Ph.D. in Psychology: Behavioral and cognitive neuroscience exam and requirements

Master's thesis, qualifying exam and Ph.D. requirements

The master's thesis, qualifying exam (Major Area Paper, MAP), and Ph.D. dissertation encompasses the three major products across most doctoral programs. It is crucial that you complete these in a timely manner (see program milestones). Specific attention should be given to the master's thesis and MAP as delays on one of these will lead to delays on your remaining milestones. Below are some general guidelines that apply to all three of these milestone projects.

Communication with your committee

As you progress through the program, you are expected to show increasing independence. However, you will benefit from seeking the input of your advisor and your committee members, who are there to give you helpful suggestions as you conceptualize and analyze your work. Meet not only with your advisor, but also with your committee members to talk about your thesis, MAP outline, and dissertation ideas and to periodically update them on the collection and analyses of your thesis and dissertation data.

If you have a documented disability, it is your responsibility to seek accommodations from SDS and to present your adviser and committee members with the paperwork for any accommodations related to your thesis, MAP, or dissertation prior to beginning the milestone(s) for which accommodations apply. For more information visit:

I. Master's thesis or equivalency project

Students may elect the M.A. thesis option or the master's equivalency option. View requirements for completion of the master's degree.

If the student elects the M.A. thesis option, the student should begin to prepare for the preliminary defense of their M.A. thesis proposal, following these:

  1. The student should form an M.A. thesis committee as soon as possible (ideally by end of 1st year). This committee must consist of three psychology faculty members, who must have graduate faculty status.
  2. The student should prepare and present the M.A. thesis proposal to the committee. The introduction and method sections of the M.A. proposal should be sent to the committee at least two weeks before the scheduled presentation date. During the oral proposal defense, the student is expected to present their research significance, rationale and methodology for their project as well as address questions and comments from the committee. Successful completion of the MA thesis proposal oral examination is required to conduct the M.A. thesis. The Master's Thesis: Outline and Record of Approval form should be prepared in advance of the meeting. If all members of the committee indicate approval at the proposal meeting, the adviser signs the form. The student must then submit this form and the AIC/HIC approval form(s) (if required), to the psychology graduate advisor.
  3. After the approval, the student may start the proposed research.
  4. After completion of the M.A. research data collection, the student will draft their master's thesis manuscript. This may require amending their proposal section (if necessary) as well as adding the results and discussion. The student should submit the final draft of the written thesis to the committee's review at least two weeks in advance of the scheduled defense date for review by the committee. A student needs to pass the master's thesis defense before they are eligible to register for the second, third, and fourth doctoral dissertation research credits (PSY 7992-7994). The student is encouraged to submit their master's thesis for publication with their supervisor.

II. Major Area Paper (MAP) (qualifying examination)

The aim of the qualifying examination is an evaluation of student's knowledge of major theories and cumulative research in their chosen field of specialization. This goal is fulfilled by writing a Major Area Paper (MAP), a comprehensive review narrative or quantitative (i.e., a meta-analysis) comparable in level of sophistication and detail to published reviews in the selected area of interest. If the student chooses to do a meta-analysis, it cannot be the same paper as that done for the meta-analysis course. Through MAP, the students are expected to demonstrate their ability to organize, integrate, critique, and synthesize theoretical and empirical information and to provide their own insights into the shortcomings and future directions of the field. Ideally, the MAP may serve as the basis of the introduction to a dissertation proposal.

To take the written qualifying exam (MAP), students MUST first have completed the following:

  1. Successfully defended the master's thesis or complete the master's equivalency project before the qualifying exam sign-up date (i.e., the start of the 12 week writing period).
  2. Successfully completed all required major coursework (core courses).
  3. Have an approved Ph.D. plan of work on file with the Graduate School.

The qualifying examination will consist of two components:

  1. A Major Area Paper (MAP) prepared as described above.
  2. An oral defense of the MAP.

The MAP is submitted in standard APA format and should have the general character of a major review paper. The MAP should review some of the history and significance of the topic, indicate its methodological problems and issues, and describe and evaluate the thrust of current research in the area.

