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Doctoral Qualifying Oral Examination


Sandya Lakkur
Ryan Jarrett
Nick Strayer


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 both the first-year and second-year comprehensive exams at the PhD level, and pass the doctoral qualifying oral examination. The doctoral qualifying oral examination should be completed in the winter or early spring of the student’s third academic year.


The goal of the oral doctoral qualifying examination is to determine (1) if the student is prepared to independently pursue doctoral-level research in biostatistics and (2) if the student can clearly communicate a proficiency with applied and theoretical statistical concepts to statisticians and non-statisticians. The exam assesses the student’s ability to synthesize and communicate advanced statistical concepts in an area of the student’s choosing. It also examines the depth and breadth the students’ knowledge in biostatistics and biomedicine. The examination is not intended to be a dissertation proposal defense nor is it intended to reassess a student’s technical competency. Rather, the intent of the examination is to gauge the students’ preparedness for pursuing doctoral research and proficiency in communicating statistical concepts to a broad audience.

Documents and Presentation

To help focus the examination, the student prepares and presents a literature review or an active exploration of an advanced statistical method or concept. The presentation typically takes 30 minutes. The student also prepares an overview document that summarizes their review or exploration and demonstrates synthesis, familiarity, and command of the topic as well as outlining potential avenues of future research. The student must submit the document to the examination committee 14 days in advance of the examination. Note: students are not required to continue working on this topic area after the examination. The student works closely with a faculty member to prepare this document and that faculty member typically serves as the student’s advisor and advocate up to and throughout the examination.


Examinations are closed to the public and last approximately two hours. The chair of the committee is the most senior Biostatistics faculty who is not the student’s advisor. Immediately before the exam begins, the committee members meet in private to determine how questioning will be conducted (e.g., order, timing, topics, scope). The student then presents their work. During the presentation, questions will be limited to clarifications. After the presentation, the committee commences with questioning. After questioning is concluded, the committee deliberates in private. Then the student is asked to come back into the room to discuss the committee’s decision and the examination.

Committee Composition

The committee must have a minimum of four voting members. Voting members must hold a PhD, ScD, or DrPH and be graduate school faculty in good standing. Of the four voting members, three must be faculty from the Department of Biostatistics. At least one voting member must be from a department other than the Department of Biostatistics. School of Medicine faculty who hold a MD are encouraged to participate in the examination and in the committee’s closed deliberations, but are not eligible to vote. The committee’s composition must be approved by the DGS. Students are encouraged to discuss the composition of the committee with their faculty advisor. Once established, the committee request form should be submitted to the Program Manager (the form can be found at PhD Committee request).

Examination Criteria

The student must demonstrate (1) excellence in communication skills, (2) proficiency with the core PhD curriculum, (3) refined critical thinking skills, and (4) the ability to synthesize key concepts in the topic of the student’s choosing. There are three possible outcomes of the examination: Pass; Conditional pass (conditions to be set by the doctoral qualifying committee and subsequently approved by the DGS); Fail. On satisfactory completion of the examination (i.e., pass or conditional pass with conditions met), the student is admitted to candidacy. In the case of failure, the student has six months to retake the examination. The doctoral qualifying committee, with approval of the DGS, will determine the date of the second examination. Failure in the second examination will result in dismissal from the doctoral program.

Exam Scheduling

Once the student is ready to appoint the committee and schedule the exam, the student should contact the Program Manager for additional instructions. The forms needed to schedule the exam and appoint the committee will be due four weeks prior to the assessment. Please ensure that this is initiated in advance to allow time to plan, schedule, and submit these forms by the Graduate School deadline. To officially schedule the exam, the student will need to complete the Request to Schedule Qualifying Exam form. The department Program Manager can assist with booking meeting space if needed.

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