Identify potential committee members. Once you know your topic, you and your advisor should produce a list of people you think would be suitable examiners. You will ultimately need three, but your potential list should probably have four or five in descending order of desirability. Your constraints are that the Chair and at least one other examiner must be members of the Program in Neuroscience (an up-to-date alphabetical listing of PIN faculty can be found at: http://www.hms.harvard.edu/dms/neuroscience/Faculty.html).
Get Program approval of your committee. As soon as you have a prioritized list, but before you contact any of the potential examiners, please e-mail the list to either the Program Director (Rosalind Segal, firstname.lastname@example.org) or Associate Director (Rachel Wilson, email@example.com) requesting approval. A one-paragraph description of your research topic will also be helpful in determining suitability of potential examiners.
Contact your examiners. This is best done as a two-step process in which you first e-mail your top three to ask if they would be willing to serve and to inquire about their general availability around the proposed date of your exam. Once you have received consent from three on your list, pick a specific date and time for the exam. An on-line polling service, such as Doodle (www.doodle.com), can facilitate this step.
Get approval of your specific aims. Before you begin to write the detailed research proposal, e-mail a one-page summary of your specific aims to your examiners. The goal here is to get general feedback on the scope of the project and suitability of the aims. Please inform your examiners that you are writing to get their approval prior to writing your proposal. This way they will know that you are expecting a response (which may be as brief as "approved"). At a minimum, this page must be emailed to your examiners three weeks before your PQE date.
Write your proposal. This is the detailed description of your project, including specific aims, background and significance, and research design and methods (10,000 words maximum). Preliminary data are NOT required. A more detailed description is available here. The full proposal must be sent to each of the examiners at least 7 days before the date of the exam. Submitting a proposal that’s too long or too late is unprofessional and will not impress your examiners.
Take your exam. This consists of five people (you, your advisor, and three examiners) meeting in a room for approximately two hours. You should prepare an introduction and overview of your project lasting no more than 25 minutes. The examiners will interrupt with questions during the presentation, so the actual process will take longer. The oral presentation generally takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation, but any format that effectively communicates the main ideas is acceptable, including overheads and writing on a whiteboard. While your written proposal is the main focus of the exam, you are also expected to demonstrate substantial knowledge in the field of the proposal and in related scientific areas. For example, if your proposal was aimed at understanding the information transfer along the pathway from retina to visual cortex in the adult rodent, it would be fair for an examiner to ask you to describe what is known about the development of this pathway.