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Thesis Proposal/Oral Exam

Students are required to pass an oral examination to qualify for the doctoral degree. This proposal consists of a document submitted to an approved Thesis Committee at least one week prior to an oral presentation of the proposal to the Committee.

The nature of the proposal may vary, depending on the project, but it should provide motivation as well as describe and justify the envisioned approach along with summarizing progress made to date. Preliminary results supporting the proposed research are beneficial, but not required, for the Thesis Proposal/Oral Exam.

Each committee is free to choose its own criteria by which to judge the quality of thesis proposal. These criteria tend to include:

  • a proposal document that conforms to the BE Handbook’s guidelines,
  • a feasible research plan proposed and defended by the student that will result in a body of work that will meet the committee’s criteria for graduation, and
  • scholarship in the research field demonstrating that the student is capable of executing original, informed research in that field.

Thesis Committee

The Thesis Committee must be approved prior to the scheduling of the thesis proposal/oral exam presentation. See the Thesis Committee page for more information on assembling a committee.


The Thesis Proposal/Oral Exam must take place by December 1 of the 3rd year, with the specific date scheduled before the beginning of the Fall Semester of the third year.

If the student and advisor are convinced that a delay would serve the student’s interests better, they must petition the Graduate Committee by August 1st of the summer following the 2nd year with their reasoning along with their commitment for a target date; the Graduate Committee will approve or deny the petition request. Failure to complete the Thesis Proposal/Oral Exam according to this policy will constitute unsatisfactory progress with respect to subsequent enrollment and funding support. Under these circumstances the student will not be able to register for the spring semester of their 3rd year.


The student should be sure to register for Thesis Proposal (20.951) for 0-24-0 credit units during the term in which the Proposal is defended.

Oral Examination

The formal presentation of the Thesis Proposal will serve as the Oral Examination. The purpose of the Oral Exam is to test the student’s ability to explain their thesis project, defend their scientific rationale, and propose alternate approaches, as necessary. BE’s oral examination is focused on subject matter in the proposal and related to the proposal. It is not intended as a general examination on biology.

Format of the exam

The student should prepare a 30-minute presentation based on the research plan outlined in the Thesis Proposal Document. The Thesis Committee members will have read and thought about the Thesis Proposal Document ahead of time. Given that the meeting lasts up to 2 hours, there will be ample time for questions/discussion during your presentation. If questions arise about the format or style of the presentation, the student should contact the Thesis Committee Chair.


The student is responsible for arranging the Thesis Proposal/Oral Exam meeting with the Thesis Committee Members. Students should plan for the meeting to take 2 hours. Generally, this meeting should be scheduled at least two months in advance because it may be difficult to find a mutually agreeable time for all involved. Students are also responsible for reserving the location; they may contact the BE Academic Office for help reserving a room. Once this meeting has been scheduled, the Thesis Committee members and the Academic Office must be notified by e-mail about the day, time, and location of the presentation.

The student should hand out printouts of their presentation slides to the Thesis Committee Members on the day of the meeting.

Evaluation Form

The day of the presentation, the student should provide the Committee Chair with an “Oral Examination for the Doctoral Degree” form. The Committee Chair must complete this form to confirm the outcome of a Thesis Proposal/Oral Exam Presentation. The completed form should be submitted along with any comments or recommendations made by the Thesis Committee to the Academic Office. From there, copies will be distributed to the student, the advisor, and the Committee Chair.


If the proposal as presented is acceptable, a Pass grade will be recorded for 20.951, the student changes status from a graduate student to a PhD candidate, and the student is expected to begin a schedule of regular meetings with their thesis committee.

If the proposal requires changes or improvements to be considered acceptable, a Pass grade will be recorded and the student will advance to PhD candidacy but the student will be expected to improve the proposal according to the committee’s specifications before their next meeting.

If the proposal is unacceptable, the student will not be admitted to PhD candidacy. The student may either leave the program or complete a Master’s thesis. A student that completes a Master’s may apply for reinstatement into the PhD program or graduate with a Master’s degree.

Thesis Proposal Document

At least one week prior to the Thesis Proposal presentation, the student should deliver a copy of the Thesis Proposal Document to each of the Oral Exam Committee Members and to the BE Academic Office. A signature from the Academic Office is required to confirm that the proposal adheres to the format described below.

Students who would like assistance in improving their writing skills or in any stage of writing a thesis proposal should contact the BE Communication Lab or the MIT Writing and Communications Center.

Thesis Proposal Guidelines

Title Page (One page) Include the title, the date, your name and signature, the advisor’s name and signature, and the notation “Thesis Proposal”.

Abstract (Less than 300 words on One page) State the significance of the proposed research. Include long-term objectives and specific aims. Describe concisely the research design and methods for achieving these objectives. Highlight the specific hypotheses to be tested, goals to be reached, or technology to be developed, which are intended to be your original contributions. Avoid summaries of past accomplishments.

Overall & Objective Specific Aims (One page Maximum) Articulate the overall objective of your thesis project, and outline a set of specific aims by which your work is intended to accomplish this objective. Be sure to clearly state the hypotheses to be tested, goals to be reached, or technology to be developed.

Background & Significance (Three to Five pages) Sketch the background leading to the present research, critically evaluate existing knowledge, and specifically identify the gaps that your research is intended to fill. State concisely the importance of the research described in this proposal by relating the specific aims to the broad, long-term objectives.

Research Design & Methods (Six to Eight pages) Along with the Objective & Aims section, this is the most important part of the proposal. The majority of your time should be spent making this part of your proposal strong, direct, and completely clear. Describe the research design and the procedures to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project; it is generally most effective to do this according to the same outline as in the Objective & Aims section. Include how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Describe any new methodology and its advantage over existing methodologies. Discuss the potential difficulties and limitations of the proposed procedures and alternative approaches to achieve the aims. As part of this section, provide a tentative timetable for the project. Point out any procedures, situations or materials that may be hazardous and the precautions to be exercised.

Preliminary Studies (Three to Four pages) This section may alternatively be located before the Research Design & Methods section) Use this section to provide an account of your preliminary studies that are pertinent to your research project and that support your specific aims. Note: it is not necessary to have obtained a substantial amount of preliminary data in order to submit or defend the proposal, although it will be expected that you have begun to undertake some of the key methods to assess their feasibility.

Literature Cited (No page limits) List all references. Each reference must include the title, names of authors, book or journal, volume number, starting and ending page numbers, and year of publication. References should be limited to relevant literature. References are not included in the page limits. However, only references pertinent to the proposed research should be included.

Appendix (No page limits) Copies of published or submitted articles pertinent to the proposed research for which you are an author may be included. Such publications are neither expected nor required at the time of Thesis Proposal presentation.

Format and Page Limitations 

Proposals must be single spaced using 12 pt font and 1 inch margins. Figures may be embedded into the text, but they must be readable. The font within figures must be at least 9 point and the figure captions must be at least 10 point.

  • Devote one page each for the title page, abstract and specific aims.
  • Use between 13–17 pages for the remaining sections (Background & Significance, Preliminary Results, and Research Design & Methods). Note that although the maximum recommended page limits for these sections add up to a total of 17 pages, you are expected to expand and contract these sections as you see fit so that the total is no more than 17 pages.
  • Page limits include both text and figures. References are not included in the page limits.
  • The total length of the document should not exceed 20 pages (including 3 pages for the title page, abstract and specific aims; not including references or appendices).