Neuroscience Comprehensive Examination Guidelines

The neuroscience comprehensive exam outlined below applies to all students within the neuroscience PhD program, irrespective of home department or concentration.  There are two components to the comprehensive exam: oral and written.  A PhD candidate must complete the written component before proceeding to the oral component.

Examination Component:


Written Component

  • The written component is provided by the Comprehensive Examination Committee and designed to test the candidate’s knowledge of the thesis research area and the general field of neuroscience.  To facilitate flexibility in meeting the needs of specific students, two options are available.

(a) The supervisory committee selects any two of three exams listed below. 

(b) The supervisory committee selects an expanded version of exam #3.

  • Exam #1. A CIHR/NIH/NSF type grant: The candidate must submit a CIHR/NIH/NSF type grant on a topic different from the Ph.D. thesis. All three types of applications are extensive grants, with the page limits being somewhat different for each. The candidate may choose the preferred format and write the grant on the forms appropriate for each agency. The grant will be sent to and reviewed by the student’s supervisory committee. The candidate will be allowed (and is recommended) to seek advice on earlier versions of the grant, much as would be done by faculty colleagues. The type of grant and the topic of the grant will be determined by the supervisory committee. 
  • Exam #2. Course preparation: The candidate will submit a course outline and lecture notes (including slides) for a one semester, lecture based course in Neuroscience. The course could be general neuroscience course similar to NEUR 2600 or NEUR 3600, or a specialty course. Whatever the course that is developed, when handed in to the supervisory committee it should be in a format that could be used for actual teaching the semester after being submitted. The level of the course and the topic of the course will be determined by the supervisory committee.
  • Exam #3. Neuroscience content exam: The supervisory committee determines the areas of Neuroscience to be explored in greater depth by the candidate. Based on that selection of topics, each committee member submits 2-3 pertinent questions of which the student selects one each of the questions from each committee member and writes a review paper similar in length and format to a Trends in Neurosciences paper. The written papers are to be submitted to the supervisory committee. An expanded version of exam #3 would require a minimum of 3 written papers to be submitted to the committee and the oral examination would cover any aspects of the topics selected by the supervisory committee.

Oral Component

  • The Comprehensive Examination Committee will question the student in both the thesis research area as well as the general field of neuroscience.
  • The exam can only be a maximum of 2 hours long.
  • If a grant or course is selected as one of the written components, part of the oral component can test the candidate’s knowledge of the grant or course.

Examination Process

The supervisor recommends, in writing, at least 4 weeks ahead of the suggested exam date, the membership of the comprehensive examination committee. The comprehensive exam will be chaired by a member of the Neuroscience Graduate Education Committee.  Regardless of format or outcome, the chair of the examination committee will provide the student with written feedback on performance. To ensure fairness, it is essential that, irrespective of the options for examination chosen, the expectations for what would constitute a pass be explicitly made clear to the candidate. The supervisory committee will provide a written outline to the candidate of the format of the exam being chosen and their expectations of the student.

The Chair of the Comprehensive Examination Committee passes on the examination results to the Dean of the School of Graduate Studies within 24 hours in cases of a failed exam or within one week if the student passes the exam using the Comprehensive Examination Assessment form. Grading of the comprehensive examination is pass/fail and as noted in previous section, the written component must be assessed and passed before proceeding to the oral component. Students may take the exam up to two times. If they are unsuccessful the second time, then the student must either withdraw from the Ph.D. Program or complete their project as an M.A. or M.Sc. with work already completed counting as part of their time in the M.A. or M.Sc. program.

NOTE: The second examination must take place no sooner than two weeks after the failed attempt and no later than 4 months after the failed attempt.