Preliminary Examination

Preliminary Examination

Advancement to PhD candidacy requires the successful completion of the Preliminary Examination. The purpose of the Preliminary Examination is to determine if the student has adequate intellectual and technical preparation to conduct an independent, high-quality research project for a PhD dissertation. The Preliminary Examination should normally be scheduled by May 15 of the second year of graduate studies, and in all cases by August 15 prior to the beginning of the third year. The Preliminary Examination consists of three components: (1) a written document comprising a critical review and proposed research project in the student’s field of research, (2) an oral presentation of the research proposal, and (3) an oral defense of the proposal and evaluation of the student’s breadth and depth of conceptual understanding in Neuroscience, generally. The Examination is conducted by a committee of faculty members appointed by the Program and approved by the Graduate College.


Preliminary Examination Committee

The student will consult with the Director of Graduate Studies to select a committee of faculty to conduct the Preliminary Examination. This committee must have at least five Program faculty members and cannot include the student’s Thesis Advisor. No more than three members of this committee can come from the home Department of the student’s thesis advisor; at least two must be tenured faculty; at least three must be full members of the Graduate College; and all must be approved by the Graduate College to serve as examiners. The Program will appoint a Chairperson for the Examination Committee; the Chair must be a full member of the Graduate College and will be responsible for insuring the timely and appropriate administration of the exam.



The written component of the examination will consist of two parts: (1) a critical review of the literature in the student’s field of research and (2) a proposal for dissertation research. The written component is limited to a total of 13 pages in length, single-spaced, margins at least one-half inch on all sides, with text font size of 11 points or greater; it must contain distinct sections as follows: critical literature review in the form of “Background and Significance” (not to exceed six pages), “Specific Aims” (not to exceed one page), and “Research Strategy” (not to exceed six pages). The Background and Significance section should critically review prior literature in the field of study, identify issues requiring further research, and describe the broad importance of the research questions so identified. The Research Strategy section should include Approach, Preliminary Studies (if any), and Methods; a good model for this section is the format prescribed for NRSA applications. Any figures or other illustrations and captions must fit within the cited page limits and must be intelligible when printed on a standard, letter-size page. A list of cited references must be provided but this bibliography is not subject to the page limits cited above. Students are encouraged to consult the Director of Graduate Studies for proper format.

The oral examination begins with a brief (~30 minutes) presentation of the research plan by the student.  At the pleasure of the Chair, examiners may question the student during the presentation or wait until its conclusion. While the initial focus of the oral examination is on the written proposal, the committee is expected to probe the breadth and depth of the student’s knowledge beyond what is presented in the proposal; i.e., committee members should ask questions that can be related to the proposal or to other aspects of Neuroscience. The experience allows the student to take what he or she has learned in formal course work and apply that knowledge to formulate research questions in light of prior research findings in the literature and with regard to technical feasibility. It also prepares a student to hone communication skills, deliver a lecture, and defend a scientific position. Students should expect that the oral examination will require two to three hours to complete.

The student’s Thesis Advisor can be present at the Preliminary Examination only with the unanimous consent of the Examination Committee.



The membership of the Preliminary Examination Committee must be selected and submitted to the Graduate College for approval at least three weeks prior to the expected date of the examination. The final version of the written component must be submitted to all Examination Committee members at least two weeks prior to the examination date. Students are encouraged to provide early drafts and solicit feedback from Examination Committee members and the Thesis Advisor during preparation of the written component. If more than one member of the Examination Committee notifies the Director of Graduate Studies that the final version of the written component is unacceptable, the Preliminary Examination will be postponed until an acceptable written component is submitted. At the conclusion of the Preliminary Examination, the members of the Examination Committee will each enter a vote of “pass” or “fail” on the Examination Report, which must be submitted to the Graduate College with 48 hours.



Four possible outcomes are possible: 1) pass with no need for changes, 2) provisional pass – requiring corrections to be read and approved by one or two Examination Committee members designated by the Committee Chair, 3) provisional pass – but with deficits that require a second Preliminary Examination, and 4) fail. A vote of failure by more than one committee members will constitute a failure of the examination. Successful remediation of the failure must be accomplished by the end of the third year of study. Failure to remediate will result in dismissal from the Graduate College.

After successful completion of the Preliminary Examination, students are encouraged to revise the written component for submission to an external agency for funding (e.g., as an NRSA application to NIH).