General Exam

The General Examination is a requirement of the Graduate School for the advancement of the student to candidacy towards a PhD. The Exam consists of a written proposal and an oral examination. The General Exam does not count as an Annual Committee Meeting.

All of the General Exam information below can be downloaded and referenced in the General Exam Overview document.


Student Tasks

Task Deadline
Schedule General Exam with Supervisory Committee By last day of Summer Quarter of Year 2
Schedule venue for General Exam
If you need to hold all or part of your General Exam remotely, follow the Remote General Exam Instructions
As soon as General Exam date is set
Email General Examination Format document to Supervisory Committee At least eight weeks before exam
Request potential exam topics from Supervisory Committee At least eight weeks before exam
Select General Exam Chair
Your PI cannot be your General Exam Chair.
Note: The Chairperson labelled on the Committee Signature Form is the Chair of your Supervisory Committee, not your General Exam Chair.
At least four weeks before exam
Schedule General Exam in MyGrad Program
List your PI (not the General Exam Chair) as the Chair of the Supervisory Committee
At least four weeks before exam
Confirm credit requirements (18 total graded credits) met in MyUW (Academics tab in Grades box) At least four weeks before exam
Submit Written Proposal and General Exam Format Document to Supervisory Committee At least two weeks before exam
Receive Committee Signature Form and other documents from MCB office At least two weeks before exam
Complete General Exam By last day of Autumn Quarter of Year 3
Submit signed Committee Signature Form to Maia Low Three days after General Exam
Register for MCB 800
Faculty Code remains the same as MCB 600
Quarter after passing General Exam
You can also download this checklist for future reference.

General Exam Chair Tasks

Task Deadline
Review MCB General Examination requirements and timings (see below) At least three weeks before exam
Review MCB General Examination rubric At least three weeks before exam
Email MCB General Examination rubric to Supervisory Committee At least two weeks before exam
~ Facilitate discussion and questions
~ Monitor examination time and determine decision
~ Gather signatures on Committee Signature Form (formerly known as Warrant)
At General Exam

Written Proposal

The written proposal is written by the student. The PI may provide feedback on the Specific Aims and on a preliminary draft of the Approach. However, it is expected the final version reflects the student’s ideas. Your written proposal should abide by the following parameters:

  • Font and font size: Times New Roman (size 12) or Arial (size 11)
  • Page layout: 1/2-inch margins, single spaced
  • Recommended document length: Seven pages including figures, not including references.  The Committee may not want to read more than this and may appreciate a shorter proposal. No supplemental material should be included.
  • Experiment design: Design experiments that general correspond to the amount of work one person can accomplish in a three-year time span. Most proposals will have two-three Aims.

The written proposal and the General Examination Format document must be submitted to the Supervisory Committee at least two weeks before the General Exam. After submitting the Written Proposal to the Committee, students are encouraged to contact committee members to inquire about possible areas of questioning.

Proposal Format

The proposal format is similar an NIH NRSA Fellowship grant.

  1. Abstract
    1. Length: 300 words or Less
    2. The Abstract uses broad, general language to summarize the primary goal(s) and motivation of the research, the significance of the research, and the choice of experimental approach. The Abstract should be accessible to any molecular-cellular biologist and should avoid technical jargon and acronyms.
  2. Specific Aims
    1. Length: One page maximum
    2. Concisely state the goals of the proposed research program and summarize the expected outcome(s), including the impact that the results of the proposed research will exert on the research field(s) involved.  Succinctly list the specific objectives of the proposed research. Provide a 2-3 sentence summary for each Aim.
  3. Research Strategy
    1. Length: Six page maximum, not including references
    2. The research strategy has three sections: Significance, Innovation and Approach. Describe the significance of the research proposed including how the proposed research will advance the field. The innovation section should highlight methodological and/or conceptual novelty in the proposal. The approach section will be the longest and should also include a timeline for accomplishing the aims and sub-aims. For each Specific Aim, address the following four topics:
      1. Rational behind Aim
      2. Any relevant preliminary data (performed by student or the lab)
      3. Experimental design and methods
      4. Expected outcomes, potential problems and alternative approaches

Oral Examination

The oral examination consists of two parts. The first part is reserved for presentation and discussion of the student’s research area – concepts, background, significance, questions, and the current state of knowledge.  It also covers related, basic principles of molecular and cellular biology. The second part of is a presentation and discussion of the research project’s experimental approaches.

MCB students may not bring food or drink to the General Exam. Committee members are welcome to bring their own food and beverages, if so desired.

