Candidacy Policies and Procedures

The precise timing of the Candidacy Examination should be determined collectively by the advisor and the student using the following guidelines. Students who have qualified for candidacy from the First-Year Oral Examination must advance to candidacy no later than end of the Spring semester of the second year. Students directed to further evaluation by completion of an M.S. degree should initiate their Candidacy Examination during the semester immediately following the M.S. defense, and must advance to candidacy no later than the end of the Spring semester of the third year. Exceptions to these deadlines will be considered upon request and will generally be granted in cases where a student has switched research advisors/groups prior to candidacy, has taken an approved leave of absence from the graduate program, or has had or adopted a child since starting the graduate program. Students are required to develop their aims and get them approved by Thanksgiving (the 4th Thursday of November) of the second year, write the written portion (proposal) and get it approved by March 15th in the Spring semester of the second year, and hold the oral exam no later than the final day of the Spring semester of the second year. Students are requried to provide a copy of their aims and their proposal to the Graduate Studies Office at the same time these items submitted to their committee.

To qualify for the candidacy exam, students must complete required courses as specified by each division; students are encouraged but not required to complete electives before taking the exam, unless the candidacy committee specifically requires those classes to be completed before the exam.

At the beginning of the second year, the Vice Chair will assign the Candidacy Committee with the advisor as Chair, the other members of the Advisory Committee, and one additional member of the Chemistry graduate faculty achieve a total of four committee members. If an additional member needs to be added to the student’s advisory committee for the purpose of candidacy, the Vice Chair will make these assignments with the intention of dividing the workload among the faculty. A member of the graduate faculty of the University from another graduate program may serve in place of one of the divisional members.

A university representative will sometimes be assigned by the Graduate School, particularly during a second candidacy exam.

The Chair of the Candidacy Committee (the advisor)—not the student—will arrange a time and location for the exam in consultation with his or her colleagues and the Vice Chair’s office. The advisor may place a tentative date on the calendar for the exam, but the exam may not be scheduled firmly until the written proposal is approved. Exams must be held during announced University business hours, Monday through Friday. Exams can be held in person, but can now be held remotely or in a hybrid format without the need to petition for a videoconference exam provided that the policies in Section B.1 of the Graduate School Handbook are followed.

The Candidacy Examination includes both written and oral portions. The examination is a general exam, a comprehensive test administered by a committee of faculty based on the fundamentals and depth of knowledge of the broad area of chemistry and/or biochemistry in which the student is specializing. The student’s progress in research will be evaluated by the examination committee, as well as the student’s ability to formulate a sound, innovative, independent proposal within their area of research. Satisfactory performance in this examination or series of examinations admits the student to candidacy for the doctoral degree effective the subsequent semester. To get a better idea of the criteria used by the committee in their evaluations of performance, students should consult the Candidacy Rubric.

The written portion of the Candidacy Examination toward a Ph.D. takes the form of a Research Proposal, similar to what would be submitted to a U.S. federal funding agency (NSF, NIH, DOE, etc.) to request financial support for a research project. Before the student begins to write the full proposal, the student must prepare a “Specific Aims” page of no more than one page that outlines the topic, aims and research strategy of the proposal, as well as the significance and innovation. The one-page limit is inclusive of figures/schemes that are deemed necessary to convey the ideas (relevant literature references can be listed on a separate page). The abstract/aims must be approved by all members of the committee for the student to proceed to the written exam. The committee should respond to the student within one week of receiving the aims page. The aims may be approved even if there are issues in the actual text of the specific aims that the committee would like to see addressed in the full proposal. The advisor should assure the committee of the independence of at least one of the aims of the proposal, and the rest of the committee must approve that it is sufficiently original and distinct from the advisor’s research. In some departmental divisions, it is common to express one or more Aims as a scientific hypothesis along with the description of the Approach how the hypothesis can be confirmed (or rejected). It is the responsibility of the student to clarify this with the advisor and committee during the preparation of the Specific Aims page.

A successful candidacy proposal will demonstrate the student’s scientific vision, familiarity with the research topic and literature, and the student’s logical and critical thinking, such as the ability to develop and write down a clear plan as to how the research questions can be successfully addressed along with expected outcomes. A “Background” section should summarize the status of the specific research field along with the relevant literature and motivate the questions to be addressed as well as their broader impact on the field (“Why is this research important? How does it significantly advance the field?”). The research objectives are then formulated in multiple different “Aims”. It is common, although not required, that the proposal contains three Aims, with one Aim describing research in progress by the student along with its planned completion, one Aim describing novel, future work that will be conducted as part of the dissertation, and one Aim that is independently conceived and formulated by the student, which does not necessarily become part of the thesis work. The Aims should be thematically linked, but still sufficiently complementary so that their successful completions do not depend on each other. Each Aim has its own goal(s) followed by a detailed description of the “Approach” or “Strategy” chosen to achieve the goal(s), such as sample preparation and other experimental details, measurements, theory, computer simulations, data analysis, new methods development, etc. It can also include a short section about “Potential Pitfalls” and proposed remedies. Research progress made to date by the student can be part of some but not all Aims and can be included in a “Preliminary Results” section in the corresponding Aim(s).  The entire proposal must be written by the student in her or his own words, and one Aim must be conceived independently by the student and describe a research goal that is not pursued in the student’s lab or described in the advisor’s papers or grant proposals. Advisors are permitted to assist with editing the proposal with respect to grammar and writing style and may provide suggestions about how the proposal is framed and where more detail or content is needed. The advisor should, however, limit their input on the scientific content of the proposal and the proposed ideas in general, particularly with respect to the independent aim. As noted above, students are strongly encouraged to submit the written proposal to the committee for evaluation no later than March 15 of the year in which they must advance.

