Qualifying Exams

Qualifying exams FAQs

Graduate students are expected to complete their qualifying exam by the beginning of their fifth semester. This means that you typically take your qualifying exams in the summer following your second year of graduate school.

At the end of the spring semester of the second year, you must notify the department’s Academic Services Coordinator (or ASC—currently JeanneMarie Heeb) of your intention to take the qualifying exams. You then complete official paperwork, which requires the signatures of your advisory committee members.

Students who are double majors are allowed to defer their qualifying exams for up to one year. This means that they are expected to complete the qualifying exams by the beginning of their seventh semester, usually taking them in the summer after their third year of graduate school.

Note that this deferral is not automatic. By the end of the spring semester of second year, students who are pursuing a double major who want to defer their qualifying exams must let the department’s ASC know that they plan to do so. At that time, they fill out official paperwork, using the PBS Qualifying Examination Petition Form (see the special section on the form about deferring an exam). The form requires the signatures of the students’ advisory committee members.

Then, by the end of the spring semester of their third year, students must notify the department’s ASC that they intend to take their exams. At this point, they again fill out paperwork, using a new copy of the PBS Qualifying Examination Petition Form. The form again requires the signatures of the students’ advisory committee members.

On rare occasions, other students (besides double majors) may seek permission to defer qualifying exams for up to one year, completing them before the beginning of the seventh semester. Their advisory committee must approve this plan. The advisor must notify the director of graduate studies, stating the reason for the deferral in writing (note that an email from the advisor is acceptable). 

In addition, by the end of the spring semester of the second year, students with such approval for deferral must notify the department’s ASC of their intention to defer their quals. They must fill out official paperwork to do so, using the PBS Qualifying Examination Petition Form, and obtaining the signatures of their advisory committee members.

When planning to take the qualifying exams (by the end of the spring semester of their third year at the latest), students must again notify the department’s ASC of their intention, filling out a new copy of the PBS Qualifying Examination Petition form. Again, the form requires the signatures of the students’ advisory committee members.

Qualifying exams consist of both a written and an oral examination. The written examination must be completed before the start of the fall semester. The oral examination must be completed by the end of the third week of classes in the fall semester. 

Faculty on the student’s qualifying exam committee must complete and sign the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences Qualifying Examination Results Form and return it to the ASC. The qualifying exam is not considered completed until this form is completed and returned. Students should print this form out and bring it with them to their oral defense.

As discussed below, the committee must present their recommendations regarding the outcome of the student’s qualifying exams (i.e., pass or fail) to the department faculty. This is typically done at a faculty meeting, usually held in approximately the fourth week of the fall semester.

Students with a single major must have three faculty members on their qualifying exam committee. These include two faculty from their major area and one from their minor area.

Students with a double major must have four faculty members on their qualifying exam committee. These include two faculty from one major area and two faculty from the second major area.

Note that the student’s advisory committee members are typically asked to serve as the qualifying exam committee members. Occasionally students find that their evolving research interests lead them to want to change their committee membership. If that is the case, the student will need to change the advisory committee. This is an online procedure.

Students planning to take qualifying exams in the summer are strongly urged to meet with their faculty advisor early in the spring semester of the year in which they will complete their exams. The faculty advisor usually serves as the your qualifying exam committee chair.

You and your advisor should first review the qualifying exam procedures. You should also discuss the membership of the student’s qualifying exam committee.

Later in the spring semester you should meet with the committee to plan the exam. This is when you get or formulate the questions to be addressed and develop reading lists. You should consult your committee members, as needed, throughout the entire qualifying exam procedure.

As noted above, department policy specifies that the qualifying exam must include both a written and an oral portion. Theoretically, how those portions of the exam are conducted is determined on an individualized basis, with each committee deciding on the procedures for the qualifying exams for each particular student.

In reality, most areas in the department have traditional procedures for conducting the qualifying exams in that area, and most qualifying exams conducted with students in that area follow those traditions. Each area has developed its own qualifying exam procedures based on the educational needs of students in that area and the area faculty’s conviction about what constitutes the best learning process in that area. These traditions are, however, quite variable across areas. As a result, students in different areas may follow very different qualifying exam procedures.

A student within an area traditionally follows the usual quals procedures for that area. Students who are double majors must meet with their committee members and make sure they understand which area’s traditions (or which mix of the two areas’ traditional procedures) will be used in their particular qualifying exams.

