The purpose of the comprehensive examination, as described by the University of Iowa Graduate College, is to serve as an inclusive evaluation of the candidate's mastery of the field and related fields of study, including the tools of the relevant research discipline. in which competence has been certified. The exam must completed in a timely fashion and the end of the student’s second year. It is the responsibility of the students and the respective thesis advisors to ensure that all deadlines are satisfactorily met.

Timing of the comprehensive exam

The comprehensive examination is expected to be completed no later than the first semester of the third year of residence. The exam may be postponed for up to one semester if a valid appeal is submitted by the student with the support of the thesis sponsor and approved by the GAC before the first semester of the third year. Failure to start the comprehensive examination at the appropriate time or failure to meet other scheduled deadlines may result in dismissal from the PhD program. 

Required forms

Prior to taking the examination, the student must complete an approved "Plan of Study Summary Sheet" and a "Request for Doctoral Comprehensive Examination" form. These forms are available from the graduate program coordinator.

Timeline for the comprehensive exam for second year students

  • November: Enroll in Writing for the Natural Sciences (BIOL:6188:0001).
  • December-February: Assemble the PhD thesis committee /examination committee.
  • Third Friday in February: Report PhD Thesis Committee composition to the Graduate Coordinator (Phil Ecklund) and the Graduate Affairs Committee (GAC) for approval.
  • Two weeks prior to oral examination date: Written comprehensive exam proposal must be handed out to the committee. This should be a revised version of the document turned in at the end of the Writing for the Natural Sciences course, incorporating any improvements suggested by the instructors of that course.
  • August: Completion of the oral comprehensive examination

The examination committee is the same as the thesis committee and should be determined primarily by the student, in consultation with the advisor. This committee should be chosen carefully, including faculty with varying but related expertise. There must be no fewer than five members on the committee, four of whom must be University of Iowa tenure-track faculty.

For the comprehensive exam, the thesis advisor designates an ad hoc chair. This ad hoc chair is responsible for ensuring that the comps guidelines are followed during the course of the exam and also facilitating discussion during the oral examination.

The thesis advisor should not participate in the discussion during the oral examination, except when minor clarification is required.

During the spring semester of the second year, students develop an up to eight-page NIH-F31 or NSF-DDIG-style grant proposal about their thesis research. Second-year PhD students are required to take the course, Writing in the Natural Sciences (BIOL:6188:0001), during that spring semester in which they will focus on writing this proposal. Students will hand this in for grading at the end of the Writing in the Natural Sciences course in May. 

However, students must continue to revise the proposal in response to the comments of the instructors in the course and following scientific discussions over the course of the summer. Students are encouraged to discuss their scientific ideas with their thesis advisor, their committee, and other scientists. However, all of the writing must be the student’s own, and the thesis advisor should not extensively re-write the document or significantly alter the direction or scope of the proposal, especially in the last weeks approaching the exam.

Students are required to follow the following format for proposals, which approximates the format for NIH individual predoctoral fellowships (F31) and NSF DDIG grant applications (*broader impacts are required for the actual DDIG grant but should NOT be included in the comps exam). The specific aims and research strategy sections can total no more than eight pages, and should follow the following format:

Specific aims (one page)

Broad statement addressing the basic problem, state of current knowledge, preliminary studies and hypotheses to be tested 

Research strategy (six to seven pages)

  • Background, significance, or introduction (two pages)
  • Preliminary data (one to two pages)
  • For each aim (two to three aims):
    • Rationale: why the study is being done, critical questions to be addressed (quarter of a page)
    • Experimental design and expected results (one page)
    • Expected results and possible caveats (half of a page page)
    • Expected outcomes (new knowledge), implications and future directions (1/4 page)

Additional formatting instructions

  • The first specific aims page giving the broad statement and aims need not include references.
  • The remaining sections will contain citations to relevant primary literature and specific recent reviews. The literature cited list should be included at the end of the proposal and is not included in the page count.
  • Figures and tables should be embedded in the text and are included in the page count. Figure legends and tables may use nine-point font.
    • Proposals must use 10-11 point Arial or Palatino font for the main text, single line spacing, and 1.0 inch margins all around.*
*Please see specific formatting instructions for the actual grant applications when submitting these for F31 and DDIG funding, as each application has specific font and margin requirements (11pt for NIH, 10pt for NSF, etc..)

