Graduate Student Handbook

Appendix G: Divisional PhD Examination Requirements

As noted in Section 8 of this handbook, each division may create specific curriculum and examination requirements for PhD students specializing in that area, within the framework established by the College and the overall Graduate School policies.

For all Divisions 
Students are expected to form their Advisory Committee no later than the term after completion of the Qualifying Exam (for EPH, EPI, and HSMP students who have a Qualifying Exam); they must form the Advising Committee per the instructions. 

Timeline expectation for Divisions with Qualifying Exams 
Students are expected to complete the Qualifying Exam at the earliest opportunity after they have completed their basic coursework; they must pass the Qualifying exam within three years of matriculation. 

Qualifying Exam repeatability 
The second preliminary examination must be initiated (e.g. written portion of exam) no later than six months following an unsatisfactory first examination. A student may petition to extend this up to 12 months with approval of their advisor. 

Communication of Results of the Qualifying Exam  
 It is the responsibility of the advisor to communicate the results of the Qualifying Examination or its equivalent to his or her Division Chair and to the student within one term of completion. The Division Chair will notify the Director of OAPSS within one term of the results for student recordkeeping purposes.  


 Divisional Guidelines:

  • Interdisciplinary PhD in Biostatistics: Public Health Specialization 
    The program is a joint venture between the Division of Biostatistics in the College of Public Health and the Department of Statistics in the College of Arts and Sciences, and their PhD examination requirements and timeline expectations differ as it is a program housed in the Graduate School. More details about the examination requirements and timelines can be found on their website:

 Environmental Public Health

  • All Candidacy Examinations are subject to the general policies and procedures established by the Graduate School regarding the scheduling, conduct and results of the examination. For specific PhD Candidacy Exam requirements for the Environmental Public Health specialization, students should refer to Section 7.6 of the ESGP Handbook at:


 Health Behavior and Health Promotion

 Health Services Management and Policy





The EPI Qualifying Examination is a diagnostic tool designed by the Division’s Graduate Faculty to assess a student’s ability to: (1) demonstrate, synthesize and apply their knowledge of Epidemiology and Biostatistics topics and concepts, (2) think critically about Epidemiologic methods and concepts, and (3) reason and communicate in an organized and clear fashion. The examination is intended to indicate to the Epidemiology Graduate Faculty whether the student is prepared to engage in doctoral research, and to provide an opportunity for PhD students to review and consolidate their classroom learning. Additionally, the exam serves as an assessment tool for the doctoral program in Epidemiology. Student performance on the exam is an indicator to the Graduate Faculty that the coursework is adequately preparing students for the exam.

Content and Structure

The Qualifying Examination is an open-note, open-book written exam that covers the theory, methods, application and interpretation of epidemiology and epidemiologic research methods (courses covered include: PUBHEPI 6431, 7410, 7430, 7431; PUBHBIO 6210 and 6211). The exam consists of one 8-hour in-class exam and one week-long take-home exam.   

During the in-class exam, students will answer 4 questions on epidemiology and research methods. This exam will begin at 9 am and end at 5 pm. Students will be provided with a PC and must type their responses. Students may bring books and notes to the exam. If a student wishes to brings their notes on a flash drive, the division will provide an empty flash drive and the drive must be given back to the examination committee before the exam begins for review. No computational programs are allowed to be placed on the drive - only notes. Students will not have internet access, and cannot consult with anyone about the exam once the exam has begun except for the Chair of the Qualifying Exam Committee or their designee. 

The take-home exam will consist of a writing exercise. It will be given to students on the day following the in-class exam and it will be due one week later to the Qualifying Examination Committee Chair via OneDrive. Students may use any course-related or internet resources while completing the writing exercise. They may not, however, speak to anyone about the take-home exam until after they turn it in.

Protocol for qualifying exam

The Qualifying exam is offered one time per year, in early June.  The Epidemiology Qualifying Examination Committee is responsible for organizing and administering the exam. Questions for the examination are solicited from the Epidemiology Graduate Faculty as well as other College of Public Health Faculty as needed. No identifying information, with the exception of the code number, is used on the student responses. Confidentiality of the student’s identity is important to the process of taking the Qualifying Examination.  



The Qualifying Examination is taken after the student, in consultation with their advisor, determines that they are prepared (see content section above).  Students must successfully pass the exam before the end of their third year in the PhD program.

