Degree Requirements

Degree Requirements

Graduate students in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences work with an advisor and advisory committee to pursue an innovative and rigorous program of original research. Students should aim to complete their PhD in five to six years.  

Graduate Affairs Committee

The Graduate Affairs Committee, led by the BCS Graduate Officer is responsible for overseeing the graduate program, advising students, and implementing new initiatives. 


Members of the Graduate Affairs Committee work to promote student wellbeing and success in graduate school. They are available to meet with students individually to provide one-on-one support and advice. You may provide input to the committee by reaching out to any member of the committee, or by reaching out to the Sr. Graduate Program Assistant.


Membership (Updated August 2019):



Degree Program Requirements

The following requirements must be met to receive the PhD degree:

  1. Three first year rotations
  2. Six graduate-level subjects, completed with a grade of B or better (not P/D/F).
  3. Complete Responsible Conduct in Science training
  4. Serve as teaching assistant for two courses
  5. Pass the Oral and Written qualifying exam
  6. Pass the Oral Thesis Defense
  7. Written Dissertation is approved by the thesis committee
Degree Program Milestones

In the first year:

  • Students take 3-4 of their required six courses
  • Students complete required Responsible Conduct in Science training.
  • Students complete a minimum of three lab rotations by March 31.
  • Students select a thesis advisor by April 30th.  


In the second year:

  • Students complete the remainder (2-3) of their academic course requirements by the end of the Spring Term.
  • Students complete teaching assistant training and their first teaching (TA) requirement
  • Students form their qualifying exam advisory committee, have their first committee meeting, and turn in the completed committee meeting form to BCS HQ by the end of the Spring Term. 


In the third year:

  • Students complete the second teaching (TA) requirement.
  • Students complete the written and oral qualifying exam in October or November.


In the fourth year:

  • Students form a Thesis committee, submit a written thesis proposal to their committee, orally present their proposal to the thesis committee, and receive committee approval, before the end of the Spring Term.



Starting in the fifth year:

  • Students must meet with their thesis committee once per year.
  • The final steps to completing the PhD Oral Examination (also known as the thesis defense) and submission of the approved written dissertation.

Required Courses


9.901: Responsible Conduct in Science, must receive a Passing grade (P) in IAP of the first year: Graduate students in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences are required to take a seminar in the responsible conduct of research. This training is required for all first-year students as a vital part of training to become an ethical and responsible scientist. All students will be informed of registration for this training and attendance will be taken.


The courses below must be taken for a letter grade and must be completed with a grade of B or better to receive credit.

1. Core Subjects (must complete 2 for a grade) 

  • 9.012 Cognitive Science
  • 9.011 Systems Neuroscience
  • 9.013 Cell and Molecular I
  • 9.014 Quantitative Methods & Computational Models
  • 9.015 Cell and Molecular II
  • 9.017 Neural Mechanisms of Cognitive Computations (Systems Neuroscience II)


2. Statistics (1 subject):

Subjects currently accepted as fulfilling the course requirement are :

  • 9.073
  • 9.272
  • 9.660
  • 9.014 (cannot be used as both a core AND the statistics requirement, it must be one or the other)
  • 9.520
  • 9.521
  • 7.57
  • 12.444
  • 6.434J
  • 16.391J
  • PSY 1950 (Harvard)
  • MCB 131 (Harvard)

Students can petition for a different course to fulfill this requirement by contacting the graduate officer.

3. Electives: 

Students must take at least three 12-unit graduate-level subjects. Students should chose subjects that are relevant to their research, and are encouraged to ask for advice from their advisor. All 12-unit graduate level subject in BCS are approved electives. In some cases, students may wish to replace one 12-unit subject with two 6-unit subjects; take a course in any other MIT department; count an upper-level undergraduate class as an elective; or enroll in a subject outside MIT (e.g. Harvard, BU, etc); these exceptions require advance approval of the BCS graduate officer.

