Qualifying Exam


A series of milestones have been developed to facilitate the training of our PhD students on their pathway to becoming independent researchers in biomedical engineering. The following skills are hallmarks of a Purdue PhD in Biomedical Engineering and place our students in a position to succeed and become leaders in one or more of many possible career paths (e.g., academia, industry, clinical, global health):

  • Critically analyze the literature and identify research gaps in an area of Biomedical Engineering
  • Develop a meaningful research question with a testable hypothesis
  • Design rigorous and reproducible experiments to test this hypothesis and fill the identified gap
  • Develop and/or use technology to perform these experiments and generate publishable data
  • Critically analyze, interpret, and disseminate their own data to move the field forward in fundamental, translational, or clinically relevant ways.
  • Participate in all training, research, and related translational activities in an ethical manner

The PhD milestones are checkpoints for students to demonstrate expected competencies in the above skills as they progress through the three stages of our PhD program: Pre-Qual, Post-Qual, and PhD Candidacy). They are also critical opportunities to identify areas of professional growth for each trainee and for the faculty to provide them with the mentoring they need. 

This document provides guidance to both students and faculty for understanding the expected standards of performance for the first milestone in our PhD Training Program – The Qualifying Exam, which consists of both Written and Oral components that are evaluated by a Mentoring and Qualifying Committee. Successful completion of the Qualifying Exam will advance a Pre-Qual PhD student into the second stage of our PhD program as a Post-Qual PhD student.


The expectations we have set for passing the Qualifying Exam represent a rigorous but attainable bar that is defined by our experience with the level of competency required to ensure likely success in the remainder of our PhD Training Program.

Purpose of the Qualifying Exam:

Any independent researcher must be able to propose significant research questions based on existing gaps in the field, which are identified through critical analyses of the literature. This skill is fundamental to any area of BME research, and is thus a major focus of the Qualifying Exam. We do not expect students to be able to propose a full thesis project at the end of their first stage of PhD training. We have found that a solid foundation in fundamentals of the field and the abilities to: 1) critically analyze a small subset of literature on a specific topic of interest, 2) identify gaps in the literature, and 3) plan a research strategy to address that gap by formulating a specific research question with a testable hypothesis are skills that are indicative of future success in PhD-level careers. Thus, these expectations define the bar we have set for advancement to the Post-Qual stage of our PhD training program.

The written and oral components of the qualify exam and mentoring-committee process are designed to evaluate whether the student has reached the bar for competency required to advance to the Post-Qual stage, as well as to discuss appropriate coursework, technical training, and professional development for the student given their desired career path and goals.

The specific goals of our qualifying exam and associated mentoring-committee process are:

  • to ensure all doctoral students have appropriate competency in the following areas:
    • Technical foundations in fundamental principals
    • Critical analysis and synthesis of literature
    • Gap or needs identification
    • Development of a specific research question with a testable hypothesis to address the gap/need
    • Appropriate and realistic experimental design to test the hypothesis (in the form of a Research Strategy - not specific thesis aims)
    • Technical and Scientific Communication
    • Ethical and responsible conduct of research
  • to identify areas of professional growth for each student
  • to help the student in development of a training plan to best support their career development

Timing and Logistics of the Qualifying Exam:

The default time to take the qualifying exam (submission of written document, and oral defense of document) is in the second half of the Spring semester of Year 1. However, given the diversity of backgrounds and experience of our entering PhD students, flexibility exists for taking the qualifying exam earlier or later than the default (in either case, a request for alternative timing may be submitted to the Graduate Committee by the student and advisor stating the rationale). In either case, a reasonable non-default timing for starting the qualifying exam will not be used in judgement of student progress in the program. 

The PhD Qualifying Pre-Registration Form must be submitted by Oct 31st, which defines the core 5 papers on which the qualifying-prep assignments in the Research Fundamentals courses and the qualifying exam itself will be centered. By February 1st, (September 15th for Fall) the PhD Qualifying Exam Registration Form must be submitted, which will set the date of the spring Mentoring Committee meeting, and will state whether or not this will be the Qualifying Exam. Students opting to delay the Qualifying Exam still must hold a Mentoring Committee meeting in Year 1. The deadline for the mentoring meeting will be May 15th  and the new qualifying exam will be December 20th. Submission of the electronic Plan of Study (POS) is due June 1 (whether or not the Qualifying Exam is delayed).

If the qualifying exam is taken and not passed, students have the option to retake the qualifying exam one semester later to progress to the second stage of our training program. Except in extenuating circumstances, a student will not be allowed to take the qualifying exam a third time, but rather will be mentored towards an MS degree option or an alternative program. In some cases, the outcome of the first take of the qualifying exam and mentoring discussion will identify that the student is not in the best lab for their skills and career goals, in which case Grad Committee and departmental mentoring will be available to assist in finding a better placement for the student.

Overall Feedback and Potential Outcomes of the Qualifying Exam:

At the end of the meeting, the committee will discuss privately the student’s level of competency in key areas based on both the written and oral components of the exam. The Chair (primary mentor) will complete a group rubric based on this discussion, noting any lack of consensus on the form. Each committee member will sign the group form, and provide brief individual feedback on the key strengths and areas for growth (1-2 sentences each). The Chair and Committee will then discuss the outcome with the student based on the rubric to ensure everyone is on the same page as to outcomes, and the rubric is filed with the BME Graduate Office to ensure appropriate expectations for the BME Qualifying Exam were applied to the outcome decision (with copies delivered to the student and all committee members).

Possible outcomes are:

  • Pass
    • Specific courses can be suggested or required.
  • Provisional pass (i.e., one or the other component)
    • Written document revision required (based on specific feedback) within 3 weeks. All revisions must demonstrate significant improvement as documented by committee re-review and rubric completion
    • Oral exam must be repeated within 2 months (based on same written document).
  • No Pass (both components have significant issues, or plagiarism or other academic misconduct occurred)
    • Repeat whole process in next semester (not summer)
  • Fail (if student does not pass on 2nd attempt)
    • Student would move to MS option or appropriate alternative program, with guidance and mentoring from BME Grad Program.

Qualifying Exam Guidance Documents:

Relevant Forms: 

Qualifying Exam Timelines

Relevant Resources:

Questions should be addressed to:

  • Logistical: Senior Graduate Program Administrative Assistant (Sandy May) or Graduate Assistant (Elizabeth Rowen)
  • Professional Development: Associate Director Graduate Programs (Tammy Siemers)
  • Concerns, constructive comments: Director of Graduate Programs (Andrew Brightman); Associate Head of Academic Programs (Vitaliy Rayz)

*Date could be modified if your mentoring committee decides delaying your exam is appropriate.