Graduate Program in Neuroscience

General Exam

Students must take their General Exam by the end of  Spring Quarter 2nd year.

The General Exam consists of two written components and two oral sections.

  • The written parts consist of a brief research proposal and answers to three questions on prepared topics.
  • The oral sections consist of a 20 minute presentation on the thesis proposal and questioning about topics related to the area of the dissertation and general knowledge. Details on the format of the General Exam are provided below.

Prior to the Examination, the student should designate a member of the Committee who is not the advisor or the GSR to serve as the General Examination Administrator, who will be responsible for collecting written questions and administering the General Examination.

Note: In order to schedule your General Exam, you will need to submit a warrant request on-line to the Dean of the Graduate School. You can submit a warrant request on-line at MyGradProgram (

Item Program Year Deadlines Action
Choose a dissertation lab 1st June 1st of Spring Quarter Instruction email sent to student.
Draft Initial IDP/Progress Report 1st 2 weeks before end of Summer Quarter Student and advisor work together to draft initial IDP so it is ready to be discussed at the first Supervisory Committee meeting
Choose Electives 1st, 2nd, 3rd 2 weeks before end of Summer Quarter Send yearly elective plan to Advisor and Neuro Office, also any updates to plan during the year for approval.
Establish a Supervisory Committee 2nd Last Day of Autumn Quarter Choose Committee, specify Committee Chair and GSR, forward form to Neuro Office for Approval.
First Annual Supervisory Committee Meeting 2nd Due before General Exam (GE due by last day of spring quarter) Schedule first committee meeting to review IDP and plan for General Examination; no more than 2 weeks after meeting submit Student Annual Advisor Evaluation & IDP/Progress Report forms.
Choose Time and Date for General Examination 2nd 6 Weeks before GE Contact Committee to set date and time, forward Intent to Attend General Exam form to Neuro office. Neuro Office will confirm attendance with the Sup. Committee. Contact Neuro office for room reservation.
Request Warrant for General Examination 2nd 3 Weeks before GE Request Exam date through MyGrad.  The Neuro Office approves the date and prints out your warrant for pickup.
Pass General Examination  2nd Last Day of Spring Quarter 2nd yr. Signed warrant to the Neuro office. The chair, GSR and at least two voting members need to be present at your exam.

***Warrant requests must be submitted on-line to the Graduate School and approved by the Neuroscience Program at least 3 weeks before the General Exam

 While the General Examination is a requirement of the Graduate School for the advancement of the student to candidacy towards the Ph.D., it also serves several important purposes in the training of students in the Graduate Program in Neuroscience. The format of the General Exam has been designed to achieve the following goals:

  1. Emphasize that the student formulates a novel scientific question and devises a method to answer it.
  2. Ensure timely progress of the student through the program and toward the PhD.
  3. Ensure the rigor of the exam, especially in areas of general knowledge.
  4. Provide a method to ensure consistency of the examination for students

The student is required to meet with committee members (not the GSR) either individually or in a pre-exam meeting before the examination to identify one or two topics of general knowledge for each member in which to prepare. These areas are selected by the committee member in an area of his or her expertise but tailored to the student’s area of interest. Although the thesis committee members will ultimately serve to advise the student on progress toward the dissertation, their role before the general examination is to identify areas of neuroscience in which depth and breadth of knowledge are likely to be helpful to the student’s training.

The committee member and the student should clarify the scope, but there is much latitude here. For example, the area may be broadly defined (e.g., development, the olfactory system, ion channels, learning and memory, etc.) or more focused (apoptosis, tyrosine kinase signaling, voltage gating, signal to noise determinants in retina, role of superior colliculus in gaze control, etc.). Together, the student and the committee member should develop a reading list based on standard texts, review papers and primary scientific literature. The committee member should keep in mind that the student will be preparing in several areas, depending on the number of committee members and the number of topics they require.

