MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth
Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences


Petition for Ph.D. Candidacy Exam

Examining Committee

Exam Timeline

Oral Exam

M.S. Bypass


Revised 6/1/2017

Neuroscience Program Candidacy Exam

The second year is an important milestone in preparation for a obtaining a doctorate degree in Neuroscience. To advance to candidacy for a Ph.D. degree, you must pass a NEUROSCIENCE PROGRAM candidacy exam consisting of writing and orally defending an original research proposal.  The qualifying exam is designed to test your ability to think as a scientist and the written document is modeled after a fellowship application to the National Institutes of Health. The subject area is open to the diverse breadth of modern Neuroscience and may be either "on-topic" or “off-topic”.  Off-topic is defined as a project that is NOT related to a rotation project, a previous thesis project or ongoing research in their primary mentor’s lab. Importantly, no faculty is allowed to be involved in the choice of or preparation of your research proposal or in helping you prepare for the oral defense. Because the candidacy exam focuses on understanding an area of research, and the breadth of neuroscience training is obtained via didactic information presented primarily in coursework, students must pass (grade of B or better) the required core program coursework prior to taking the candidacy exam. 

Petition for the Ph.D. Candidacy Exam -- Go to the GSBS forms page to obtain the correct form.

Examining Committees

The standing committee for the Candidacy Exam in the Neuroscience Program is composed of faculty representing the tracks of the program. Please note that some requirements that are part of the Neuroscience Program's exam are different from the requirements for other GSBS programs.

The present composition of the committee will include:

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Exam Timeline

The NEUROSCIENCE PROGRAM requires that students take the NEUROSCIENCE PROGRAM candidacy exam in the Spring/Summer of their second year so that it is complete prior to beginning the third year.  If the student will not complete their candidacy exam by the end of their second year they can submit a request for extension stating the reason for the delay.  This extension letter must be signed by the advisor and submitted to the program director for action. Only 2 six-month extensions will be allowed.  If the exam is not completed by the end of their 3rd year the student will default to the track towards a terminal Masters.

Exam Preparation Timetable

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Written Proposal

Prior to the written proposal an abstract must be submitted to the student’s advisory committee for approval. In addition to the abstract the student must provide a statement (one page maximum) justifying how the proposal is “off-topic” (if applicable) and a single page describing their thesis project (abstract and aims).  After the proposal abstract has been accepted by the advisory committee, the student is to submit the signed Petition form (first and last page) along will all abstracts and statements to Amanda.

The written proposal will be based both in content and format on the NIH guidelines for an individual predoctoral fellowship application (NRSA).  The proposal will consist of an abstract (include a title), a single page for specific aims and six pages for the background and significance, and research plan.  Expected outcomes and pitfalls and limitations are an important part of the proposal and should be addressed in the research plan.  The proposal should be appropriately referenced, and the cited literature does not count towards the seven-page limit.  The proposal should be in Ariel font, 11pt, 0.5-inch margins left/right top/bottom, and use J. Neuroscience reference citation format.

The best way to design a successful proposal is to first go to the library and research a field of interest by reading current reviews and the most exciting recent articles (e.g. news articles in Science, Nature, etc.). A computerized search is essential to avoid missing key papers. Read the literature critically. Do not assume that every conclusion stated in a paper that you read is correct. Next outline the key questions in the field. Refine one or more of these questions into a testable hypothesis. Formulation of a good hypothesis is perhaps the most difficult part of research.
While you are not required to produce preliminary data in support of your proposal, you are expected to provide evidence (from the literature) that the approach to be used is feasible.

Further refine the goals of your project by writing a list of specific aims that could be accomplished during a 2-3 year period. Now carefully design a line of controlled experiments that will accomplish your aims and test your hypothesis. Choose the most appropriate methods to address your question. Become thoroughly familiar with the theory behind the methodology and potential artifacts that may be encountered. Be sure that you know how to analyze and quantitate the results of your experiments. Finally consider alternative strategies that can be taken if the results do not meet your expectations.

The complete original as a pdf file is to be submitted electronically to the program coordinator who will send it to the examining committee. In addition, an electronic version in word format is required for Turnitin evaluation (a search engine designed to detect plagiarism) by the GSBS and should only include the text of the proposal (no tables, figures, figure legends and references).

The proposal will be submitted NO LATER THAN 2 WEEKS PRIOR TO THE EXAM. 

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What is “off-topic”?

For students who choose to take an off-topic exam, the topic of each abstract and the main proposal should be different from the student's planned dissertation work.  The goal is to allow the student to devise their own original research plan and to learn about other areas, including areas completely unrelated to their mentor’s scientific objectives.

The central hypothesis and specific aims should NOT:

If an abstract or proposal is deemed by the committee to be “not off-topic” the student will be required to submit another one.  If students have questions about whether a particular idea for a summary is “off-topic” they can ask the Program Director.

The student should prepare the proposal without assistance from any faculty member. However, after you have prepared your first draft, you may seek comments from senior students and/or postdocs. It is suggested that you give them a copy of your proposal to review 2-3 weeks before you plan to submit the proposal.  This will give you enough time to get their comments back, make changes and then, if you wish, ask them to read it again. 

