Section XII: Candidacy Exam


Passing candidacy is an important milestone in the progress of an MCDB student.  The aim of the candidacy examination is to test the student's ability to identify an important area of research, to formulate meaningful and testable hypotheses, to select strategic and feasible methodology, to explain the context (literature and relevant data) of the questions, and to write a coherent and convincing grant proposal that can be defended by the student in the oral examination.  Successful completion of this exam is an indication of the student's mastery of concepts and techniques in their general field and their readiness to proceed with their dissertation research.

XII.1  Timing, eligibility and scheduling

Students are encouraged to complete candidacy in their second year and must do so by the end of their seventh semester, which is usually the first semester of their third year in the Program.  Exceptions can only be granted by the director or co-directors and will only be granted in exceptional circumstances.  Failure of a student to pass candidacy by the end of their third year may result in a denial of registration (see Section X). 

To be eligible to take candidacy, the student must have completed the five core course requirements listed in Section VIII and must have a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0.  It is also recommended that students take the grant writing course before taking candidacy. Students who are not in good standing are not eligible to apply for candidacy (see Section X).

Students must schedule their candidacy exam in consultation with their Advisory Committee and then submit an Application for Candidacy Exam on GRADFORMS.  Usually, this application is submitted after the written proposal has been approved.  The form requires the following information:

  1. The date the written portion of the exam was begun and the date it was completed. The completion date is the date that the written portion was submitted to the Advisory Committee.
  2. The date, time and place of the oral exam.  The exam should be scheduled for 2 hours.
  3. The names of your dissertation advisor and committee members

The advisor and MCDB Program must approve the Application for Candidacy Exam before it is received by the Graduate School.  All applications for exams must be received by the Graduate School at least two weeks prior to the exam date.  Note that a graduate faculty representative is not assigned unless the candidacy exam is being taken for a second time.

XII.2  Written Examination

XII.2.1  Procedure

  1. The written portion of the exam takes the form of a research proposal and should be of sufficient quality to be submitted to a federal funding agency.
  2. The process begins with the selection of a topic.  The student may present up to three potential subjects for evaluation by the advisor who will assess their appropriateness. The topics may be related or unrelated to the student's own dissertation research topic. 
  3. Once the student and advisor have agreed on a topic, the student will prepare a Specific Aims page (not to exceed one page) outlining the nature and significance of the research problem and the goals and specific aims of the proposed research. If the topic relates to the student’s own research, at least one of the aims proposed must be a novel aim that is developed by the student independently without input from the advisor.  This novel aim may also not be part of any grant submitted or written by the advisor.  None of the aims should have been written previously by the student or evaluated by peer review, e.g. by a funding agency or as part of a grant writing course at OSU or elsewhere.
  4. The Specific Aims page is submitted to the Advisory Committee, which will then communicate with the student and the student’s advisor to approve or disapprove of the aims.  If not approved, the student will be asked to make changes and the process described above is repeated.  A proposal will be judged unacceptable if (a) all or part of the proposal has previously been written by the student and evaluated by peer review, (b) it intentionally duplicates all or part of an existing research proposal, or (c) it lies outside the general expertise of the committee members.
  5. Upon approval, the student will have four weeks to write the proposal.  The format of the proposal should include an Abstract and Research Plan (Specific Aims, Background and Significance, Introduction, and Research Design and Methods) and Literature Cited.  The proposal (excluding abstract and references) should be no more than 20 pages double-spaced (inclusive of all figures and tables) and fit within the indicated margins.  The abstract, references, and any figure or table legends may be single-spaced.  The document must be written in at least a 12-point font except figure and table legends, which must be at least 10-point font.  Since additional material may not be included in an appendix, all copies of the proposal must contain figures of sufficient size and quality to ensure legibility.  The Abstract and Literature Cited (which should be cited in full) are not included in the page limitations.  All pages must be numbered.  During the writing of the proposal, faculty input should be minimal. In particular, the student's advisor should not have read or evaluated the full proposal, or otherwise assisted the student in its preparation prior to its submission for evaluation by all committee members.  It is appropriate for the student to consult fellow graduate students and post-doctoral researchers to get feedback on the document itself.  However, the work must largely represent the student's own thinking, and the student must be prepared to fully defend and justify the proposal orally.
  6. A copy of the proposal is submitted to members of the Advisory Committee, who will formulate their evaluation within two weeks.  Each committee member must submit a written evaluation to the advisor on the Candidacy Examination Research Proposal Evaluation form, copying other members of the committee.  The results should be discussed with the student, either individually with each committee member (e.g. to discuss their suggested revisions) or in a formal meeting of the entire committee with the student.