The oral examination will abide by the following parameters:

  • Total length: Two hours and 30 minutes
  • Thesis Committee Chair (PI): The PI may not comment on the student’s activities and performance in the lab. The PI cannot ask or answer questions during the exam.

Oral Examination Format

  1. Student Introduction – The student’s introduction should include:
    1. Academic and Research Background
      1. Years and location of undergraduate training
      2. Degree(s) obtained
      3. Years and location of research experience
    2. Coursework
      1. List classes and number of credit hours taken to date
      2. Grades
      3. Number of credit hours remaining
    3. TA assignments completed
    4. Number of presentation slides and anticipated delivery time for both sections of presentation
  2. Introduction and Summary of Area of Investigation (20 minutes or less)
    1. This section corresponds to Section 1 and 2 of the Written Proposal:  Abstract and Specific Aims.  A detailed discussion of experimental strategies and presentation of unpublished data will occur later.  However, summaries of previously published experiments that are key to a general understanding of the research field, and general questions about such strategies, are allowed.
    2. Note: Interruptions are not allowed during this 20 minute section. Questions may be asked only for general clarification.
  3. Question and Answer Session (~30 minutes)
    1. This session focuses on general principles and concepts in molecular and cellular biology, related to the area of biological study presented in the proposal. Questions about details of experimental methods should be avoided at this time.  This portion is an opportunity to examine the quality of the student’s knowledge and understanding of their general area of study. The Committee is encouraged to prepare questions that test the breadth of the student’s knowledge in the broader areas of molecular and cellular biology that surround their thesis work.
  4. Break (5 minutes)
  5. Presentation of Research Strategy (20 minutes or less) – The Research Strategy presentation should include:
    1. A statement of the specific aims of the project, including a definition of the extent to which the work is discovery based vs. hypothesis based.
      1. If the project is primarily discovery based (i.e., a genetic screen or a structure determination), some explanation of if and how the data generated by the project will lead to novel, revised or expanded understanding of the field and the problem is expected and appropriate.
    2. Proposed experiments, with a logical sequence and timeline.
    3. Justification and defense of the chosen experimental strategy relative to possible alternative methods.
    4. Description of any unusual, novel, or innovative experimental strategies or methodologies.
    5. Published and/or unpublished preliminary experiments that indicate feasibility, with interpretation of the resulting data as desired.
      1. Preliminary data generated by the student is not a requirement for taking the general exam, nor for evaluation of a student’s performance. However, the student is expected to describe a well-designed flow chart of experiments that progress from initial characterization and trouble-shooting of the experimental system to well-controlled tests of experimental hypotheses and/or collection of data for long-term analyses. The student is free to describe any recent experiments by themselves or others that indicate feasibility. 
    6. Note: Interruptions are not allowed during this 20 minute section. Questions may be asked only for general clarification.
  6. Question and Answer Session: Research Project (~60 minutes)
    1. This session focuses on the student’s understanding of experimental methodologies, and their ability to defend and rationalize the choice of experimental system, techniques and strategies.  The questions should cover both published precedents and examples of similar studies, and interpretation of any available experimental results.  Questions on general areas of biological understanding are still permitted at this time and for the remainder of the exam.
  7. Supervisory Committee Discussion, Part 1
    1. With the student and PI absent from the room, this discussion focuses evenly and comprehensively on strengths and deficiencies in understanding and knowledge of the research area and on the student’s defense and rationalization of experimental strategies and goals.
  8. Supervisory Committee Discussion, Part 2
    1. The PI joins the Committee to continue discussion.
  9. Supervisory Committee’s Decision
    1. The Supervisory Committee provides the student with an oral summary of the Committee’s decision.
    2. The committee can, at their discretion, require the student to be reexamined in the next quarter for any of the following reasons:
      1. Deficiencies in understanding and/or presentation of basic principles, core knowledge and/or biological context of the project within the boundaries of historical molecular and cellular biology.
      2. Deficiencies in rationale and/or defense of experimental strategies, including the ability to engage in a detailed critique of strengths and weaknesses of published and unpublished methods, including proposed thesis experiments.Reexamination can include all elements of the exam, or just the part deemed deficient by the committee. The committee may also request resubmission of a revised written proposal if the proposal is deficient in quality – including clarity, logic, grammar, organization, or presentation.  The Dean of the Graduate School will approve at most two reexaminations except under extraordinary circumstances.

Committee Signature Form

Signatures are gathered by the General Exam Chair.  The following forms are acceptable signatures:

  • Handwritten signatures
  • Adobe digital signatures

The Committee Signature Form must be submitted to Maia Low by the student in either digital (email) or hard copy (in-person at MCB office) format.