Preliminary Qualifying Examination (PQE)

The Preliminary Qualifying Examination is an important requirement towards the Ph.D. degree and must be completed before full-time research on the dissertation begins.  The examination paper (approximately 12 to 15 pages in length) is a proposal of a hypothetical research project.  The research topic proposed should not be the topic upon which a student plans to do his or her dissertation research.

Students begin the Preliminary Qualifying Examination process by submitting a 1-2 page outline of a proposed topic to the Co-Chairs of the Committee on Higher Degrees in Biophysics, by mid-late Fall of the G2 year.  The outline should contain a clearly stated hypothesis.  At times, more than one topic is proposed. 

Once approval of a proposed topic is obtained from the Co-Chairs, preparation of the full examination proposal should begin.  The topic should be discussed at length and should include an introduction, clear hypothesis, statement of specific aims (a small number of very specific goals which serve as landmarks for evaluation of the progress), clear description of the experiments and controls, statement of the implications of the experiments and possible pitfalls, and a conclusion. 

The above criteria should be preceded by an abstract and a table of contents, and should end with a list of references consulted.  Tables and figures may also be included for purposes of clarification.  Students should assume that they would have an unlimited budget (within reason; access to the equipment necessary) but limited human resources- a student should be able to complete the hypothetical project within 4-5 years. The attached guidelines should serve as a foundation for developing the PQE proposal.

When the examination proposal has been completed and approved by one’s advisor, one copy should be electronically submitted to the program administrator. 

Three Faculty-level Examiners should be suggested and asked to serve on the committee by students, based on the topic and areas of expertise. Please refer to the attached document regarding Biophysics Faculty who can be asked to serve as the PQE Chair. PQE examiners are generally different from those faculty members who might serve on a student's Dissertation Advisory Committee at a later date, as the topics are presumably in different areas of knowledge (although there is sometimes overlap in the faculty members serving on both committees, if warranted). At least two of the three PQE examining committee members must come from the list of Harvard Biophysics faculty included in the full PQE guidelines document, and the Biophysics faculty members eligible to serve as PQE chairs are indicated in red. The student’s research advisor is not allowed to serve as an examiner.

Students should discuss their selection of committee members with the Program Co-Chairs, prior to finalizing the committee membership. Once three faculty examining committee members have been identified, the exam date for the oral presentation is then scheduled. 

At least two weeks before the PQE, students must submit the final version of their proposal to the PQE exam chair and to the Biophysics Program Office. The PQE exam chair will then review the proposal and at least 1 week prior to the scheduled PQE, will email the Biophysics Program office with approval or disapproval to proceed with the PQE. This step is to catch any fatal flaws in the proposal prior to the oral exam. Once approved, the Biophysics Program office will forward the proposal to the rest of the PQE committee members.

The oral examination should concentrate on the student's thorough understanding of the field and their ability to evaluate past and future experiments critically and usually includes a slide talk presentation.

Students are required to complete the Preliminary Qualifying Examination (PQE) in the spring semester (by May 31st) of their 2nd graduate year.  The Co-Chairs discuss this process with 2nd year students prior to start of the fall and spring semesters of their second year.



pqe_reporting_form_to_complete.pdf584 KB
pqe_guidelines_nov2022_.pdf106 KB