Important: The level of work expected for this paper is peer-reviewed publication quality. Students will be strongly encouraged to submit their work for publication and should write their MAP with two or three target publications in mind.

Though there is no page minimum or limit, as a reference, a standard review article is often between 8000 to 10000 words or 32 to 40 double-spaced pages (not including references). Students should strive to complete the examination by September 1 of the fourth year.

The written portion and formal presentation (oral defense) of the MAP should be completed within 12 months from the date of the defense of the master's thesis or equivalency project. For students transferring to Wayne State with a master's degree, the written portion and formal presentation of the MAP should be completed within 24 months from the date of admission.

  • A. Detailed procedures
    1. The student's advisor will be the chair of the MAP committee.
    2. As soon as possible after defending the Master's thesis, the student will initiate a meeting with the advisor to discuss the topic of the MAP and to come to an agreement concerning the scope of the paper and the MAP committee members. At this point, the student should confer with each committee member (ideally, in person) to let them know the topic and scope of the MAP and to verify that the projected timeline for the outline and writing phase is acceptable. This is especially important if their input is needed during the summer or over a break.
    3. Upon gaining the advisor's approval of the MAP topic and conferring with the committee members about the topic and projected timeline for the outline and writing phase, the student will develop a 300-word summary, an outline of the proposal and an initial list of references pertaining to the proposal. The reference list can be updated in the process of MAP execution. The outline should demonstrate the feasibility of integrating the extant findings and major theories in the field covered by the MAP. The outline is not viewed as an annotated bibliography.
    4. The MAP committee will be composed of at least three readers, including the student's advisor and two additional faculty. It is required that one outside reader (i.e., from a different area, department, or university) be included on the MAP committee. If the outside reader is from another university, their credentials must be approved by the graduate office for conferring graduate faculty status. The student, in consultation with the advisor, will submit to the BCN Area Chair the names of the readers that accepted the invitation to join the MAP committee.
    5. After forming the committee, the student will schedule a meeting with the committee members to present them with the 300-word summary, detailed outline of the proposal, and reference list and to obtain their initial input. The 300-word summary, detailed outline (single-spaced), and reference list should be emailed to all committee members at least four days prior to the meeting. Note that there will often need to be a second meeting with the committee when major changes/additions are needed to the outline. The role of the committee is not just to evaluate the student's work but to provide helpful feedback and suggestions during the outline development phase. During the initial formulation of the MAP scope and outline, the student will discuss appropriate outlets for publication with the Advisor and committee members.
    6. Based on feedback from the committee, the student will submit electronically the revised/updated materials (300-word summary, detailed outline, and reference list) to the committee members, who must approve in writing (e.g., email) of the summary and the outline. Committee members should email their approval to the Psychology Graduate Office ( and the chair of the BCN area must be notified. After approval of the MAP proposal, the student will have 12 weeks to complete writing the paper. The final abstract may be somewhat different from that originally approved one, but significant changes of the theme and directions of the MAP must be approved by the committee members.
    7. Students must submit their completed MAP electronically to the committee members and the Psychology Graduate Office ( no later than 5 p.m. on the due date. Failure to meet the deadline will result in a failing grade. No extensions to this deadline are allowed.
    8. The advisor and committee can assist the student in identifying the relevant literature and in giving suggestions on points to add to the detailed outline of the MAP. However, once the outline is approved, the student is not allowed to have any further assistance in completing the MAP. It is understood that writing of the MAP and the critical analysis within the MAP are the work of the student. Getting any type of assistance in completing the MAP will be considered academic dishonesty (cheating) with the appropriate consequences (see policy for academic misconduct).