A student may petition their qualifying exam committee, asking for an individualized format for their qualifying exam. It will be up to the student’s committee to decide if an individualized format best serves the educational needs of that student and, if so, what procedures will be used for that particular exam.

You should keep in mind that faculty in each area developed qualifying exam procedures that they believe are best for most students in their area. For that reason, many faculty will prefer that you follow the traditional qualifying exam procedures for their area rather, than petition to design an individualized qualifying exam procedure.

Clinical: Most students in the clinical area write three papers for the written portion of their qualifying exam. Each paper averages 33 pages, for a total of approximately 100 pages across the three papers. The topic, focus, and content of the three papers are decided in consultation with the student’s qualifying exam committee.

The first paper is usually due on June 15. The committee members read the paper and, within 1-2 weeks the committee chair combines and summarizes their feedback and orally gives the student general feedback about the paper (e.g., ways in which the paper could be improved), thus providing the student with the opportunity to correct their direction in their later two papers. The second paper is usually due July 15th. No feedback is provided on it during the summer. The third paper is usually due August 15th. The committee reads all three papers and schedules an oral exam with the student.

The oral exam usually lasts approximately 1.5 hours, although it can be shorter or longer. The oral exam consists of the committee asking the student questions about the papers and the topics the papers cover. Sometimes students begin with a summary of their papers and/or a discussion of weaknesses or issues that need more elaboration from the papers.


Cognitive: By tradition, in cognitive area qualifying exams, each committee member writes one question for the student to address in a paper (i.e., usually 3 questions for a single major and 4 papers for a double major). Usually the number of papers is the same as the number of committee members, although the number of papers can be changed by the committee if deemed appropriate for the student.

There is no set page limit for each paper, although the tradition is approximately 20 pages per paper for a total of 60 – 80 pages; again, this is decided by the student’s committee. Some faculty are involved in helping the student put together a reading list for each question; some are not. Some faculty are willing to provide feedback on paper drafts; some are not. Usually, all of the questions are designed by the beginning of summer and all of the papers are turned in by the end of summer.

The oral exam is variable in length, averaging 1 – 1.5 hours. The oral exam gives you a chance to elaborate on the papers and address any issues or problems. 


Cognitive Neuroscience:  Students in Cognitive neuroscience typically writes 3 papers for a total of approximately 100 pages (an average of 33 pages each). They also generate the 3 questions (1 per paper) with input from their committee members, and draw up a reading list for each question with feedback from their committee. The papers are written and handed in without feedback from the committee. The due date for the written papers is 12 weeks after the questions are submitted to the committee.

The oral exam usually lasts 2 hours and begins with a discussion of the 3 papers and related topics.


Developmental: Most students majoring in developmental psychology write papers addressing 3 questions. The 3 papers usually total approximately 100 pages. (Note that if you have a double major, you will have 4 committee members and will therefore answer 4 questions.)

The questions and reading lists are developed by the student, in consultation with the committee members. All committee members approve all of the questions, focusing on such criteria as scope, depth, and focus. Questions often are formulated so that each paper addresses the expertise of a particular committee member. Questions are usually presented as paragraphs which set forth a substantial issue in the literature and a proposed segment of that issue that will be addressed by the student. Questions should be in final form and approved by the committee by mid- to late May. Papers are due before the start of the fall semester. Only final papers, not earlier drafts, are accepted and read by the committee.

The oral exam is usually 1.5 – 2 hours in length. Questions can be about anything relevant to the papers. Any committee member can ask a question at any point in the oral exam.


Social: By tradition, most students in the social area complete a standard sit down exam, answering written exams questions. They do so in the last few weeks of the summer, during set days and times. The current procedure is for students to write answers to 3 questions per day, for 2 days (4 hours per day, for a total of 6 questions). The questions are designed to cover the content of the four social area core courses. The student must contact the ACS as soon as possible (and at least 2 weeks before the planned exam dates) to allow time for arrangements to be made (e.g., use of the computer lab, finding an exam proctor).

The oral exam usually lasts 1-2 hours, averaging 1.5 hours. It is a defense of the student’s exam answers. The committee often begins by asking you to discuss any answers you would like to modify, expand upon, revise, or correct.


Other, related programs: Please note that PBS does not track students’ progress in their second, non-PBS major. Thus, students with double majors outside the department should check directly with those programs about how they conduct their qualifying exams. In addition, students should talk to their advisory committee regarding how to take a combined qualifying exam in that program and PBS. However, as many PBS students choose a second major in the Program of Neuroscience (PNS) or the Cognitive Science Program (CS), we are outlining the current traditions for double majors in these two programs.

