Diagnostic Exams & Qualifying Exams for Biochemistry Students

Information for Incoming Biochemistry MS and PhD Students:

One diagnostic examination in biochemistry will be administered to all incoming biochemistry graduate students during the orientation week, which is the week before school begins in fall semester. The test consists of multiple choice questions designed to test a broad knowledge in biochemistry. The purpose of the exam is to determine courses to be taken by each student. The tables below summarize scores needed to exempt students from certain courses, and options available to the student if a passing score is not achieved. This may be achieved by either passing the diagnostic exam administered in the week before classes or achieving a B or better for MS students, and a B+ or better for PhD students in BCHM 851 and BCHM 852. Passing scores for the diagnostic exam are shown below.


Test Score Percentile Result/Course of Action
Biochemistry ACS Test <60

Take BCHM 851 or 852 and earn an average grade of B or better

  >60 and <80 Take BCHM 851 and earn a grad of B or better


>80 Pass


Test Score Percentile Result/Course of Action
Biochemistry ACS Test <70

Take BCHM 851 or 852 and earn an average grade of B+ or better

  >70 and <90 Take BCHM 851 and earn a grad of B+ or better


>90 Pass

Qualifying Examinations: Biochemistry PhD students must take the following two exams before being advanced to candidacy: The Qualifying Exams consist of the Second Year Exam and Third Year Exam.

a. Second-Year Exam - Qualifying Exam - Part 1

During the spring of the second year, the student will prepare and defend a written research proposal on a topic that is outside the thesis topic. To begin this process, the student will discuss possible topics with committee members. The student will then submit a one-page pre-proposal in February to the Guidance Committee. For the Second-Year Exam, the Guidance Committee consists of a minimum of three members from the Graduate Program in Biochemistry including the thesis advisor; up to two other members can be added to this committee. This pre-proposal will briefly outline the topic, identify the problem that will be the focus, and state the means proposed to address the problem. The committee will meet and evaluate the pre-proposal based on its general appropriateness. The student will then prepare an eight- to 10-page proposal research plan only (single spaced, one-inch margins, 12-point type). References should be included but will not count in the page tally.

The finished proposal should be submitted to committee members at least two weeks in advance and no later than August before the start of the third year. An announcement should be made to all faculty. The oral presentation will be given to all Biochemistry faculty and the Guidance Committee. Following the oral presentation, the Guidance Committee and student will convene in a separate room and the Guidance Committee will conduct an oral defense of the proposal for one half of the time, for an equivalent time of a minimum of one hour. The second part of the exam (an equivalent time of a minimum of one hour), the student will be asked a series of questions in which the student is expected to demonstrate knowledge of biochemistry and molecular biology that ranges beyond the research project. The student may pass this exam outright or conditionally. Conditions may include revision, expansion of the proposal, or additional coursework. A student who fails the Second-Year Exam may be allowed one attempt to retake the exam within six months, or be asked to withdraw from the Ph.D. pathway. The outcome of the exam needs to be recorded with the Graduate Coordinator and the Doctoral Candidacy form completed (first part).

b. Third-Year Exam - Qualifying exam - Part II

The Guidance Committee for the Third-Year Exam consists of five faculty members: the advisor (as chairperson), two other members of the Biochemistry faculty, and two faculty members from outside departments. This is an oral examination of one to several hours in length. It should occur by the end of the third year. The student should submit to each committee member a written description of the thesis problem, summary of research progress to date, and outline of research goals yet to be attained. This document should be several pages in length and should be submitted at least two weeks before the scheduled date of the exam. A short opening oral research presentation is followed by questions. This exam should focus primarily upon the student's research and the general area of his or her interests. For instance, a student working on gene cloning should understand all aspects of DNA biochemistry, structure and function, as well as gene expression as represented in part by content of advanced courses taken by the student. The exam is used to assess the student's ability to plan and conduct research, to think critically and creatively about questions in the student's area of interest, and to be aware of current and recent research literature in these areas. If the proposal has depth, the committee's questions will probably remain focused on the proposed research. If the proposal is wanting, the questions may range further. This exam can be taken only after successful completion of the Second-Year Exam and completion of most coursework. Students may pass this exam outright or conditionally. Conditions may include revision or expansion of the proposal. A student who fails the Third-Year Exam may be allowed one attempt to retake the exam, or be asked to withdraw from the PhD pathway. After passing the Qualifying Examination, the doctoral student is advanced to candidacy and a Doctoral Committee is normally selected.

Students should consult with the graduate coordinator or thesis advisor to plan a remedial course of action since this requirement must be satisfied to remain in the graduate program.