Revisions of the Oral Preliminary Exam

University of Minnesota

Graduate Program in Neuroscience

Issues we are trying to address:

1) We have a large and diverse graduate faculty. All faculty have not been trained in a Ph.D. program, and we cannot assume that we share expectations in graduate education.

2) The mean time for completion of the Ph.D. in our program is consistent with the national average in neuroscience. We want to decrease the variance on the long side of the mean.

3) Funding for graduate students is an institutional if not national issue. We want to increase the number of students who compete for individual predoctoral fellowships.

How we know that these are issues:

1) The graduate faculty in our program number over 100. They have appointments in 8 colleges and 25 departments that range from Fisheries and Wildlife to Institute of Child Development. Investigators use experimental approaches that range from molecular biology to magnetic resonance imaging. Advanced degrees include Ph.D. and M.D. Diversity is a strength we want to complement with common expectations for excellence.

2) The mean years to completion of the Ph.D. has shortened from 77 months for students who entered in 1987-1991 (the first 5 years of the program) to 65 months for students who entered in 1997-2000. We want to decrease the frequency of students who are still in the program after 6 years.

3) The depth of the applicant pool has increased but we do not have resources to increase the number of graduate students. The program will be strengthened by diversifying funding for its students. Awards of individual predoctoral fellowships has increased from none for students who entered in 1987-1991 to 6 for students who entered in 1997-2000. Given the quality of our training faculty, we think the number of awards can be increased.

Changes were made in the processes surrounding the oral preliminary exam to address these issues

1) Text was added to the student handbook to articulate the purpose of the oral preliminary exam.

2) A grant proposal has been the foundation for the oral preliminary exam. Additional guidance is given for developing and presenting a research proposal.

3) Deadelines are stipulated for completion of elements of the oral preliminary exam (submission of the research proposal, selection of the examining committee, and completion of the exam). The deadlines are common for all students who enrolled in the same academic year and occur earlier. Meetings of the student with the thesis committee (generally the same as the oral preliminary exam committee) increased to twice per year following completion of the exam.

3. The handbook includes links to NIH and NSF fellowship sites and information on deadlines.

Student Handbook
Online version of the handbook for students in the Graduate Program in Neuroscience, University of Minnesota

Why we selected this approach:

Increased structuring of the oral preliminary exam was chosen on the basis of discussions among faculty and students in focus groups led by members of the training sub-committee for the CID partnership, recommendations by the training sub-committee, and discussion by the steering committee of the graduate program.

Earlier deadlines for submission of the research proposal were discussed in detail. Whereas earlier submission of proposals for outside funding would maximize use of external resources, faculty agreed that students will prepare better proposals if they have at least one year with an advisor (students select an advisor at the end of the first year). Furthermore, faculty did not want to mandate a complete NRSA format because NIH is not the universal funding source for the training faculty.

Options that were not chosen:

1) Monetary incentives/punishments were not supported because they were considered inappropriate.

2) Holding a mock study section after proposals were submitted was not supported because of concern about faculty workload and lack of information on a pool of volunteers to support the effort.

Intended effects of the innovation:

1) Students will understand the purpose of the oral preliminary exam better and will prepare better proposals.

2) Common deadlines for submission of the proposal and completion of the exam will facilitate peer support.

3) Earlier deadline for completion of the oral preliminary exam and greater frequency of meetings of students with their thesis committees will facilitate progress in completion of the doctorate.

4) Earlier completion of the oral preliminary exam will decrease tuition cost during the last 2 years.

5) Increased meetings of the thesis committee will enhance interaction of faculty across disciplines.

Evidence that will demonstrate the effect of the changes:

1. Decrease in time to completion of the oral preliminary exam

2. Decrease in time to completion of the Ph.D.

3. Increase in predoctoral fellowship awards

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