Neuroscience at The University of Chicago

The Graduate Program in Neurobiology

Guidelines for the Preliminary Examination

A student may take the preliminary examination after successfully completing the required core courses. Typically, this will be during the second academic year in the quarter following completion of the 5th required quarter and not later than early summer between years 2 and 3. In the event that the last required course must be delayed to the spring quarter of the second year, students may get permission to write the preliminary examination over the 10 weeks it takes to complete the final core course.

The preliminary examination has two parts, a written paper and an oral examination.

Written paper
Topic selection

Each student will be paired with a member of the Preliminary Examination and Student Prizes Committee and will meet with that individual during the quarter before the preliminary examination is scheduled. The topic must be an area of Neurobiology - systems, cellular, or molecular - that is distinct from the student's proposed thesis research topic. Students may choose a topic at a different level from their proposed research (a systems consideration of a topic they propose to explore molecularly) or a topic completely different from their proposed research. Students will write a paragraph describing the question, and this will be approved by the Preliminary Examination and Student Prizes Committee and notification of the option and topic will be sent to the advisor.

Completion of the paper

Student will choose one of two options for completing the written paper:

  1. Option 1: The student will have a period of not more than three weeks in which to prepare a critical review paper on the chosen topic. The paper must be submitted to the Committee on Neurobiology office no later than 5:00 p.m. on the closing date for the exam.
  2. Option 2: If the student would like to take coursework at the same time as writing the preliminary examination, then the full quarter may be used for paper preparation. The paper must be submitted to the Committee on Neurobiology office no later than 5:00 p.m. on Friday of 10th week.

In both options failure to meet the deadline will result in the student giving a public presentation of the preliminary paper.

During the preparation of the paper students are encouraged to seek advice from peers and other trainees, but they are prohibited from discussing the preliminary examination topic with the advisor or other faculty.

Paper organization

The main body of the paper will be limited to twenty pages maximum (double-spaced, a minimum of 12 point font; 1 inch margins), excluding figures, legends, and bibliography. Not more than one-half of the paper should address a review of the topic and the other half proposed experimental approach to furthering the field or resolving controversy. Think of this as a mini-NRSA application. Remember always to number the pages of any paper. A suggested format is as follows:

  1. Introduction and statement of the problem, question, and controversy: The intellectual setting for the hypothesis should be briefly described, and the hypothesis stated clearly and succinctly. Suggested length: 1 double-spaced page.
  2. Literature review: The relevant experimental literature bearing on the hypothesis should be critically reviewed. This should not be an exercise in advocacy; rather the emphasis should be on determining the deficiencies in the experiments that are cited or in the interpretation. Suggested length: 9 double-spaced pages.
  3. Proposal for future research: Summarize your conclusions concerning the current status of the research problem. Suggest future experimental approaches to the problem. Describe the types of experiments that you think should be performed to resolve the issue you have chosen. Suggested length: 10 double-spaced pages.
  4. Bibliography: The bibliography should be selective, not exhaustive. Cite those papers that have made important advances. Your review will be judged on your ability to integrate and evaluate the important works in the field. Reference style should be that of Journal of Neuroscience. No page limit, the references are not subject to the 20-page limit.
  5. Figures: At least one figure should be a summary figure, i.e. the figure integrates the question. This figure will typically be the most useful for the oral defense. Figures and legends do not count towards the 20 page limit.

Paper Evaluation and Oral Examination
Examination Committee

The Examination Committee will consist of three members of the Committee on Neurobiology. Two of these individuals will be from the "core" faculty, which includes the individuals who teach in the required courses, members of the Preliminary Examination and Student Prizes Committee and faculty with significant previous preliminary examination experience. One of the members will be taken from the Committee on Neurobiology at large.

The Oral Examination

Students should contact their Examination Committee chair to discuss specifics of the slides and presentation materials to use, although a common format will be to use the summary figure(s) from the paper since the oral examination will use the paper as a starting point for questions. In general the formal presentation should require no more than 5-6 minutes. Examiners may ask questions on any topic that has been covered by the required coursework. Whenever possible, the oral defense will occur within two weeks of completion of the written paper.

In preparing for the oral examination students in the past have found it useful to participate in a mock oral examination with their peers.


The result of the preliminary examination will be reported as pass or fail, by a unanimous vote of the Examination Committee. A passing grade may be conditional upon the successful completion of additional course work, a revision of the written document, or the preparation of additional material. Students who fail one or both parts of the exam will have one opportunity to pass in the subsequent quarter. This second exam will involve a different Examination Committee. Any student who fails twice will not be allowed to continue in the program. The results of the preliminary exam will be provided to Committee on Neurobiology Chair and the advisor.

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