Program in Neuroscience: Students who double major in PBS and PNS have 4 qualifying exam committee members (2 represent PNS and 2 represent PBS). The committee decides on the qualifying exam procedures, but typically, each committee member, in consultation with the student and other committee members, writes a question (total of 4 questions). The aim is to ensure that students not only gain depth in their chosen area, but also develop breadth across the field. Answers are expected to be approximately 25 pages each (total of 100 pages). An oral exam follows, usually following the format of the BBN oral exam.

Cognitive Science: Students who double major in PBS and CogSci have 4 qualifying exam committee members (2 represent CogSci and 2 represent PBS). The committee must decide how to combine the traditions of PBS and CogSci into one written exam process for the student. Within the Program of Cognitive Science, two written exam traditions are available to students. The first written exam possibility is the “conventional written exam”, in which each committee member writes one or two questions and the student has two days (four hours per day) to answer the questions, using any resources s/he wishes to bring to the exam room. The second written exam possibility is “papers”, in which the student and committee select topics for at least 3 papers. An oral exam follows either form of written exam.


Evaluation/Outcome:  Rating Criteria and Overall Recommended Outcome: The department is currently using a new method of more formally rating a student’s qualifying exam performance on the following five criteria:

  1. Scholarship (e.g., knowledge of the field, appropriate citation of relevant works, able to attribute ideas to appropriate sources, able to use references to illustrate a point)
  2. Analytic, synthetic, and integrative thinking (e.g., goes beyond simply listing studies in an area; combines them to generate new integrative directions; critiques studies, understanding their ambiguities and limitations; differentiates between what is actually demonstrated by a study and what the author may have claimed)
  3. Understanding of fundamental methodological issues (e.g., aware of strengths and limitations of particular methods; sensitive to limitations in conclusions that can be drawn; able to suggest suitable methodological approaches to answer important questions)
  4. Understanding of fundamental theoretical issues (e.g., aware of relevant bodies of theory; use theories to generate predictions or research hypotheses for specific situations; understand degree of research support for existing theories)
  5. Ability to communicate clearly and effectively (written and oral)

Under the current piloting, the committee members provide exceptional/pass/fail ratings for each of these 5 criteria and may also give an overall summary evaluation (across all areas); areas are not necessarily evenly weighted by committee members or the full committee. Ratings and feedback from each committee member are compiled by the committee chair. Ratings of exceptional are rarely given. Ratings of fail require a brief written explanation. These criteria are given to the department Academic Services Coordinator, along with the general qualifying exams outcome sheet. A summary of the committee’s evaluation, but not the ratings made by individual committee, can be shared with the student. This more formal evaluation process is still being developed and may change in the future.

In addition, the committee makes an overall recommendation, to the department faculty, regarding whether the student has passed or failed (or passed with commendation) the qualifying exam.

Faculty vote on committee’s recommended outcome: The faculty qualifying committee for each student must be ready to present their recommendation regarding the results of the student’s qualifying exam to the full department faculty, usually at a faculty meeting held during approximately the fourth week of the fall semester. The committee’s recommendation regarding the outcome of a student’s exam (e.g., pass or fail) is not official until the full faculty votes to accept that committee’s recommendation. This outcome is recorded in the minutes of the faculty meeting and in a letter, written by the Director of Graduate Studies and/or the ASC, to the student. A copy of the letter is placed in the student’s academic file.

Students may pass or fail the qualifying exams. In exceptional cases, a committee may recommend that a student be passed with commendation. There is no “provisional” pass or fail.

If a student fails the qualifying exams (as recommended by the committee and voted upon by the department faculty), the committee sets the required work required for the student to retake the exam. The required work can be variable and may involve retaking the entire qualifying exam or less extensive work (e.g., re-write one paper; have another oral exam).

The work must be completed and the committee must make a recommendation for the outcome of the second qualifying exam (pass or fail) to the full department faculty by the end of the fall semester. In other words, after failing the qualifying exam, students have most of the fall semester to retake it. If a student fails the qualifying exam for a second time, they are automatically dismissed from the program.

If you would like more information regarding the department’s qualifying exams, you should contact the ASC (currently JeanneMarie Heeb), the director of graduate studies (currently Dr. Jason Gold), and/or your faculty advisor.