Obtaining a Ph.D.

Obtaining a PhDStarting into the program

Graduate School Orientation – The Graduate School provides information about the academic community, policies, and resources. All new students should plan to attend.

Neurobiology Program Orientation – All new Neurobiology students meet with Jorg Grandl (DGS), Steve Lisberger (Department Chair), Lindsey Glickfeld (Advising Committee), and Anita Disney (Ombudsperson) for a detailed introduction into the program.

Required Courses




Lab Rotations – September – August.

Students work in 3-4 different labs of faculty within the Neurobiology training program on well-defined research projects. The choice of rotations should be discussed with the DGS. Rotations can vary in length and might be adjusted as needed. At the end of each rotation the student submits a Rotation Report to the DGSA, and the rotation advisor provides a grade. The ultimate goal is to identify a thesis advisor by the end of the year.

Annual Department Retreat – All Neurobiology students are expected to attend.


Bi-annual one-on-one meetings

Meet with Lindsey Glickfeld or Jorg Grandl (Advising Committee) to discuss rotation choices, feedback and progress in program.



Attend a conference, such as Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting. The choice of conference should be discussed with Lindsey Glickfeld or Jorg Grandl (Advising Committee) and financial support with the DGSA.

Required Courses





Formalizing the selection of thesis mentor (by September). Students discuss with their advisors plans for research projects, fellowship applications and conferences. In order to formalize the commitment students submit a Statement of Financial Support to the DGSA.

Constituting a thesis committee (by December). Students and their advisors identify three (or occasionally four) appropriate faculty from the training program, and reach out to ask if they are willing to serve on their committee. In order to formalize the commitment students submit a Committee Approval Form to the DGSA. This formality has to be completed at least 30 days before the preliminary exam, although it is typically done much earlier.

Holding a first committee meeting “Pre-prelim.” All committee-meetings generally follow the same procedure:

  1. The advisor and the committee members meet for 5 minutes to assess the student's progress, identify issues to address, and determine who will address issues and in what order. The student is not present during this time.
  2. The student presents a 15-20 minute summary of the research project, its background and significance, and progress to the entire committee. 
  3. The committee, advisor and student discuss for approximately 1 hour, and advise the student on milestones and a strategy for the next year. In case of the first committee meeting the committee will give specific input on significance, scope, feasibility of the proposed project, and most importantly discuss if student ‘is ready’ to schedule a preliminary exam, or if they advise another meeting.
  4. The student and the committee members meet for 5 minutes to assess the student’s relationship with the advisor.  The advisor is not present during this time.

After the meeting, students submit a Committee Meeting Summary to the DGSA.

Complete the preliminary thesis examination (by May 31). Students submit a 6 page NRSA-style proposal to the thesis committee at least 2 weeks prior to the examination. The proposal does not need to relate to the actual research of the student and does not require preliminary data, but is rather an intellectual exercise to demonstrate the ability to design a research proposal. The preliminary thesis examination follows the general procedure of a regular committee meeting, but in addition students are examined for 1-2 hours in detail about their knowledge related to the specific research area of the proposal and neuroscience in general. The committee then deliberates and secretly votes on the quality of the student’s performance. One negative vote (or two negative votes in case of four committee members) constitute a failure, in which case the exam has to be retaken between three and six months after the first examination date.

After the meeting, students submit a Preliminary Exam Report and the Preliminary Exam Ballots to the DGSA.

Research. Students efforts are fully focused on research progress.

Serving as a Teaching Assistant (TA). The faculty will reach out and ask students to serve as TA in Bootcamp, Concepts of Neurobiology 1 or 2, Neurobiology of Disease, or Journal Club.

Generate an Individual Development Plan (IDP). Students fill out an IDP and discuss it with their advisor in order to develop a long-term strategy towards career success, and submit it to the DGSA.

Hold annual thesis committee meeting. Hold at least one Committee Meeting and submit a Committee Meeting Summary to the DGSA.

Research. Students efforts are fully focused on research progress, and publishing their results.

Hold annual thesis committee meeting. Hold at least one Committee Meeting and submit a Committee Meeting Summary to the DGSA.

Optional commitments

Give Public Presentations. Students discuss with their advisors opportunities to present their research.

Volunteer for Mentoring Students may mentor undergraduate students or early graduate students during well-defined research summer or rotation projects.

Volunteer for Leadership opportunities. Students may volunteer to serve on Department or Graduate School committees in order to develop their leadership skills. For example, students may serve on the Neurobiology Seminar Series Selection committee, or as Student Representatives on the Program Steering Committee. 

Gather Peer-reviewing experience. Students may serve together with their advisors as co-reviewers of manuscripts considered for publication. This provides a close perspective on the peer-review process and will helps developing manuscript writing skills.

Professional Development. Students may participate in a large selection of programs and events the Graduate School hosts to promote academic as well as non-academic careers. 

To receive a doctoral degree, the student must write a cogent doctoral dissertation, present the major findings of this dissertation in a public seminar and satisfactorily defend the dissertation in an oral examination conducted by the thesis committee. The written dissertation includes a scholarly introduction to the scientific questions tackled by the student; experimental chapters that move scientific concept and knowledge forward by answering these questions; and a concluding chapter that discusses the significance of the experimental findings, especially as they relate more broadly to neuroscience. There are no length limits, but most theses are 100-200 pages, formatted to guidelines provided by the Graduate School of Duke University. Thesis examples can be found in the Duke Thesis Archive.

The thesis is a published document, so the student does not need to publish experimental findings prior to the thesis defense. However, timely publication is strongly encouraged and is common in the fast moving field of neuroscience research. Thesis chapters may include published papers or submitted manuscripts. The advisor and student may also consider using the introductory chapter as the framework for a review article.

The thesis defense consists of a 45-minute public seminar delivered at Duke University, followed by a question and answer session with the audience. After the public seminar, the thesis committee conducts a closed-door oral examination lasting 30-90 minutes. Like the preliminary examination, committee members ask questions while the advisor silently observes, unless invited by the chair to pose questions to the candidate. When the committee completes their questioning, the candidate is asked to leave the room while the committee members deliberate and cast votes awarding the doctoral degree. In some cases, the committee may request revisions or slight editing changes to the written document.

It is vital that all students follow the Graduate School’s policies and procedures to ensure that the publication of their research adheres to Duke University Guidelines.