First Year Rotations

During the student's first year, a minimum of three laboratory rotations is required. MD-PhD students may count neuroscience rotations completed prior to starting the program at the discretion of the Rotations Coordinator. Rotations are 4-8 weeks. The BCS Rotation Coordinator is always available to help with questions or concerns regarding rotations and/or choosing a thesis lab.


To familiarize new students with the research being conducted in the department, during September the department hosts a series of talks by faculty whose labs are open for rotations. Students must choose their first rotation by the end of these talks (October 1). An optional fourth rotation is also available during spring term but must be approved by the rotation coordinator. Students may rotate with faculty outside BCS only with approval from the Rotation Coordinator.


Students must submit a brief rotation proposal at the start of each rotation, and a brief summary upon completion of each rotation. Please email these rotation forms (1, 2, 3, 4) to the graduate program assistant.  Students who have not successfully completed at least three rotations by March 31 have missed a degree milestone, and will receive a department warning (see below).


After all of the rotations are complete, students declare a thesis advisor and lab prior to April 30 of the first year. A thesis lab is declared by emailing the graduate program assistant, and cc’ing the thesis advisor. The thesis advisor must be BCS faculty, or participate in the Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience (MCN) program, and must assent to taking the student on as advisee. In some cases, students have two co-advisors who share responsibility for overseeing the student’s research; in this case, one of the co-advisors may be appointed outside of BCS. Principal and Senior Research Scientists can serve as co-advisors, but cannot be a student's primary advisor.


Students who do not declare a thesis advisor by April 30 are required to meet with the Rotation Coordinator in May. Students who have not declared a thesis advisor by the end of the Spring term have missed a degree milestone, and will receive a department warning (see below).

Teaching Requirement

Teaching experience is an imperative piece of preparing for an academic career. All graduate students are required to complete two terms as a teaching assistant (TA), one in the second year and one in the third. To receive their assignment, students must register for 9.919, Teaching Brain and Cognitive Sciences, in the appropriate terms.


Before teaching assignments begin, graduate students must complete a workshop for new graduate teaching staff. Additional resources are available online through the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education and the Teaching and Learning Lab. Students may also access printable handbooks.

Qualifying Examinations

Faculty and students in BCS work in diverse disciplines and therefore have variable expectations regarding the qualifying exam. Students should speak directly with their advisor and the chair of the quals committee about more detailed expectations for oral and written quals. 


Forming the committee and second year meeting

In the Spring semester of the second year, students form a Qualifying Exam advisory committee, and hold a pre-qual advisory meeting. A Qualifying Exam committee is made up of the advisor and two other MIT faculty. The chair of the committee must be appointed with tenure in BCS, and cannot be the student’s advisor or co-advisor.

Two weeks before the meeting, students must send the committee a written summary (1-2 pages) of the proposed topic, and a proposed reading list. At the pre-qual meeting, the student presents the topic of their quals orally. Readings are drawn from core classes along with papers that are relevant to the students’ specific interests. The reading list should be approved by the Qualifying Exam Committee at the second year meeting. 


Written examination

The written exam consists of a grant proposal that follows the format and policies of either the National Institutes of Health (R01 not F31) or the National Science Foundation.


The written exam must contain specific aims, which can be drawn from the student’s area of research, including their potential dissertation project. Unlike a grant proposal, students are not expected to include preliminary data in the proposal. The proposal should be 10-12 pages in length in at least 11 point font (excluding references) and must demonstrate:

  1. A command of the background and relevant literature.
  2. An ability to articulate novel or important hypotheses.
  3. Specific ideas for methods to test those hypotheses.
  4. A structured plan for how to interpret the results of the test(s).

Deadline for submission of the written exam to the student’s Exam Committee is two weeks prior to the oral exam. 


Oral examination

The oral exam includes:

  1. An oral presentation (typically 30-45 minutes) of the contents of the written exam
  2. Questions from the Committee about the exam and reading lists
  3. Closed session: advisor leaves and committee discusses progress with student
  4. Closed session: student leaves and committee discusses progress with advisor
  5. Feedback; forms are signed; everyone present 

The precise structure of the oral exam (including duration of the presentation and whether questions are asked during the presentation or held until afterwards) may vary according to different disciplinary norms.  Students and their advisors should confer with committee members in advance to establish consensus and expectations.


