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Guide for the Qualifying Examination
(last updated January 2010)

The objectives of the Qualifying Examination are, in priority order:

  1. Assess the adequacy of the student's didactic training: Does the candidate possess the breadth of knowledge in fundamental biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and depth of knowledge in cellular and molecular neuroscience, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy and neurochemistry to pursue independent, doctoral research?
  2. Assess the scholarship of the student's written proposal: Is the proposal clear, grammatically and syntactically correct, and properly organized? Does the proposal reflect critical thinking and proper logic? Are the specific aims, the experimental designs and methods reasonable, the rationale sound? Is the literature survey thorough? Is the statistical design adequate? Are the experimental subjects properly justified and IACUC/IRB policies followed?
  3. Assess the student's ability to present, explain and defend their ideas: Are the candidate's oral presentation skills acceptable? Does the candidate have sufficient command of the proposal topic to expand on critical points? Can the student teach?

If these assessments are positive, then it is appropriate to advance the student to Doctoral Candidacy in the Neuroscience Program. These assessments are carried out in two stages.

The first device is an evaluation of the written proposal by each member of the Supervisory Committee. The written part of the examination is the preparation of a formal research proposal following NIH/NRSA format and length guidelines, and is an evaluation of scholarship. The subject area should be distinct from the area of the student's thesis research since this exam is intended to determine the student's ability to think creatively and independently. Fundamental breadth and depth may be assessed directly from the written portion of the qualifying examination and later explored in detail in the oral examination. It is not expected that fine details known by experienced workers in the field will be thoroughly comprehended at this point, nor that this first proposal would be competitive with a mentor's application. It should rather serve as an examination on the student's training.

The second device is the oral examination of the student by the Supervisory Committee. This examination typically begins with a brief presentation of the proposal material by the student, followed by rounds of in-depth questioning. The Supervisory Committee should explore the student's fundamental training, ability to explain the research proposal, and capacity for immediate analysis. The examination may uncover areas of weakness that need reparation but are not bars to candidacy. However, deficiencies that render the student incapable of productive, independent research (e.g. failure to understand a statistical design or lack of basic knowledge) are grounds for Failure or a Conditional Pass.

Common Faculty Questions:

How do we choose the topic? The subject area should be distinct from the area of the student's thesis research since this exam is intended to determine the student's ability to think creatively and independently. The student will identify two topics within the field of neuroscience that are interesting to them. The student will write a Specific Aims section for each topic and present it to the Supervisory Committee. The committee will choose one of the topics for the student to write up as an NIH NRSA style proposal. The key is that the Supervisory Committee must meet with the student long before the advent of the examination. Indeed, the Supervisory Committee is responsible for attesting that the student has met all of the academic requirements for taking the Qualifying Examination. 

How should the examination proceed and what are the duties of the Chair? The appointed Chair should call the examination to order, determine that all examiners are present, and then ask the student to leave the room momentarily if the Supervisory Committee desires a brief private session to review any materials or issues pertinent to the examination. The Chair will then invite the student to begin the presentation. Unless necessary for immediate clarification, the student should generally be afforded the courtesy of an uninterrupted presentation. The Supervisory Committee may choose to interrogate the student in separate rounds, focusing on didactic and then research dimensions of the examination. It is usual for each committee member to participate in each round. The Chair is empowered to impose time limits on questioning and otherwise direct the examiners, ensuring that a fair examination is conducted and that the academic standards of the Neuroscience Program are maintained. After questioning is complete, the Chair asks the student to leave the room momentarily and the Supervisory Committee discusses both the written and oral performances. The Chair may request a straw vote to guide discussion. Regardless of outcome, constructive criticisms and guidance should be included in the report of the Supervisory Committee. Upon reaching a decision, the Chair recalls the student to the room and announces the decision of the Supervisory Committee. The Report of the Qualifying Examination for the Ph.D., or M.Phil Degree and Recommendation for admission to Candidacy should be filled out and transmitted by the Chair of the examination to the Neuroscience Program coordinator along with a copy of the qualifying examination proposal. Final approval of the Supervisory Committee's decision rests with the Program Director.

What questions may we ask? Any question that you deem will provide an assessment of the student's potential for independent research is proper.

How long should the examination last? In general, an adequate student presentation should take 30-45 minutes followed by 60-90 minutes of questioning. In instances of exceptionally good or poor performance, the examination may be truncated. Equivocal performance may prolong the process, but examinations exceeding 3 hours should be briefly recessed by the chair for a private discussion of whether continuing presents a reasonable prospect of resolution.

What do the outcomes mean? A Pass means that the Supervisory Committee formally certifies the student's clear readiness to assume independent scholarship and research leading to the Ph.D. degree. A Conditional Pass may be rendered if a restricted type of deficiency is uncovered, correction of which will, considering the balance of the examination, clearly render the student ready to assume independent scholarship and research leading to the Ph.D. A student whose performance is deficient in several areas or for whom substantial doubt exists as to their ability to assume Ph.D. level scholarship and research should receive a decision of Fail. Thus the "benefit of the doubt" accrues to the Program, not the student.

