Oral Exam

By the completion of their second year, students must complete an oral comprehensive exam. 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 preparation of an NRSA and should not exceed 6 pages in length.

The student selects, with the advice of his/her faculty mentor and the approval of the Student Advisory Committee, four IPN faculty members to sit on their committee. If the student uses his/her real NRSA application, then no faculty member involved in the preparation of the proposal can be on the exam committee. The student should chose one member of the committee to act as chair and facilitate the discussions.

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

Both the oral and written parts of the exam must be successfully completed before ascending to candidacy and full-time thesis research. This must happen no later than the end of the second year in the program.

The goals of the oral exam are to evaluate 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. 

[Modified from Pitt's comprehensive exam criteria]


Background and Rationale

  • The student demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of the relevant background information that lead 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).

Forms necessary for the oral exam are available here. More information about specific requirements and expectations is available in the student handbook.