Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience

Qualifying Exam


In This Section

The faculty and students of the Department of Neuroscience are investigating a wide range of nervous system operations in the developing and mature organism.  Organizational levels range from molecules and neurons to neural systems and cognitive functions.

Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience 

Developmental Neuroscience 

Systems Neuroscience 

Cell Biology of Neuronal Function 

Neurobiology of Brain Disease 

Qualifying Exam 

Thesis Defense 


All graduate students are expected to take and pass the qualifying exam by the end of the Spring term of their second year (third year for MSTP students). By this time it is expected that students will have completed the majority (but not necessarily all) of Foundation and Department required courses. In exceptional cases, a student may defer the exam for one year with approval of the Program Director. Typical reasons may include academic gaps (courses needed for the exam), illness, or a change in laboratory.

The exam will consist of a written proposal submitted to the examining committee, followed by an oral defense of that proposal. It should focus on the student’s thesis work and cover the research questions underlying his/her work.

The written component of the qualifying exam follows the format of a NIH fellowship application. The project should be conceived by the student and the application written by the student. It is expected that the mentor discusses the project with the student, providing general feedback on aims and strategy. The relative contributions of the student and mentor to the final proposal must be indicated. At the oral examination, the student will have to defend his/her proposal and demonstrate that he/she is qualified to continue in the PhD program.

Specific Aims: (1 page) 

State concisely the goals of the proposed research and summarize the expected outcome(s), including the impact that the results of the proposed research will exert on the research field(s) involved. No specific number of aims is required; typically, thesis research projects propose 2-3 specific aims.

List succinctly the specific objectives of the research proposed, e.g., to test a stated hypothesis, create a novel design, solve a specific problem, challenge an existing paradigm or clinical practice, address a critical barrier to progress in the field, or develop new technology.

Research Strategy: (6 pages) 

Organize the Research Strategy as specified below. Start each section with the appropriate section heading – Significance and Approach. Cite published experimental details in the Research Strategy section and provide the full reference in a Bibliography and References Cited section at the end. While there is no page limitation for bibliography, it is important to be concise and to select only those literature references pertinent to the proposed research.

(a) Significance
Explain the importance of the problem or critical barrier to progress in the field that the proposed project addresses. Explain how the proposed project will improve scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice in one or more broad fields. Describe how the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field will be changed if the proposed aims are achieved.

(b) Approach
Describe the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project. Discuss potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success anticipated to achieve the aims. Preliminary data can be an essential part of a research grant application and help to establish the feasibility of the proposed project. Preliminary data collected by the student is effective to convince reviewers a project is feasible but data from the laboratory may also be useful. However, due to the early stage of the proposal, less emphasis will be placed on the preliminary data.

Personal Information (2 pages): A key item in NIH fellowship applications is the personal statement, where applicants indicate their contribution to the project and provide information about their interests and career plans. Although it will not be considered in the evaluation, Neuroscience students are required to submit this document along with specific aims and research strategy.

(a) Personal Statement. Briefly describe how your experience, interests and qualifications make you particularly well-suited for your role in the project.

(b) Respective contributions. Describe the collaborative process between you and your sponsor/co-sponsor in the development, review, and editing of this research training plan. Discuss the respective roles in accomplishing the proposed research.

(c) Goals training and career. The fellowship applicant must describe his/her overall career goals, and explain how the proposed research training will enable the attainment of these goals. Identify the skills, theories, conceptual approaches, etc. to be learned or enhanced during the award.

Fonts and formatting: Use Arial, Helvetica, Palatino Linotype, or Georgia typeface, a black font color, and a font size of 11 points or larger. Type density, including characters and spaces, must be no more than 15 characters per inch. Type may be no more than six lines per inch. Use standard paper size (8 ½" x 11). Use at least one-half inch margins (top, bottom, left, and right) for all pages. Use a single-column format for the text.


