Neuroscience Program

Advancement to Candidacy

All GMU doctoral students must pass a candidacy exam for a successful advancement to Doctoral Candidacy, the last period in their progression towards a doctoral degree. For the Neuroscience Doctoral Program, the advancement to candidacy requires successful completion of the following:

  1. thesis proposal
  2. written exam (=“Neuroscience Qualifying Exam”)
  3. oral exam and proposal defense

Students can schedule and take the Qualifying Exam starting from the spring semester of their 2nd year, and are strongly encouraged to defend their thesis proposal no later than the summer between their 3rd and 4th year.

Prior to the Qualifying Exam, the student needs to accomplish the following:

  1. the proposed dissertation topic has been identified
  2. preparation of the proposal has been in progress and
  3. a committee of four faculty members (advisor plus three others, and at least one from a different department) has been formed

In addition, students are required to submit their final program of study (Form 3) to the graduate programs director when they schedule their exam. Form 3, an update of Form 1, must include:

  1. updated program of study, including graduate courses taken prior and after the admission, and either grades received or planned semester for the course
  2. an area of concentration (e.g., “Cognitive Neuroscience”)
  3. proposed date of exam
  4. the proposed dissertation topic (title)

The form must be signed by the dissertation director (student’s advisor), the committee members and by the Neuroscience program director (Dr. Kim Avrama Blackwell, Director, Neuroscience PhD Program, MSN: 2A1, Phone: (703) 993-4381, Email: avrama at gmu dot edu).

The Qualifying Exam typically is taken before the proposal defense, so that the oral exam can be combined with the proposal defense. If taken afterwards, the student must schedule a separate oral exam with their committee. The Qualifying Exam has a written and an oral component.

  • The written exam is take-home, open book and essay format. It is composed of four parts: Neuroscience Content, Neuroscience Methods, Research Trends, and Specialized Topic. The student will have to answer all four parts, but for each one, will be given a choice of two questions.  Questions will be selected from a database of questions by either the neuroscience faculty (Content and Methods) or the candidates thesis committee (Trends and specialized Topic). The student will have to answer within two pages per question, in proper writing style and accurately referencing the literature, and demonstrating satisfactory ability to integrate, synthesize, and master state-of-the-art neuroscience knowledge. The student has one week of time to complete the exam. Any extensive quote (more than 1 line of text) must be explicitly acknowledged. Plagiarism is ground for failing the exam and dismissal from the degree program.
  • In the oral component of the Qualifying Exam, the student will first give a presentation of the thesis proposal (see below). After the student's presentation, there will be a period of questions from the committee, to include topics from the presentation as well as from the written exam.
  1. The Thesis Proposal should be written in the form of a grant proposal (e.g. NIH pre-doctoral fellowship), and should be given to the thesis committee (along with Form 5) at least two weeks before the oral defense of the proposal. The thesis committee can request revisions of the written proposal before or after the oral defense.  Evaluation of the proposal will be guided by (but not limited to) the proposal rubric.
  2. The oral defense consists of a presentation of the proposal to the committee, followed by a question and answer period, which can cover topics on both the proposal and the written exam.  Evaluation of the oral presentation will be guided by (but not limited to) the oral rubric.

The form Results of Qualifying Exam should be submitted to the graduate programs director after completing both the written and oral portions of the exam. A copy of this form should be provided to the Neuroscience program director.

Formal advancement to candidacy requires passing the qualifier (oral and written components), and acceptance of the proposal, documented by submission of three forms: Dissertation Proposal (Form 5 plus a copy of the proposal), Results of Qualifying Exam and Doctoral Advancement to Candidacy (registrar's form) to the graduate program director. A copy of these forms, along with the completed rubrics, should be provided to the Neuroscience program director.

If research during preparation of the thesis proposal is not satisfactory, Neur-998 can be graded IN, and the faculty may refuse to sign form 5.  Failure to pass the Qualifying Exam within two attempts, or inability to obtain faculty approval of dissertation are grounds for academic dismissal.