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The Graduate School requires a doctoral written exam of all students.  The purpose of this exam, as described in the Graduate School Handbook, is to:

  • assess the extent and currency of the candidate’s knowledge in a manner that is as comprehensive and searching as the best practices of that field require;
  • discover any weaknesses in the candidate’s knowledge that need to be remedied by additional courses or other instruction; and
  • determine the candidate’s fitness to continue work toward the doctorate.

In GMB, the written exam focuses on the ability to read and understand published articles. The exam is designed to test comprehension, ability to evaluate and interpret data, synthesize results, formulate hypotheses, and devise tests of hypotheses.


The written exam is held at the end of each spring semester.  Students may take the exam at the end of the first year or at the end of the second year.  The timing is determined in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) based on completion of the core courses (GNET 621 and 631 or 632, although the exam does not test knowledge specific to these courses).

Format of the Written Exam

The exam is designed by the Written Exam Committee.  This committee consists of four GMB faculty.  Committee members are selected by the DGS to span different areas of genetics and molecular biology. Each committee member first submits a topic description. Students have several days to select three of the four offered topics.  Each committee member assembles a reading list, typically 3-4 articles.  These lists are distributed to students two weeks before the exam.  Students should spend this two-week period reading the articles and any background and ancillary material they deem necessary.  Students may discuss the articles with one another and with colleagues, but they should not approach exam committee members (names of committee members are not disclosed to the students).

A copy of a previous exam, including the reading assignments, questions, and examples of answers that scored highly, will be provided to students.  To ensure fairness, students taking the exam may not consult any other previous copies of the exam, whether obtained from more senior students or by other means.

Questions are distributed by Sakai at 9:00 am on a Thursday two weeks after reading lists were distributed. Answers must be returned by email by 4:00 pm the following day (Friday).  Each section will list what resources students may use to complete that section. This may range from just the assigned articles and their notes to anything on the internet. However, students may not consult one another or any other individuals during the exam period.

Grading of the Written Exam

The Student Services Specialist will remove student names from answers and replace them with numbers, then distribute the answers to Written Exam Committee members.  Each section is graded on a 20-point scale.  A score of 13 or higher is considered a passing score.  To pass the exam, a student must pass at least two of the three sections and have an overall score of at least 42 (70% average).

Scores are gathered by the Student Services Specialist and sent (blinded) to the committee chair and DGS, who review scores and make pass/fail decisions.  For students that do not meet the passing criteria described above, the chair and DGS may consult with other members of the committee to determine whether there are circumstances that may overturn this finding.

Failure and Re-exam

Students who fail the written exam may take it a second time, the following year.  Students who fail the exam twice become ineligible for further graduate work.  Upon request of the Director of Graduate Studies, the Graduate School may permit a student a third and final opportunity to take the exam.  Such requests are made at the discretion of the DGS and the GMB Executive Committee after consultation with the advisor(s) and dissertation committee.

Responsibilities of Student

  • Adhere to the UNC Honor Code.  This includes not consulting past exams other than those provided by GMB and not consulting sources during the exam other than those expressly permitted.

Responsibilities of Advisor(s)

  • Be aware that students will need time to prepare for the exam and this may result in a temporary but severe reduction in research hours.

 Responsibilities of Written Exam Committee Members

  • Serve on the committee for two consecutive years.  It is expected that a different set of questions (and possibly a different reading list) will be used each year.
  • Assemble a reading list made up of articles that can be understood by a student that has taken the core courses (GNET 621 – Genetic Analysis and either GNET 631 or GNET 632 – Advanced Molecular Biology).  This may require additional reading of papers not on the list, but should not depend on the student having taken additional coursework.
  • Submit the reading list and questions by specified deadlines to allow the Co-Chair time to proofread the questions and the Student Services Specialist time to assemble and distribute the reading lists and questions.  This date will be specified with ample advance notification.
  • Grade exams within three weeks and provide written feedback to the students.

Responsibilities of Written Exam Committee Co-Chairs

  • Review reading lists and questions to ensure that both are appropriate in scope and level.
  • Review scores, consult with other committee members if necessary, and report final decisions about  pass/fail to the Student Services Specialist and DGS.


Revision history
05/042016:  The GMB Steering Committee voted in favor of the following modifications:

a) Students will select five of the six sections. This will be done prior to distribution of reading lists. Because each student will write on only five sections, passing requires passing at least four sections with a score of 13 or higher and an overall score of at least 70.

b) Instead of being distributed on days with answers due by 5 pm each day, all questions will be distributed on one day and answers will be due by 4 pm the following day.

02/152016:  Timing of the exam was moved to the end of spring semester to ensure that all students are registered when the exam is held.