Thesis Proposals & Doctorate Dissertation

Thesis Proposals & Doctorate Dissertation

The doctoral dissertation should make an original contribution to the field and be publication-ready. Because students are actively involved in research while in the program, the thesis often comprises a coherent body of published and publishable work, plus an introduction and discussion that includes a comprehensive literature review. 

The thesis may consist of two or three journal articles where the student was first author, so long as it includes an introduction and conclusion that relate the research projects to one another.

Graduate students must submit their thesis proposal by the end of the Spring semester of their fourth year of the program, following the qualifying exam in the third year. The dissertation must be finished within the following two years. Extension beyond the student’s fifth year requires a report by the student‘s Thesis Committee and review by the BCS Education Committee. 

Thesis Committee

The Thesis Committee consists of faculty members experienced in those research areas represented in the student’s thesis proposal, regardless of their area of departmental affiliation. 

The Committee generally consists of three departmental faculty members and one outside reviewer, such as faculty from another MIT department or nearby university. The student‘s Advisor may not serve as the Committee Chairperson. 

The student must receive committee approval of the thesis proposal by spring registration of the fourth year. Each committee member must sign the document, and significant changes to the thesis plan must be approved by each member of the committee. 

Thesis Proposal

The Thesis Committee meeting in which the thesis proposal is presented and approved must be held before the end of the Spring term in the student's fourth year.

  • The meeting must be scheduled and the date sent to the Academic Administrator by March 31st. 
  • Students should register in 9.941, thesis proposal, for six units in order to receive credit for the proposal. 

If the proposal is not completed and approved within the fall term, the student will receive a grade of J , for satisfactory progress, or U, for unsatisfactory progress, and will need to re-register for 9.941 in subsequent terms until they receive a passing grade. 

Thesis proposal format

  1. Title page should contain student’s name, thesis title, advisor, and submission date. This page should also note “thesis proposal.”
  2. Abstract is a brief, one-half to one page description of the vision for the planned thesis, including rationale for studying the specific problem, types of experiments to be performed or theory to be developed, and expected outcome.
  3. Table of contents lists the document‘s sections with page numbers.
  4. Literature survey is a critical review of current research in the proposed area of study. It should include evaluation of important contributions to the field and demonstrate awareness and understanding of relevant literature. The survey should be no longer than six pages.
  5. Specific aims should be presented as numbered sentences, and no longer than one page. This section should list the specific goals of each part of the proposed research. 
  6. Preliminary findings describe studies already completed by the author as background for proposed further work.
  7. Experimental design and methods describe the experiments to be performed for each specific aim. Well-established methods can be referenced briefly; new, experimental, or unorthodox methods should be described in more detail. This section should end with a timetable for task prioritization and completion.
  8. References should conform to accepted thesis format and style, as set by the MIT Library.
Oral Presentation of the Thesis Proposal

Students must present their proposal before the end of Fall term in their fourth year. The student should be prepared to discuss all aspects of the proposal in depth.

The Advisory Committee then determines whether or not the proposal is approved. The decision is recorded on a form, which is completed by the Committee and submitted to the Academic Office by the student. The Advisory Committee will provide an assessment of the presentation to the Chairperson of the Graduate Committee and the Academic Administrator. 

Thesis Document and Defense


  • Students should consult the MIT Specifications for Thesis Preparation for instructions on document formatting. 
  • A digital version of the final thesis draft must be submitted to the committee members and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Academic Office two weeks prior to the defense. 
  • The Committee will review the thesis and if there are no objections found by the deadline, the defense will proceed as scheduled. Otherwise, the candidate will be notified in writing, and the defense will be postponed until issues have been addressed.

The dissertation will be uploaded to the BCS Stellar site  and the Department will announce details of the oral defense, which is open to the public. At the defense, the student will discuss her or his research in a formal 45 to 60-minute talk, and answer questions from those present. 

At an additional, closed session, faculty will question the student further and determine whether or not the oral defense passed. If the defense did not pass, the faculty will recommend one of the following actions to the student:

  • Meet with the group in a second closed session within two weeks. 
  • Meet with the group in a closed session before the next term’s deadline.

The Committee will also decide whether the written thesis:

  • Passed as written or with non-critical editorial suggestions. 
  • Passed pending certain changes, which require Thesis Supervisor and Graduate Program Officer approval.  
  • Requires more work, with approval withheld for current term.

Students are responsible for reserving a room for the defense and notifying the Academic Office by email that that reservation has been made. The room should be reserved for four hours to ensure sufficient time for set up, presentation, closed session, and committee deliberations.