Qualifying Exam & Prospectus Defense

Policy in Catalog:

MS Degree Requirements in the School of Marine Science Graduate Catalog
PhD Degree Requirements in the School of Marine Science Graduate Catalog


Roles and Responsibilities of Students, Advisors and Committees
Guidelines for Exams & Defenses
Guidelines for Moderators
Select a Moderator
Reserve a Room


Qualifying Exam Scheduling Form & Prospectus Pre-Approval (DocuSign | View Sample)
Qualifying Exam Grade Form (DocuSign | View Sample)
Prospectus Acceptance Form (DocuSign | View Sample)

General Information:
General Info on Qualifying Exam and Prospectus Acceptance Milestones
Scheduling Your Exam
  • Advisor approval is required before the qualifying exam can be scheduled. The student should arrange the date and time for the qualifying exam with all members of the advisory committee as well as select a moderator and reserve rooms in EMS for the exam.
  • Determine if any committee members need to participate from a remote location. Committee members are expected to attend the qualifying exam in person. Should a committee member need to participate remotely, however, the advisor should alert the moderator and confirm the availability of adequate means of communications, both at VIMS and at the remote location. The approval of the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs is required in the event that more than one committee member participates remotely. Indicate remote participation on the exam scheduling form.
  • The student must initiate the prospectus pre-approval & qualifying exam scheduling form in DocuSign at least 3 weeks prior to the exam date. 
  • If anyone on the committee needs to connect remotely, the moderator is responsible for setting up the zoom meeting link and sharing that link with the committee.
  • If special assistance is needed with AV setup, the student or moderator should contact [[bob, Bob Polley]] in ITNS at least 3 weeks in advance of the exam date. ITNS will confirm the availability of dates during the scheduling approval process in DocuSign. 
  • Qualifying Exam Announcement: If the student prefers to use an alternate professional-like photo (besides the photo that is available on the VIMS student directory listing) on the qualifying exam announcement, the student should email the image file to the [[registrar, SMS Registrar]] when the scheduling form is distributed. Announcements will be included in the Academic Affairs Digest at least two weeks prior to the exam date.
Qualifying Exam Guidelines

The qualifying exam is an oral exam designed to test a student's scientific competence and ability to pursue the research project. The examination allows a student's advisory committee to identify any deficiencies in a student's preparation to successfully conduct and complete the degree program. The student begins with a 20-minute discussion or presentation of the proposed research which is followed by two rounds of questioning from the committee. Each committee member is given the floor for 5-10 minutes during each round. Questioning often starts with a committee member from the SMS, with the outside committee member and major advisor ending the questioning in each round.

The questioning round consists of two components:

  1. Questions that address knowledge specific to the proposed research project.
  2. Questions that are broader in scope, including general knowledge or marine science, particularly as it relates to the student's area of speciality.

Additional guidelines for the qualifying exam can be found here.

The qualifying exam will be administered by the student's advisory committee and chaired by a moderator who is not a member of the student's advisory committee. The moderator must be identified at least 3 weeks prior to the examination.

Consistent with SMS procedures, the examination will be advertised in the Academic Affairs Digest on Wednesdays and is open to all faculty members.  

The qualifying examination milestone occurs at 18 months for an M.S. student and 30 months for a Ph.D. student. The exam must be completed within 6 or 12 months of the milestone date for M.S. and Ph.D. students, respectively. A student who fails to meet the milestone in the timeframe specified will be placed on academic probation.

Keep in mind, the minimum elapsed time between successful completion of the qualifying examination and the final defense must be no less than six months for M.S. students and no less than one year for Ph.D. students.

Prospectus Guidelines & Defense

The prospectus is a formal written presentation of the proposed research. The prospectus is reviewed by the student's advisory committee for the appropriateness to degree sought, scientific merit, and soundness of research approach. The typical length of a prospectus is fifteen (15) pages.

If the prospectus is properly written, it should be useable (with minor modifications) as the corresponding sections of the final thesis or dissertation. Attention and care in the preparation of the prospectus should significantly reduce the effort required for the final thesis or dissertation.

The prospectus must include:

  • A problem statement
  • A review of current literature in the area of study
  • A detailed plan of study
  • A summary of preliminary research conducted by the student
  • A detailed rationale for the proposed work
  • Clearly stated objectives
  • A testable hypothesis(es) when appropriate, consistent with the problem statement
  • A description of research design, field and laboratory studies, methods, and data analysis

At least 3 weeks prior to the qualifying exam, the student is required to submit a draft of the approved prospectus to each member of the student's committee and to the faculty member who has agreed to serve as moderator of the qualifying exam. The student's advisor and/or co-advisor must review and approve a draft of the student's prospectus before it is distributed to other members of the student's advisory committee; an approval process which occurs when the student initiates the prospectus pre-approval & qualifying exam scheduling form.


One week prior to the exam date, the SMS Registrar will send an email to the moderator, advisor(s), and student with the DocuSign links to the milestone forms needing signed at the qualifying exam. Following the exam, the student must initiate the forms in DocuSign in order for CAS authentication to pre-populate some of the form fields. Each form will then route automatically to the moderator, advisor(s), and to the committee for approval. Once all signatures have been obtained, the completed form will automatically route to the SMS Registrar for processing. The student and all approvers will also receive a copy of the form for their records. The SMS Registrar will send a follow-up confirmation to the student after the qualifying exam and prospectus acceptance milestones have been recorded in Banner.

Last Updated: August 21, 2023 by J. Hay