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Qualifying Exam

The objectives of the Qualifier Exam are to: 1) determine the student’s progress on scientific and experimental reasoning as reflected by their knowledge of experimental strategies and methods, the ability to converse in real time about the rationale and experimental design of their project, and an ability to discuss potential pitfalls of those experimental strategies and methods; and 2) determine the student’s understanding of the background knowledge needed to complete a PhD in Neuroscience in their field, appropriate to the level of a second year student in NUIN. This background knowledge includes factual information, theoretical concepts and methodological approaches relevant to their project and obtained through coursework and review of relevant literature.

The Qualifying Exams are oral and consist of a Research Chalk Talk (use of a whiteboard but not slides, presentation or other prepared visual aids). The student will be questioned on the Rationale, Approach, Results, Interpretation, and Significance of the project they discuss. No preliminary results are required, but students are expected to be conversant in potential experimental outcomes. Students also are expected to be knowledgeable about general principles related to the topic of their Research Chalk Talk. The purpose of the Qualifying Exam is to demonstrate the progress of the student’s scientific and experimental reasoning to the Committee. Preliminary data are not required. In many cases, the project presented will develop into a thesis project, but this is not a requirement.

Key knowledge and skills include:

  1. Scientific and experimental reasoning appropriate for a second-year graduate student;
  2. A familiarity with experimental strategies and methods pertinent to the research project described in the QE;
  3. An ability to converse in real time about the rationale and experimental design of their project;
  4. An ability to discuss potential pitfalls of those experimental strategies and methods;
  5. A mastery of the factual information, theoretical concepts and methodological approaches relevant to the project presented in the QE.

Timing and Scheduling:

The Qualifying Exam can be scheduled as early as Spring quarter and no later than the end of the Summer quarter of the second year. It is expected to last between 1-2hrs. It is the responsibility of the student to schedule the precise time, date, and location. Students may ask NUIN staff for help reserving a room if required. Students should not provide food or drink for committee meetings. 

Examining Committee:

Students should work closely with their Thesis Advisor to choose faculty members of a Qualifying Exam committee. The NUIN Assistant Director can also provide guidance. The Qualifying Exam committee is composed of three or more faculty and the student’s Thesis Advisor (as an observer). One member of the committee (not the Thesis Advisor) acts as Chair of the Qualifying Exam and provides a Chair’s Summary following the exam.

Qualifying Exam committee members should be able to 1) determine progress on scientific and experimental reasoning 2) determine understanding of the background knowledge relevant to the project that is needed to complete a PhD in Neuroscience. At the stage of the Qualifying Exam, almost any faculty member in the NUIN program will be qualified to assess points 1 and 2 above.

In many cases the faculty selected for the Qualifying Exam committee will overlap with the Thesis Committee, but the members may change prior to the Thesis Proposal – especially if the scope or direction of the project changes. Guidelines for how to select a Thesis Committee are provided in the NUIN Qualifying Exam Guide, “Choosing a Thesis Committee”.

Assessment, Results and Feedback:

The Qualifying Exam consists of a Research Chalk Talk presentation by the student and questions from the Committee members. Students will be asked to leave the room before the exam begins and again following the presentation and question period. See NUIN Qualifying Exam Guide “How to Give a Chalk Talk”.

There is no Pass or Fail consequence for the Qualifying Exam. The committee members will each complete a form indicating the students’ current level of achievement (Exceeds Expectations, Meets Expectations, Below Expectations) on specific examination criteria (see NUIN Qualifying Exam Guide, “Qualifying Exam Assessment”). The committee has the prerogative to recommend specific activities to remediate perceived deficits. Those recommendations could include a literature review, coursework, or another skill- or knowledge-building exercise. Any recommendations will be formulated in consultation with the student’s Thesis Advisor.

Written feedback will be synthesized and summarized by Chair of the Qualifying Exam committee as a “Chair’s Summary”, and will be provided to the student, their Thesis Advisor, and the NUIN Program along with the individual committee member feedback forms, within 1 week after the exam. Completion of the Qualifying Exam will advance the student to candidacy. The timing and fulfillment of recommended remediations should be discussed in detail between the student and their Thesis Advisor.

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