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 Director (srussek@bu.edu). This is followed by the written exam, which must be approved by the student’s thesis mentor and then distributed to the examining committee (see below) at least 2 weeks prior to the oral exam. Please make every effort to submit the written exam on time.  The oral exam is then scheduled based on passing of the written component.  See below for more detail.

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 Director 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 Director and GPN Graduate Education Committee (GEC) if needed 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 (see below). 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 the 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, choice of experiments, and clarity of the writing they are not to specifically edit the written part of the document as this is an exam. They can, however, make helpful suggestions to the student regarding the organization of the document as part of the student’s training.  All students recruited into GPN get basic training in the writing of research grants in the NRSA format via the required first year curriculum in Frontiers in Neuroscience.  Should a student transfer into GPN and thereby miss the Frontiers curriculum, they should contact the GPN office to receive copies of materials on how to best prepare a research grant, before generating the written exam.  While it is not expected that the NRSA 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 work to refine the document with their mentor(s) and submit the NRSA (or equivalent NSF or comparable training grant application) before the end of their third year and preferably earlier.

The written exam, after review by the research mentor, must be distributed to all committee members at least TWO WEEKS prior to the oral exam. Typically the student will first submit the written exam to the advisor and then the student can revise the document based on the advisor’s suggestions before it is sent out to the rest of the committee.  Based on the comments of committee members, the student can make one more revision of the document before it is officially submitted as a written exam for evaluation.  Once the student receives a PASS on the written they can then move to the oral defense. The oral should not occur without approval of the written document as a starting place for the production of a professional NRSA.  After the oral exam, the examining committee may suggest additional edits to the written document so that it is improved to help its future submission to NIH/NSF.  

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 and is pertinent to the research area. The exam is expected to be approximately 1-1.5 hours in length.  Students make a 25-30 minute PowerPoint presentation (10 slide maximum) 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.  The Qualifying Exam is one step in your growth as a GPN student please do not try to make it a giant leap!  The sole goal is to test your ability to think independently and deeply about the major questions that you intend to pursue in the future.  All faculty are instructed to share this same goal and should contact the GPN Director if they have any question regarding the purpose or delivery of the milestone.  All advisors should be intimately aware of their student’s experience with committee members so that the experience is a productive one for each student in the program.

UPON PASSING THE WRITTEN EXAM, students must inform the GPN Assistant Director (sgrasso@bu.edu) regarding the scheduling of the ORAL and identify the Qualifying Committee Chairperson. Upon successful completion of the oral exam, the committee must complete and sign the Report of Examination form. The Assistant Director will forward the Report of Examination form to the GPN Director, who will be instructed to return the completed form 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