Workshop: “Preparing the Qual Exam Proposal” course: During the Fall semester, a course is provided by the Einstein's Graduate Program that focuses around the writing the Qualifying Exam proposal and tips in proposal writing.


Submitting the proposal: Each student submits the written proposal to his/her Committee members on or before the designated submission date. Late submissions are not allowed unless first approved by the exam committee chair.



The committee will consist of 4 faculty members, with a department representative to the larger Parent committee (who will function as committee chair), and 3 additional faculty suggested by the student. During the Spring Semester, students should submit a list of four to eight faculty who would be appropriate Exam Committee members. The Parent Steering Committee will attempt to include as many of the student’s proposed committee members as possible.

Role of the Mentor: The mentor is not a member of the Exam Committee, nor is the mentor present at the exam. While the proposal should be the independent work of the student, the mentor should discuss the Aims and research strategy with the student. The mentor may read the proposal to identify weak points. However, the mentor may not write the proposal for the student. Students are encouraged to seek input from the PI, department faculty, as well as fellow students. These colleagues represent a valuable resource that should be utilized.


Following the exam, the Committee will register a vote for: PASS WITH HONORS, PASS, POSTPONED DECISION (usually requiring revision of the written proposal), or FAIL. A majority vote of 3-1 is needed for PASS or HONORS. In the event of a 2-2 vote, with 2 Committee members voting FAIL, the grade for the exam will be FAIL. Should a student receive a FAIL grade, they will be allowed to retake the exam.

Appeal of Examining Committee’s Decision: If a student wishes to appeal the decision of the Committee, it will be considered by the Parent Qualifying Exam Committee. This request must be made in writing to the Director of the Graduate Division, who will schedule a meeting with the Parent Committee. The appeal will either be denied or the student will be allowed to repeat the examination with a new Exam Committee.

Additional information about the Qualifying Exam can be found at Qual_Exam_Guide and graduate division forms or by consulting with the Department of Neuroscience representatives to the Parent Committee, Drs. David Hall, Alberto Pereda, and Steven Walkley.

Works in Progress and Departmental Seminar
All students are expected to attend weekly Works in Progress and Seminars.  Each student must present at Works in Progress once a year.  Most students, especially those in the early stages of their thesis research (1st and 2nd year in the Department), are encouraged to give chalk talk presentations.  However, more senior students have the option of using Power Point to present a more comprehensive body of work.

Departmental Retreat
All students are expected to participate in an annual Departmental retreat.  This consists of a two day off-campus event at which faculty, postdocs and students are encouraged to present their research accomplishments.  Typically, junior students (1st and 2nd year in the Department) present posters while more senior students give short (10 minute) platform presentations.  


Thesis Defense

The preparation and defense of the PhD thesis in Neuroscience is a culmination of a student's independent laboratory research.  During the course of thesis research, the Student Advisory Committee will assist the student and the thesis advisor in defining the nature and the scope of the research project that will form the basis of the doctoral dissertation.  Students are required to remain in residence until the thesis research has been completed to the satisfaction of the PhD mentor, the Student Advisory Committee and the Thesis Examining Committee.

The Thesis Examining Committee—The Thesis Examination is a defense of the student's dissertation and a demonstration of competence within the field of the dissertation and related areas. The Examining Committee will consist of five faculty members. The PhD thesis advisor is not a member of the Examining Committee but does attend the Thesis Defense as an observer. Among the five members of the Examining Committee there must be at least one faculty member from another AECOM Department and an external examiner from outside the University. A sixth member must be chosen as an alternate, in the event that one of the other members is unable to attend the defense. The membership of the Examining Committee is proposed by the student in consultation with her/his Advisory Committee and is approved by the chairperson of the Department of Neuroscience. The Einstein Graduate Division will appoint one member of the committee as the chair.

