Qualifying Exam

Getting through the gate

Students typically take their Qualifying Examination at the end of their second year of study. The Qualifying Examination tests the ability of the student to think experimentally by generating testable hypotheses based on a foundation of knowledge that can be communicated in a written document and defended orally in front of a committee of GPN members. The first step in the qualifying exam process is to form an examining committee and obtain approval for this committee from the GPN Program Directors (srussek@bu.edu and guenther@bu.edu). This is followed by the written exam, which must be approved by the student’s thesis mentor and distributed to the examining committee (see below) at least 2 weeks prior to the oral exam.

Examining Committee

A minimum of three faculty members are on the examining committee (thesis mentor and two additional members). Students should confer with their thesis advisors and/or the GPN Graduate Program Directors for guidance on committee composition. Each committee member must be expert in at least one aspect of the proposed research, and the committee must include at least one member (often the Chair) who is not directly involved in the student’s dissertation research. Furthermore, the Chair of the Qualifying Exam Committee cannot be the primary mentor of the student. Committee choice must be reviewed by the Program Directors and GPN Graduate Education Committee (GEC) prior to approval. Every attempt is made to limit committee participation to GPN training faculty unless additional expertise is required as determined by GEC review. The role of the Examining Committee Chair is to coordinate with the student and the GPN office to make sure the exam is scheduled properly and that all participating faculty members receive the necessary documents and understand the goals of the examination process. The Chair also provides objective input to the committee as she/he is not intimately involved in the student’s research. The Chair may be a voting member of the committee if the committee is limited to 3 members.

Written Exam

The written exam is structured around a proposal that is in the form of an individual NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Award (NRSA) training fellowship application. NRSA applications follow the NIH SF424 (R&R) instruction set. The student must complete following sections of the NRSA fellowship application (note that the numbering is different in the actual application to NIH):

1) Project Summary

2) Specific Aims

3) Research Strategy (includes Significance, Innovation, and Approach sections)

4) Bibliography and References Cited

Abridged instructions for these sections from the SF424 (R&R) instruction set are provided in quals-nrsabreakdown for your convenience.

Please note that the written GPN exam is to be generated by the student, and while mentors can give advice regarding research direction and choice of experiments, they are not to edit the written part of the document as this is an exam. While it is not expected that the document prepared by students will be ready for submission to a funding agency at the time it is submitted to the Qualifying Examination Committee, it is expected that after committee evaluation and successful passing of the qualifying examination, students will be able to make revisions that would allow them to apply for an NRSA if deemed appropriate by the student and their advisor.

The written exam must be approved by the student’s thesis mentor and distributed to all committee members at least two weeks prior to the oral exam. After the oral exam, the examining committee may require edits to the written document before approval. The written exam will also typically serve as the basis for the Dissertation Outline/Prospectus, as described further below.

The oral exam is a defense of the hypotheses to be tested, potential problems and pitfalls in the experimental approach, as well as general information regarding the field of neuroscience that was emphasized in the core coursework. The exam is expected to be approximately 1-1.5 hours in length.  Students make a 25-30 minute PowerPoint presentation to their committee that frames the research hypotheses and experimental approach of their written document, along with presenting any pilot results.  The presentation is followed by a question and answer period with committee faculty.  Please confer with the members of your Qualifying Examination Committee for specific advice on how to prepare for your exam and the level of expertise you are expected to demonstrate. This should be done after they have had a chance to read the written exam.

Upon successful completion of the oral exam, the committee must complete and sign the Report of Examination form. Two weeks prior to the oral exam, students must inform the GPN Assistant Director (sgrasso@bu.edu) of the scheduling of the exam and identify the Qualifying Committee Chairperson. The Assistant Director will forward the Report of Examination form to the Chairperson, who will be instructed to return the completed form to the Assistant Director for processing

Please see http://grants.nih.gov/grants/forms.htm to download application materials and to read most up-to-date information about the actual NRSA application.

*For guideline summaries see quals-nrsabreakdown