The oral exam will be held during the month of October in the third year (or occasionally in November due to scheduling constraints), scheduled by the Graduate Program Assistant.

If the student does not pass the written or oral exams, the Qualifying Exam Committee may offer students a second opportunity to take the exams; this could require additional work on the grant proposal or additional study of the reading list. If requested by the committee, a second oral exam will be held no later than February of the third year. Students who do not pass the Qualifying exam may complete a Master’s thesis by the end of the Summer of their third year, but will not be allowed to enroll in the fall of their fourth year. 

Third year form


Please contact the Graduate Officer, a member of the GAC, or the Graduate Program Assistant with questions about this process.

Required Annual Committee Meetings

The thesis committee must meet annually beginning in the fourth year. Each year has a corresponding form with the expectations for written items that the student must complete and attach to the form. This process is to document student progress, and to assist the student with the organization of their thoughts and goals.  At the end of each meeting the committee chair, the advisor, the committee members, and the student all sign the meeting form. Students must also provide a written summary of the feedback received from their committee. All forms must be returned to the BCS Graduate Program Assistant in BCS HQ.  


The Thesis Committee is composed of the student’s advisor, and three additional faculty members with interests and experience in research areas relevant to the student’s research. The committee should consist of three BCS faculty members and one non-departmental faculty member (i.e., from other departments at MIT or from nearby universities), each with one vote. The non-department faculty member should not be a collaborator on the thesis research. Principal and Senior Research Scientists can be members of a student's Thesis Committee if and only if they are acting as the student's co-advisor. 


The Committee Chair must be a tenured BCS faculty member who is not the student's advisor, co-advisor and is not a collaborator on the thesis project. The Chair, with the help of the other members of the committee, is responsible for:

  1. Ensuring that students are making reasonable progress toward their degree, and that the research plans and timelines developed by the student and advisor are appropriate.
  2. Confirming that the student has passed the requirements of each annual committee meeting, and remains in good standing in the program. 


An annual committee meeting includes:

  1. An oral presentation of the student’s ongoing and planned research, including discussion and scientific feedback
  2. Closed session: advisor leaves and committee discusses progress with student
  3. Closed session: student leaves and committee discusses progress with advisor
  4. Feedback; forms are signed; everyone present 


It is the responsibility of the student, advisor, and the chair to ensure that committee meetings are scheduled and happen on time, annually. Students who have not completed an annual committee meeting and submitted the required form by the end of Spring term have missed a degree milestone, and will receive a department warning (see below). 


In the second year:

Pre-Qual meeting. Second year form


In the third year:

Qualifying exam. Third year form


In the fourth year:

Thesis proposal. Fourth year form

Starting in the fifth year: Fifth year and beyond form

Thesis Proposal & Doctorate Dissertation

The doctoral dissertation should make an original contribution to the field and be publication-ready. Ideally, the thesis comprises a coherent body of published and publishable work, plus an introduction and discussion that includes a comprehensive literature review. Faculty and students in BCS work in diverse disciplines and therefore have variable expectations for the exact content of a thesis (e.g. whether it must contain first-authored papers, and how many). Students should proactively speak directly with their advisor and the chair of the thesis committee to confirm detailed expectations.


Graduate students must submit their thesis proposal by the end of the Spring semester of their fourth year of the program. Students should aim to finish the thesis research within the following two years. Extension beyond the student’s sixth year requires a report by the student‘s Thesis Committee and review by the Graduate Affairs Committee.


Thesis Proposal 

The annual committee meeting in the fourth year is the presentation of the student’s Thesis Proposal, and must be completed before the end of the Spring term. A thesis proposal is a description of a specific program of research which, if completed successfully and on the proposed timeline, the committee judges would be sufficient to fulfill the requirements of a PhD from the BCS program. The Thesis Proposal is not required to include any complete projects, though evidence of feasibility of the proposed research, such as preliminary data or pilot results, is highly desirable. 