    9. Committee members/readers will submit a 'Pass/Fail' grade only to the Graduate Student Officer within two weeks of receiving the written portion of the MAP on the scheduled due date. The majority of readers must score the MAP with a 'pass' for it to be approved. In a case where there is no consensus the BCN area chair will assign an additional reader who will submit a 'pass/fail' grade to the graduate student officer within two weeks of receiving the MAP. Failure in the written portion of the MAP will lead to remediation steps (see below). Committee members/readers are encouraged to provide feedback on the written portion directly to the student shortly after the graduate advisor informed them of the 'pass/fail' scoring of the written portion of the MAP.
    10. Upon approval of the written portion of the MAP, the student will schedule the oral component of the examination in which the MAP will be presented and discussed. The oral defense of the MAP should be conducted within 30 days of passing the written MAP requirement, or on the first available date if a mutually agreed upon date is not feasible within that time. The BCN area chair or another BCN faculty member not on the student's MAP committee will serve as a non-voting moderator of the presentation and discussion. The moderator may ask the student questions but only after the committee members have deliberated and made their decision about whether the student has passed the exam.
    11. Immediately following the oral presentation, MAP committee members will vote on acceptance. A student may be passed in the formal presentation if there is not more than one negative vote. The student's advisor will submit the grade to the graduate advisor within 24 hours of the oral presentation. Failure of the formal presentation will lead to the remediation of this portion of the examination only (see below).
    12. Upon successful defense of the MAP, the student is encouraged to present their work at a "Brown Bag" seminar the following semester and with the help of their advisor to prepare the MAP for submission as a review article.
  • B. Evaluation criteria
    1. While there is no preset BCN area page length (the student's MAP committee may impose one prior to the 12 week writing period), the paper must conform to the following requirements: text should be double-spaced, in standard 12-point font with one-inch margins, and follow APA style.
    2. The MAP should clearly state the motivation and purpose of the review or meta-analysis within the first two pages. Moreover, the MAP should state how this review/meta-analysis differs from similar or prior reviews on the topic.
    3. The MAP should contain a thorough review and integration of the relevant literature(s) and/or a meta-analysis.
    4. The MAP should contain critical analyses that identify the shortcomings or weaknesses in the current literature and/or suggest steps towards alleviation of the discussed shortcomings as indicated by the current literature.
    5. The MAP should demonstrate a thorough understanding of the fundamental principles of psychology and other relevant disciplines (e.g., neurobiology, psychopharmacology, neuroanatomy, and cognitive neuroscience) pertinent to the MAP.
    6. The MAP should contain proposals for experiments and/or theoretical formulations that address shortcomings in the current literature, and/or advance understanding based on the current literature.
    7. Writing competency in the execution of the MAP is of paramount importance, and style, as well as the logic of the paper, will be evaluated by the committee. The level of writing and reasoning should be consistent with the standards of the leading journals in the areas covered.
    8. The paper must reflect a high level of mastery of the central theoretical concepts of the topic.
    9. The paper must reflect a high level of mastery of the key methodological issues central to the student's chosen topic. It is important to take the quality of existing research into account when discussing past research.
    10. It is not sufficient to simply summarize existing research. The student must integrate, critically evaluate, and synthesize the different theoretical perspectives and articulate conclusions that demonstrate an excellent understanding of the student's chosen topic. The detailed outline should have demonstrated some of this integration.
    11. The oral presentation will be approximately 30 minutes. The presentation should demonstrate the mastery of the central concepts of the student's chosen topic and consist of a summary of the written portion of the MAP. This should consider past research (and data), articulation of conclusions from this data, as well as proposals for experiments and/or theoretical formulations that address shortcomings in the current literature and/or logically advance understanding based on the current literature.
  • C. Re-examination

    Should re-examination of the written presentation portions of the MAP be necessary, the MAP committee chair (i.e., student advisor) will collect summary statements from each of the MAP Readers (or committee members in case of failure of the MAP formal presentation) and create an executive summary of the MAP weaknesses within two weeks of the written or oral presentation portions of the examination. A typical "revise and resubmit" editorial action letter from a grant study section or peer-reviewed journal should serve as a model for such a summary. The summary statement will be given to the student and distributed to the MAP committee members.