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Oral Exam

After being notified that your abstract is acceptable, you will defend the proposal in an oral exam with the examination committee within 6 weeks.  The program coordinator will schedule this meeting when the petition is submitted. During the exam the student will be expected to make a presentation of about 15-20 min that will consist of an Introduction, Background, Aims, Experimental Plan, and Summary after which the committee will ask questions.

Prepare for the oral exam by thinking of criticisms that external reviewers might raise and decide how to overcome them. Remember the kinds of questions that are asked after rotation talks. These are examples of the types of questions that you may be asked. Be prepared to present the possible outcomes of your experiments and how they may be interpreted. An effective way to organize your summary talk is to introduce a list of specific questions to be answered and then present lines of experimentation that will address each question. It is a good idea (nearly essential) to practice before a group of experienced graduate students. Be sure to review areas of Neuroscience that you will need to know in order to defend your experiments.

Specific Areas you should be prepared to address at your oral defense
§ The existing body of knowledge on the subject of your proposal.
§ Details of the experimental techniques to be used for the proposed research. If a technique is cited in the proposal, you should be able to explain it in detail, and draw a diagram of the expected results.
§ A clear statement of the central hypothesis of the proposal.

§ Likely outcomes of the proposed experiments and their interpretation.
§ Difficulties and limitations of the proposed procedures.
§ Alternative approaches to achieve the specific aims.
§ The biological significance of the project.
§ Relevant details of any literature cited in the proposal.
§ Future directions of the proposed research beyond the specific aims.

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Reserving a Room

You will need to schedule a room for a four-hour block of time for your oral exam.

Grading of Oral Exam

After the question session, your committee will elect to give you one of four possible grades for your oral exam – Unconditional Pass, Conditional Pass, Retake, Fail. Conditional and Unconditional Passes are the most common outcomes. Conditions attached to a Conditional Pass usually involve rewriting part or all of the proposal, writing a literature report on an area of deficiency or enrolling in a course specified by the committee that will benefit the student’s education. In a typical year a few students may be required to retake the exam. These students always perform much better on the second try. However, the retaken exam is graded on a pass/fail basis (see “retaking the exam” above)

M.S. Bypass

Once you successfully pass your candidacy exam, your Examining Committee may recommend that you bypass the M.S. degree. If the committee recommends such a bypass and this recommendation is approved by the Academic Standards Committee, you will proceed directly on to your post-candidacy Ph.D. studies without writing and defending an M.S. thesis. (see the GSBS document 'Requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy Degree" for more information).

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Guidelines for critique of the qualifying exam (for faculty)

At the conclusion of the meeting please provide the Chair of the exam committee with a brief overall evaluation of his/her written proposal. Some points that you may want to include in your summary are listed below. Not every point need be addressed with each student, and you may want to discuss other areas not listed here pertinent to the individual exam. Try to focus on those areas where the student showed real strengths or weaknesses.

  1. Project Aims
    1. Was the hypothesis and/or model to be tested made clear?
    2. Were the basic approaches to be used logical choices?
  2. Background
    1. Was sufficient background given to assure you that the student has a firm grasp of the literature and reasoning behind the proposed project?
  3. Research Design
    1. Is the rationale for undertaking each Specific Aim or set of experiments clearly stated? Does each Specific Aim or set of experiments seem logical?
    2. Are the proposed experiments described sufficiently? Were appropriate controls included? Do you feel that the student understands the methods well enough?
    3. Are expected results stated? Were sufficient reasons given to expect these results?
    4. Are potential pitfalls and alternative approaches stated in a logical way?
  4. Innovation
    1. Do you believe that this proposal was written by the student without plagiarism?
    2. Is this an innovative proposal? Do you think there are new ideas presented or tested, new methods or ways to use existing ones?

Exam Day Guidelines

This is a “closed book” oral exam. During the exam, students will not be allowed to refer to any notes or reference materials. No computers, cell phones or other electronic devices are allowed in the exam room.


The Examining Committee will inform you individually regarding the results of your exam. If you do not pass the exam, you can retake it (see next section).

Retaking the Exam

  1. Students failing the oral exam the first time are allowed to retake the exam only once.
  2. Any students failing the exam will retake it by the end of the Fall semester of the third year.
  3. Students will re-defend the same proposal as previously submitted unless fatal flaws are found in the experiments proposed that necessitate a new selection of experiments.
  4. The retaken exam will be graded on a pass/fail basis. Students failing the retake exam will not advance to candidacy.

Sample Proposals

We recommend that you look at past NIH grant proposals to help you prepare as well as example abstracts and proposals that are stored in the Neuroscience Program Office.

Proposal Writing Tips

A number of grant writing books are available for checkout from the Neuroscience Program office (MSB 7.262).

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The research proposal should include Title, Abstract (350 words or less), Specific Aims, Background and Significance, Research Design and Methods, Predictions and Interpretations, and References as described below:

Evidence of plagiarism is cause for failure and dismissal.

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