Departmental Exam Guidelines

QUESTIONS? Contact Jeanine Sun, or 858‐822‐6014.

Overview and Committee

The Departmental Exam is an oral exam consisting of a critical analysis of one or more recent journal articles, and possibly questions about the student's research project.

The exam is administered and evaluated by a committee of three Chemistry & Biochemistry Faculty: two from the student's research division/track and one from outside the student’s research division/track. All three members of the committee continue to serve on the student's Doctoral Committee.

Although students may seek the advice of their research Advisor on specific questions about the paper, practice sessions where the student analyzes the paper with a faculty member present are not allowed. The exam is normally taken in Winter quarter of the student's second year so that they have a chance to complete any recommended or required coursework or TAships in Spring.

The exam must be taken by the last day of Finals week of Winter Quarter. Students receive the paper(s) exactly two weeks prior to the exam date. Students should start trying to schedule the exam immediately after receiving their committee assignments.

Only the Graduate Affairs Committee has authority to grant an extension of the Winter Quarter deadline. Failure to take the exam by the end of the sixth quarter may be grounds for dismissal. If a student needs an extension, the Advisor should contact Jeanine, and she will forward the request to Graduate Affairs.

Selection of Paper

The chair of the exam committee consults with the student's Advisor (and Co‐Advisor, if applicable) to select a suitable paper(s) not directly related to the student's proposed thesis research.

DISTRIBUTION OF PAPER: Chair of the committee assigns the student the paper(s) EXACTLY TWO WEEKS before the date of the exam. If the committee chair will be out of town, s/he should make prior arrangements for another faculty to give the paper(s) to the student, and s/he should verify that the student knows who the contact will be.

Student: Must be sure to get in touch with the chair to get the assigned paper(s) on time, gives the paper(s) to the rest of the committee 1.5‐2 weeks prior to the exam, and gives the PhD Coordinator a copy of the paper(s) 1.5‐2 weeks prior to the exam.

Exam Preparation Hints

Read and understand ALL the references in your paper but don't get bogged down. It is more important to discuss things in terms of your past coursework than to report what others say with little understanding.

Practice your presentation in private and before an audience that is encouraged to interrupt with questions. In seminars notice how "experts" present their research, how they respond to questions, and what kinds of questions committee members might ask. Your Advisor (or any Faculty member) may not participate in your practice presentation.

Be reassured that you are probably the expert on your paper, since you have devoted more time to it than any member of your Committee. On the other hand, your committee members are usually knowledgeable about the logic of science and about the general chemistry (physics, biology) that underlies your topic. Therefore, it is wise to review your past coursework, especially in areas related to your topic and your area of research.

Some Departmental Exam Committees ask students how their thesis research is progressing. This discussion may contribute to the evaluation of performance on the Departmental Exam. Therefore, it is advisable to review your ongoing research and future plans so that you can describe these if asked.

Oral Presentation

The presentation should answer the following questions:

What was the scientific context of the paper? What was the objective of the research?

What methods and techniques were used to attain the objective?

What are the results?

How do the results lead to conclusions?

Helpful hints to students: Plan to take 20‐30 minutes to present your paper. Get to the point quickly. Avoid irrelevancies. Save details for responses to specific questions that ask for them.

In examining the assigned research paper(s), students should also consider the following critical questions:

Is the experimental method sound?

What explicit or implicit assumptions have been made in interpreting the results? Are they valid? Is the reasoning leading from results to conclusions sound?

Are there alternative interpretations of the results?

What questions remain unanswered? How would you answer them?

Helpful hints to students about answering questions: Think a moment before answering difficult questions. It is permissible to defer answering a question if your presentation will cover that point. An honest "I don't know" is safer than bluffing. Be willing to be led through a derivation or chain of reasoning that isn't obvious to you.

Evaluation by Department Exam Committee

The function of the Departmental Exam Committee is to judge performance with respect to the following questions:

Can the student read and understand the literature in the field?

Can the student apply the knowledge gained through courses, reading, and seminars to research problems?

Can the student devise experiments or theoretical projects, interpret the results, and apply available theory in a logical and coherent fashion?

Scheduling the Exam

Confirm your exam date and time, then reserve your exam room by week 5 of Winter Quarter!


First, students contact their committee chair to discuss the exam and possible dates and times. Next, students contact the other committee members about possible dates and times. Schedule two hours for the exam. Sometimes it takes a bit longer. Start scheduling early enough to assure the time limit of end of Winter Quarter is met. By week 5 of Winter Quarter, ALL students must confirm with their committee the date of the exam.

Dates to Avoid

Exams should never be scheduled on Weekends or Holidays.

Dates that might be problematic and should be avoided:

(a) Martin Luther King Holiday

(b) Presidents Day Holiday

(c) The large graduate recruitment days (Weekends of 2/3/17 and 2/24/17)


At least three weeks before the exam and *AFTER* you have coordinated the date and time with all members of the committee, students notify Jeanine Sun, ( She will oversee reserving a room and emailing exam notices.

Room Reservation ‐ Review the following and send an email to Ph.D. Coordinator ( with your room preference. Room reservations will be made for you.

*NSB  1205, 3203, or 3211: NSB rooms all have LCD projector equipment that is mounted to the ceiling, which provides good wide screen visibility (fit to screen); when projecting from the table on other halls/rooms, the size of the projection is not optimal. You can pick up a key card from the Student Affairs Office.

*Pacific Hall rooms 4500, 4501 or 4503. PACH rooms do not have LCD projectors. A key can be picked up from the Student Affairs Office. These rooms have overhead and slide projectors, but no LCD or computer.

*Urey Hall rooms 2102 or “Urey Room”. The Urey Room has an LCD projector. The key can be picked up from the Business Office.

*A/V equipment – Many students bring personal laptops for their presentations. If you need a laptop (you should check with your lab group for availability).  Need an LCD or projector? – Contact the Chemistry Storeroom at extension 4‐4953 or 4‐0230.

Students are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the room and equipment well in advance of the presentation date. Access to rooms varies depending on building configurations. Any questions should be directed to the Chemistry Storeroom at (858) 534‐4953.

Coursework MS Degree

PhD students have the option to earn the coursework MS degree along the way to the PhD. 

This process is two-fold; in addition to successfully completing the Departmental Exam, students must complete a minimum of 36-units of eligible coursework to apply for the MS degree.  Please contact Jeanine Sun,, to go over coursework and eligibility.  (Students with a prior MS degree are ineligible.)