University of Nebraska Medical Center

Milestones & Timelines

Comprehensive Exam:

When a student has substantially completed his/her didactic studies (usually after the 2nd year of study), he/she must pass a comprehensive examination. Although some departments do not have a deadline for completion of the comprehensive exam, it is strongly recommended not to wait until you want to graduate. The comprehensive examination is not a repetition of course examinations but is an investigation of the student’s breadth of understanding of the field of knowledge of which his/her special subject is a part. This is probably the toughest part of graduate school. Most students say that the defense of the comprehensive exam was more difficult than the defense of their dissertation.

At the discretion of the Supervisory Committee or as a program requirement, the student may be required to pass either an oral or written comprehensive examination, or both. The comprehensive examination usually consists of both a written component (preparation of a NIH-style grant application) and an oral component (50 min presentation/seminar specifically discussing the grant proposal).

While all Ph.D. granting departments have different styles, this outline covers the basics every student will have to deal with. Students should first gain approval of the topic of the grant proposal from the Major Advisor. The specific aims of the proposal must be original (e.g. not a duplication or repackaging of any previously submitted proposal prepared by the Major Advisor, any other investigator, or another student), novel to the particular field, and in most departments should be different from your dissertation topic.

Students are advised to obtain approval of the Specific Aims (1-2 page summary) by their Supervisory Committee before undertaking the task of writing the grant proposal. A fair amount of literature on the chosen topic should be read before writing the Specific Aims to ensure the ideas are original and to provide adequate background on the subject.

After approval of the Specific Aims, the student may have a timeline to finish the grant application. Be prepared to spend about 2 months of focused time preparing and writing your research proposal for your comprehensive exam. Most proposals are in the NIH-style format.

After completion of the proposal and submission to one’s Supervisory Committee, the presentation and oral examination should be scheduled. The Request for Scheduling the Comprehensive Examination form must be received by the Graduate Studies Office no later than two weeks prior to the examination. The presentation is usually a 50 minute seminar open to the public. During the public presentation, Supervisory Committee members do not ask questions, but audience members may. Shortly following the presentations, the student and his or her committee members meet privately to finish the oral evaluation. A member of the committee may be appointed to ensure all rules are followed. Thus, a seminar room and a smaller meeting room should be scheduled through UNMC Room Scheduling (link under quick links tab or ask a department administrator). Although the committee meeting can be in a smaller room, a computer and projector may still be necessary to review your presentation.

The report of the outcome of the examination must be filed on the appropriate form in the Graduate Studies Office within seven days following the examination. Such a report must be filed at least seven months prior to the final oral examination (defense of dissertation). If more than one member of the Supervisory Committee recommends failure, the student shall be considered to have failed the examination. Often comments on the written grant proposal are not given prior to the oral examination, but students may be required to make corrections to their written proposal after the oral examination.

A student is formally recognized as a candidate as of the date of completing the comprehensive examination. If the term of candidacy is extended beyond three years, the candidate must pass another comprehensive examination. Following admission to candidacy the student must be continuously registered in the Graduate College until receipt of the Ph.D. degree. Students not in residence may register for a minimum of one semester hour credit in dissertation. Failure to maintain continuous registration will result in the termination of candidacy.

In the event of failure, the Supervisory Committee shall recommend to the Dean for Graduate Studies whether the student should be given the option of retaking the examination and, if so, the Committee shall identify general areas of weakness which require special attention and any remedial actions which the student should complete prior to re-examination. No student shall be permitted to take either the written or oral portion of the comprehensive examination more than twice.

Specific Aims:

Many students are caught off-guard by the Specific Aims approval meeting if they are not ready. So it will pay to prepare for this meeting as if it is a preview of the real thing – the comprehensive exam itself. The stakes are lower and the committee will be friendlier and less familiar with the topic of your grant, but the mechanics are similar. The goal of this meeting is to present your Specific Aims in a clear and convincing way to the examining committee. If there is a particular paper that catalyzed the idea for the grant, then it would do well for you to provide the reference to the committee in advance of the meeting so that they can get up to speed. You should come prepared with a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation that takes the committee through the same thought processes that you went through (only more organized!) to develop the proposal:

  • You should provide a background that describes the state of the field and identifies the deficiencies in our knowledge that you intend to fill with this project.
  • Describe the significance of the project to the field and the state of human health.
  • Make a clear statement of the hypothesis.
  • Provide an overview of each of the aims with sufficient experimental description so that the committee will be able to understand how the experimental approaches will work, whether the plan is feasible, and how long the project may take to complete.
  • The recommended time of about 30 minutes for the presentation does not account for discussion and questions, of which there will be many. Be prepared to spend at least 90 minutes in this meeting and then to have the task of revising the Specific Aims page afterwards. The most frequent problem encountered by students is the tendency to “bite off more than they can chew” and propose way too much work to accomplish in 3 or even 5 years. Scale back and keep it simple and manageable.
  • From the time you submit the topic of your grant until the day you defend it, you will be responsible for incorporating any new information or findings that appear in the literature and take them into account as you design the research plan. Treat this area as you would you own research area and visit PubMed to conduct up-to-date searches of the literature.

General tips:

Watch for papers from particular groups or scan for keywords. Sometimes it happens that a paper will appear that addresses or even invalidates all or some of your aims. All is not lost at that point, but you should notify the chair of your committee and seek their advice to determine how to proceed. It may be necessary to delete or redesign an aim, modify your hypothesis, etc., to accommodate the new knowledge. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring the event and hoping it will go away since members of your examining committee have access to PubMed, too!