Study Assistance

Several study materials are available to doctoral students during the time they are studying for the Qualifying Examination, including a list of competencies for the epidemiology and biostatistics courses and one sample in-class exam with answers. Resources for the take-home exam will include writing guidelines. Materials will be available to doctoral students on request during the semester before taking the examination, but the Exam Committee strongly encourages students to work through their own answers to the sample questions prior to reading the answers. These materials are available from the Exam Committee Chair or Division Coordinator. Peer group study sessions are encouraged. The Exam Committee Chair, or designees, hosts a review session before the examination, during which students may ask questions about the practice exam solutions.


The Qualifying Examination Committee will grade the exam. Each answer on the in-class exam on a scale of 1-9. Criteria for evaluating responses to questions are below. Graders assign an overall, whole number, score for each question.

Tertile Score Definition
Highest 9 Exceptional. Exceptionally strong and correct response with essentially no errors, omissions, or extraneous information.
8 Outstanding. Response is extremely strong with only negligible errors, omissions, or extraneous information.
7 Excellent. Response is very strong with only some minor errors, omissions, or extraneous information.
Middle 6 Very Good. Response is strong but with numerous minor errors, omissions, or extraneous information.
5 Good. Response is strong but with at least one moderate error or omission.
4 Satisfactory. Response has some strengths but also contains some moderate errors or omissions.
Lowest 3 Fair. Response has some strengths but also contains at least one major error or omission.
2 Marginal. Response has a few strengths and a few major errors or omissions.
1 Poor. Response has very few strengths and numerous major errors or omissions.

 The take-home exam will be graded on a similar 9-point scale. However, the definitions will be modified to reflect the nature of the writing assignment. A detailed rubric will be provided to students at the time of the take-home exam.

Criteria for Passing

The Qualifying Examination Chair will examine the scores for each student. If the scores assigned by the graders for any question differ by more than 3 points (e.g.  4, 5, 8), the Committee will discuss the student's responses to all questions and determine if re-grading is warranted.  

To pass the in-class exam, a student must score a total of at least 24 points. To pass the take-home exam, a student must achieve a score of 6 or higher. Students must pass both parts of the exam in order to receive an overall passing grade.

Report of Outcome

The Qualifying Examination Committee Chair is responsible for notifying the student, the student’s advisor, the Division Chair regarding the outcome of the exam. The Division Chair will notify the Director of the Office of Academic Programs and Student Services. Students can expect to receive notification from the Exam Committee Chair as to whether they have passed or failed the exam within 4 weeks of completing the take-home exam. Students will receive their scores. General feedback on individual questions is available upon request. A student who fails the Qualifying Examination on the first attempt should meet with their advisor to discuss their performance on the Exam. A student who fails the first exam has the option of taking a second exam before the beginning of the subsequent autumn semester (at a time determined by the Qualifying Examination Committee). If a student fails only one part of the exam, only that portion of the exam must be retaken (e.g., if a student receives a score of 26 on the in-class exam and 5 on the take-home exam, only the take-home exam needs to be retaken). A student who fails the second Qualifying Examination will be dismissed from the program. Qualifying Examination Committee decisions regarding the pass/fail status of the student are final.

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In all respects not specified below, the Candidacy Examination will follow the guidelines described in Section 8.4 of this handbook. All Candidacy Examinations are subject to the general policies and procedures established by the Graduate School regarding the schedule, conduct, and result of the examination.

After passing the Qualifying Examination, students should begin working with their Advisory Committee to prepare their Dissertation Proposal. The proposal should include the following sections: Introduction, Review of the Literature, Statement of Specific Aims, and Research Design and Methods (i.e., the first four chapters of the dissertation). All members of the Committee should agree that the proposal is sufficiently developed (i.e., that if the research were undertaken as written in the proposal the student would be reasonably likely to have created a body of original work sufficient to grant the PhD) before the Candidacy Exam is given. Students are encouraged to share a draft of the proposal 6-8 weeks before the planned date of the oral examination. The final draft of the proposal should be submitted in hard copy or electronic format to each Committee member, according to the Committee's member preference, 4 weeks prior to the scheduled date of the oral portion of the Candidacy Exam.