    Procedures and regulations will follow those prescribed by the Wayne State University Graduate School and can be found in the current version of the Graduate Bulletin. Relevant current information is provided below:

    "If the written component of the qualifying examination is not completed successfully at the first administration, the examination may be repeated only once. A second examination may not be held until at least one semester has elapsed, but must be held within one calendar year following the first examination. The same examining committee must preside over both examinations. The second written examination will be considered final."

III. Dissertation proposal

After passing the qualifying examination (Major Area Paper) the student should begin to prepare for the preliminary defense of their dissertation proposal, following the steps outlined below. The student should also familiarize him/herself with all the guidelines of the WSU Graduate School and the Department of Psychology Ph.D. program.

  1. The student should form a dissertation committee as soon as possible. This committee must consist of three psychology faculty members and one extra-departmental faculty member. All committee members must have graduate faculty status. This committee can be the same as the MAP committee.
  2. The student should prepare and present the dissertation proposal for approval by their committee. Upon approval, the committee will sign the Doctoral Dissertation: Prospectus and Record of Approval and the Conflict of Interest form, which should be prepared in advance of the meeting. At the meeting, all members of the committee must sign this form indicating approval. The student must then submit this form along with the AIC/HIC approval form(s) (if required) and a hardcopy of the proposal manuscript to the psychology graduate advisor.
  3. The student should meet with his or her committee at least once a year to discuss the progress of the dissertation. This can be an informal meeting or include a presentation with updates. The committee will then provide feedback to the student to make sure the dissertation is progressing successfully.
  4. Dissertation completion: View psychology Ph.D. guidelines.

Mentoring Committee

The purpose of the Mentoring Committee, which is comprised of your advisor and two other psychology department faculty members, is to help you complete the program successfully and to prepare you for your professional career. You meet with the committee annually (usually during the winter semester) to discuss your progress. Your committee will provide advice and approve your planned coursework. As you progress through the program, they can also provide advice regarding who should serve on your master's thesis and dissertation committees, as well as career options.

How to select members

As noted above, your advisor should always be a member. At least one of the other members should also be from the area. Depending on your research interests and planned minor, you may want to choose the third member from another area of the department.

You should discuss your Mentoring Committee member choices with your advisor prior to approaching them, as your advisor may have useful suggestions. Members of your committee do not all have to share your research interests. You might select someone whose course you really enjoyed, someone with skills and experiences that complement those of your primary advisor (e.g., knowledge of a specific substantive topic, methodological or statistical skills), and/or someone with whom you feel comfortable talking and using as a sounding board for advice. Take the time to talk to several different faculty members before you decide. Once you have decided on your committee, you need to complete a brief form. This form can be obtained from the graduate academic service officer. Each committee member needs to sign it before you return a copy to the graduate academic service officer advisor by March 1 of your first year in the program.


Your first meeting should occur before classes end in April. It is your responsibility to schedule this meeting, which means you send emails to faculty members several weeks in advance, find a time that works for everyone (which may take several rounds of emails), provide each faculty member with a copy of your CV, and schedule a room (through the front office). Please note that you also have this responsibility for scheduling master's and dissertation proposal and defense meetings.

At this first meeting, you should discuss your master's plan of work, your research, and career goals so that your committee members get to know you. When you meet with them in your second year, you should discuss the courses you chose for your Ph.D. plan of work as well as your progress in the program. The members of your Mentoring Committee may comprise your master's thesis committee but this is not required. Each year's meeting should be used to discuss your progress and answer any questions you have about the program. In later years, you can discuss career options with your mentoring committee and obtain advice about different types of positions, including postdoctoral fellowships and academic/non-academic positions. You can keep the same committee members throughout graduate school or make changes in later years based on your needs (see Alia Allen for the form if you do change your committee membership).

The purpose of meetings with faculty members of the committee is to facilitate your progress through the program. The faculty members are there because they want you to be successful and want to help you if they can. Take advantage of the opportunity! Use them as a sounding board. Remember that you can talk to them at any time either individually or as a group. Although your committee must meet at least once a year, additional meetings can be scheduled as needed and more frequent contacts with the committee members are encouraged.