The following are sample checklists that some Supervisory Committee members may use to guide their evaluations. The intent is not to generate a formal score, but to assist the committee in reading the proposal and querying the student. Use of the checklist is entirely at the discretion of an individual committee member. The checklists are not official program documents, nor are they part of the academic record or any record of deliberations:

Checklist for Evaluating the Written Proposal: score A+=5, A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, F=0

Assess the quality of writing:
spelling/grammar:
syntax:
clarity:
organization:

Remediation required (yes/no):
Specifics:

Assess the comprehension of basic principles as expressed in the proposal text:
biology (molecular/cell biology, genetics, developmental, physiology, systematics, etc.):
chemistry (inorganic, organic, biochemistry, physical chemistry, etc.):
physics (mechanics, electronics, optics, acoustics, etc.):
mathematics (calculus, statistics):

Remediation required (yes/no):
Specifics:

Assess the comprehension of neuroscience principles as expressed in the proposal text:
cellular and molecular neuroscience:
integrative neuroscience (motor, sensory, cognitive, ethological, etc.):
neuroanatomy:
neurochemistry/neuropharmacology:

Remediation required (yes/no):
Specifics:

Assess the scientific quality of the proposal text:
clarity of specific aims:
significance of the research:
quality of the background/literature survey:
adequacy of the experimental designs (will they achieve the specific aims?):
knowledge of experiimental methods:

Remediation required (yes/no):
Specifics:

Subtotal of written examination scores

Checklist for Evaluating the Oral Examination: score A+=5, A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, F=0

Assess the comprehension of basic principles as expressed in oral replies to queries:
biology (molecular/cell biology, genetics, developmental, physiology, systematics, etc.):
chemistry (inorganic, organic, biochemistry, physical chemistry, etc.):
physics (mechanics, electronics, optics, acoustics, etc.):
mathematics (calculus, statistics):

Remediation required (yes/no):
Specifics:

Assess the comprehension of neuroscience principles as expressed in oral replies to queries:
cellular and molecular neuroscience:
integrative neuroscience (motor, sensory, cognitive, ethological, etc.):
neuroanatomy:
neurochemistry/neuropharmacology:

Remediation required (yes/no):
Specifics:

Assess the quality of the proposal presentation and the responses to specific queries:
How clearly did the student present the proposed research?:
Does the student know the literature (as opposed to having written about it):
Does the student understand the principles of the proposed experimental design?:
Is the student's knowledge of experimental methods adequate?:
Has the student chosen a proper subject/model/experimental organism?:
Is the student able to analyze and respond adequately in the moment?

Remediation required (yes/no):
Specifics:

Subtotal of oral examination scores

Sum of written and oral scores. A successful candidate should perform at the B level or above (90-150). Scores below this indicate the need for remediation.

Information for Students

How does my topic get chosen? Your Supervisory Committee is absolutely responsible for approving the topic of the written portion of your qualifying examination. The subject area should be distinct from the area of the student's thesis research since this exam is intended to determine the student's ability to think creatively and independently. The pre-proposals should be Specific Aims page style and should be no more than 1-2 pages in length. They must be submitted to the committee no less than one week before the first scheduled meeting. The proposal should be drafted without substantial guidance from the thesis advisor.

Where do I get the resources for producing the written proposal? Your mentor is responsible for supplying you with the physical resources to generate, duplicate and distribute the proposal. This does not necessarily include duplication costs of legal "personal copies" of reference materials.

What is the format for the proposal? The written part of the examination is the preparation of a formal research proposal following NIH/NRSA format and length guidelines, and is an evaluation of scholarship. The subject area should be distinct from the area of the student's thesis research since this exam is intended to determine the student's ability to think creatively and independently.

How will the proposal be evaluated? The proposal is the formal written portion of the Qualifying Examination required by the University of Utah School of Graduate Studies. As such, it will be judged by your Supervisory Committee for its quality of writing (which is expected to be exemplary) and its contents will serve as evidence of your didactic strengths and ability to carry out independent research. It will also serve as a focus for the oral Qualifying Examination.

What is the oral examination format? You will be given an opportunity to make a 30-45 minute presentation of your research proposal. You should provide a succinct overview of the research question and its relevance, outline your specific aims and sketch your experimental plan/methods for achieving those aims. The presentation is a formal examination of your ability to teach. Simply reading your specific aims and methods will likely be deemed inadequate.

Are the oral examination questions limited to the proposal material? Absolutely not. The Supervisory Committee is empowered to explore your competence in any of those areas that are prerequisites to admission to the Neuroscience Program or part of the required core training of a Neuroscience Program graduate student. This is the breadth and depth examination.

What happens after the decision? If you are granted a Pass, then you have formally advanced to doctoral candidacy pending approval of the Supervisory Committee's report by the Program Director. A Conditional Pass usually implies that a specific deficiency needs remedy, either by passing a course specified by the Supervisory Committee or passing a re-examination on that material within 9 months. A formal Fail implies the existence of doubt regarding your ability to assume independent scholarship and research. One re-examination is allowed and must occur within 9 months. You may petition the Program Director in writing in case of a disputed outcome, but the decision of the Director is final.

 

Last Updated: 2/24/17