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Neurobiology Qualifying Examination

Department of Neurobiology Qualifying Examination


The intent of the Qualifying Examination (Qual Exam) is to determine if the student is capable of PhD-level research in the Department of Neurobiology. The student must pass this exam in order to qualify for candidacy in the PhD program and remain a graduate student in the department. The student must have passed the 1st year comprehensive exam before undertaking the Qual Exam.  The exam committee will evaluate the student’s knowledge of their dissertation field, their critical thinking skills and ability to formulate hypotheses.  Evaluation criteria will also include the student’s originality and creativity, writing and presentation skills, and general knowledge in areas appropriate to their dissertation such as Neuroscience, Developmental Biology, Cell Biology, Genetics, Molecular Biology, and/or Biochemistry.


The Qual Exam consists of 2 parts:

  1. A written proposal based on the student’s dissertation project. Each student should consult with his or her dissertation advisor to develop the concepts for the Specific Aims of their proposal based upon their dissertation research plan. Additionally, independent from dissertation advisor the student should conceive and develop at least one Specific Aim that is related in general topic, but is novel.
  2. An oral exam that includes general knowledge in areas appropriate to the dissertation and defense of the written proposal.

The Qual Exam should be completed before the start of the student’s third year of graduate study (the 2nd year for MD/PhD students). If the Qual Exam takes place during the summer semester, the student must be registered for 3 credit hours of thesis research.

Step 1: Select the exam committee

The student and the dissertation advisor should work together to choose the exam committee members. Selection of the exam committee should be done very carefully since these same individuals, with the exception of one, are expected to serve on the dissertation supervisory committee for the duration of training.

  • The Qual Exam Committee consists of five faculty; the dissertation advisor is NOT a member of the Exam Committee.
  • At least three must be regular (i.e. tenure-track) faculty with their primary appointment in Neurobiology (i.e. must not be Adjunct Faculty).
  • One must hold a primary appointment in another department.
  • The Qual Exam Committee must be approved by the DGS before the Qual Exam can be scheduled.

Step 2: Schedule the exam date, and reserve a room

The student must schedule the Qual Exam at least 6 weeks in advance of the exam date. Scheduling the exam date and reserving a room is the sole responsibility of the student.

Step 3: Prepare the Qual Exam written proposal.

The Qual Exam writing period begins 6 weeks before the scheduled exam date.  Students are expected to continue working normal full-time hours in the lab until the exam writing period begins.  During the 6-week writing period students should focus primarily on preparations for the exam, reading and writing every day. The faculty advisor should understand that this is the student’s priority during the Qual Exam period. However, the student is still expected to attend and participate in journal clubs, departmental Research in Progress seminars and group meetings during writing period.

Step 4: Send Specific Aims page to Exam Committee.

Five weeks before the Qual Exam date, the student should send a draft of the Specific Aims page to the Exam Committee as a group email. During the next week, the committee members should provide written feedback about the Specific Aims to the student via this group email, including all committee members on all email correspondence with the student.

Step 5: Submit the written proposal and prepare for the oral exam.

  • The written proposal should be submitted to each member of the Exam Committee at least 5 days before the exam date. Not submitting the written proposal on time may result in a failure of the Qual Exam.
  • The student should prepare a 15-20 minute presentation that summarizes the written proposal to initiate the oral portion of the Exam. The student should be prepared to answer questions related to the proposal, completed coursework, and broader areas of Neuroscience, Developmental Biology, Cell Biology, Genetics, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, as related to their field of research.
Role of the Dissertation Advisor:

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 (with the exception of the independently conceived aim). 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, and to confirm that at least one of the Specific Aims was entirely conceived and developed by the student. The dissertation advisor may be present at the Exam, but is not part of the Exam Committee and may not participate in the examination process (questions or scoring).

Written Proposal:

The proposal guidelines closely follow those for a Predoctoral Fellowship application to the NIH (NRSA F31). Applicants must describe a well-defined research project that is suited to his/her stage of career development and can be accomplished by the individual within the time-frame of the training period (3-5 years). The text of the written proposal must be the student’s original writing.  Students may not use text from the dissertation advisor’s previous grants or papers. Plagiarism in a Qual Exam is grounds for failure.

Content (excerpted in part from NIH NRSA F31 instructions):

Specific Aims (1 page)

  • Introduce the problem that will be addressed.
  • List succinctly the specific objectives of the research proposed and state the hypothesis that will be tested.
  • Summarize the experimental approach in Specific Aims (including at least one novel student-developed aim), where each aim reflects a major research goal. While specific aims can be interrelated, it is critically important that one aim not be entirely dependent upon another.
  • Summarize the expected outcome(s), including the impact that the results of the proposed research will exert on the research field(s) involved.

Research Strategy (6 pages)

Organize the Research Strategy in the specified order using the instructions provided below. Start each section with the appropriate section heading — Significance or Approach.  Include figures as appropriate, keeping in mind that these count toward the page limit.  Consider including a graphical abstract or a diagram that illustrates the model or hypothesis being tested to help orient the reviewers to the design of the study. Preliminary data generated by the student can be included, but is not required.

Significance (0.5-1 page)

  • Introduce the problem or question that will be addressed in this study.
  • Explain the importance of the problem that the proposed project addresses.
  • Explain how the proposed project will improve scientific knowledge and advance our understanding of the field.

Approach (approximately 5 pages) divided between aims that each:

  • Describe the rationale, the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses to be used to accomplish the Aim.
  • Describe how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Do not provide in depth descriptions of methodology but instead provide citations to published experimental details where possible.
  • Discuss potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success anticipated to achieve the Aim.

