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Guide for the Qualifying Examination
(last updated March 2020)

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 Qualifying Examination is an evaluation of the student scholarship, particularly with respect to the fundamentals of neuroscience and concepts relating to their proposed research project. 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 Qualifying Examination is an evaluation of the student scholarship, particularly with respect to the fundamentals of neuroscience and concepts relating to their proposed research project. It is conducted by the Supervisory Committee. The written part of the examination consists of a formal research proposal written in accordance with current NIH/NRSA format and length guidelines.

The student must prepare a full-length research proposal following the current NIH/NRSA format and length guidelines. The written proposal should be sent to the committee no less than two weeks before the qualifying exam meeting unless the committee has agreed to later submission deadline (e.g. one week). It is the student’s responsibility to confirm with the committee when they would like the proposal to be submitted. At the qualifying exam meeting the committee will determine whether the written proposal is adequate and ready for oral defense. If there are serious problems with the written proposal then the committee may request that the proposal be revised before it is defended, and will determine what is required and how long this should take.

At the proposal defense, the student will present proposed research orally, with visual aids (e.g. Powerpoint). The committee will examine the student through in-depth questioning during the presentation. The oral defense should last no more than 2 hours. At the end of the meeting the committee will determine whether the student has successfully defended the proposal and has demonstrated sufficient knowledge of neuroscience to be advanced to candidacy. This proposal is used as the framework for evaluating the student's knowledge in depth and breadth, as well as organizational abilities, knowledge of the literature, analytical skills, and ability to generate a testable research hypothesis.

How should the examination proceed and what are the duties of the Chair? 

The student’s supervisory committee conducts the Qualifying exam with one exception. For the Qualifying examination only, the student must replace their dissertation mentor with a substitute committee member. The additional member must be approved by the Program Director, using a Request to Change Supervisory Committee Personnel form (https://neuroscience.med.utah.edu/forms.php). The committee will then choose a new Examining chair for the duration of the exam. The student’s mentor may be present during the Qualifying exam and other meetings, but may not participate in the exam and will leave the room during the final discussion and vote.

Following completion of the Qualifying examination, the student can choose any member of the committee to be replaced by the mentor for the remainder of their dissertation work. This and any other changes to the committee must be reported and approved through a Request to Change Supervisory Committee Personnel form (https://neuroscience.med.utah.edu/forms.php).

The student is encouraged to consult with his/her dissertation advisor about the concepts and principles of the study they will undertake. The dissertation advisor can have conversations with the student about specific aims and provide guidance and recommendations on the development of the experimental approach. However, the student is responsible for developing a detailed proposal and crafting a document that speaks in his/her voice.

The dissertation advisor should not read or edit the student's written proposal before it is submitted to the Committee. The dissertation advisor will be asked at the beginning of the oral exam to comment on how much of the proposal includes details and ideas synthesized by the student, rather than taken verbatim from the advisor and lab members. The dissertation advisor shall be allowed to be present at the Exam, but is not part of the Exam Committee and may not participate in the examination process (questions or scoring). 

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? 

The Qualifying Examination is an evaluation of the student scholarship, particularly with respect to the fundamentals of neuroscience and concepts relating to their proposed research project.

 

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 based on the student's dissertation research.

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: 5/6/20