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Before the end of the third academic year, students undergo an oral exam based on their proposed research project. This oral exam has two components:

  • a written component, in the form of a research proposal, and
  • an oral component, in the form of a chalk-talk style presentation.

For the written component, students are expected to submit a 6-12 page written proposal in the form of a fellowship application (e.g. NIH or NSF) to their thesis committee describing their dissertation research project.  Details regarding the content of the proposal should be discussed no later than the annual thesis committee meeting at the beginning of the third year.  Detailed guidelines for conducting the exam may be found here.  Once the proposal is submitted to the thesis committee, students are required to defend their proposals during an oral exam given by their thesis committee.  Students are expected to demonstrate sufficient knowledge in their chosen research area and feasibility in completing their research plan by the end of the fifth year.  The specific content of these oral exams is dictated by the thesis committee and moderated by the committee chair.  Students who fail the exam have the option to take the exam again at a later date under terms and conditions set by their committee.  Students who fail a second time will be dismissed from the program.

The format of the oral component is an interactive chalk talk. The student should prepare a concise presentation of approximately 15-30 minutes to summarize the motivation behind the research project and outline the specific aims of the project. During this presentation, the student should expect to be interrupted with questions, yet retain the flow of the presentation. The committee’s questions should focus on the dissertation work to determine whether the proposed work is feasible and whether the student has an adequate grasp of the literature and the skills to accomplish the work in a timely fashion. In order to facilitate an interactive question-and-answer format, the student will be limited to at most three Powerpoint slides that can show preliminary data or list specific aims. Some descriptions of BCB oral exams are provided at the following link:

Adjustment for remote-only oral exams: In cases where it is not possible to give the chalk talk in person, the format of the oral presentation will be adjusted appropriately. In most cases, unless the student has easy access to a large whiteboard (real or virtual), the format will be of a powerpoint (or similar) presentation, albeit with the expectation that interruptions and questions will be frequent so as to retain as faithfully as possible the spirit of the original chalk talk format described above. In this case, the format adjustment should be described and a justification for it given in the oral exam committee report form.

Forms Required for BCB Oral Exam

  1. BCB_Report of Oral Exam
  2. Graduate School Committee and Dissertation Form
    1. Must get this form from BCB Curriculum Administrator
    2. Must provide names and titles (ie Professor, Assistant Professor, etc.) for all committee members
    3. Must provide designation of committee positions (ie: Chair, Advisor, Member)
    4. Form with original signatures must be turned in to BCB Curriculum Administrator  within 1 week of exam
  3. Graduate School Doctoral Exam Report Form
    1. Must get this form from BCB Curriculum Administrator
    2. Parts I and II will completed at this exam (Signature and Initials of Committee Chair are required for both parts)
    3. Form with original signatures must be turned in to BCB Curriculum Administrator within 1 week of exam

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What type of information should I put in the three slides? Why is it limited to three?

A. Reserve for the slides anything that you would not be able to draw on the whiteboard. The limitation to 3 slides is to prevent the talk from being a de facto Powerpoint-style presentation.

Q. How can I present highly technical or detailed information in this format?

A. Your committee will already have your 7-12 page research proposal, so you have that for them to refer to details. The chalk talk allows you to give an overview of that document and then describe in more detail the parts you want to emphasize/explain or that the committee is interested in.

Q. In what scientific settings are chalk talks commonly given?

A. Chalk talks are a standard part of faculty interviews at most research universities. Typically faculty candidates will give a powerpoint-style research presentation about the work that they have done, and then later will give a chalk talk, usually with a more limited audience of faculty, about the work their propose to do. See for example, here.

Q. How can I give a great chalk talk when I’ve never even seen or given one before?

A. Your committee will understand that you have never given a chalk talk before and will receive it sympathetically — unlike in a real faculty chalk talk, they will not be expecting a masterly presentation! Most students find it a bit stressful at the time but appreciate having done it afterward.