Preliminary Qualifying Exam (PQE)

(PQE) Guidelines

By the end of the second year, BPH students take a preliminary qualifying examination (PQE). The purpose of the PQE is to assess the student’s preparation and ability to embark on original scientific investigation. The primary goal of the PQE is to evaluate the student’s ability to identify and articulate a clear hypothesis for his/her dissertation topic based upon familiarity with relevant literature, to propose critical experiments designed to prove or to disprove the hypothesis, and to interpret experimental outcomes in a manner that indicates awareness of the limitations of the methods used. It is not expected that preliminary data will be presented to support the hypothesis.


  • Complete the BPH Preliminary Qualifying Exam Course Form, listing their coursework taken to fulfill program requirements. The BPH Program must approve of progress before the student proceeds in the PQE process.
  • Then, students are expected to choose, in consultation with their faculty mentor, a topic for their exam. The PQE topic is ordinarily related to the topic of the student’s dissertation.
  • A PQE examination committee is chosen by the student and faculty advisor, consisting of a PQE Chair and two additional examiners, and must meet with program approval. Normally, the PQE Chair is from the same department as the student, and should be an experienced Examiner. Of the two additional examiners, one must be a member of the BPH faculty and the other may be an external (non-BPH) faculty member.
  • Preparation Period: During the preparation of the proposal, students may consult with faculty and other students. Consultation on general issues (clarification, technical advice, etc.) is appropriate, but solicitation regarding ideas for specific aims or experimental design are inappropriate. Faculty members, including dissertation advisors, should not read written drafts of the proposal in order to provide extensive help. Further, students should not seek feedback from the members of their exam committee.
  • 10 calendar days prior to the scheduled exam, the student shall submit to the Chair and members of the PQE a printed copy of these guidelines and a 10-page research proposal (excluding references). A copy of the proposal should also be provided to the BPH program office and the dissertation advisor.

Written Proposal
The written proposal is in the form of a typical grant proposal and should include the sections below.  The proposal should be single spaced, following the form of an NIH post-doctoral fellowship application on the topic chosen (usually Ariel, 11 pt font, 10 page maximum).

Specific Aims
List the broad, long-term objectives and the goal of the specific research proposed, e.g., to test a stated hypothesis, create a novel design, solve a specific problem, challenge an existing paradigm or clinical practice, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology. 1 page or less is recommended.

Background and Significance
Briefly sketch the background leading to the proposal, critically evaluate existing knowledge, and specifically identify the gaps that the project is intended to fill. State concisely the importance and health relevance of the research described in this application by relating the specific aims to the broad, long-term objectives. If the aims of the application are achieved, state how scientific knowledge will be advanced. Describe the effect of these studies on the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services or preventative interventions. Summarize your preliminary work, and work of others, that support the proposed research. Two to three pages are recommended.

Research Design and Methods
Describe the research design conceptual framework, procedures, and analyses to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Briefly summarize how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Describe any new methods you may develop, and advantages over existing methodologies. Describe any novel concepts, approaches, tools, or technologies for the proposed studies. Discuss the potential difficulties and limitations of the proposed procedures and alternative approaches to achieve the aims. Highlight anticipated outcomes and potential pitfalls. Six to 8 pages are recommended.

References (author, title, journal, inclusive pages, year)
The PQE Chair will serve not only as an examiner, but will also oversee the administering of the exam and arbitrate problems. The Chair will also see that the PQE Report Form is completed and on file in the BPH Program Office. The Dissertation Advisor will be asked to attend the PQE exam to review the student’s preparation for the exam with the committee, but will not be present during the oral examination. For the PQE examination, students should be prepared to defend and explain the hypothesis, methods and anticipated results. The student should be ready to respond to questions based on knowledge obtained through the required courses, seminars and reading from the area of research (primary area) from which the topic was chosen. The format is a 15-minute student presentation summarizing the proposal, followed by examiners’ questions. The oral examination will last about 2 hours and is expected to cover areas that are both directly and tangentially related to the proposal topic. Outcomes are Pass, Pass with Qualifications or Fail.