Qualifying Exam

Students who seek admission to Ph.D. candidacy must take the departmental Ph.D. qualifying exam (QE). Generally students take this exam after the second semester of graduate study.

Students taking the qualifying exam are evaluated on their command of bioengineering fundamentals in the context of the scientific/engineering literature. The exam also assesses students' ability to quickly engage in productive research. Students who meet the minimum GPA requirement are permitted to take the qualifying exam and their continuance in the Bioengineering Graduate Program is contingent on passing the QE.

The QE includes a 60-minute examination by a faculty committee on two research papers (see below), followed by the student's 10-minute presentation of research accomplishments, and 15 to 20 minutes of the student answering questions on the research.

The qualifying exam for all eligible Bioengineering graduate students typically are scheduled for mid-August.

Literature Selection

A student's Ph.D. advisor will select two brief (foundational) research papers that illustrate a significant subset of fundamental concepts including, but not limited to, functional knowledge of mathematical, computational, statistical, physiological, and molecular biology subjects. Students will be evaluated on their ability to clearly discuss these matters in the context of bioengineering applications and as they intersect topics that arise during the exam. The committee is free to decide at exam time how to distribute questions over the papers and which papers are referenced in the questions.

Exam Criteria

Students are assessed on the following:


  • Knowledge of fundamental principles relevant to the selected papers
  • Ability to clearly describe the experimental design, results and analysis used by the authors and the significance of the results
  • Ability to clearly describe the relevance of the research to the field in general and the relevance and importance of the specific findings
  • If the paper(s) refer to techniques widely known to the typical readership, students must be able to discuss those principles and methods.

Research accomplishments

Note: Presentations should be limited to approximately five to eight slides that address the main points below.

  • Engagement in research, as demonstrated by overall description of project and progress made
  • Ability to translate course knowledge to research (e.g., statistical analysis, knowledge of basic principles, etc.)
  • Ability to clearly articulate the significance of the student's own work in the broader context of the field
  • Ability to critique the advantages of the student's research strategy relative to competing approaches

Verbal Presentation Skills

  • Ability to clearly articulate principles addressed while discussing the assigned literature and the student's research accomplishments.
  • Ability to clearly explain the biological and engineering significance of the papers and the student's independent research project.

Specific Ratings

Each faculty committee member rates students on a scale of 1-5 (1 = Poor, 2 = Fair, 3= Satisfactory, 4 = Good, 5 = Excellent) on the following specific elements:

  • Knowledge of Topic
  • Ability to Formulate Solutions to a New Problem
  • Ability to Translate Course Knowledge to Research
  • Knowledge of Fundamentals Related to Research Area
  • Ability to Verbally Communicate Ideas
  • Engagement in Research Project

The committee members provide an overall rating and a pass or fail recommendation, and they may provide additional comments and suggested goals to help the student progress toward his or her degree.


Faculty discussion and voting are held on the same day as the exam or as soon as possible thereafter. Deliberations are strictly confidential and are not to be discussed with anyone outside of the meeting. Only the Graduate Program Director and/or Graduate Programs Coordinator will convey the outcome to each student. Students receive the final decision and any relevant feedback.

Student who fail the first QE have the option of retaking the exam at end of the fall semester — after taking the necessary steps to correct the deficiencies identified during the first exam. The format is identical to the first exam, and results of the prior exam are shared with the faculty committee conducting the second exam. Only students who successfully pass the first or second bioengineering QE will be allowed to continue in the doctoral program, subject to guidelines defined by the UI Graduate College. Students who do not continue in the doctoral program are eligible for a master's degree.


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Graduate Info

Hyun Joon Kong
Interim Graduate Programs Director
bioe-gradprograms [at] illinois [dot] edu

Krista Smith
Graduate Programs Coordinator
bioe-gradprograms [at] illinois [dot] edu

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