mit masters in neuroscience

Last Updated on December 22, 2022

Brain and Cognitive Sciences PhD Program

Why BCS?

Graduate students in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences are among the sharpest, most innovative brain scientists to be found anywhere. In a given year the department admits 5 to 10 percent of applicants, and our PhD program is consistently ranked among the best in the world. Students work hard to get here, and they are highly valued in the BCS community.

Innovative: Our students often take on riskier projects and pilot studies that probe the edges of our technical and scientific knowledge. They can move among projects more easily, and their successes lay the foundation for not only their careers but the future directions of their mentors’ labs.

Collaborative: Our students bring bold, fresh thinking to the department, and exploring these potentially transformative ideas often means reaching across boundaries of lab, center, and department to build new collaborations. Graduate students help BCS mesh with the rest of MIT.

Supportive: Graduate students are the most frequent mentors of undergraduate students in UROPs, actively guiding and developing those who will become the next generation of top-tier graduate students. BCS graduate students also are helping make sure the department is a welcoming, inclusive, and equitable community.Image

A toddler wearing a headband is held by two smiling female graduate students

Overview of the Program

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.  

Year 1

  • Students take three to four 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 30.  

Year 2

  • Students complete the remaining two to three 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. 

Year 3

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

Year 4

  • 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.

Year 5+

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

For detailed information on courses, rotations, and other program requirements, see Program Details.

Brain and Cognitive Sciences

77 Massachusetts AvenueBuilding 46-2005CambridgeMA02139




[email protected]


Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Application Link: 

Apply here

Application Opens: 

September 1


December 1



Terms of Enrollment: 

Fall Term (September)


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Standardized Tests: 

International English Language Testing System (IELTS)

  • Minimum score required: 7
  • Electronic scores send to: MIT Graduate Admissions

Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

  • Minimum score required: 90 (iBT) 577 (PBT)
  • Institute code: 3514
  • Department code: 58

Waivers of TOEFL/IELTS may be available.

Areas of Research: 

Cellular and Molecular NeuroscienceCognitive ScienceComputationSystems Neuroscience

Application Requirements: 

Online applicationStatement of objectivesThree letters of recommendationTranscriptsEnglish proficiency exam scores

How to Apply

The BCS Doctoral Program is highly selective. We receive over 700 applications each year, and we typically enroll 15-20 new graduate students.

GRE scores are not required.

The final degree objective for all students in the program is the PhD (Doctor of Philosophy). Regardless of undergraduate major, applicants must have an outstanding academic record, particularly in mathematics and the sciences. Relevant research experience is also highly desirable. Students who were unable to obtain research experience at their undergraduate institution often work in research during summers or after graduation. An applicant’s likelihood of admission cannot be estimated based on one or two criteria: the graduate admissions committee carefully reviews the entire application package (statement of objectives, recommendation letters, transcripts, etc.) to make admissions decisions. The tabs below will guide candidates through the admissions process. 

Steps in the admissions process


Applications to the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Graduate Program must be completed online. Paper applications are not accepted. The application, unofficial transcripts, and letters of recommendation must be submitted by December 1 for admission the following September. Items received after the deadline will be added to your file. The Graduate Admissions Committee begins reviewing applications shortly after the deadline, so materials received late may not be reviewed.

The Office of Graduate Education (OGE) is offering graduate application fee waivers for US citizens and US permanent residents who demonstrate financial hardship, are current or former members of the United States Armed Forces, or who have participated in special fellowship programs, including MIT-sponsored diversity programs (e.g., MIT Summer Research Program, CONVERGE). Fee waivers are also available for prospective students the OGE has met during diversity recruitment events. International students attending US colleges and universities who have participated in MIT sponsored programs, such as CONVERGE or MSRP, are also eligible to apply for a fee waiver. More information and the fee waiver request form can be found here.

The MIT Graduate Admissions page has information about all graduate programs at MIT (master’s and doctoral), information for international students, and a grad student blog.Transcript

We require one copy of transcript(s) from each university attended. Original, official transcripts are not required until after a student has been admitted. Official transcripts for admitted students should be sent to: 

Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences 
Academic Office (Room 46-2005)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
77 Massachusetts Avenue 
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307

Transcripts are verified upon receipt. Any discrepancy between uploaded and official transcript(s) will result in withdrawal of our admission offer.Commonly asked questions

Does the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences offer clinical, counseling, or social psychology?
No, we do not offer studies in these areas.

