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Research Aptitude Examination

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

The exam is distributed electronically and includes one to two problem statements.  A student must choose one problem statement to answer and then email the BIOE Graduate Office of the problem statement s/he is planning to address.  Once the BIOE Graduate Office has been notified of the problem selection, changes are not permitted.

The problem statements will be written by the PI (or PIs) whose lab hosted the Laboratory Rotation(s) for the student. The problem statements will be based on the student's project(s) such that the research conducted during the rotation could serve as preliminary investigations into an extended project. It is expected that during the rotation the students will have learned key problems and experimental methods/options of the related field.  Students are expected to use the newly acquired knowledge (and potentially any data they have collected during the rotation) in the preparation of the RAE written proposal and oral presentation.

Students are then given approximately two weeks to prepare a written proposal and an oral presentation in response to the problem statement. The written proposal must be submitted electronically to The oral presentation is delivered to a committee of three faculty members. The written copy must include the University Honor Pledge typed 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. Students are not permitted to speak to any fellow students, faculty, or anyone else regarding the exam.  Questions should only 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 whether or not the exam is satisfactory. The committee will evaluate the written proposal and oral presentation with regard to the following scale and categories.  A minimum total score of 12 out of 24 possible points is considered a passing score.

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

Manuscript: Organization, Style, and Clarity

Manuscript & Presentation:  Fundamental knowledge in the field

Manuscript & Presentation:  Interpretation of preliminary results and/or results from the literature

Manuscript & Presentation:  Defense of the project's significance and innovation

Manuscript & Presentation:  Logic and feasibility of approach

Oral Delivery and Answers to Questions

Based on the scoring system, the committee has the following alternatives.

  • Pass. Consensus for the scoring of each category, or averages of mixed scoring, with a total score of 12 or higher.
  • Fail. Consensus for the scoring of each category, or averages of mixed scoring, with a total score of less than 12. Detailed explanation of deficiencies must be submitted, and recommendations for the student must be provided.

If the student fails the first attempt at the exam, s/he can take the exam a second time at the next available offering of the RAE. The student will receive a question from the third lab rotation, in addition to two new questions from his/her previous rotation PIs. If the student is a direct admit, the student receives a new question from her/his PI. If the student fails a second attempt, s/he must leave the Ph.D. program and has 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.