The Candidacy Examination is a single examination consisting of two parts, a written examination (the proposal) and an oral examination. The written examination will address the student’s comprehension of the field, allied areas of study, his or her capacity to undertake independent research, and his or her ability to think and express ideas clearly. If a student has to take the Candidacy Exam a second time, an entirely new set of questions is to be used.

The oral portion of the Candidacy Examination must be completed within one month of the final written proposal. Just prior to the exam, the student may give a 20 minute presentation of their planned dissertation research to Committee members. The oral portion of the Candidacy will commence after the presentation and the exam will proceed with only the student and committee members in attendance. During the oral Candidacy Exam, PhD students in Epidemiology should be able to discuss their research objectives, the literature supporting their objectives, their data source, and the proposed analytical methods in depth. They should be able to engage with any type of question covering these areas and answer most of the questions thoughtfully. They need to discuss the advantages, disadvantages, and limitations to their chosen approach and be able to defend their chosen methods. They also need to know fundamental epidemiologic concepts, particularly as related to their dissertation research proposal (e.g., the outcome, exposure, and risk factors). The exam itself will last approximately two hours. The Graduate School must be notified at least two weeks in advance of the oral exam's proposed time and place by the electronic submission of an "Application for Candidacy Exam" via GradForms. The Candidacy Examination must take place during announced university business hours, Monday through Friday.

The Advisory Committee determines when the student is ready to take the Candidacy Examination and makes a recommendation to the chair of the Academic Studies Governance Committee. The student must be registered for at least three graduate credit hours during the term of the Candidacy Examination and must submit an electronic "Application for Candidacy Exam" via Gradforms for approval.

The Advising Committee must approve the final version of the Dissertation Proposal, as revised after the Candidacy Exam, and complete the Prospectus Approval Form (Appendix J of the CPH Student Handbook).

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A dissertation proposal should be a thorough document describing the research base and establishing the need for the proposed research and demonstrating how it is an original contribution to research, along with a detailed plan describing the methods to be used.  The purpose of the written proposal is to assure that both the student and the committee members understand the scope of what will be done for the dissertation and the type of final product to be expected.  An adequate dissertation proposal is typically 50-100 pages in length.

The proposal should comprise at least two substantive sections of the dissertation (Background/literature review/statement of problem and Methods), although these sections will need to be updated at the time the dissertation is presented for final defense.

Once the proposal has been given preliminary review by the dissertation committee members, it should be presented in an open seminar format.  Following the seminar, there will be a closed meeting of the committee with the candidate, with questions concerning the candidate’s rationale for the dissertation topic and plans.  Only when the committee is satisfied with the proposal will the “Prospectus approval form” be signed.


Dissertation formats:

Dissertations may be written in one of two formats:  The traditional format consists of a series of chapters describing a single, major study; chapters typically include background and significance (literature review); statement of problem and aims of the study; methods; results; discussion; and conclusions.    The “three manuscript” format requires that three publication-quality manuscripts be generated concerning the overall topic of the dissertation.  The dissertation would then consist of the following chapters: Background and significance (literature review); statement of problem and aims of the research; a methods chapter specifying the methods in more detail than is typically allowed in a publication; three chapters representing the three manuscripts (it is recognized that there will be some overlap among these chapters and with the first three chapters); and a summary discussion chapter highlighting the contributions to the field.  The three manuscripts which form the heart of the dissertation need not be submitted or published at the time of the final defense, but they should be in publishable form and of publishable quality in the judgment of the committee.

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In all respects not specified below the Candidacy Examination will follow the guidelines described in Section 8.4 of this handbook. All Candidacy Examinations are subject to the general policies and procedures established by the Graduate School regarding the scheduling, conduct, and result of the examination. A student must be registered for at least three graduate credit hours during the semester(s) or summer term(s) of the candidacy examination.

The Candidacy Examination for students specializing in Health Behavior and Health Promotion has a three-part structure:

(1) A two –day open book exam covering public health theories, important research methodologies and approaches, and ethics of public health intervention as well as the minor area; and

(2) A three day long take-home component that involves critiquing a published research study chosen by the student’s committee; and

(3) A 10-day long take-home component that involves writing a proposal to develop and test an intervention to address an important public health issue.

