Skip to main content

Qualifying as a Doctoral Candidate

The Ph.D. qualifying exam is typically completed by the end of the third year of graduate training. Successful qualification represents the final checkpoint for admission into candidacy for a Ph.D. degree. The purpose of the qualifying examination is to test the student’s general knowledge of neuroscience and familiarity with published research related to their dissertation project, and to determine whether the student possesses and can communicate analytical abilities needed for a scholarly career.

Qualifying for PhD candidacy in the Neuroscience Program

The overall goals of the qualifying exam are as follows:

1) Assess the student’s ability to formulate a series of hypotheses and specific aims to test these hypotheses.

2) Immerse the student in scientific literature relevant to the Ph.D. dissertation.

3) Assess the student’s general neuroscience knowledge base and aptitude for a research career.

4) Form a thesis committee to foster and monitor the student’s continued development.

The Dissertation Committee

The Dissertation Committee is comprised of the advisor, two members of the Neuroscience Graduate Program faculty, and one member of the Vanderbilt faculty from outside the Neuroscience Graduate Program. The Dissertation Committee serves as a working team to help the student in a number of ways including offering suggestions about experimental technique and design, and providing continual encouragement to be innovative and take risks—characteristics that are crucial to long-term success in research. Therefore, it is important that the Dissertation Committee be carefully selected, with consideration of the scientific training, intellectual interests, and research activities of each Committee member. The diversity of intellectual activity that will be present in a student’s research project should be reflected in the composition of the Dissertation Committee. The student and dissertation advisor propose the composition of the Dissertation Committee to the Director of Graduate Studies, who then evaluates it and, if approved, sends it to the Dean of the Graduate School for final approval. The Dissertation Committee is crucial to the trainee’s research progress and professional advancement, and thus its composition should be based on sound scholarship and service to the student. During the Qualifying Exam, the mentor will not be present.

The Qualifying Examination Written documents

Five weeks prior to the Qualifying Examination, the student will submit a concise paper, reviewing the background literature relevant to the student’s projected dissertation research to the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), the Program Coordinator and to the members of the Dissertation Committee. This will be a 5-10 page review in the style of Nature Reviews in Neuroscience, including 1 figure. Appended to the review must be a page that describes the aims of the student’s planned dissertation project (this section should be limited to one-page and will not be counted within the 10-page limit for the major review section) and a separate page listing all of the courses the student has taken since matriculating into the graduate program at Vanderbilt. Within one week, the chair of the committee will poll the members to decide whether the review and the Specific Aims are acceptable. The review and aims will either be approved or revisions will be requested. A final version must be accepted prior to the oral exam. Upon acceptance by the Dissertation Committee, the review is to be submitted to Editor-in-Chief ( for publication with the reviews from the rest of the qualifying class in Vanderbilt Reviews Neuroscience, the official journal of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute. The format of the review must meet specific guidelines for publication (see

Prior to initiating writing, the student should consult freely with their advisor, laboratory members and other faculty, discussing relevant literature and techniques and refining the focus for the review, as well as formulating the specific aims. However, consultants should not dictate the content, provide templates (e.g., a grant), or critique drafts of the written document. Consultation, once writing is initiated, should be limited to specific questions, rather than broad-based issues related to content or structure of the review.  The review must be the intellectual product of the student. The student may, however, have another student or postdoc read over the document for grammatical corrections.

The Qualifying Examination Meeting

The Qualifying Examination should take place about one month after acceptance of the review and Specific Aims Page by the Committee (in early June). The Qualifying Exam will also include one Program Representative from the VBI Education and Training Committee, who will be responsible for making sure the exam is run consistent with the guidelines outlined below and will provide the evaluation form and a summary letter to the DGS. The Program Representative will participate in questioning the student, particularly in fundamental knowledge of neuroscience, since they should be familiar with the material taught in the required courses. The Qualifying Exam meeting should last approximately two hours, including the oral exam and closed discussions. The Qualifying Exam comprises two parts: written proposal and oral exam. The committee confers in the student’s absence at the start of the meeting, at which time the committee reviews the student’s performance in classes (based on grades provided by the Program Coordinator) and discusses the scoring of the written proposal (the written part will already have been approved as acceptable prior to the meeting). Criteria for assessing the document include (but are not limited to) the following: scientifically sound, logical, sufficient background/review of field, well-organized, clearly written, proper grammar/spelling. The Program Representative polls each member to reach a consensus on a score.  The student will then return to the committee and begin their oral defense of the proposal.

