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Additional Degree Requirements

Part I exam

The Part I or Preliminary Exam serves two purposes.  First, it is a tool for helping students prepare for the qualifying exam (Part II). Second, it is a mechanism for determining whether a student is qualified to pursue further studies toward completion of a Ph.D. dissertation. This determination involves an evaluation of a student’s potential for independent thought, his or her approach to investigating a significant scientific problem in a sound manner, and his or her general knowledge of neuroscience.  The examination is not an evaluation of the student’s proposed research problem or their supporting preliminary data. For this reason, scheduling the Part I exam is independent of the degree to which the student’s laboratory research has progressed. Students should take the Part I exam during the spring semester of the 2nd year. The exam must be started before April 1st and be completed by June 1st of the summer between years 2 and 3.


The examining committee consists of the student’s advisor plus 2 tenured or tenure-track NGP faculty with expertise in the student’s general area of research. Students submit the names of the proposed faculty to the NGP Director for approval. The NGP Director will assign a chair from the committee members. Please communicate with the NGP Director once you have formed the committee and before you start the reading period of the exam.

Exam format

The student in consultation with his or her advisor selects a minimum of 50 papers relevant to the student’s scientific area of interest to be read by the student over a period of not more than 2 months.  At this time, the student meets with the committee, which will either approve the reading list or suggest further refinements to the scope of the exam.  At the end of the reading period, the student formulates and submits in writing 5 broad hypothesis-driven research questions to their committee based upon the readings. The exam begins when the Committee returns a subset of these questions along with one or more of its own to the student. The student then has 1 week (7 calendar days) to compose written answers to these questions. As a guideline, a thorough answer to each question typically requires 2-4 single spaced pages.

Sample timeline for the Part I (Preliminary) exam:  

  • February 1      The student submits the names of proposed committee members to the NGP Director and begins formulating the reading list.
  • February 10    Initial meeting with Committee to go over the reading list. Approval of the reading list marks the start of the exam reading period.
  • April 10          The student submits his or her written questions to the Committee and a copy to the NGP Director.
  • April 15          After consulting with the committee, the Committee chair provides the student with the final set of exam questions.
  • April 22          The student submits his or her written answers to exam questions.       


At the conclusion of the examination, and no later than 2 weeks after receiving the student’s answers, the Examination Committee will assign a grade of ‘Pass’ (with ranking Excellent, Average or Marginal), ‘Retake’, or ‘Fail’ along with written feedback on the student’s performance. In some cases, a passing grade may be conditional upon a satisfactory revision of one or more answers.  A grade of ‘Retake’ starts the process over and provides the student with one additional chance at passing the Part I exam.  Failing the exam, which requires a unanimous decision by the Examination Committee, is grounds for dismissal from the program.

Part II exam – Thesis Proposal/Qualifying Exam

After passing the Part I Exam, the student is expected to formulate a thesis proposal with the guidance of his/her Thesis Advisor. The written proposal should include the specific aims and overall significance of the proposed research, sufficient background for others to understand the research plan, key preliminary data that support the aims, and a description of the experimental design that will be used to accomplish the stated aims. The thesis proposal must be written and the Qualifying Examination taken BEFORE October 1st of the fifth semester of graduate study (i.e., fall semester in year 3).  Successful completion of the Thesis Proposal/Qualifying Exam advances the student to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree.

Examining committee

The University Council on Graduate Studies has designated rules for the Committee.  The student’s committee must consist of 4 tenured or tenure-track faculty of assistant professor or higher rank and is subject to approval from the NGP Director. 

Neuroscience track

3 of the 4 members are chosen by the student in consultation with their thesis advisor. Of these, 2 MUST be from the NGP faculty list and 1 MUST be from outside of the primary department of the advisor and co-advisor. A holder of a secondary appointment in the advisor’s and co-advisor’s departments may serve as the external chair, provided that his or her primary appointment is in another department. This is true for external committee members as well.  Please notice that faculty members of NGP can serve as external chairs for NGP students as long as the above mentioned stipulations are met. Note that the thesis advisor is NOT a member of the Examining Committee for students in the Neuroscience track, although he or she is expected to attend the closed session as a silent observer. The final fourth member of the Committee will be appointed by the NGP Director from the NGP core faculty and will be a member of the examining committee for the purpose of the thesis proposal only.

