The Bioengineering PhD Student Handbook

The Qualifications Evaluation

The purpose of the Qualifications Evaluation is test the student's ability to identify a research question, formulate a testable hypothesis parse the hypothesis into testable aims, and articulate a limited set of experiments to address these aims. The student will be evaluated for basic knowledge in the field of research, and ability to think logically and communicate effectively in both written and oral formats.    The student is also expected to recognize the strengths, weaknesses, and feasibility of the proposed approach.   The student is not expected to have substantial preliminary data for the written or oral examination.


Procedure for Qualifications Evaluation

All graduate students are required to complete the Qualifications Evaluation within the first 14 months of their residence (typically by Nov. 1). The Qualifications Evaluation requirements include: 1) preparing a written proposal, and   2) presenting and discussing the proposal during an oral examination by a committee of 3-4 members of Penn’s Bioengineering Graduate Group.

Student Guidelines

Any doctoral student intending to complete his/her qualifications evaluation in their first year must attend a meeting with the Graduate Exams Committee co-chairs in the Spring of that year. The student, in consultation with his/her advisor, should identify a two-week window during which the written document for the qualifier will be prepared.  This period of time must be formally submitted to the Graduate Exams Committee via an online form. The student’s advisor will be required to confirm the timeframe through a complementary web page.

The student will receive the general topic for his/her qualifier by e-mail at noon on the first day of the 14-day period and will also be informed of the members of the committee (3-4 faculty in the Bioengineering Graduate Group) that will judge the written and oral components of the student’s qualifying exam. During this two-week period, the student must also coordinate a date and time for the oral component of the qualifier exam with his/her advisor and committee members (to be held no earlier than 16 days after submission of the written document). The student must e-mail the final qualifier document, exam evaluation forms, a CV/Biosketch and current Penn graduate level transcripts along with the finalized date for the oral presentation, to their exam committee and Kathleen Venit ( by noon on the last day of this two-week period. The student has to comply with this first deadline for successful completion of the exam.

The student then has another 14 days (immediately following the first 14-day period) to work on the presentation, which is to be delivered on the day the committee meets.  At the end of the 28 days, the student is allowed to submit a 1-page written update on the qualifier, indicating any changes or clarifications; this is optional and gives the student an opportunity to address any significant change in thinking that arose while preparing the presentation.  The update has to be e-mailed to Kathleen Venit and the exam committee by noon on the 28th day.

While preparing the qualifier (both written and oral components), the student is not to consult peers, the advisor, or anyone else.  No scientific help is allowed.  Kathleen Venit, the Graduate Exams Committee Chairs, and the Bioengineering Graduate Group chair will provide administrative guidance, if necessary.

The student makes a presentation to the committee of 3-4 and the committee evaluates both the written and oral parts according to the guidelines stipulated by the Graduate Group.  The student must bring the oral evaluation form to the meeting. In addition to the committee, a member of the Graduate Exams Committee may be present at the exam to ensure homogeneity in the process.

The committee will meet immediately after the exam in the absence of the student to discuss the student’s performance and to make its recommendation. Possible outcomes are: (1) successfully completed, (2) conditional pass – has to re-write the proposal (within 14 days), (3) has to retake the entire exam, or (4) failed. The results are approved by the Exam Committee Chair and communicated to the student.

Formatting Guidelines and Timeline

The written document should take the form of an NIH R21 proposal, including sections for Specific Aims, Significance, Innovation, Approach, and Literature Cited. The proposal should be no longer than 7 pages, using at least 0.5” margins, single spacing, and 11-point font (preferably Arial). As a rough guideline, one page should be used for Specific Aims, one page for Significance and Innovation, and five pages for Research Design and Methods. The Literature Cited section does not count towards the page limit. For the oral portion of the exam, your presentation should last 10-15 minutes (no more than 10 slides, excluding the title slide) when uninterrupted. A sample timeline is below:

Spring Semester Graduate Exams Committee Chair meets with students to discuss the expectations and timeline of the qualifier exam.
May 15th The two-week window during which the student will prepare the written document and ranked areas of concentration must be submitted through an online form by this date. Advisor approval of the timeframe and the concentration areas must also be submitted by this date as well.
October 31st All qualifier examinations must be completed by this date.
Example: If two-week writing period is June 2 – June 16:
June 2nd At noon, student will receive an e-mail with the research topic and names of the committee members. Student should prepare written document and finalize date for oral presentation during the next 14 days.
June 16th By noon, student must e-mail Kathleen Venit and committee members the qualifier document, CV/Biosketch, current graduate level transcripts, and date of the oral presentation. Student can begin work on the oral presentation and, optionally, the 1-page written update.
June 30th By noon, student must e-mail the presentation slides and the 1-page written update, if applicable, to Kathleen Venit and committee members.
July 2nd (or later, before October 31st) Student gives oral presentation.
Students are strongly encouraged to schedule the qualifier as soon as possible to minimize conflicts with coursework and schedules of committee members!



Kate Venit (, Bioengineering Graduate Coordinator

Jason Burdick (, Chair, Bioengineering Graduate Group

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