Bibliography and References Cited (no page limit)

Provide a bibliography of all references cited, using an NIH-approved format. Students should be careful to provide citations for source materials relied upon when preparing the application.

Page Formatting:

Font:  Arial 11 point in the main text. Font in figures and figure legends should be no less than Arial 9 pt.

Spacing: Single spaced

Margins: 0.5 inch page margins on all sides.

Language: Formal Scientific American English. Avoid jargon. If terms are not universally known, spell out the term the first time it is used and note the appropriate abbreviation in parentheses. The abbreviation may be used thereafter.

Oral Exam:

The goal of the oral examination is to determine whether the student has the fundamental knowledge and skills needed to succeed in their dissertation research. The student should prepare a 15-20 minute presentation for the oral portion of the exam that summarizes the proposal. For the oral defense, the student is expected to have substantial depth of knowledge in their dissertation area, broadly defined. The examiners are most interested in a student’s understanding of the concepts, assumptions and limitations of their proposal.  A key element of the oral examination will be to explain and defend the importance of questions addressed in the written proposal, and to place these questions in the broader context of the field. The student is expected to be well versed in the relevant literature and general areas appropriate for their research, for example, Neuroscience, Developmental Biology, Cell Biology, Genetics, Molecular Biology, and/or Biochemistry.   It is recommended that the student organize a mock oral exam involving other students and post-docs to practice in preparation for the questioning of the oral examination. The dissertation advisor, mentors, and Exam Committee may not participate in mock examinations.

Exam Day Procedure:
  1. The exam should be scheduled for 2 hours. On the exam date, once the committee has gathered, the student will be asked to leave the room briefly. The topics to be discussed in the student's absence are:
    • Is the written proposal adequate to proceed with the oral exam? If it is not, the student fails the exam and the committee will decide whether the student may retake the exam.
    • Selection of the Exam Committee Chairperson. The Chairperson will preside over the oral exam, and will communicate the committee’s decision and any commendations or concerns to the student at the end of the exam.  Subsequently, the Chairperson will prepare a written summary of the committee’s comments on the Report of the Qualifying Exam form (appendix vii), email the summary to the committee members for approval, and when approved will provide the student with the summary.
    • The dissertation advisor will report on the extent to which the proposal includes details and ideas synthesized by the student, and should confirm that at least one of the Specific Aims was entirely conceived and developed by the student. The dissertation advisor should submit this information via email if they do not plan on attending the exam.
    • The student's overall record should be discussed. Any deficiencies that might need special attention in the oral questioning should be identified. The dissertation advisor should submit this information via email if they do not plan on attending the exam.
    • Any specific deficiencies revealed in the written proposal should be identified and pursued in the oral questioning.
  2. The Chairperson should then invite the student to return to the room and ask the student to begin the prepared presentation.  The committee may interrupt the student during the presentation with questions about the proposal, general knowledge related to the topic proposal, or general areas appropriate for their dissertation research, for example, Neuroscience, Developmental Biology, Cell Biology, Genetics, Molecular Biology, and/or Biochemistry.
  3. At the conclusion of the presentation and oral examination the student and dissertation advisor will be asked to leave the room.  The Exam Committee will discuss and evaluate the student’s performance with regard to the student’s knowledge of their field, their critical thinking skills and ability to formulate hypotheses, their originality and creativity, and their presentation skills. The committee Chairperson will record the decision on the Results of Qualifying Exam form (Appendix vii). The student and advisor will be asked to return to the exam room, and will be told the results of the exam. The committee chair and committee members will give the student feedback on their performance, including suggestions for how to improve their knowledge base and skill sets. Subsequently, the Chairperson will summarize the comments in writing, including specific requirements for remediation in the event of a Conditional Pass.  Once approved by the entire committee, the Chairperson will add the comments to the Qualifying Exam form, send a copy to the student and place a copy in his/her file.
Exam Outcome:

It is the responsibility of each specific Qual Exam Committee to decide whether it is in the best interests of the student and the department for the student to advance to candidacy and continue with their dissertation research. The successful completion of a PhD dissertation requires substantial commitment of time and resources on the part of the student as well as the dissertation advisor, faculty and institution.

There are four possible outcomes for the examination:

  1. Honors Pass - The department will award the student an Honors Pass if the committee unanimously agrees that it was an exceptional performance (i.e. exceptionally creative and consistently high-scoring).
  2. Pass - The student will receive a full pass if the committee feels that he/she has performed well on all aspects of the exam and is qualified to work towards a doctorate.
  3. Conditional Pass- If student performs well overall, but exhibits a significant deficiency in one area, the committee may require remedial work in that particular area. This must take the form of a defined task with a defined method of evaluation.
  4. Fail – A student will fail the Qual Exam if the committee feels that he/she was severely deficient in one or more aspects of the exam.
    • Under these circumstances the student may be given the option to retake the exam within a 4-6 week time frame. However, the University of Utah Graduate School rules state: "An examination or parts of an examination may be repeated only once and only at the discretion of the student's supervisory committee". As such, in cases of extreme deficiencies the option of retaking the exam will not be offered. 
    • If the student is offered to take the exam a second time, the student may either receive a full pass or fail; Conditional Pass is not an available outcome for a second exam. 
    • If the student is not offered the option to retake the exam or fails the second exam, the Exam Committee will recommend to the Graduate Education Committee (GEC) that the student be dismissed from the Program. This recommendation must be approved by a majority vote of the GEC.  All appeals will be made to the GEC, and will be carried out in compliance with University of Utah Policy 6-400.