The Qualifying Examination establishes that students are ready to undertake the research required for the Ph.D. degree. Students must possess and in-depth understanding of scientific literature in their field and formulate a productive research proposal addressing an interesting scientific problem. Research proposals follow the format of the NIH NRSA (F31); most address a proposed thesis project, though may be based on any topic. The proposal is defended in an oral examination. Students pass, conditionally pass (and are assigned a remedial exercise or are asked to repeat all or part of the examination), or fail. See further details below.
Students are expected to pass this examination in early spring of their second year in the graduate program.
The Qualifying Examination is in two parts: a written research proposal and an oral defense of that proposal before an examining committee.
Examining Committee: The committee consists of four faculty members including the student's proposed thesis sponsor. Members of the committee may come from outside the training program when appropriate. The Qualifying Exam Committee can remain as the student's Thesis Committee.
Initiation of the Examination Process:
Students must prepare a 1-2 page synopsis of the project at least eight weeks in advance of the date desired for the oral defense. The synopsis should include a brief rationale, a set of aims, and a description of the experimental (or other) approach and receive approval from the mentor. It is then submitted to one of the co-directors of the program, along with the names of proposed committee members. Co-directors review both the synopsis and committee composition. Once these have been approved, students distribute their synopsis to committee members, requesting that they serve on the committee. Once they have agreed, students should schedule a mutually agreeable date for the exam. Students may have general discussions with their mentor or other relevant colleagues during proposal preparation, but the final full-length version should be written independently. The finished proposal should be presented to members of the examining committee no later than one week before the oral exam.
Students must inform program administrators of the proposed qualifying exam date and composition of the committee. A completed and signed Qualifying Exam report must be submitted to the administrators after the exam. Click here for the qualifying exam form. (PDF)
- Subject: The research proposal may be in any area deemed appropriate by the mentor and program directors, including, but not restricted to, the student's dissertation topic.
- Copies and Submission: Students must complete and submit a copy of the proposal to each of the examining committee members and the mentor.
- Format: The proposal follows the guidelines of the NIH NRSA (F31) predoctoral fellowship application (instructions on format start on page I-84 of the guidelines; page 90 of the .pdf file).
- Specific Aims (one page):
- State concisely the goals of the proposed research and summarize the expected outcome(s), including the impact that the results of the proposed research will exert 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, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology.
- Research Strategy (6 pages single spaced): Organize the Research Strategy in the specified order 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 will improve scientific knowledge and/or technical capability in one or more broad fields.
- Describe how the concepts, methods and technologies, or, if applicable, clinical application, that drive this field will be changed if the proposed aims are achieved.
- While fellowship applications need not include an Innovation section, include any innovative features of the research, if applicable.
- Describe the overall strategy, methodology, and means by which the data will be analyzed and interpreted that will be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project.
- Discuss potential difficulties and limitations, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success anticipated to achieve the aims.
- If the project is in the early stages of development, add preliminary data (NOT required for qualifying exam) to establish feasibility.
- Future work (one paragraph): Briefly indicate further directions of the research, and the anticipated impact on the field.
- References (should not exceed fifty): Each complete literature citation must include the names of all authors, the name of the book or journal, volume number, page numbers, and year of publication. Providing titles is useful but optional.
Students will deliver a short (15-20 minute) presentation. Questions by the Examining Committee may initially focus on the proposal itself but can lead to questions on any area of neuroscience. Depending on the student's orientation, questions may cover other areas of contemporary science. The qualifying examination is comprehensive, and students are therefore required to demonstrate an appropriately broad background in neuroscience and an understanding of underlying principles.
The Examining Committee may pass the student; conditionally pass the student pending successful completion of remedial procedures to fill in apparent shortcomings (such as taking a course, remedial reading in a tutorial session, or successful completion of an additional written project); request a second examination to consist of an oral defense of the original proposal, of an amended proposal or of a new proposal; or fail the student. Should a student fail the initial or re-examination, the matter will be referred to the Advisory Committee of the Program whose members will determine whether or not the student is to continue in the doctoral program.