Qualifying Exam

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 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 will focus on the student’s proposed thesis work and relevant background material.

Overall, 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.

The written section of the Qualifying Examination in the Department of Neuroscience is somewhat different from that of other departments. Instructions below supersede the instructions found on the Einstein Graduate School website.


The written component of the Neuroscience Qualifying Exam follows the format of a NIH fellowship application. Detailed instructions can be found on the Fellowship Instructions of the SF424 application package found here. (See section F.430 of the Fellowship Instruction document). For the qualifying exam, students must submit the following sections of a F30/F31 NIH fellowship:

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 have 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Following the Graduate School guidelines, the Specific Aims and Research Strategy are due by February 15th of the year in which you take the Qualifying Exam.

Additional sections (These will not be part of your Qualifying Exam):

All eligible students in the Department of Neuroscience are required to submit their qualifying exam proposal (with appropriate edits) as an F30/F31 fellowship, preferably for the April (Cycle I), or latter August (Cycle II) deadline. In preparation for submission, the student is required to submit the Applicant’s Background and Goals for Fellowship Training section of the F30/F31 to the Qualifying Exam Committee no later than TWO weeks before the scheduled Qualifying Exam. Students should note that NIH reviewers evaluate NRSA fellowships for candidate potential as much as (if not more) scientific accomplishment. Therefore, the Applicant's Background and Training Goals section is an essential component of a successful NRSA proposal.

Applicant’s Background and Goals for Fellowship Training (6 pages):

This section contains the personal statement, where applicants indicate their contribution to the project and provide information about their interests and career plans.

  1. Doctoral Dissertation and Research Experience
    Briefly summarize your past research experience, results, and conclusions, and describe how that experience relates to the proposed fellowship. In some cases, a proposed fellowship may build directly on previous research experiences, results, and conclusions. In other situations, past research experiences may lead a candidate to apply for a fellowship in a new or different area of research. Do not list academic courses in this section.
    Applicants with no research experience: Describe any other scientific experiences.
    Advanced graduate students (i.e., those who have or will have completed their comprehensive examinations by the time of award): Include a narrative of your planned doctoral dissertation (may be preliminary).
  2. Training Goals and Objectives
    Describe your overall training goals for the duration of the fellowship and how the proposed fellowship will enable the attainment of these goals.
    Identify the skills, theories, conceptual approaches, etc. to be learned or enhanced during the award.
    Discuss how the proposed research will facilitate your transition to the next career stage, if applicable.
  3. Activities Planned Under this Award
    The activities planned under this award should be individually tailored and well-integrated with your research project.
    Describe, by year, the activities (research, coursework, professional development, clinical activities, etc.) you will be involved in during the proposed award. Estimate the percentage of time to be devoted to each activity. The percentage should total 100 for each year.
    Describe the research skills and techniques that you intend to learn during the award period.
    Provide a timeline detailing the proposed research training, professional development, and clinical activities for the duration of the fellowship award. Detailed timelines of research activities involving animals, human subjects, or clinical trials are requested in other sections of the fellowship application and should not be included here.

Fonts and formatting:

Use Arial, Helvetica, Palatino Linotype, or Georgia typeface, a black font, 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 offered by the Einstein Graduate Program that focuses on the writing of the Qualifying Exam proposal, providing tips in proposal writing. Please note that instructions provided in this class may differ from Neuroscience requirements described above.

Qualifying Exam Committee

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.