Qualifying Exam

So you are thinking about taking your Qualifying Exam? 

Great!! Below is information and forms that you will need to proceed. 


Research Proposal Exam


To be completed within 1 year of passing the Preliminary Exam


The Research Proposal Defense:

The proposal. This document is modeled after an NIH proposal for a predoctoral fellowship (NRSA), with the addition of an overall in-depth introduction. Students are encouraged to work with their PI after passing the qualifying exam to submit a version of their proposal to NIH for possible funding.

The formatting of the proposal will follow NIH guidelines including: Font: Arial 11, Margins: 0.5 inches, Single Spaced.

The following sections must be included:

  1. An overall introduction to the proposal, reviewing relevant literature and putting the student’s proposal into context (up to 5 pages).  Note: this is not part of the NIH proposal format.
  2. Project Summary/Abstract (30 lines of text). 
  3. Specific Aim(s) (1 page). Compactly outlines the main scientific questions addressed by the proposal.  Should include hypotheses and a very brief description of what will be done to test the hypotheses.
  4. Research Strategy (6 pages). This should be modeled after the guidelines of an NRSA application, and should include significance, innovation, and approach. The student should clearly describe the methods under use, potential pitfalls, and what would be concluded from different possible outcomes.  Preliminary data can be included in this section, but is not required.

In general, the document should explain why the experiments are being done, how it is being performed, and what will be concluded from different possible experimental outcomes. It should be remembered that the thesis proposal is not a binding contract for the work to be done; normally this evolves under the guidance of the major professor and thesis committee. The proposal is to be given to the committee at least 3 weeks in advance of the exam date.  The thesis proposal defense is expected to be completed within one year of passing the general knowledge exam.


Oral Defense of Research Proposal

The committee. The committee for this exam is chosen by the student in consultation with the PI and the Master Advisor.  The committee must include at least 5 members, one of whom must come from outside the Graduate Group. One member also must be on the advising committee, and will serve as Chair. The expertise of the members should all relate to the subject of the student’s proposal. In sum, the Chair must be a member of the advising committee, you must have one external member, and the remaining three members must be from the Neuroscience Graduate Group.

Structure of the exam. This also is a 3-hour exam. It starts with the presentation of the proposal. It is expected that the committee members will have read the proposal in detail, so this section should be brief (approximately 20-30 minutes seems to work well), perhaps offering more graphical support than in the proposal itself. Following this, there will be general discussion of the proposal, with examiners free to explore background (i.e., the student’s scholarship), methodology, and reasoning. As in the general-knowledge exam, each faculty member will be given a nominal time slot in which to work; it will probably be less meaningful in this exam because it will probably be more discussion-oriented. As before, the student will be asked to leave and the faculty will consider if the student has demonstrated sufficient expertise to advance to candidacy. A second round of questioning might also be called for at this point, to inquire into areas not sufficiently explored in the first round.

Expectations. The proposal should be well researched, scholarly, and the presentation professional. The student should be fully in grasp of the rationale behind the proposed experiment, the methodology used to perform it, and what interpretations will be drawn from it. In short, the student is expected to show full professional competence as a scientist.

Outcomes. The Graduate School allows 3 possible results: Pass, Not Pass, and Fail. Under a not-pass outcome, the committee may specify a variety of remedial actions, from redoing the exam, re-writing parts of the proposal, to demonstrating in other ways proficiency where it was found lacking during the exam.


The Exam committee’s unanimous vote is required to pass a student on the exam. If a student does not pass the exam, the committee may recommend that the student be reexamined one more time, but only if the Graduate Adviser concurs with the committee. The second exam must take place within one quarter of the first exam. The format of the second exam is the same as that of the first exam and may include the submission of an amended version of the proposal. The examination may not be repeated more than once. A student who does not pass on the second attempt is subject to disqualification from further graduate work in the program.


QE Committee Set Up

For a QE, a student needs to have at least one outside member (outside of the graduate group) and in some cases, that person is an outside member and external to UC. The majority of their committee has to be within the graduate group, so if they have a five person committee- 3-4
members have to be part of the graduate group and the other 1-2 can be an outside member.

  • Outside member is what we use for faculty who are outside of the graduate group/program but part of the UC.
  • External member is what we use for faculty who are external to UC.

Here is an example break down for five member group:


  • GG= grad group
  • OM= outside member
  • EXT= external

Chair (member one) is GG
Member two is GG
Member three is GG
Member four is OM
Member five is EXT


Chair (member one) is GG
Member two is GG
Member three is GG
Member four is OM
Member five is OM