Comprehensive Exams

The purpose of the comprehensive examinations is to evaluate students on their basic knowledge of neuroscience and their analytic and synthetic abilities in critically reading scientific literature, formulating testable hypotheses, and designing experimental strategies.

The comprehensive exam includes two components, a written exam and an oral exam. Students must pass both examinations before advancing to doctoral candidacy and beginning full-time thesis research. The ascension to candidacy must occur on no later than the beginning of year three in the program, July 1st.

Comprehensive Exam Schedule
Written Exam: Spring of Year 1
Oral Exam: By End of Year 2

More information about specific requirements and expectations of the comprehensive exams can be found in the student handbook.

This essay-based examination covers a variety of topics in neuroscience (e.g., molecular, cellular, developmental, neuroanatomical, physiological, behavioral, cognitive, and clinical), and requires students to have a firm grasp of basic factual information while applying analytic and synthetic skills necessary for a career in science.

The core courses in neuroscience serve as the sources of background information for the examination. The modules in the neuroscience core courses are reflected in the questions on the examination.

Students must maintain a 3.0 average or successfully and satisfactorily complete their rotations satisfactorily in order to take the exam.

The written exam evaluates the student’s ability to:

  • Demonstrate a breadth of knowledge of neuroscience
  • Demonstrate the communication skills required to present and explain scientific ideas in written format
  • Synthesize, analyze, and present information taught in the core courses in neuroscience

The exam focuses on an area of neuroscience relevant to the student’s thesis research, and tests the student’s ability to reason and analyze experimental questions “on his/her feet.” The oral exam requires the preparation and oral defense of a written grant application. The proposal should follow the guidelines for the preparation of an NRSA and should not exceed 6 pages in length. Please see the Student Handbook for more information.

The exam is an oral defense of the proposal. Their exam committee will ask about the background, rationale, experimental design, experimental protocols, interpretation of potential results, alternative approaches, and statistical analyses relevant to the proposal. Each committee member usually takes about 20 minutes to ask questions related to the proposal. They may ask as many questions as they feel are necessary, but the total time rarely exceeds three hours.

The oral exam evaluates the student’s ability to:

  • Compile, evaluate, and critique a body of neuroscience literature
  • Integrate the acquired information into broad conceptual schemes
  • Develop testable hypotheses and devise experiments to evaluate them
  • Consider what data will be collected, and how those data would be analyzed statistically
  • Understand the scientific methodology chosen and its limitations
  • Demonstrate the communication skills required to present and defend scientific ideas in oral and written formats

Exam Committee Members Qualifications

  • The student selects four faculty members to sit on their exam committee
  • The committee should include three IPN Faculty and the fourth can be an IPN faculty or another faculty from Georgetown University
  • The student should choose one member of the committee to act as chair and facilitate the discussions
  • The faculty mentor and any faculty member involved in the preparation of that proposal cannot be on the exam committee; the mentor is encouraged to attend the exam
  • The selection process should include consultation of his/her faculty mentor and the approval of the Student Advisory Committee

Contact the program coordinator with the date of your oral exam and the program coordinator will prepare and deliver a form to your oral exam committee for completion and submission.

Background and Rationale

The student demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of the relevant background information that leads to the proposed experiments. The student clearly explains why the proposed experiments follow logically from previous work in the field. The student explains the significance of the work, and how scientific knowledge will be furthered by the completion of the proposed work. The student conveys the innovative aspects of the work.

Experimental Design

The student clearly explains the methodological procedures required for the completion of the proposed experiments. The student explains why those methods were chosen to answer the specific aims (i.e., why a particular dose, behavioral paradigm, assay, etc.). The student understands the methods used and what the data collected will look like. The student explains what controls were chosen and why. Emphasis will be placed on Experimental Design.

Interpretation, Alternative Approaches, Pitfalls, Follow-Ups

The student demonstrates logical reasoning and critical thinking. The student is able to discuss what both positive and negative outcomes mean. The student anticipates potential pitfalls that may arise and explain how he or she plans on handling them. The student explains other approaches that could be used to investigate the proposed aims (e.g., if the proposed experiments do not go as planned). The student explains potential follow up experiments for the different outcomes.

Statistical Analyses

The planned statistical analyses are appropriate. The student can explain why he or she chose these analyses and discuss alternative approaches (if appropriate).


The student demonstrates strong communication skills (clarity, precision, completeness, professionalism).