PhD Qualifying Exams & Dissertation Requirements


PhD Qualifying Exams

Preliminary Written Statistics and Biostatistics Examination

The PhD Written Qualifying Examination has two parts: A statistical theory part, developed and scored by the Statistics Group within the Math Department; and a biostatistics part, developed and scored by the Division of Biostatistics and Bioinformatics within the Department of FMPH. The exam committees in charge may be different for each part of the exam. Whether or not students pass or fail is determined separately by the exam committees for the Statistical Theory part and the Biostatistics part of the exam. The student must pass both QEs at the PhD-provisional pass level or higher, with one QE receiving a PhD pass grade. Each exam committee will forward its recommendation to the chair of the Graduate Program Committee, which will be the final arbiter of pass or fail.

The PhD written qualifying examination will be given at the end of each spring quarter and also at the beginning of each fall quarter. Students in the PhD program must attempt the exam in the spring quarter immediately after they complete both the Math 281A-B-C and FMPH 221-223 core course series. A well-prepared student will take these exams during the first year of the program. Otherwise, they are expected to take the exams during the second year of the program. Students must pass both QEs by the end of the second year in the program. At least one of the exams must be completed with a provisional PhD pass or better by the end of the first year. Failure to meet the passing requirements (i.e.,PhD-provisional pass or better on both QEs with at least one PhD-level pass by the end of the second year) on the QEs after two attempts will result in a recommendation to the Dean of Graduate Studies for disqualification of the student in the PhD program and dismissal from the University.

Qualifying Examination Pass Levels
​PhD Pass Excellent performance, suitable for continuing towards doctoral work
Provisional PhD Pass ​Marginal performance at doctoral level
MS Pass ​Not suitable for continuing towards doctoral work, but satisfactory for terminal MS
Fail Unsatisfactory for Master's level work


Scientific Research Examination

Students in the PhD program must also pass a Scientific Research Examination. This consists of a seminar presentation of a statistical application in a particular area of life sciences. The presentation will be evaluated by an ad-hoc committee of three faculty members, including at least one outside (non-statistician) member with expertise in the area of application. The exam is taken Pass/Fail. The student is allowed two attempts at taking this exam. The student should pass this requirement prior to the end of the third year of study. The presentation will be evaluated on the students’ demonstration of a sufficient understanding of the area of application, and on the relevance of the statistical approach to this area.

Advancement to Candidacy

It is expected that by the end of the third year (9 quarters), students should have a field of research chosen and a faculty member willing to direct and guide them. A student will advance to candidacy after successfully passing the oral qualifying examination, which deals primarily with the area of research proposed. The student will also have successfully completed at least 64 units of required and elective courses within the Program. More information on the process can be found here.

Exams taken before receiving Graduate Division approval of committee membership may be deemed null and void. Students must be registered during the quarters in which they take any portion of their QE. To be eligible for the QE, the student must have:

  • A “B” average in all work done in graduate standing;
  • Satisfied all departmental or group requirements; and
  • Removed all academic deficiencies

The preparation for the exam will be done by working closely with a faculty mentor (independent study) who is a regular member of the interdepartmental Program in Biostatistics. The exam committee consists of the Doctoral Committee. The PhD Qualifying Examination examines a student on the breadth and depth of knowledge expected from the coursework taken, and a special research topic approved by the committee. The primary purpose of the QE is to validate that the student is academically qualified to conceptualize a research topic, undertake scholarly research and clearly communicate its results, and successfully produce the dissertation required for a doctoral degree. A thirty minute presentation given by the student is followed by a question period that covers the special research topic as well as coursework in general.

Graduate Division guidelines for PhD Qualifying Examinations apply and may be viewed here. A student who passes the PhD QE is eligible for Advancement to Candidacy for the PhD degree. Title and abstract of the PhD QE presentation will be distributed to all faculty and students of the participating departments in the Program in Biostatistics, who are invited to attend the presentation portion of the examination. The subsequent question period is a closed session between the student and the committee. The student must file the appropriate paperwork with the Office of Graduate Studies (assisted by the Graduate Coordinator) and pay the candidacy fee to be promoted to Candidacy for the PhD degree. The candidacy fee will post to the student's bill and is the student's responsibility to pay. 

Qualifying Exam: Outcomes. A committee, having reached a unanimous decision, shall inform the student of its decision as “Pass” (no conditions may be appended to this decision), “Not Pass” (the Chair’s report should specify whether the student is required to retake all or part of the exam, list any additional requirements, and state the exact timeline for completion of requirements to achieve a “Pass”) or “Fail”. If a unanimous decision takes the form of “Not Pass” or “Fail”, the Chair of the QE committee must include in its report a specific statement, agreed to by all members of the committee, explaining its decision and must inform the student of its decision. Having received a “Not Pass” or “Fail”, the student may attempt the QE one additional time. After a second exam, a vote of “Not Pass” is unacceptable; only “Pass” or “Fail” is recognized. Only one retake of the QE is allowed. A student who fails the QE on the second attempt will be recommended to the Dean of Graduate Studies for disqualification from the PhD program.

PhD Dissertation Requirements

Doctoral Dissertation

The doctoral dissertation is an essential part of the PhD program. A topic will be selected by the student, under the advice and guidance of a Major Professor (thesis adviser) and a Dissertation Committee chaired by the Major Professor. The Committee is composed of at least 4 members with UC San Diego faculty appointments; at least 1 member must have a primary appointment in a different department than your chair's primary department; at least 2 members must be from Biostatistics. Students are encouraged to begin some research activity as early as possible during the second year of their graduate studies, and to use the Biostatistics Rotation to assess potential thesis advisers. The dissertation must contain an original contribution of quality that would be acceptable for publication in the biostatistics literature that extends the theory or methodology of biostatistics, or extends biostatistical methods to solve a critical problem in applied disciplines.  More details on the dissertation can be found here.

Dissertation Defense

The entire dissertation committee will conduct a final oral examination, which will deal primarily with questions arising out of the relationship of the dissertation to the field of Biostatistics. The final examination will be conducted in two parts. The first part consists of a one-hour presentation by the candidate followed by a brief period of questions pertaining to the presentation; this part of the examination is open to the public. The second part of the examination will immediately follow the first part; this is a closed session between the student and the committee and will consist of a period of questioning by the committee members. Title and abstract of the oral presentation will be distributed to all faculty and students of departments that participate in the Biostatistics.

Normative Time to Degree

The normative time for the PhD in Biostatistics is five years; a student must have advanced to candidacy by the end of 11 quarters. A student is eligible for support for a maximum of five years. The final thesis defense must have been conducted by the end of the 5th year.

Students must pass two written qualifying exams at the PhD level by the end of their second year. At least one of the exams must be completed with a provisional PhD pass or better by the end of the first year. In the second year, a student begins Biostatistics Rotations so that they become familiar with the process of doing research and familiarize themselves with a number of faculty members who may serve as their advisor. Optimally, a student advances to candidacy sometime in their third year; a student must have advanced to candidacy by the end of 11 quarters. This allows for the fourth and fifth year to concentrate on research and produce a thesis. In contrast to coursework, research is an unpredictable endeavor, so it is in the interest of the student to have as much time as possible to produce a thesis.