The written proposal should be no more than 10 pages with no less than half inch margins and a font size no less than Arial 11 or its equivalent. The 10 page limit includes any figures, but not the abstract/aims page or references cited. References should include full titles of articles, and pages should be numbered throughout. It is recommended that the proposal be formatted generally as an NIH or NSF research proposal. Students are encouraged, but not required to use the template found here (Candidacy Proposal Template) as a starting point when preparing their written proposal.  The candidacy committee may provide additional guidance on the exact format. The committee should respond with their judgement of the written proposal and any required issues to address within two weeks.

The approval of the written proposal is an exam exercise and should not simply consist of a series of suggested edits from different committee members. Each iteration of the proposal should be examined by all committee members and the results should be returned to both the student and the chair of the committee (the advisor). The chair can then discuss the collective judgement and comments to the student. In general, the committee should respond with an overall judgement along the lines of Approve, Minor Edit, or Major Rewrite. It is not necessary for the written proposal to be flawless for the committee to approve it in order to move on to the oral exam; some issues may be left to address in the oral exam. However, all committee members must approve the proposal to move on to the oral exam. If it becomes clear after two revisions of the document that there is no possibility for a satisfactory overall performance on the candidacy exam, the student may be advised to waive taking the oral exam; however, the student may not be denied the opportunity to take the oral exam (see section 7.4 of the Graduate School Handbook). The advisor should consult with the Graduate Studies Committee Chair before advising the student to waive the oral exam.

The written portion of the Candidacy Exam must be approved by the examination committee at least two weeks prior to the oral exam. A final draft of the student’s written examination must be available to all members of the oral examination committee, including a possible university representative appointed by the Graduate School, at least two weeks prior to the examination. A copy of the approved proposal must be submitted to the Graduate Studies Office, and the Candidacy Examination committee must acknowledge approval of the proposal by signing a form that will be distributed electronically by the Graduate Studies Office. This must be completed before the Graduate Studies Office will approve the Application for Candidacy in

After the written portion is approved, the student must initiate an Application for Candidacy form electronically at, which must be signed electronically by the advisor and the GSC Chair. All signatures must be completed at least two weeks prior to the examination date. This two week period before the exam is required by the Graduate School and may not be appealed.

After the written portion is approved, the student must initiate an Application for Candidacy form electronically at, which must be signed electronically by the advisor and the GSC Chair. All signatures must be completed at least two weeks prior to the examination date. This two week period before the exam is required by the Graduate School and may not be appealed.

The oral portion of the Ph.D. Candidacy Examination consists of questions related to ongoing research, defense of proposed work, and general questions that may be related to the written portion of the Candidacy Examination or, if unrelated, on subjects in which the candidate is expected to be proficient (related to the research topic or larger area of chemistry, for example). The oral exam lasts approximately two hours, and it must entirely consist of questions by the committee. Typically, the first hour will focus more on the proposal itself, and the second hour will include more general questions. By rule of the Graduate School, the exam cannot begin with an uninterrupted presentation by the student, but the committee will typically ask the student to describe the proposal as part of the exam. The student may bring a copy of the proposal and up to five slides or figures in any format (electronic or printed), but should expect to be asked questions and answer at the chalkboard or whiteboard throughout the exam. Students are highly encouraged to hold practice oral exams with other students both inside and outside their research groups prior to their candidacy exam. However, advisors are not permitted to attend or participate in these practice exams.

The written and oral portions of the candidacy exam constitute a single exam and are considered together. The candidate will be evaluated on his or her performance on the general questions, academic ability, research progress and understanding of the research problem, and the defense of the research proposal including the ability to meaningfully formulate problems and hypotheses and devise suitable tests for those problems.

The student is considered to have passed the candidacy exam only when the committee members unanimously affirm that the performance was satisfactory. In the event of an unsatisfactory exam, the candidacy committee may specify the nature of the second exam. Typically, it will still have both written and oral portions, although if there were no issues with the written exam, the original written proposal may be accepted as the written portion for the second exam. A second oral exam is required, unless the committee believes there is no possible path to a satisfactory second exam, which must be indicated on the Report on Candidacy on This option would normally be applied only in exceptional circumstances and in consultation with the Graduate Studies Committee Chair. The second exam must be administered by the same committee, and the Graduate School will also assign a Graduate Faculty Representative who will vote as a normal member of the candidacy committee. A student who fails the candidacy exam twice is not permitted to be a candidate in any doctoral program at the University, but may transfer to a Master’s program (including the Chemistry M.S. track) with the support of the Graduate Studies Chair and the approval of the program.

A Candidacy Rubric is used to evaluate all candidacy exams.  The main purpose of the rubric is to collect aggregate assessment data for the program, but the rubric is also a useful tool to help the committee discuss and evaluate the exam uniformly and fairly.  It is also a useful tool for students to understand candidacy expectations more clearly. The rubric was developed based on the Learning Outcomes for the program.

In practice, committee members will receive an email with links to the rubric PDF and an electronic form before the exam.  The rubric will be submitted by all participating faculty and will be shared with the student.  There is no mandatory relationship between how the form is filled out and how the faculty member votes.