Qualifying Exam

The general purpose of the qualifying examination is to test whether a student has successfully identified an important problem of sufficient importance to be the subject of a Ph.D. thesis and has been able to identify an original and feasible experimental approach for its solution within the capabilities of the student, considering the resources and environment of his/her laboratory and UCSF. The examination will consist of an oral examination focused on a student-written research proposal. This is an important step en route to the Ph.D. and the student is expected to have an adequate breadth and depth of knowledge in the wider areas of neuroscience and biology to merit advancement to candidacy for a Doctorate in Philosophy.


I. Deadlines and Required Actions

June 1 of 2nd year: Deadline for requesting permission from NS Program leadership to take QE. 
Send NS program administrator an email requesting NS Program permission to take exam. The faculty review committee will notify the student of the decision.

Early-Mid Summer of 2nd year: Set a Date for QE, Select Topic and Form QE Committee.
Faculty are often away during the summer months. Students should consider this in formation of exam committee and scheduling of exam.

September 15 of 3rd year (or two weeks before qualifying exam): 

  • Send exam proposal to committee members. The committee must review the proposal prior to the exam. One of the most important steps to ensure success with the QE is to meet with your committee members in advance of the exam and refine your proposal based on their comments.
  • Deadline to complete “Application for Qualifying Exam” form. The student must file an Application for Qualifying Exam form with the Graduate Division prior to taking the exam. The university does not permit students to take the exam without having filed this form. This form is completed and submitted online in the Student Portal
  • Student notifies the program administrators of exam date.

September 30 (beginning of 3rd year): Deadline for initial defense of qualifying exam proposal.
In cases where a reexamination is necessary, the examination committee will determine the deadlines for completing revision of written proposal and timing of oral defense.

Immediately after the exam: Qualifying Exam committee chair sends program administrators the Report on Qualifying Exam form.

Two Weeks after Passing the Qualifying Exam: Deadline for forming thesis committee and advancing to candidacy. To advance to candidacy the student must complete the Application for Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, obtain necessary signatures and send the form to the program administrators for processing.

April 30 (of 3rd Year): Deadline to hold first meeting of full thesis committee. Students must hold a meeting of their Ph.D. thesis committee by April 30 of the 3rd year of study. The program will not process paperwork for enrollment and stipend support for 3rd year students who have not done so unless the program director has approved an exception.

3rd Year students must meet with their committees by April 30 (of their 3rd year): Senior students must meet annually with their committees by June 30th. Prior to the meeting, students must notify program administrators of thesis committee meeting dates. After the meeting, committee chair to email program administrators a report of the meeting. 


II. Prerequisites for taking Qualifying Examination

All students must complete NS201A, B and C, and a required mini-course, all required laboratory rotations, and one advanced NS program course before submitting and defending the thesis proposal.

The NS Program will not permit students who are on probation to take the examination for advancement to Ph.D. candidacy. Reasons for probationary status include failure to obtain a grade of B- or higher in NS 201A, B, or C or any advanced course offered by the NS Program, concern about laboratory performance, or ethical transgressions.

The NS program anticipates that a majority of the faculty on this examining committee will serve, together with the student’s Ph.D. thesis mentor, on the student’s thesis committee. This committee will provide periodic consultation and advice following successful completion of the qualifying exam and advancement to candidacy.


III. Qualifying Exam Committee Formation and Composition

  1. An examination committee of four to five members, one of whom will serve as chair, will be chosen by consultation between the student, his/her thesis advisor and the graduate advisor of the program (the advisor assigned to the student by the program in year 
  2. The committee members must be members of the academic senate with a minimum of two members of the Neuroscience Program.
  3. The student's Ph.D. thesis advisor may not be a member of the committee.
  4. The student shall ascertain that committee members are willing to serve.
  5. The committee’s composition must be approved by the student’s thesis advisor, who should indicate approval through a brief email copied to the program administrators.


IV. Procedure

  1. The student will write the proposal. It is expected that the writing take no more than four weeks. His/her thesis advisor should not write the proposal or give the student grants on this topic from which the student can extract his/her proposal. However, the thesis advisor, members of the student’s thesis laboratory, and other faculty and students can obviously provide input on merit of specific aims and evaluations of experimental approaches in oral discussions. The student is encouraged to meet with the exam committee members to discuss the proposal in advance of the exam.
  2. The committee members must read the proposals within two weeks of their receipt. This is an examination, however, and many inadequacies will only be uncovered during an examination.
  3. The student will be examined on his or her proposal. The student should be prepared to give a short presentation no longer than 10 minutes on the proposal. The oral exam will usually center on the proposal and related areas. It is important that the proposal describe a reasonable number of experiments that address a problem of importance in Neuroscience. The committee should not pass students when this threshold is not met. The examination typically lasts for approximately 60-90 minutes.


