IB Qualifying Examinations

For QEs during COVID-19 quarantine, there are guidelines for IB Zoom QEs here.


Qualifying Examination Committee Composition

Your Qualifying Exam must be taken by the end of the fourth semester. In Integrative Biology this is an oral examination lasting approximately three hours and administered by your Qualifying Examination Committee. Rules around QE committee member composition were changed by IB Faculty vote as of December 2019.

The Qualifying Examination Committee is composed of 4 faculty members:

  • At least 50% of the members (including the chair) must be academic senate members and from the Department of Integrative Biology.
  • Students can choose to have all their QE committee members as faculty in Integrative Biology, but members can also be faculty (members of the academic senate) from another department on the Berkeley campus.
  • Of your 4 committee members, students can request for an exception to have one non-academic senate member on their committee -- this includes non-tenure-track faculty on campus (adjunct), non-faculty researchers who hold PhDs on campus, and non-berkeley faculty.  You will need to provide a recent CV of the individual and an explanation of why they hold the necessary expertise for your committee. If interested, please ask for details about this exception from Monica Albe, the Graduate Program Manager. Please do this early in the Fall semester.
  • If students would like to add an additional 5th member to their QE committee, they can add a faculty member from any UC or a Stanford faculty member without requesting an exception.
  • The Committee Chair moderates the exam.
  • Aside from the chair, you also need to designate one of your committee members as the Academic Senate Representative (ASR). This designated person needs to be a member of the Berkeley Academic Senate. They serve as the representative of the Dean of the Graduate Division to observe that the chair fulfills this responsibility and should report any infractions to the Graduate Division. 

Your mentor is permitted to attend the exam but can neither be a questioning nor a voting member of the committee. Your mentor and your Supervisory Committee can help you select a Qualifying Examination Committee, but the choice will be largely determined by your developing interests. As you take courses in the first two or three semesters consider whether the professors teaching them would be committee members compatible with your interests and goals.

Please see the general guidelines on the Graduate Divisions' website for any additional details about member composition, or meet with IB's Graduate Program Manager, Monica Albe.


Preparing for the Exam (Fall semester)

  • By October 1st: ​Second-year graduate students need to meet with their Advisory Committee early in the Fall semester to get advice for the year and in preparation for the Qualifying Examination (including help in choosing QE Committee members). See IB Annual Reviews for specifics on the 2nd year annual review meeting. The student should provide their advisory committee a 2-page outline of developing thesis plan including likely questions, hypotheses, and goals a week in advance of this meeting.

    Student's Qualifying Exam Committee and the topics they represent need to represent sufficient breadth. By department policy, Evolution is required to be one of the four QE subject areas. This will be reviewed and approved by the IB Head Faculty Graduate Advisor before it's submitted to Grad Div for final approval.
  • By October 6th: Students must submit their planned QE committee to the IB Head Faculty Graduate Advisor for final review. Please use this Google Form.
  • By October 15th: ​Students should submit their planned QE committee via the CalCentral eForms Work Center (View this screenshot to see where to navigate from the dashboard). Submit a Higher Degrees Committee Form (select Qualifying Exam from the drop-down menu in the form).

    Please talk to Monica before submitting a QE committee form that has a non-academic senate member on it.

    Once an application for admission to the Qualifying Examination is approved by the Graduate Division, the IB Department has 18 months to administer the examination.
  • If you think you may need to hold your QE remotely via zoom, please review our IB Zoom QE best practices google doc. We will have to submit an exception request to Graduate Division to make this possible, so contact Monica Albe, the Graduate Student Services Advisor, for more information on this.
  • For DSP concerns, please contact the DSP graduate student advisor in the Disabled Students' Program Office on campus -- currently, that is Julie Greene and Rebecca Whitney (contact via dsp@berkeley.edu). The DSP advisor can work with the student to create an accommodation letter specifically for the Qualifying Exam. Once the letter has been created, please make sure the IB Graduate Program Manager, Monica Albe, has a copy of it (have this done before the Spring semester).


Preparing for the Exam (Spring semester)

  • By January 31st: Students should work with their committee members to identify a QE date (typically held during the Spring semester). Block out 3 hours of time -- the oral exams are typically between 2-3 hours, but students should always schedule the meeting for 3 hours to allow for flexibility in case it's needed. Please alert the Graduate Program Manager, Monica Albe, when your QE date is set -- do this by January 31st. Please immediately update the Graduate Program Manager if your QE date changes.
  • At least 1 week before the exam date: Using the 2 page dissertation plan they shared with their advisory committee in their Annual Review in the Fall, along with any additional updates they've discussed with their faculty mentor, students should submit their 2-page dissertation proposal to their QE committee for review and comments. (As a reminder, here is a template of a 2-page outline for the annual review.) It's important that students have their proposal reviewed and approved by their faculty mentor before sharing with their QE committee.
  • By the end of the spring semester: The QE must be taken by the end of the Spring semester.
  • After the exam has been passed: Students should assemble their Dissertation Committee and then can apply to advance to candidacy by submitting their Dissertation Committee members via the CalCentral Higher Degree Committees Form. Students must do this by the end of the next semester. (If a student passes their exam in the Spring, they just submit this form by the end of the Summer Semester -- mid August.)

    There is a fee associated with advancing to candidacy -- the IB Department will cover this fee for students who meet the stated advance to candidacy deadlines. Once you submit your dissertation committee, please alert the Graduate Program Manager, Monica Albe, so that she can submit the paperwork to cover the $90 fee.