To schedule the general exam, the student’s advisor and the committee as a whole must be satisfied that the student is making progress in the laboratory. A student who has not demonstrated dedication and some degree of acumen in areas relevant to conducting the thesis research will not be eligible to take the general exam. (Because this situation is considered to be not making satisfactory progress towards the Ph.D., it is expected that this will be a rare occurrence.) When scheduling the general exam, the student should identify a member of the Supervisory Committee who will serve as Administrator for the examination. The student selects the Administrator with concurrence of the thesis advisor. The thesis advisor and the GSR are not eligible to serve as the Administrator. The student, thesis advisor and Examination Administrator should notify the Neuro office of this arrangement by email. The role of the Examination Administrator is spelled out below.


B.1. Format of the written exam. There are two parts: (1) a brief thesis proposal with emphasis on background and rationale; (2) answers to three “knowledge” questions, which are submitted by the committee.

  • Thesis proposal. The document should develop the background and rationale for the proposed dissertation research, and it should outline an experimental plan to address one fundamental question. The document should be no more than five pages single spaced, plus bibliography. It should (i) emphasize published studies pertinent to the proposed research area, (ii) develop the rationale for the proposed study, emphasizing gaps in current knowledge in the proposed research area, (iii) advance one or two hypotheses, and (iv) describe an experimental strategy to test the hypothesis. Preliminary data should not be included. The proposal is due two (2) weeks before the exam. For purposes of the general examination, the student will be evaluated on scholarship, clarity and content of the proposal, logical development of a scientific hypothesis, and overall merit of the strategy.
  • Questions on general knowledge. Two weeks prior to the examination date, the Examination Administrator will obtain a written question from each member of the committee. The questions can be essay, problem format, or analysis. The answers should require no more than two (2) pages per examining committee member. The Administrator will select and forward to the student questions from three committee members. The dissertation advisor is not expected to submit questions, but he or she may do so at the discretion of the Examination Administrator. The GSR may also submit questions at the choice of the Examination Administrator. The student has one (1) week to complete all answers. The answers to all questions shall be provided to all committee members one (1) week before the oral examination. A PDF attachment to an email is the preferred format.

B.2. Format of the oral exam. The examination begins with a 20 minute “chalk-talk” about the proposed research. The “chalk-talk” is open to the local community.  The focus is on the rationale for the project and the proposed experimental strategy; background information should be presented only when directly relevant. Although preliminary data are not required for the oral exam, data slides may be presented as supporting material. Following the “chalk-talk”, the the public audience will leaven and the  committee will examine the student on themes related to the proposal, principles of experimental design, and any other areas that are seen as pertinent to the goal of developing a rigorous scientific inquiry in the student’s proposed dissertation area. This part of the exam is expected to last approximately one hour. The second part of the exam will focus on general knowledge and is also expected to last approximately one hour. The topics are expected to include the areas previously identified by committee members with the student. Questions on general knowledge covered in the 1st year course curriculum are also to be part of the process. Students should ensure that they have assimilated and consolidated the information presented in the first year coursework to be adequately prepared for this part of the exam. The Administrator of the General Examination will control the conduct of the oral exam. As described above, this is a committee member chosen in advance by the student and dissertation advisor who is not the GSR or the student’s advisor. While the dissertation advisor may correct a misstatement or misinformation offered by the student, the advisor should not participate in general discussions and questions during the exam. When scheduling the General Exam, be sure to plan for sufficient time to allow for all components; 3 hours is recommended.


B.3 Consequences of failing the General Examination A student whose performance on the General

Examination is considered to be not satisfactory may be allowed to have a first reexamination if the Supervisory Committee considers this to be appropriate. A student who does not pass the General Examination on the second attempt may be allowed a third and final attempt to pass the exam, but only with the approval of the Program Directors. There must be exceptional circumstances that are clearly defined by the Supervisory Committee in a letter to the Directors that explains why a 3rd attempt is justified.