It would be a good idea to meet with your department Graduate Chair to discuss the comprehensive exam guidelines, especially if there is a strict time line.

To help with the oral examination, you may want to give a full-length seminar before you begin your comprehensive exam. It may not be as easy as it looks.

Development of a CV:

All graduate students are required to submit a portfolio to the Graduate Studies office, which is due at the end of the first semester of study for new students, and updated annually thereafter. CV’s should include information such as published manuscripts, abstracts, presentations, fellowships, awards, service activities, leadership roles, a personal statement, and teaching experience. Portfolio requirements are listed on the Graduate Studies website as well as an example portfolio.

UNO Career Development contact: 402-554-3672 or 402-554-2365. GSA frequently holds CV review sessions with Michelle Perone.

Suggestions and examples:

Hunting for a Job:

UNL Career Development links

‘Big-Pharma’ Listings:
Johnson & Johnson Pfizer Schering-Plough Sanofi-Aventis
GlaxoSmithKline Wyeth Bristol-Myers Squibb Amgen
Novartis Lilly Merck Roche
Genentech Abbot
‘Established’ Biotech:
Genzyme Biogen Idec
Millennium Cubist

Checklist for Graduation: (current as of June 2011)

  • At the beginning of the semester in which you want to graduate, be sure to file for graduation before the deadline (grad studies usually sends out an email to remind students of when this deadline is each semester). To apply for graduation, go to the CARE website and under “campus records” choose “degree application” (there is a $25 fee).
  • Go to grad studies and obtain the “Graduation Packet” which is a folder containing instructions and printed copies of all of the forms that you will need. These forms can also be found as modifiable PDFs on the Graduate Studies Office website.
  • As soon as you have your mentor’s approval, schedule your defense date with your committee. Ask your department’s assistant to reserve the amphitheater for you and a room in which you can have your defense meeting with your committee.
  • 4 weeks before your defense: send an electronic copy of your dissertation to your committee; at the same time, ask if they would like you to bring by a printed copy.
  • 2 weeks before your defense, submit the *Application for Final Oral Examination for PhD Degree to grad studies.
  • 1.5 weeks before your defense, ask your department’s assistant for the information that they needs for the defense seminar programs, fill this out and send it back to them.
  • Forms to have ready on the day of your defense:
  • *Report on Doctoral Degree (have the date, your name, major field of study, dissertation title, and your mentor’s name typed in—leave the “signature of examiners” field blank for your committee to sign.
  • 2 copies of the *Title page (one with the title of your dissertation, your name, and your committee members’ names typed in, and the second copy with just the title and your name typed—your committee will sign this form)

o Forms to fill out after you defend(or if you want to make it easy, just fill these out at the same time that you are getting all of the above paper work together):

  • *Outcomes assessment form (detailing your future plans)
  • ProQuest package:
  1. Page 3: most students choose the TR-1 option
  2. Page 4: your contact info, area of study, etc.
  3. Page 5: copyright (this is optional—discuss with your mentor; it may be good protection if you have unpublished work in your dissertation)
  4. Page 6: probably ignore (you can print your dissertation yourself, or have UNMC printing services do it for you)
  • Survey of Earned Doctorates

Printing your dissertation (after final corrections have been made)

  • Grad studies no longer requires that you use a certain type of paper (this applies to all of the forms referred to in this reference, including the Report on Doctoral Degree, the two Title pages, etc.), as long as the paper matches the 2 title pages (the ones with your committee members’ names/signature).
  • Two options for printing your dissertation:
  1. Go to an office supply store, buy some good quality, white paper, and print it out yourself at work after everyone has left for the day
  2. have UNMC printing services or Kinko’s print it for you
  • You need to print 2 copies of the dissertation for the library, 2 additional copies of the title page, and 4 additional copies of the abstract
  • In addition, ask your mentor and committee members if they would like to have bound copies of your dissertation (and you will probably want one for yourself, and possibly important family members).

o Turning in your dissertation

  • Take the following forms with you to grad studies:
  1. 2 copies of dissertation
  2. 2 additional copies of the title page
  3. 4 additional copies of the abstract
  4. 2 title pages with your committee members’ signatures/typed names
  5. Report on Doctoral Degree with your committee members’ signatures
  6. Proof of 1st author paper or submission of a 1st author paper ( = 1st page of the paper)
  • Dan Teet will stamp the appropriate papers and send you to the library
  • Next, take your dissertation & other papers the library (room 6004) where you will:
  1. Obtain the librarian’s signature on the Report on Doctoral Degree
  2. Pay the binding fee ($15 per copy). The library accepts credit card, check, or Cost Center No.
  3. Choose the colors you want for the cover and title/author
  • Now, take the Report on Doctoral Degree form to the cashier (Student Life Center) where you will:
  1. Obtain the cashier’s signature on the Report on Doctoral Degree
  2. Pay the abstract fee ($55)
  3. Pay the copyright fee ($65, if applicable)
  4. Note: If you want to use a Cost Center No. for these fees, call Student Financial Services before going to the cashier. They will most likely require that your mentor send them an email with the number.
  • Finally, take the completed Report on Doctoral Degree form back to grad studies.

*These forms need to be typed in (in whole or in part). They can be found on Graduate Studies Office website.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.