Basic Requirements of the Qualifying Examination (QE)

  • 2-3 hour oral exam (always reserve 3 hours of time for the meeting in case it's needed) 
  • at least 1 week prior to the exam, student must submit a 2-page outline of their dissertation proposal (suggested 2-page template)
  • 4 subject areas (by IB policy, Evolution is required to be one of the four subject areas) 
  • 4 members (at least 50% are faculty in IB, including the committee chair)
  • student must be registered at time of exam (except if held in the summer)
  • student must have been a in residency ≥ 1 semester
  • student must have a GPA ≥ 3.0 in all work while in graduate standing
  • student must have ≤ 2 'I' grades
  • IB requires the qualifying exam be held by the end of the 4th semester (unless it's being retaken)


General Exam Prep

Students should meet with each QE committee member several times during the academic year, to prepare in the area of study represented by that committee member. It's imperative that the student understands what each committee member expects of them as they prepare for the qualifying exam. We recommend students meet with each faculty member on their committee at least three times before the exam date. If a student is having trouble getting in touch with individual QE members, we encourage them to reach out to their faculty mentor, the Graduate Program Manager, the IB cohort faculty advisor, or the IB Head Faculty Advisor for advice on how best to communicate with individual committee members.

Goals of the Ph.D. qualifying exam as expressed by the UC Berkeley Graduate Division:
"The intent of the Qualifying Examination is to ascertain the breadth of the student’s comprehension in at least three subject areas related to the major field of study, and to determine whether the student has the ability to think incisively and critically about the theoretical and the practical aspects of these areas. The examination may consider a number of academic points of view and the criteria by which they may be evaluated."

While the qualifying exam is focused on general background in the field, specifically the broad topics represented by each committee member, rather than the dissertation plan per se, it is useful for the QE Committee to understand the research areas and approaches the student is planning. Therefore, a 2-page dissertation plan (no longer), giving the main goals, questions, and approaches to be employed, should be distributed to the committee at least one week in advance of the exam and introduced orally by the student in the first 5-10 minutes of the exam, to serve as an ice-breaker and jumping-off point. (Here is a template students may want to use.)

Questions by the committee, and its deliberations over whether the exam is a pass or fail, should be directed towards an assessment of whether the student is prepared to begin independent graduate-level research in their field in terms of background knowledge, research skills, and reasoning abilities.


Important Campus Guidelines for all Qualifying Exams

Please see the Grad Div website to review the full list of guidelines.

  • Accommodating Students with Disabilities: a DSP Graduate Advisor (dsp@berkeley.edu) should be consulted for any DSP concerns and to draft the qualifying exam accommodation letter. This should be done in the Fall to allow for plenty of time for all committee members to become acquainted with the requirements of the DSP accommodation letter for the exam.
  • The Chair of the Qualifying Examination Committee is responsible for making sure that the committee administers the exam fairly and follows the procedures outlined.
  • The exam is normally held on one day and lasts approximately two to three hours.
  • The exam must be held with the entire committee present for the length of the exam. A student may not be examined separately by committee members.
  • The Qualifying Examination is an oral exam. The Qualifying Examination must be conducted in English; all members of the committee must be present either in person or through approved media.
  • Although IB requires a 2-page dissertation outline (suggested template) to be provided to the committee at least one week in advance of the QE, this is not officially a component of the Qualifying Examination required by the Graduate Council. Administration of the oral Qualifying Examination implies that the student has satisfactorily completed any written preliminaries.
  • The intent of the Qualifying Examination is to ascertain the breadth of the student’s comprehension in at least three subject areas related to the major field of study, and to determine whether the student has the ability to think incisively and critically about the theoretical and the practical aspects of these areas. The examination may consider a number of academic points of view and the criteria by which they may be evaluated.
  • The examination must not be narrowly limited to the dissertation topic.
  • The examiners should satisfy themselves, by unanimous vote, that the student demonstrated sufficient command of the three subject areas.
  • If, before the date of the approved examination, a change in the student’s health or personal situation makes it too difficult to take the examination as scheduled, the student must make this known to the examination chair so the chair can arrange for a postponement.
  • If allowed a retake, the student who has partially failed an examination must be orally examined before the full committee on all portions failed in the first Qualifying Examination.
  • The student's advisor may attend the exam, but they may not say anything.


IB-Specific Guidelines for carrying out the QE 

These guidelines were voted on by the IB faculty and adopted on May 5, 2017.

  • The student is asked ahead of time what order they would like the committee members to ask their questions.
  • As QE committee members need to be present during the full exam, they should not be preoccupied with other activities on their computers or phones.
  • At the start of the exam, after all are assembled, the student and the major advisor (if present), steps out for a minute while the committee prepares.
  • Prior to the start of exam questioning, the student presents on their dissertation plan for 10 minutes, explaining their goals for their graduate program and future.
  • The first round of questions should be approximately 20 minutes for each committee member, with a 5-minute break included after the second. Typically the chair allows other committee members to ask follow-up questions that are directly related to what the person whose turn it is has asked (it is more efficient that way to deal with one issue at once), but that does not count against their 20 minutes. The chair is responsible to keep things moving if the exam gets bogged down.
  • There is typically a shorter second round -- each committee member, in turn, asks any follow-up questions they have. The committee should be done with this round by 2.5 hours into the time slot since the exam needs to be completely done in 3 hours.
  • When there are no more questions, ask the student and the major advisor (if present) to leave the room. Each committee member, in turn, gives an evaluation of their part of the exam, followed by a general discussion of the overall performance.
  • Call the student back into the room (along with advisor, if present), and give them the results.
  • If the student did not handle some or all of the question sections satisfactorily, then make sure this conversation is private (sometimes peers are waiting outside in the hall, make sure the door is closed so they cannot hear) and explain the decision to the student. This can be traumatic, so some supportive time spent with the student explaining what they can do in the future is helpful. The details about various possible outcomes are listed on the Grad Div website.