The written exam (all three components) must be completed within one month’s time. The proposed timeline for the open book exam is to have one day of rest between the two examination days; rest days are strongly suggested between the other exam components as well. The oral exam must be completed within four weeks of the student completing the written portion of the exam.

Each day of the open book exam (part I, above) will include at least one question which the student is required to address, along with responses to two additional questions chosen by the student from among at least 3 options. 

Although there is no formal page limit for the exam, students are advised to try not to exceed 20 double-spaced typewritten pages for each component. Students are expected to use appropriate references, which must be cited fully in a standard style, to document materials cited in their responses.

The student’s Candidacy Examination Committee members will work together to develop the exam.


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Qualifying Examination for HSMP Students:

A qualifying examination will be held following the student’s first year of full-time studies. For full-time students, this exam is held in August. The examination will consist of three components: (1) an in-class, closed-book three hour exam covering the health care system; (2) an 8-hour take home exam involving a review and critique of a health services research article; and (3) a four-day take home exam involving the preparation of a paper designed to assess the student's ability to integrate empirical and conceptual material related to health services management and policy. The expected length of the paper is approximately 12-15 pages.

The examination will be graded by program faculty, with three graders for each component. Each component will be graded by each of the graders on a scale of High Pass, Low Pass, or Not Pass, with at least a Low Pass grade required by all three graders. Passing the Qualifying Exam necessitates passing each component of the exam. If a student does not pass one or more components of the exam, the student may retake the component(s) that did not receive a passing grade.  The student does not have to retake the entire exam. The time period between the initial examination and the retaking of the examination will depend on individual circumstances, but this time period shall not exceed twelve months after the first notification that the student did not pass the initial examination.

A student who fails the Qualifying Examination a second time may not continue in the program. A student who receives a Low Pass on any component(s) of the exam may be required to complete remedial coursework or activities at the discretion of the Program Director and Advisor. If remediation is required and not completed within nine months, the Low Pass grade will be converted to a Not Pass, and the guidelines described above for this circumstance will apply.

Candidacy Examination for HSMP Students:

In all respects not specified below, the Candidacy Examination will follow the guidelines described in Section 8.5 of this handbook. All Candidacy Examinations are subject to the general policies and procedures established by the Graduate School regarding the scheduling, conduct, and result of the examination.

The candidacy examination process begins with a student selecting a four-person Advisory Committee, as described in Section 8.3 of the College’s Graduate Student Handbook. A final Candidacy Examination will be scheduled individually for each student when the Advisory Committee determines that the student is ready. The student must be registered for at least three graduate credit hours during the term of the Candidacy Examination and submit an "Application for Candidacy" via Gradforms at least two weeks prior to the oral exam. The candidacy examination consists of a written and oral component. The written component involves developing a detailed, formal dissertation proposal. In preparing the proposal, it is expected the student will work closely with their advisor and other Committee members, and submit for review preliminary draft proposals as needed. The proposal will need to show familiarity with and application of the student’s minor area as well as the major. The evaluation of research methods will be confined to the type of research approaches adopted in the proposal (e.g., econometrics, epidemiology, quantitative methods, etc). The written portion of the Candidacy Examination (the proposal) will be evaluated and scored by the Advisory Committee on the basis of satisfactory or not satisfactory.

The written dissertation proposal should be structured and organized in the same format as the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) Health Services Research Dissertation (R36) grant proposal (see AHRQ website for further information), but generally will include a more detailed research plan than included in an R36 proposal. The dissertation proposal should include sections indicating: a description of the proposed project including its objectives and specific aims, a conceptual foundation, a comprehensive literature review, study design, methods and data sources, final deliverables, and policy relevance. It is recommended the dissertation proposal outline three publishable papers that will present findings from the dissertation research. It is strongly recommended that the student submit two of the three papers for publication prior to the final dissertation defense.

In addition, the Candidacy Examination will involve a two-hour oral examination of the student that will cover points from the proposal, the student’s major area, minor area, and/or research methods (see Section 8.5 for more detailed information). In general, the oral examination should be completed within one month of the written examination. The oral portion of the proposal will be evaluated and scored by the Advisory Committee on the basis of satisfactory or not satisfactory.

To successfully pass the examination, the Advisory Committee’s decision must be unanimously positive. If the student receives an unsatisfactory score, the Advisory Committee will decide whether to allow the student to take a second examination.