XII.2.2  Evaluation Criteria

The written proposal should be evaluated based on the following criteria.

General:  Sufficient information needs to be included to facilitate an effective review by committee members without requiring them to refer to the literature.  The proposal should be specific, informative, and avoid redundancies.  Reviewers consider brevity and clarity an indication of the applicant's approach to a research objective as well as their ability to conduct a superior research program.

Abstract:  The abstract should be printed single-spaced in the appropriate box and contain a summary of the research proposal, including its goals, methodology, and significance.  It should provide a clear, concise description of the proposed research.

Specific Aims:  The specific aims of the proposal and hypotheses to be tested should be clear, well defined, and concise.  The aims should lead to the formulation of testable hypotheses rather than being more descriptive in nature.  The choice of the aims should reflect a critical analysis of the problem.

Background and Significance:  This section should provide the reviewer with sufficient background to establish the context of the research and put it in perspective.  The background should be relevant to the research proposed rather than being an exhaustive survey of the entire field.  The significance of the research needs to be stated so as to justify the proposed work.  Why is this particular proposal important and deserving of funding?

Research Design and Methods:  The experiments should be well planned and likely to succeed.  Rather than listing a series of techniques to be used, explain how the selected experimental design and procedures will lead to a test of the hypotheses.  Do not give cookbook recipes for the methods proposed; instead provide only sufficient information for the reviewers to evaluate their appropriateness.  Emphasize and justify the questions being asked and ensure that the proposed experimental approaches are appropriate to answer them.  Indicate how the data will be analyzed, including statistical tests.  Provide pitfalls and limitations of the approaches, as well as alternative strategies.

Literature cited:  Each citation must include the names of all authors, title of the paper, name of the book or journal, volume number, page numbers, and year of publication.

XII.2.3  Grading the written exam

PASS - No revisions required:  A superior proposal, combining a well-designed, well-chosen, timely project with a well-designed and well-reasoned approach to the research.  The proposal is appropriate for oral defense as written.  The student should proceed with scheduling the oral portion of the exam, which must be completed within four weeks of approval of the written proposal.

PASS - Minor revisions required:  A very good proposal containing minor flaws.  The proposal may contain minor scientific errors in experimental design, poor composition or organization, confusing text, etc.  The student should revise the proposal within two weeks as indicated on the evaluation form.  The student may decide to meet personally with specific committee members expressing concerns, who should evaluate and approve the revised proposal prior to its re-submission to all committee members for final approval.  To ensure that all students are examined in a uniform manner, only one round of revisions is allowed.  The student should then proceed with scheduling the oral portion of the exam.

PASS - Significant revisions required:  The proposal is reasonable but contains serious flaws.  The proposal may be meritorious but poorly justified, the research may be acceptable but unexciting, or there may be significant flaws in the research design, which can nonetheless be rectified without jeopardizing the outcome of the project.  The research problem may be trivial but could be modified to address a challenging question.  Alternatively, the question may be acceptable but the proposed approaches may be unlikely to rule out alternative explanations/interpretations.

