General Examination

The general examination marks the transition from courses to independent research and should be completed by February of the second year for a student to remain in good standing. The purpose of the examination is to determine whether the student is qualified to do independent Ph.D. thesis research. The general examination will focus on a research proposal that is prepared and defended by the student. While it is not meant to be a comprehensive exam covering all previous course work, students are expected to draw upon this information in drafting their proposal. Learning how to express ideas in the proposal format is critical. Thus, the preparation of this proposal provides an opportunity for students to generate a testable hypothesis and formulate specific aims for their research.

Format Overview

The general examination in neuroscience has two parts:

  • Part One: a written research proposal related to the student’s thesis topic.
  • Part Two: an oral examination based on this proposal.

Part One, The Written Research Proposal

The written research proposal should be prepared in the format of an NIH R01 grant application. While related to the student’s thesis topic, the proposed research program should be go beyond the scope of a thesis proposal. The written proposal must not exceed 10 single-spaced pages with no appendices. Figures and tables, but not references, are included in this page limit. The primary objective of your proposal shall be to outline specific aims to test a unique scientific question.

The proposal shall include the following sections:

    • Title page: Proposal title, student’s name, and major advisor (not included in the page limit).
    • Specific aims: List the research objectives and state the hypotheses to be tested (1 page).
    • Background and significance: This section should contain a critical evaluation of existing knowledge and identify the gaps that the project is intended to fill, along with its impact on human health, society, etc. It should be noted that while preliminary data from the student’s own experiments are not a prerequisite for the examination, such data can be useful in establishing the rationale and demonstrating feasibility.
  • Research design and methods: This section should describe the conceptual and experimental approaches to be taken, the procedures for collecting, analyzing and interpreting data, expected and alternative results, and potential problems and alternative approaches. New methods should be described. Standard methods need not be described in detail, but should have literature citations, and the student should be prepared to discuss the underlying fundamentals and details during the oral general examination. Although the proposal is related to the student’s thesis research project, any appropriate methodology can be proposed to address the hypotheses. Thus, students are encouraged to include exploratory projects and incorporate experimental approaches that are not currently employed in the thesis laboratory.


  • Literature cited: Complete citations, including titles, should be given. (This section is not included in page limit).

In preparing the research proposal, the student may consult any faculty member, or any other source, for information on experimental methods and approaches. Once the 3 page specific aims has been approved by the General Examination Committee, the major advisor may not be consulted for specific feedback on the proposal. This proposal may be based on existing projects in their lab, but the general examination proposal must be distinguished from any existing grant application(s) by original contribution(s) by the student. The student’s contributions may be a specific aim, or additions to experiments outlined throughout the proposal. The scope of the student’s contributions are to be unrestricted in feasibility, meaning that the student must pose an original question and then propose an original set of experiments that employs any existing technology or methodology that is not specifically described in any grant from which the proposal has been based. These original contributions are expected to demonstrate the creativity and thinking of the student and are expected to complement the scientific goal(s) of their overall proposal. However, the student is solely responsible for the development of the final written proposal submitted to the General Examination Committee. The student is not to receive any specific feedback on the written proposal prior to the oral examination. Other than the General Examination Committee, the written proposal must not be shared with anyone prior to the oral examination. The thesis advisor does not receive a copy of the written proposal until the day before the oral examination is held.

Part Two, The Oral Examination

At the beginning of the oral examination, the student will be asked to give a very brief (10 minute maximum) overview of the research proposal. This is meant to convey the overall subject area, hypotheses to be tested, and general experimental approach. The student is free to practice this brief presentation with fellow students and/or their thesis advisor prior to the examination. The ensuing discussion during the oral examination will focus on the theory behind the proposal, the methods used to address the problem, the interpretation of potential results, alternative approaches to the experimental problem, and related literature. Each member of the examination committee will have an opportunity to discuss the proposal with the student. The major advisor should be present during the oral examination, but only in the capacity of an observer.

General Examination Committee

The General Examination Committee is composed of at least five members and typically includes the Neuroscience Program Director and Associate Director, all members of the student’s Advisory Committee, and other faculty members as necessary. The Program Director serves as chairman of the examination committee to ensure that the questioning is fair and that the student’s rights are protected. In the case of combined M.D./Ph.D. or D.M.D./Ph.D. candidates, the director of the dual degree program will be invited to attend.


The general examination is administered by the student’s General Examination Committee, which determines the outcome of the examination. After the oral examination, the student is asked to leave the room and the Examination Committee evaluates the written and oral parts of the examination, as well as the student’s overall performance in the neuroscience program (course work, rotations, work ethic, etc.). The student’s major advisor will be present during these deliberations and asked to comment on the intellectual and technical development of the student during the time in the laboratory prior to the examination. Again, while preliminary data from the student’s own experiments are not a prerequisite for the examination, data can be useful as a demonstration of the student’s abilities and work ethic. The general examination committee will vote on the outcome and can recommend unconditional pass (no more than one dissenting vote), incomplete pending specific remediation, or failure. In the case of failure, the student may be invited, at the discretion of the general examination committee, to retake the examination. The chair of the general examination committee will communicate the outcome to the candidate immediately following the deliberations. The final results, bearing the signature of each examination committee member, will then be reported to the graduate records office.

General Examination Timetable

When the thesis advisory committee has been selected, the student should schedule a meeting to review the Plan of Study. The Plan of Study must be approved before the Graduate School will issue a permit for the student to take the general examination. At this same meeting, which must occur before October 31st of the second year, the student will present a one page abstract describing the proposed thesis research, which is prepared in consultation with the major advisor. The members of the Advisory Committee will review the abstract to determine if it is suitable for development into a full research proposal that will form the basis of the general examination, or if the direction and scope require modification. After consulting with the student’s major advisor, the student should provide the program director with suggestions for appropriate faculty members who are willing to serve on the student’s General Examination Committee. The composition of the General Examination Committee must be established by December 1st of the second year and must be approved by the program director. A detailed outline of the specific aims (up to 3 pages) must be submitted for approval to the members of the student’s General Examination Committee before December 15. The specific aims must be discussed by and receive unanimous approval from the General Examination Committee. A copy of the full written research proposal must be submitted to each member of the student’s General Examination Committee at least 7 days prior to the oral examination and no later than 5 weeks from the date the aims received approval. Both parts of the general examination must be completed before the end of February of the second year.