NBA track

2 of the 4 committee members MUST have their primary appointment in the Department of Neuroscience. 1 of the 4 members MUST be from outside the Department of Neuroscience’s primary faculty. The 4th member of the committee is the thesis advisor (who must have a primary or secondary appointment in the Department of Neuroscience). For NBA track students, the chair and external committee member have to come from outside the Neuroscience department. Secondary appointments in Neuroscience are acceptable as long as the primary appointment is in another department.

An expert from outside the University of Rochester may be invited to join the Committee as the external member with prior written approval from the NGP Director and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies.

Written proposal

The thesis proposal is to be written in the form of a National Institutes of Health Kirschstein National Research Service Award pre-doctoral fellowship. Detailed instructions can be obtained by following the SF424 (R&R) link on the NRSA webpage:

The proposal is to be written in 11 point or larger font size using Arial, Helvetica, Palatino, or Georgia typeface. It should be written on standard single-spaced pages with 1/2-inch or larger margins on all sides.  A smaller font size may be used for figures, graphs, diagrams, charts, tables, figure legends and footnotes, but it must be in black type, readily legible and follow the typeface requirement. Use English and avoid jargon. The proposal is to be a maximum of 7 pages including any figures and tables, but not including the title page, abstract, and reference list.  If the proposal exceeds 7 pages, it will be returned to the student for revision and will be reconsidered only when it meets the page requirements.

The proposal must be written in the following format:

  1. Title Page: Include a title for the proposal, date and time of the exam, student’s name, advisor’s name, and the names of committee members.
  2. Abstract: State the proposal's broad long-term objectives and specific aims, and describe concisely the experimental design and methods for achieving these goals.  The abstract should be a succinct description of the proposed research, even when separated from the proposal.  This section is not included in the 7-page proposal limit.
  3. Specific Aims: 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.  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. Proposals should generally have two or three separate Specific Aims. Specific Aims are limited to one page.
  4. Research Strategy: Organize the Research Strategy in the specified order using the instructions provided below.  Research Strategy is limited to 6 pages.
    1. Significance
      1. Explain the importance of the problem or critical barrier to progress in the field that the proposed project addresses.
      2. Explain how the proposed project will improve scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice in one or more broad fields.
      3. 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
      1. Describe the overall strategy, methodology, and analyses to be used to accomplish the specific aims of the project, including how the data will be collected, analyzed, and interpreted.
      2. Discuss potential problems, alternative strategies, and benchmarks for success anticipated to achieve the aims.
      3. If the project is in the early stages of development, describe any strategy to establish feasibility, and address the management of any high-risk aspects of the proposed work.
      4. Where appropriate, point out any procedures, situations, or materials that may be hazardous to personnel and precautions to be exercised.
      5. If applicable, include any courses that you plan to take to support the research training experience.

Include key preliminary studies as part of the Research Strategy, incorporating these within the Significance and Approach sections described above. Discuss the pertinence of the preliminary data to the proposal.  If applicable, relevant published results produced by the student may be included as an appendix to the thesis proposal.

  1. References cited: Use the Journal of Neuroscience format.  There is no page limit for this section and this section is not included in the 7-page proposal limit.

The student may consult with others (e.g., his or her advisor, other faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, other students) in preparing the written proposal.  It is recognized that there will be some (even substantial) input by the student's advisor, since the thesis generally reflects research activities in the advisor's laboratory.  However, the actual written proposal is to be the intellectual output of the student, and plagiarism from publications or grant applications written by the advisor or others is not permitted.  When the student has completed the written proposal, the advisor must review it before the oral examination is scheduled.  While the advisor may suggest modifications in the written proposal, all revisions are to be done by the student.


The Thesis Proposal/Qualifying Exam must be taken BEFORE October 1st of the fall semester in the third year of graduate study.10  Any student who has not completed the Qualifying Examination by this date will be placed on academic probation, with this recommendation relayed to the Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs.  The student would then have until the end of the fall semester of their third year, in accordance with the School of Medicine and Dentistry’s registration deadlines and blackout periods, to take their Qualifying Exam.  If the exam is not completed by the last permissible day in the fall semester of the third year, the NGP Director will recommend to the Dean that the student be dismissed from the program.

10. Students with extenuating circumstances may petition the NGP Steering Committee for an extension in writing.  Such petitions must be accompanied by a supporting letter from the advisor and be received by October 1st.