A successful Thesis proposal typically includes: a critical review of current research in the proposed area of study; clearly articulated specific goals for each part of the proposed research; preliminary findings of the student’s existing work establishing the foundation and feasibility of the proposed work; detailed description of the proposed methods for data collection (if applicable) and analysis; a framework for interpreting the results of the test;

a timetable for task prioritization and completion; and references in an acceptable format. 


In the spring semester of the fourth year, students should register in 9.941, thesis proposal, for six units in order to receive credit for the proposal. The written proposal is due to the committee two weeks before the committee meeting.


At the committee meeting, the student should be prepared to discuss all aspects of the proposal in depth. The committee then determines whether or not the proposal is approved.  If the proposal is not completed and approved within the Spring term, the student will receive a grade of U, for unsatisfactory progress, and a warning letter. 

Fourth year form


Thesis Document

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 thesis Committee will review the thesis and if there are no serious 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.

Thesis Defense

The thesis defense is a public presentation, and is announced in advance by the department. At the defense, the student presents her or his research in a formal 60-minute talk, and answer questions from those present.


At an additional, closed session, the Thesis Committee will question the student further and determine whether or not the oral defense passed. The requirements for the faculty composition of the Thesis Committee are described in the "Required Annual Committee Meetings" section above.


If the student did not pass, the faculty will recommend one of the following actions to the student:

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

The Committee will also decide whether the written thesis is:

  1. Passes as written or with non-critical editorial suggestions.
  2. Passes pending certain changes, which require Thesis Supervisor and Graduate Officer approval.
  3. Requires more work, with approval withheld for current term.
Leave and Return

Graduate students may take Medical Leave, Parental Leave, or Personal Leave during their time at BCS. Students ready to return from Leave should contact the Graduate Officer in advance. Degree timelines and milestone deadlines are paused immediately when the student goes on leave, and resume immediately upon return. So, for example, a student who is on leave in the Fall of their third year and returns for the Spring will be required to complete oral and written qualifying exams in March of their third year. 

Switching Labs after Quals

Graduate students who wish to switch labs after passing quals should notify the BCS Sr Graduate Program Assistant and the BCS Graduate Officer. The new advisor must confirm willingness to support the student. Students who leave a previous lab, but don’t yet have a new lab, should contact the BCS Graduate Officer immediately. Each student’s situation will be evaluated individually. Completed milestones need not be repeated.


If a PI leaves MIT, students have the option to complete an MIT degree while doing research in the PI’s new lab & institution, or to switch to a different lab at BCS. 


Note that students who are admitted to the BCS graduate program are not guaranteed admission to a thesis lab. The process of choosing a thesis advisor requires a mutual commitment between student and advisor. Students who have not secured a position in a thesis lab in time to schedule their qualifying exams will most likely leave the program with a Master’s degree (see below).

What happens when students do not complete milestones

Sometimes professional or personal conflicts arise that make it hard for students to complete their milestones on time. Students who anticipate such a conflict should contact the BCS Graduate Affairs Officer proactively to request accommodations. 


Students who have not completed a milestone are reviewed by the BCS Graduate Affairs Committee every semester. Typically, the student receives a warning letter from the BCS department, indicating the missed milestone and a required deadline for completing the requirements. The Graduate Affairs Committee then reviews whether the student completes the requirements by the deadline indicated in the warning letter; if the student has not, the student typically receives a warning letter from MIT’s Office of Graduate Education (OGE), again indicating required progress towards the degree, and a deadline. If the student is not able to complete these requirements by the indicated deadline, the student will typically be denied registration (i.e. removed from the BCS graduate program) by the beginning of the next semester.


In some cases, a student who is on the verge of being denied registration may preemptively be given the option to leave the program with a Master’s degree. 

The following requirements must be met to receive a Master’s degree:

All course requirements of the graduate program must be completed. 

Must submit a thesis on a piece of research approved by the Graduate Officer

The thesis must be turn in two weeks prior to the thesis due date listed on the MIT academic calendar in the term specified to the Graduate Officer (typically the term preceding the impending denial of registration).