Notification of Intent to Graduate. At least several months prior to the thesis examination, the PhD candidate must notify the chairperson of the Department of Neuroscience of his/her intent to graduate by submitting the Einstein Graduate Division Thesis Committee form, which lists the proposed members of the Thesis Examining Committee and the proposed Thesis title and date of the Thesis Examination. The chairperson of the Department of Neuroscience approves the notification by signing this form. The completed form, a 1 page abstract of the Thesis research, and the student’s bibliography will then be submitted to the Office of the Einstein Graduate Division for approval of the membership of the Thesis Examining Committee by the Einstein Graduate Committee. The Neuroscience Graduate Education Committee will determine that all requirements for the PhD degree are met prior to the Thesis examination.

Preparation and Defense of the Thesis for the PhD. It is the responsibility of the PhD candidate to: (1) obtain a copy of the Manual on Dissertations from the Graduate Division Office; (2) consult the Graduate Division for the deadline for submission of the doctoral dissertation and make provisions for the duplication, binding and distribution of the thesis. Regulations on the format of the theses described in the Manual, must be adhered to for a thesis to be acceptable. In addition, it is the responsibility of the student to schedule the date and location of the PhD thesis defense at a time that is convenient for all members of the Examining Committee, as well as the chairperson of the Department of Neuroscience.

Submission of Doctoral Dissertation for the Thesis Examination. 

Candidates must submit the dissertation in a complete form to the chairperson of the Department of Neuroscience at least four weeks prior to the date of the Thesis Examination.  Once the chairperson has determined that the thesis is defensible, the candidate must submit copies of the completed dissertation to the members of the Examining Committee not less than three weeks prior to the date of the Thesis Examination.  The dissertation must have been read and approved in writing by the thesis advisor prior to distribution to the chairperson of the Department of Neuroscience and to members of the Examining Committee.

Public Presentation of Doctoral Studies. The doctoral studies must be publicly presented in one of the following two ways:

  1. Departmental Seminar. Notice of this seminar must be submitted to all members of the Thesis Examining Committee at least one week prior to the seminar.  The public notice must be posted at least one week before the seminar and must clearly state that the seminar represents work performed in partial fulfillment of the PhD degree.
  2. Einstein Graduate Division Research (Julius Marmur) Symposium. If a student is selected as a recipient of a Julius Marmur award, he/she will present at the Symposium and must inform the members of the Examining Committee in writing of the date of the scheduled presentation.

Procedures Following the Thesis Examination.

  1. Decision of the Examining Committee. The chairperson of the Thesis Examining Committee is responsible for filing a Final Examination form with the Einstein Graduate Office. In addition, the chairperson of the Department of Neuroscience and the chairperson of the Neuroscience Graduate Education Committee must be informed in writing of the decision of the Examining Committee.  The possible decisions are: acceptance with minor revision if any, acceptance conditional on substantial revision, and unacceptable.  The student must be informed in writing of the Examining Committee's criticisms if substantial revisions are requested or if the thesis is unacceptable.
  2. Alterations in the Thesis. Alterations in the thesis required by the Examining Committee must be made within a time period designated by the Examining Committee.  All copies of the thesis will be recalled for correction if necessary.  The PhD Final Examination Form will be held by the chairperson of the Thesis Examining Committee until all required alterations have been made. If substantial revisions were requested, then the members of the Thesis Examination Committee must sign the Final Examination form, indicating that all required changes have been made and that the thesis meets with their approval.
  3. Submission of the Thesis to the Graduate School.  It is the responsibility of the candidate to submit the required number of copies of the final, approved thesis to the Graduate School (to be deposited in the library of the Medical School) in black spring-back binders prior to the Graduate School deadline (consult current University calendar for exact deadline).  One copy must be deposited in the Department of Neuroscience office.

Acknowledgment of Research Support.

All publications, theses, reports, etc. resulting from research conducted during the candidate's degree program must include an appropriate acknowledgment of the sources of funding. Examples include research grants to the faculty sponsor, training grants, equipment grants for equipment essential to the research, core facilities, scholarship support provided by the school, and fellowships from external sources.

List of All Current Ph.D. and M.D./Ph.D. Students 

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