Students are required to distribute the proposal to the committee exam chair no less than two weeks prior to the scheduled oral examination. The chair will then forward to the rest of the committee.**

**Failure to meet this timetable may result in a rescheduling of the exam to give all committee members adequate time to review the document.

Pre-exam interactions

If there are committee members generally unfamiliar with the student’s area of work, it may be appropriate to schedule a “pre-comps” meeting with the committee. This may be an informal meeting to introduce the general research area and scope of the student’s work. Other informal meetings with individual committee members may also be appropriate. Although part of the goal of iBio’s “on topic” comps is to help the students plan their work around logical hypotheses and biological questions, this is also an exam to judge whether a student can understand and communicate a research project in sufficient depth to progress to a PhD. It is therefore expected that 1) these pre-comps meetings should take place no later than four weeks prior to the exam date, and 2) that the student not solicit feedback on the proposal from faculty after the submission to exam committee. Students may continue to consult their advisor during the preparation of the oral presentation, but the advisor should not extensively re-work the talk on behalf of the student. 

The student will provide a 20-30 minute formal oral presentation of the written proposal at the beginning of the oral examination. Typically, the student should be allowed to give this presentation in full without extensive interruption by the committee, except to clear up minor points.

Following the oral presentation, the student will be questioned about the content and experimental design of the proposal. The student should demonstrate expertise in the area of the proposal and should be able to answer questions on general scientific knowledge and detailed experimental design and rationale. Committee members will question the student about the proposal to ascertain that the student understands the background to their thesis question, has formulated solid aims with clear expected outcomes and alternate strategies, and has a sufficient grasp of the experimental methodology to perform the planned work. The entire oral examination should not take more than two hours.

Clarity of written proposal

Is it easy to see what is being presented? Is the background information clear enough to understand the problem? Is the proposed solution to the problem developed in a logical sequence? Are highly specialized terms or abbreviations explained?


Is the approach new and/or innovative? Are the ideas novel and imaginative?

Knowledge of the subject and methods

Does the student have an in-depth understanding of the biology of the problem area: what is known and what is not? Is the student sufficiently aware of the limitations of the experimental methods used so far to address the problem? 

Suitability of methods

Are the proposed experimental methods the best possible? What are the alternatives? Does the student recognize experimental difficulties in the selection or use of the proposed methods? Would these methods be suitable for solution of the problem in a reasonable period of time? 

Reasoning and data interpretation

Can the student interpret the data so as to come to a conclusion or to suggest another approach? Have alternative interpretations been considered sufficiently? When presented with a set of data, can the student interpret it properly? 

Ability to explain difficult or unusual concepts

This pertains to the student's oral performance rather than the written proposal that was evaluated according to criteria listed above. Is the student understandable or confusing in explaining difficult material? 

Knowledge of material peripheral to the proposal

Are there serious gaps in the student's knowledge of biology when questioned about material somewhat removed from the proposal?

The PhD thesis committee will determine the outcome of the exam. Each member votes for either satisfactory, reservations, or unsatisfactory. This determination can be made on the basis of the written exam, oral exam, or both at the discretion of each committee member.

For reservations, (this means “pass with reservations”), specific instructions must be given by the committee to the student for what is needed to rectify the problems. This option should only be used if the deficiencies are relatively minor, and one vote of reservations is sufficient to require rectification. Limitations on the nature of such conditions are outlined in the Manual of Rules and Regulations of the Graduate College. There must be a time limit by which the conditions must be met and the student, the Graduate College, and the GAC must be notified in writing what those conditions are and what the time limit will be. Usually, the time limit will be less than 60 days, so that if the conditions are not met by the student (and the student fails the examination), the student will be able to re-take the examination in the time-frame outlined below. If there are serious major flaws in the proposal or the oral examination, the student should not pass the examination. The student is typically given four weeks to meet these requirements. If a student is required to take more courses, the time frame will be modified. If the committee is satisfied with the rectification, the reservation is removed and the student passes.

Two unsatisfactory votes will result in a failing grade for the exam. Should this occur, the exam is rescheduled after four months, but before the end of the fall semester if possible (four months after the first exam/defense date is in accordance with Graduate College rules). If the second exam cannot be scheduled to occur in the same semester as the first exam/defense, then it must be scheduled for the semester immediately following (except in cases where new coursework would continue beyond this point). If the committee determined that the student still does not demonstrate a grasp of the research topic, the student would incur a second failure and be dismissed from the program on the grounds of unsatisfactory progress to degree. Read further details concerning outcomes of the PhD examination on the Graduate College website.