Research Aptitude Examination

All Ph.D. students must take and successfully complete the Research Aptitude Examination (RAE) in the first year of the Ph.D. program. The RAE is held twice a year, once in June and once in August. The timeline for the examination period is announced by the BIOE Graduate Office before the end of the spring semester.

The exam consists of a written proposal and oral presentation on a selected research problem statement. Students are responsible for identifying their research proposal topic and generating their research problem statement. The topic and problem statement must be related to one of the research areas or projects from the student’s fall rotations (or assigned lab for direct admit students), such that the research conducted during the rotation prepares the student for the proposed project or project extension. It is expected that during the rotation the student will have learned the key problems and experimental methods/options in the related field. Additionally, student are expected to use their newly-acquired knowledge, preliminary investigations from their rotation, and/or literature reports to support the proposed work as they prepare the RAE written proposal and oral presentation.

Students will email their topic and problem statement to the BIOE Graduate office ( by the advertised deadline, which is several weeks in advance of the written proposal submission date. Submitted topics and problem statements will be shared with the appropriate PI to confirm the topic is consistent with research conducted during that student’s rotation. Once the BIOE Graduate Office receives a student’s topic and problem statement, changes and feedback from others are not permitted.

Students must then prepare a written proposal and an oral presentation in response to their problem statement. The written proposal must be submitted electronically to and assigned committee members. The oral presentation is delivered to a committee of three faculty members. The written copy must include the University Honor Pledge typed and signed on the title page under your name: “I pledge on my honor that I have neither given nor received any unauthorized assistance on this examination.” All work must be your own – the University Honor Pledge will be strictly enforced and any instances of academic dishonesty will not be tolerated. Students can refer to the university’s Code of Academic Integrity for definitions of academic dishonesty. All research proposals will be sent to the PI of the relevant rotation to screen for potential plagiarism. If a proposal is found to be plagiarized, the student will automatically fail the RAE and will be reported to the university’s Office of Student Conduct for academic dishonesty. Students are not permitted to speak to any fellow students, faculty, or anyone else regarding the exam after submission of the topic and problem statement. Questions should be directed to or in person to the Graduate Director.

Part I: Written Proposal

The objective of the written proposal is to communicate how a specific research problem may be investigated. The proposal format has been adapted from the requirements for a NIH R21 proposal. The proposal is not to exceed 6 pages using an 11-point Arial font, 1-inch margins, and 1.0 line spacing. The 6-page limitation covers the proposal body text, as well as any figures, tables, and schemes. The title page, abstract, specific aims, and cited references are the only sections that do not count toward the 6-page limitation. The specific aims, however, are limited to 1 page. The following details delineate the section requirements within the written proposal as well as the purpose of each section.

Title Page: The first page should include your name, title of your proposal, and signed honor pledge.

Abstract: A brief description of the problem of interest, its significance, and the proposed investigation.

Specific Aims: State concisely the goals of the proposed research and summarize the expected outcome(s), including the impact that the results of the proposed research may have on the research field(s) involved. List succinctly the specific objectives of the research proposed, e.g., to test a stated hypothesis, create a novel design, solve a specific problem, challenge an existing paradigm or clinical practice, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology. The specific aims section is limited to 1 page.

Research Strategy: Organize the research strategy in the specified order and using the instructions provided below. Start each section with the appropriate section heading—Significance, Innovation, Approach.


    • Explain the importance of the problem or critical barrier to progress in the field that the proposed project addresses.

    • Explain how the proposed project improves scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice in one or more broad fields.

    • Describe how the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field may change if the proposed aims are achieved.


    • Explain how the application challenges and seeks to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms.

    • Describe any novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s) to be developed or used, and any advantage over existing methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s).

    • Explain any refinements, improvements, or new applications of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or interventions.


    • This is the core of the proposal. This section should occupy at least 70% of the allotted page limit.

    • Describe the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Include how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted.

    • As appropriate, include preliminary results achieved during the laboratory rotation from which the question is drawn or any pertinent published data.

    • Discuss potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success anticipated to achieve the aims.

    • Describe strategies to establish feasibility, and address the management of any high-risk aspects of the proposed work.

    • Point out any procedures, situations, or materials that may be hazardous to personnel and precautions to be exercised.

Cited References: Cite sources for background information and experimental plan.

Part II: Oral Presentation

The objective of the oral presentation is to succinctly communicate the key points of the written proposal. Typically, this would require an introduction that presents the field of research and then a discussion of the experimental plan. The presentation should not exceed 30 minutes; therefore, it is recommended that the presentation not exceed 25 slides. Both during and after the presentation, the committee may ask questions about the proposal, as well as relevant background topics.

Each student will be notified by email of the place and time of the oral presentation. The presentations should be delivered using Microsoft PowerPoint or other equivalent presentation software. A laptop computer and LCD projector will be provided on the day of the presentation.


After questioning has been completed, the student leaves the room, and the committee discusses the student's performance. Each individual committee member will submit an evaluation on the written proposal (manuscript) and oral presentation with regard to the following scale and categories. A minimum total score of 10 out of 20 possible points is considered a passing score.

0=unacceptable; 1= marginally acceptable; 2= acceptable; 3= above average; 4= outstanding

Evaluation categories (manuscript and presentation scored separately):

    • Organization and Clarity

    • Fundamental knowledge in the field

    • Interpretation of preliminary results and/or results from the literature

    • Defense of the project's significance and innovation

    • Logic and feasibility of approach

In each category, the manuscript and presentation scores for each committee member will be averaged. Those scores will then be combined across all categories, resulting in a total individual score (out of 20 points) per committee member. Finally, all total individual scores will be averaged. Final averaged scores of 10 or higher will result in a passed attempt. Final averaged scores of 9 or lower will result in a failed attempt.

A final average score that falls between 9.1 and 9.9 will trigger an additional opportunity for the committee members to further discuss the student’s performance. If after further discussion, a fail decision is upheld, the student’s original final score of less than 10 and failed attempt will stand. If a pass decision is reached after further discussion, the individual committee member(s) with the lower score(s) can submit a regrade, allowing for the student to receive a passing final score (10 or higher).

If the student fails the first attempt at the exam, they can take the exam a second time at the next available offering of the RAE. The student will again be responsible for generating their research topic and research problem statement for the second attempt. The topic and problem statement must be related to one of the projects or research areas from their first, second, or third rotation, such that the research conducted during the rotation prepares the student for the proposed project or project extension. If the student is a direct admit, the student’s research topic and problem statement must be related to their preliminary investigations and/or research. While students can use the same problem statement, they are strongly encouraged to discuss this possibility with the chair of their committee.

If the student fails a second attempt, they must leave the Ph.D. program and have the option of entering the Master of Science program.

The Courses BIOE605/6: Bioengineering Graduate Studies will be used to monitor the progress of first year graduate students and to orient them on the RAE.