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The PhD qualifying exam at GT BME

Here I describe my PhD qualifying exam format, list questions I was asked, and offer suggestions. Note this is n=1 from a single institution and major (Georgia Tech Biomedical Engineering). Also note that BME encompasses many sub-fields, and the qualifying exam is tailored for a specific individual’s coursework and research.


  • GT BME quals are 2-hour oral exams led by a faculty committee.
  • My committee consisted of one committee chair and two committee members.
  • My advisor quietly & painfully observed.


Prior to the real questions, I was asked to introduce myself and my research in 5 minutes.

Here are the three lines of questioning I experienced. Note you won’t gain anything by preparing to answer these specific questions. Everyone experiences different questions. The purpose of sharing these questions is to help you assess the overall difficulty of the exam and understand how the line of questioning evolves.

  1. Explain what happens electrically when your heart beats.
    1. Draw the ECG waveform.
    2. Explain how the ECG records electrical activity from the heart.
    3. Write an algorithm to determine heart rate from ECG data in real-time.
    4. What is the appropriate frequency to measure the QRS complex?
    5. Describe a different way of doing q1.3.
    6. How do you accomplish q1.3. in the presence of noise?
  2. Tell me what you know about active transport of cargo inside of a cell.
    1. Describe the forces involved, conceptually and mathematically.
    2. What happens to the complex in the presence of charged molecules?
    3. Vesicles actually connect to the dynein-kinesin complex via a tether. How does this tether change your model?
  3. Why is experimental design important?
    1. How many subjects do you need to do an experiment?
    2. Describe beta in the power calculation.
    3. What is the definition of false negative?


  • Know fundamental topics in your field. I studied cardiac physiology, Nyquist theorem, Fourier transform, etc.
  • Practice answering questions in front of a group. The questions are not too technically complex. The challenge lies in not knowing specific questions in advance.
  • Use the whiteboard.
  • After you are asked a question, summarize and repeat the question to ensure clarity.
  • When you finish answering, summarize your long answer in a short sentence.
  • Pause occasionally to solicit feedback from the committee.
  • Do not stress out. Just prepare. Enjoy the fact that preparation contributes to your knowledge in your field of research. Most faculty want you succeed. Their goal is not to kick you out or humiliate you.