The examination begins with the student giving no more than a 5-minute overview of the topic of their review and specific aims, followed by questions from the faculty designed to evaluate the student’s general knowledge, ability to integrate didactic information into research design, capacity to connect and synthesize interrelated ideas and ability to think clearly and critically. The exam should take approximately 2 hours, but the exact time is at the discretion of the committee. Prior to the meeting, committee members will receive a list of topics the student is expected to be familiar with from coursework (this document will be formed from the syllabi from NURO 340 and 345). The examiners are also free to question the student about the content taught in other courses that they’ve taken or knowledge relevant to the student’s area of research. Committee members will prepare in advance for the meeting by reading the review and specific aims and identifying several lines of questioning (on both the review itself and general background) to pursue during the oral exam. All committee members should actively participate in questioning the student.

Although a wide variety of questions may be deemed appropriate during the oral exam, the committee’s focus should be to ascertain whether the student has established a critical knowledge base essential for understanding his/her research project and achieving success as he/she progresses through graduate school. It is the Program Representative’s responsibility to keep everyone “on track” (in terms of time, lines of questioning, and overall direction) during the oral exam. Upon conclusion of the oral exam, the committee confers in the student’s absence to evaluate the student’s performance. The Program Representative polls each member to reach a consensus as to whether the student passed or failed the exam. A conditional pass is a possible outcome with conditions to be established by the committee.  Two forms will be completed by the Program Representative, one for the Neuroscience Program and one for the graduate school. The Program Representative will then inform the student of the results and go over in detail the committee’s evaluation.  It should be noted that both the Neuroscience program and the graduate school allow a student to repeat the examination should the student fail the first examination.

Both the student’s written document and performance during the oral exam must be deemed satisfactory by all committee members. The written document must be approved before the oral exam. Inadequate performance by the student in the oral exam is grounds for failure and will necessitate a second oral exam and/or additional remediation (within 90 days). In such cases, it is the Program Representative’s responsibility to delineate (with input from the committee) what remedial steps are most appropriate for a particular student and how the committee will evaluate the student a second time. Examples of remediation used successfully in the past include the following: provide student with a specific reading list to augment background knowledge relevant to his/her project followed by a second oral exam to test understanding of the assigned material; student meets with an assigned faculty member for “tutorials” to remedy specific gaps in knowledge or to improve breadth of understanding of fundamental cell and neuroscience topics (e.g. discuss chapters from Kandel’s textbook).

After the qualifying exam, the Program Representative will prepare a brief report summarizing the student’s performance and outcome of the exam. The representative will ask for input from all committee members and then provide the report to the DGS and the Program Coordinator within one week of the exam who will forward to the mentor and the student. After completing the exam, the student should schedule their first regular committee meeting, which should occur within 3-6 months after the exam.  If the committee recommends that the student must repeat the examination, the Program Coordinator will schedule the committee meeting.  Otherwise, it is the student’s responsibility to schedule the first regular committee meeting. Unless requested, the Program Representative will not be a part of the regular committee and a chair will be chosen by the student with recommendations from the mentor. At the first committee meeting, the student will present their thesis proposal. A written proposal, in NIH NRSA format, must be provided to the committee at least one week prior to the meeting. For all subsequent meetings, students are expected to provide the committee with a brief (2-3 page) progress report at least one week prior to the meeting.

VRN Author Formatting Guidelines

The document should be original, targeting an area of neuroscience that may be suitable for dissertation investigation. Although published reviews may be consulted, an existing review should not be used as a template. The style should be similar to Nature Reviews in Neuroscience, targeting a broad neuroscience audience.

Specific formatting guidelines are to be strictly adhered to, lest the review be rejected out-of-hand. Please see