Qualifying Exam Process + Defense

The Qualifying Examination & Dissertation Proposal Defense Committee

As soon as possible after passing the Comprehensive Exam but no later than the end of the spring quarter of the second year, students should form a Qualifying Exam/Dissertation Proposal Committee in consultation with their advisor. The Q.E. Committee Nomination form (see Forms & Print Materials) must be completed and submitted to the Graduate Program Coordinator along with any/all supporting materials no later than the end of the spring quarter of the second year. The Graduate Program Coordinator will provide departmental approval before submitting the form and supporting materials to the Graduate Division for ultimate approval.

The Q.E. Committee consists of at least four members. At least two members of the committee must be active faculty in the EEB Department, and the Chair of the committee must be a tenured faculty member from within the department other than the student’s advisor. At least one member of the committee must come from outside the department; this outside member may be: (1) a tenured faculty member from a different discipline from the UCSC campus, (2) a tenured member of the same or different discipline from another university campus (CV needed), or (3) a professional biologist from an outside institution (e.g. government agency or NGO) who has specific expertise relevant to the dissertation (CV needed). University guidelines require that any outside member from a non-academic institution present credentials that show this person to have experience equivalent to that of a tenured professor. The outside member’s CV will need to be reviewed and approved by the Graduate Dean, and students should allow two months for this process.

After the qualifying exam, this committee becomes the Dissertation Reading Committee (requiring the Dissertation Reading Committee Nomination form – see Forms & Print Materials); however, individual members of the committee may change at the discretion of the student and advisor. Committee amendments require Graduate Division approval, and students are requested to inform committee members of changes in the committee.

The Dissertation Proposal and Qualifying Exam Process

The student submits a dissertation research proposal to their Qualifying Exam & Dissertation Proposal Committee and defends it in an oral examination. The dissertation research proposal should be written as a formal proposal, with a maximum of 15 pages, including figures and tables but not references, and with 1” margins and at least 11-point font. Committees may provide more specific guidance on proposal format. One criterion of a satisfactory proposal is that it is of the quality required for submission to a granting agency, and submission of the proposal for funding is encouraged. The proposal must be submitted to the committee at least ten days before the defense.

The committee meets for approximately 10 minutes prior to the start of the examination to review the student's file and discuss any specific issues relevant to the examination.  Students are called in and asked to give a presentation of their proposal, which may either be a short (10-15 minute) summary, or an extended outline used to structure discussion by the committee.  Committee members should be consulted on their preference for the format. The student may be interrupted at any time during this presentation and asked to elaborate on or clarify points.  The exam will usually be confined to scientific areas directly concerned with the research proposal.  The examination typically lasts about 3 hours, after which the student is asked to leave the room. The committee discusses the performance and comes to a consensus. The student is invited back in and informed of the outcome of the examination. Students may pass, fail, or receive a conditional pass.

Students are to bring a copy of the Qualifying Exam Report form (see Forms & Print Materials) to their exam. This form will later be prepared by the Chair and reviewed and signed by all committee members. A copy is provided to the student and the original is submitted to the Graduate Program Coordinator who will provide departmental verification and submit to the Graduate Division for the student’s advancement to candidacy. 

In the case of a conditional pass, the committee will define any deficiencies in the proposal or performance in the exam and provide a timetable during which the student must rectify the problems. If the student fails, they may be given the option of re-taking the examination with the same committee after appropriate preparation and guidance. If a student fails twice, they will be dismissed from the program. All dismissals will be reviewed by EEB-GAC.  If explicitly invited to do so by the examination committee, students who fail the Dissertation Proposal Defense Examination may have one quarter to produce a Master’s thesis on research completed at that time. 

The proposal defense generally takes place in Term 6-7 (fall or winter quarters of the third year) and must be completed by Term 9 (spring of the third year). If the student fails the exam or is asked to rewrite the proposal, the final, modified proposal and exam retake must still be completed no later than Term 9. Any exceptions to the Term 9 deadline require EEB-GAC approval and may be grounds for academic probation.

The Dissertation Proposal / Qualifying Exam Seminar

The final requirement before advancement to candidacy is the 30-minute departmental seminar on the student’s research proposal. Students are to contact the Graduate Program Coordinator to confirm standard block times for graduate student seminar talks for the quarter and then reserve a time on the calendar with the Coordinator once they confirm dates with their committee. Students are encouraged to pair up so that two proposal seminars are scheduled consecutively. The seminar should be scheduled so that at least three of the four members of the student's Qualifying Exam Committee can attend.