If at least two committee members grade the proposal in this category, the entire committee will meet to discuss the situation.  Once the extent of the modifications are agreed upon, the student will be informed and allowed no more than two weeks to complete the revisions. The modified proposal should be resubmitted to the entire committee for re-evaluation.  As above, only one round of revisions is allowed.  Once revisions are judged satisfactory, the student should proceed with scheduling the oral portion of the exam.

FAIL – Unacceptable:  The proposal is unacceptable.  It contains serious misconceptions or is fatally flawed.  The basic premise or experimental approach is faulty.  The experiments proposed are unreasonable or implausible.  The proposal cannot be salvaged without major changes. 

If only one member of the committee ranks the proposal as unacceptable, the entire committee should meet to determine if the dissenting committee member can be convinced to consider revisions to the proposal.  If so, the process will proceed as in "significant revisions required".  If not, the procedure in the next paragraph applies.

If two or more members find the proposal to be unacceptable, the student will be advised that the committee sees "no possibility for a satisfactory overall performance on the Candidacy Examination”.  In this event, the student may waive their right to take the oral examination (Section 7.4 of the Graduate School Handbook) by submitting a written statement requesting a waiver to the Advisory Committee, which will then record the results of the examination with the Graduate School as "unsatisfactory".

The Advisory Committee cannot deny a student the opportunity to take the oral portion if they so wish.  If the student wishes to proceed with the oral exam, the evaluation will be based on both the written and oral portions.  If that examination is judged unsatisfactory, the Candidacy Examination Committee must decide whether the student will be permitted to take a second Candidacy examination and must record that decision on the Candidacy Examination Report form (Section 7.6 of the Graduate School Handbook).  If permitted, the student must then prepare an entirely new proposal and repeat the procedure outlined in 1-6 above.  In accordance with Section 7.6 of the Graduate School Handbook, the Candidacy Examination Committee for the second examination must be the same as for the first examination unless the dean of the Graduate School approves a substitution, and no student may take the Candidacy Examination more than twice. Students who are judged unsatisfactory after two examinations will not be permitted to be a doctoral candidate in the MCDB Program or in any other OSU graduate program.

XII.3  Oral Examination

The candidacy examination is conducted by the candidate's Advisory Committee and must be held within 4 weeks of their approval of the written proposal.  If the examination is being taken for the second time, a Graduate Faculty Representative will also be assigned.  The candidate is responsible for arranging a time and venue for the oral exam and for filing the Application for Candidacy Exam form with the Graduate School at least two weeks in advance (see Timing, Eligibility and Scheduling above).

The oral exam will be preceded by a brief (no more than 30 minutes) presentation by the candidate to the committee of the core ideas and approach of the proposal.  This presentation should focus on the hypothesis, specific aims, and experimental design.  Questioning by the committee should wait until the oral exam has begun; the oral portion will last no more than two hours and commences immediately after the candidate has completed his/her presentation.  The Committee will question the student on the content of the proposal and on any subjects directly or indirectly related to it, including techniques, literature, background etc.  This format will further serve to test the student's knowledge of the core curriculum of the MCDB Program.

Some generality must be included in the questions asked in the oral examination, and sufficient time should be set aside so that each member of the Committee has the opportunity to ask and pursue questions of a more general nature.  The time given over to general questioning should not be less than 30 minutes.

Before the exam, the advisor should briefly discuss the committee’s evaluation of the written proposal (in the absence of the student).  This should give a clear indication of where the candidate stands on the basis of the written examination.  The advisor should chair the examination and should explain the format of the exam to the committee members.

During the two hour oral examination, the student may use previously prepared materials only if the content is too complicated or detailed to reproduce during the examination (e.g. complex designs of experimental apparatus, detailed graphs and figures, etc.).  The use of such materials also requires the approval of the committee.

The oral and written portions are considered one exam.  It is possible that one of the portions could be judged unsatisfactory but counterbalanced by a sufficiently good performance on the other portion to obtain an overall satisfactory grade.  However, committee approval must be unanimous.


Rev: November, 2020