Work prior to the Qualifying Exam.


A copy of the Program of Work and of courses taken elsewhere is to be turned in to the Graduate Coordinator who will circulate it to all faculty at least one week before the Qualifying Exam.


Qualifying Exam Application

Program of Work

Qualifying Exam Results