Biostatistics Graduate Program

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Comprehensive examinations

Written comprehensive examinations are administered at the end of the first and the second academic years to gauge proficiency in both theoretical and applied statistical methods. Exams are typically administered about one month after the end of the spring semester e.g. the last week of May or the first week of June. Exams are held once a year. Students who fail or do not pass at the desired level on their first attempt may be granted a second attempt where they will take the first year comprehensive examinations again the following year.

First year comprehensive examinations test mastery of applied and theoretical concepts appropriate for the Master of Science degree. First year exams consist of a one-day written theoretical exam (6 hours), half-day written applied exam (3 hours), and a take-home applied exam (24 hours). The focus of the first year exams is Probability Theory, Statistical Inference, Principles of Biostatistics, and Regression methods. Students must pass this exam in order to obtain a MS degree or to proceed in the PhD program.

Second year comprehensive examinations test for mastery of applied and theoretical statistical concepts appropriate for the Doctor of Philosophy degree. While the format for second year exams has not yet been finalized, they are currently planned as take home exams.

Grading of exams is as follows: No Pass, Pass at the MS level, Pass at the PhD level. In order to graduate with a MS degree, students must pass the first-year examination at the MS level or higher. In order to be eligible to take the doctoral qualifying oral examination, pre-doctoral candidates must pass both the first- and second-year examinations at the PhD level. PhD students who fail to pass the comprehensive examinations at the PhD level are eligible for a MS in Biostatistics if they complete all of the necessary requirements for that degree.

Doctoral qualifying oral examination

To qualify for PhD candidacy, a pre-doctoral student must complete all required first- and second-year courses, be in good academic standing (GPA >= 3.0), pass the first- and second-year comprehensive examinations at the PhD level, and pass the doctoral qualifying oral examinations. The doctoral qualifying oral examination is an oral defense of a literature review of 10-20 pages in length. This examination is typically conducted in the fall semester of the third year and it is not intended as a dissertation proposal defense. Rather, the intent of the examination is to gauge the students’ preparedness for pursuing doctoral research. The student’s proposal will consist of a critical review of the literature and will outline potential avenues of research. Students will work closely with a faculty member to prepare this review; this faculty member does not have to be the student’s advisor. The student must submit the proposal 14 days in advance of the examination.

Format of doctoral qualifying oral examination: First, the student will present a summary of the literature review and potential avenues of research. The committee members will be free to ask questions about any substantive or methodologic issue. Examinations will be closed to the public and will last approximately two hours. Students will present their proposal in 30 minutes. For the remainder of the examination, committee members will question the student. The student must demonstrate (1) excellent communication skills, (2) proficiency with the core PhD curriculum, (3) refined critical thinking skills, and (4) the ability to synthesize existing research on a topic of the student’s choosing. The committee will deliberate its conclusions in private. There are three possible outcomes of the examination: Pass; Conditional pass (conditions to be set by the doctoral qualifying committee and approved by the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS); No pass.

The doctoral qualifying committee will have a minimum of four voting members. Of the four voting members, three must be PhD Biostatistics faculty1 and one must be PhD faculty (not in Biostatistics, Statistics, or Mathematics) from Vanderbilt at large. The committee’s composition must be approved by the DGS.

Upon satisfactory completion of the oral examination, i.e. pass or conditional pass with conditions met, the student will be admitted to doctoral candidacy. In the case of a no pass decision, the student is given up to six months to retake the examination. The doctoral qualifying committee, with approval of the DGS, will determine the date of the second examination. A no pass in a second examination will result in dismissal from the doctoral program. Students who do not pass the doctoral qualifying examination are eligible for a MS in Biostatistics if they complete all of the necessary requirements.

1‘PhD Biostatistics faculty’ includes departmental faculty with a PhD, ScD, or DrPH in Biostatistics or Statistics


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