  • At least 4 weeks (20 business days) prior to exam date:  Submit in writing to the NGP Coordinator (i) the date and time agreed upon by your Committee for the public presentation and closed exam, (ii) the names of all Committee members, noting the advisor, and (iii) the title page and abstract from the written proposal.  The NGP Coordinator will schedule rooms for the seminar and exam and prepare necessary paperwork (MS Program of Study and Qualifying Exam Appointment forms), and seminar announcements.
  • At least 4 weeks (15 business days) prior to exam date: The Coordinator will submit paperwork to the Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs, who will then appoint one of the existing Committee members to chair the proceedings.
  • At least 2 weeks (10 business days) prior to the exam date: The written paper MUST be circulated to the Committee and the NGP Coordinator. 

Oral presentation

The student will publicly present the proposal to the Qualifying Exam Committee and Neuroscience Community in an open seminar.  The presentation should last approximately 45 minutes, with a question and answer period to follow.

Examination procedure and grading

The Examination will generally begin immediately after the student’s oral presentation with an initial closed meeting of the Examination Committee to review the student's academic record, research performance, and written proposal.  The Committee will also decide on the general areas of questioning for the oral examination. In rare instances, the Committee may decide (based on the student's background or the quality of the written proposal) that the student is not ready to sit for the examination. In such cases, the Committee will inform the student in writing of the steps necessary to correct any deficiencies. 

The Chair of the Examination Committee will moderate the examination and assure that each participant has adequate time to ask questions.  The Chair is also expected to ask questions.  While the focus of questioning is usually related to the student’s thesis proposal, questions aimed at assessing the student’s general knowledge in Neuroscience are also possible and should be anticipated. Immediately following the oral examination, the Committee will meet in closed session to evaluate the student’s overall performance (considering the oral examination, written proposal, academic record, and laboratory performance). The committee will then vote on the following options: (1) the student passed; (2) the student failed; or (3) the student may pass contingent upon meeting some further requirement set by the Examination Committee (e.g., the student may be required to rewrite the proposal and obtain committee approval of the revised proposal, to successfully repeat the oral examination, and/or to take further course work to remedy some deficiency in her or his background).  A three-fourths majority of the committee is required for passing the exam. All votes will be recorded.

The student and advisor will be verbally informed of the committee’s decision at the conclusion of the closed session.  The Chair of the Examination Committee will notify the Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs in writing that the student has passed, failed, or received a contingent pass of the Qualifying Examination. If the student has passed, the student will earn a Master’s degree and the Associate Dean will advance the student to the status of Candidate for the Ph.D. degree.

If the student receives a pass contingent on meeting some further requirement, the Chair of the Examination Committee will inform the student of this in writing.  A copy of the letter will be placed in the student's program file and a copy will be sent to the Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs.  The student will have 14 calendar days to satisfy the requirement. When the requirement has been satisfied, the student must send written documentation of this to the NGP Director and to the Associate Dean for Graduate Education.

Should a student fail, the Examination Committee must choose between two options:

  1. The student may repeat the qualifying exam. This option and its associated deadlines must be determined in consultation with the advisor, program director and Senior Associate Dean. However, it is recommended that an exam not be scheduled earlier than 5 months or later than 12 months after the first attempt;
  2. The student may be asked to leave the program.  Notice that students who fail the Qualifying Examination may be given a second and final opportunity to pass their exam.  However, under certain circumstances the Committee may decide that a second examination is not warranted.  Such cases require a unanimous decision by the Committee. Examples of circumstances that could void a second examination include:
  • The initial exam was scheduled after October 1st in the third year
  • The student has significant deficiencies in coursework (i.e., one or more “C/E” grades)
  • Performance on the initial exam was so poor that a re-examination is deemed unlikely to yield a favorable result

If the Examining Committee determines that the student should be dismissed from the graduate program, the recommendation for dismissal would be made via a written report to the Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs.  The Dean would review the student's record of coursework, research evaluations, and the outcome of the qualifying examination before rendering a decision to dismiss the student.  The Dean may ask to meet with the student and advisor and, if necessary, consult with the University Dean for Graduate Studies. If the Senior Associate Dean accepts the recommendation to dismiss, the student would be notified in writing.  Information about appealing such decisions can be obtained from the Office of Graduate Education. 

Key dates in progression towards the Ph.D.

  • July 1 before 1st semester - Begin first lab rotation (optional)
  • October 1 of 1st semester - Start of first lab rotation
  • July 1 after 1st year - Declare Ph.D. track and thesis advisor
  • Spring of year 2 - Take Preliminary (Part I) exam
  • June 1 after year 2 - Deadline for completing the Part I exam
  • October 1 fall semester 3rd year - Deadline for the Qualifying (Part II) exam
  • July 1 of each year - Deadline for submitting annual evaluation form
  • 6 mo – 1 yr before defense - Make plans for postdoctoral employment