Breadth Exam

Both PhD and postdoctoral research fellows must successfully pass the Oral I/Breadth Exam, which is taken after students have successfully completed the core curriculum. For PhD students, this is usually taken in the summer of their second year but may be taken in the winter intercession of their second year in January with permission of the Training Committee. The exam is given three times a year: in January, in Spring term (April) for those who expect to graduate in May or in the summer months of June or July. The exam committee consists of three or four faculty members, at least one of whom should be in the student’s area of interest (i.e. clinical, public health, biomedical, or translational informatics). The purpose of the exam is to assess the student’s breadth of knowledge of the field, the ability to express this knowledge verbally, reason with it, and to synthesize concepts from different areas. The PhD oral exam demands a greater level of understanding of research issues and a demonstration of scientific reasoning capabilities.

Questions are adapted to the student’s background or coursework and research. While factual knowledge is important, questions tend to be novel constructions, and often ask the student to bring together information from two or more areas. The committee members use an assessment form, provided by the Graduate Program Manager, to assign scores. They decide by consensus whether the student passes or re- takes the exam. The committee chair is responsible for sending a final copy of the form to the Graduate Program Manager. The committee chair is also responsible for informing the student, either in person at the conclusion of the exam, and emailing the decision of the committee (pass or fail) to the student, the Graduate Program Manager, the Graduate Program Director, and the student’s research and academic advisors. Along with the decision, the committee chair should inform the student of areas of strength and weakness of the student’s performance and, in the case of failure, the earliest date that the student may retake the exam (usually six months) as well as recommendations for improvement. The student should sit with the same exam committee for the retake exam. Students who fail two consecutive exams are at risk of being dismissed from the program. For PhD students, successful completion of this exam results in an MA degree, provided the student has earned the necessary two residence units.

The exam is 45 minutes for MA students and one hour for PhD students. The exam is held in a PH-20 Conference Room and scheduled by the Graduate Program Manager approximately one month in advance, if possible. Students should inform the Graduate Program Manager of their interest in taking the exam several months in advance of the desired schedule date. The Graduate Program Manager will attempt to accommodate requests for specific exam dates; however, scheduling is subject to faculty availability.

In all cases, the faculty strongly encourages students to work in groups to prepare for the exam. The student representatives have information on previous exam questions that have been asked of students and can offer suggestions on how to best prepare for the exam. For PhD students, there will be more of a focus on research than for postdoctoral MA students, reflecting the differences between the two degrees.

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