V. Criteria for Committee Evaluation of Student Performance

  1. Students will be evaluated on the quality of the written proposal. If committee members have major concerns about the quality or format of the written proposal, they should feel free to convey this to the student at meetings before the exam. While this requires that students take the initiative to meet with committee members, it is clearly not ideal to hold an examination on a proposal that is preordained for failure.
  2. Students will be examined on their research proposal. Students should be prepared to discuss the rational for proposed experiments, background literature that has led to the proposed research, expected outcomes and alternative experiments or conclusions. Detailed knowledge of experimental protocol and analysis is expected.
  3. The students will be examined on their scholarship, focused in the general area of the examination (Molecular Cellular Neuroscience, Neural Circuits, Systems and Behavioral Neuroscience). The material covered in the first year core course can be a topic for examination. Students should be broadly familiar with the area of science in which they have presented a proposal.
  4. To pass this exam requires that the student exhibit adequate performance addressing each of the criteria listed above


VI. Possible Results 

On the basis of the proposal and the student's performance in the examination, the committee shall decide upon one of the five alternatives:

  1. Admission to candidacy for the Ph.D.
  2. Admission to candidacy conditional upon successful completion (with a grade of B or higher) of specified courses (advancement to candidacy paperwork will be signed after completion of these courses).
  3. Partial failure with reexamination (appropriate when a student fails to meet one of the criteria listed above).
  4. Total failure with reexamination (appropriate when a student fails to meet more than one of the criteria listed above or fails to have identified a project that the committee believes will result in an original and practical thesis project).
  5. Failure without reexamination (appropriate when the committee believes that the student’s overall performance in the program and in this examination indicates that he/she does not have strong prospects of successfully completing the Ph.D.).

If the student is not admitted to candidacy after the first examination, a second examination may be scheduled. The examination committee will determine deadlines for submission of a revised proposal and for reexamination.


VII. Duties of Qualifying Committee Chair

Paperwork: Ensure that at least two weeks prior to exam, student files "Application for Qualifying Examination" with the Graduate Division. Student may not take exam if application has not been filed and if "Notice of Admission to Qualifying Examinations" has not been issued. 

Meetings with Student: Meet with student regularly prior to exam.

Before the Exam

  1. Read student's proposal within 2 weeks of receipt.
  2. Retrieve and review student's file.
  3. Talk to each of the faculty who has directed the student's courses and lab rotations and the director of his/her thesis research.


  1. Summarize student's progress to the committee before the start of the exam: “Should this student be admitted to candidacy?”
  2. Be present at the examination and ensure that the proposal is presented and discussed fairly and critically.

Immediately After the Exam

  1. Qualifying committee chair must complete and return the pass/fail form to the Graduate Division. The student is responsible for obtaining this form.
  2. The chair must notify program administrator of outcome.


VIII. Qualifying Proposal Formats

Each student will write a proposal that is his/her own work. It is expected that the student will have read and assimilated the relevant literature for the proposal. The student should feel free to consult their PI or any persons with expertise, at UCSF or elsewhere, during the process of developing the specific aims and writing the proposal but they should not use as a resource written grant proposals from their own or other laboratories. The outline of the proposal should be that of an NIH grant (refer to page 54 of http://grants.nih.gov/grants/funding/424/SF424_RR_Guide_Fellowship_verC.pdf), with the expectation that the student will be able to apply for an individual NIH grant after the qualifying exam process.

Overall, the format should include an introduction and sections devoted to background material, specific aims, experimental design, and methods. Again, please follow NIH grant application guidelines. The proposal should be well organized, give evidence of imaginative and careful thinking, and be oriented primarily toward the proposed experiments. The proposal must clearly state the interpretation and significance of the findings of the proposed experiments, and should indicate priorities of the different experiments and strategies for dealing with unsuccessful experiments, or results different from those hoped for. NIH grant application guidelines should be followed for page limits and other formatting (for page limit guidelines, refer to http://grants.nih.gov/grants/how-to-apply-application-guide/format-and-write/table-of-page-limits/forms-d.htm#fell).

Abstract and Specific Aims (1 page): Should clearly set out the overall aims of the project within a perspective that makes the reasons for doing the problem intelligible to the non-specialist and list 2-5 specific goals for the project.

Significance (~1-2 pages): Should demonstrate that the student has a good grasp of present knowledge. The summary of what is known is not expected to be exhaustive, but should be critical and synthetic. Limitations of experimental evidence and unsolved problems should be identified. This section should describe impact and importance of proposed project. Citation for its own sake is not useful; a student should be prepared to discuss any referenced paper. Preliminary results are not required for the proposal.

Innovation (~0.25-0.5 page): Should describe how the project is conceptually and technically innovative.

Experimental Design (~4 pages): Should describe experimental approaches and demonstrate knowledge of the methods to be used and their limitations.

References: 30-50 as a general guide. More than that will convey an impression of too much reading and not enough thinking.


IX. Advancement to Candidacy

Upon advancing to candidacy, oversight of a student’s academic progress transfers from the graduate advisor (the faculty member assigned as advisor when the student entered the program) to the PI and thesis committee chair. The student no longer meets quarterly with the graduate advisor, and instead begins regular (at least annual) meetings of the thesis committee.

  1. Qualifying Exam Committee Chair must submit results of qualifying exam form to Graduate Division.
  2. Student must complete the Advancement to Candidacy request form, collect required signatures and forward the form to the program administrator.
  3. Administrator will forward request to Graduate Division.
  4. After a student has filed Advancement to Candidacy form, confirmation of advancement to candidacy will be issued to the student. A copy of this form will also be sent to the NS Program administrator for the student’s file.