Will I be notified about the status of my application?
You will receive notification of application status within two weeks of the deadline. The only information you may view in our online system is confirmation of receipt of letters of recommendation.  

Do I have to complete the area of the application that asks about subjects taken?
Yes, but only include relevant subjects. This section is designed to gather information not included on transcripts, such as textbooks used for particular courses. 

What if I completed a course that did not use a textbook or the textbook is unknown?
In these cases, leave that area of the application blank. 

Are GRE scores required?

What are the requirements to demonstrate English language proficiency?
Applicants who have received instruction in English in their primary and secondary schools and applicants who have been in the United States for four years or longer and have received a degree from an American institution are eligible for a waiver of the English proficiency exam requirement by sending a written request to [email protected]. Applicants who do not meet those requirements must take either the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), or the Duolingo English Test (DET).
In addition to the TOEFL/IELTS/DET, all students whose first language is not English are required to take the English Evaluation Test (EET) at MIT during the week prior to Registration Day. This examination is a diagnostic test whose purpose is to help students identify their strengths and weaknesses in written and oral English. English classes may be recommended as a result of the applicant’s EET score.
Do you accept old TOEFL/IELTS/DET scores?
We follow the guidelines set by Educational Testing Service, IELTS, and DET, all of which state that scores are valid for two years.

Why can’t I choose cognitive neuroscience as a research area on my application? 
If you enroll in our program, you will have opportunities for interdisciplinary studies in many areas, including cognitive neuroscience. On your application, please select either cognitive science or systems neuroscience, whichever category is more applicable to your area of interest.

Is it possible to send more than three letters of recommendation? 
Yes, you can have up to 5 letters of recommendation sent.

When will I hear if I’m accepted? 
Emails regarding final admissions decisions are typically sent in April.Application assistance from current BCS graduate students

We recognize that the academic community prospers when talents from diverse backgrounds come together to solve scientific problems. Therefore, we hope to recruit researchers from historically underrepresented groups in higher education. Since 2019, the BCS Application Assistance Program (AAP) has been striving to share social capital and narrow the information gap among applicants during the graduate school application process.

The AAP is a volunteer-based, student-run initiative to help applicants get on to their PhD career by providing feedback on their application materials and answering questions related to the BCS program. We would particularly encourage groups that have been underrepresented in STEM to use this resource. They include, but are not limited to, ethnic minorities (e.g. African Americans, American Indians, Hispanics, Native Alaskans and Pacific Islanders), applicants of non-traditional academic backgrounds, and graduates from institutions that sent few students to MIT in the past. 

Participants may receive assistance through one-on-one mentorship or office hours hosted by current BCS graduate students. Additionally, three panel discussions on the BCS application process and graduate student life will be held during the application period, and are open to all AAP participants.

Due to the high volume of participants every year, opportunities for one-on-one mentorship will be sorted on a rolling basis depending on the needs of each participant and the capacity of our mentors. We recommend interested individuals to sign up for the AAP using this form as early as possible starting Sept 1, 2021. Enrollment to the AAP closes on Nov 15, 2021 (i.e. 2 weeks ahead of the graduate program’s application deadline).

For additional resources and FAQ, please refer to the AAP website.

For additional information, or if you have questions, please email [email protected].

Special Instructions: 

Applicants should not send published papers, theses, writing samples or other supplemental material with their application.

Program Details

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

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

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.  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. Each rotation is four to eight weeks.

BCS broadly defines its research in four areas: cellular and molecular neuroscience, systems neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, and computational neuroscience. Many BCS faculty span more than one of these four areas, bringing together ideas and techniques best suited to answer the questions they pursue. Exploring the profiles and lab websites of faculty is the best way to learn more about their research, lab environment, and whether they might fit with your interests. 

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). The BCS Rotation Coordinator is always available to help with questions or concerns regarding rotations and/or choosing a thesis lab. 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 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). Choosing a thesis advisor by the end of the second semester is a program requirement. Exception requests for this requirement should be sent to Mark Harnett or Nancy Kanwisher.   Teaching

Teaching experience is an imperative piece of preparing for an academic career and can also be a very fulfilling element of the graduate school experience—just ask these students:

TA Spotlight: Dustin Hayden

TA Spotlight: Halie Olson

All BCS 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 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.Qualifying Exams

Faculty and students in BCS work in diverse disciplines and therefore have variable expectations regarding the qualifying exam (“quals”). 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 Qualifying Exam 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:

  • A command of the background and relevant literature
  • An ability to articulate novel or important hypotheses
  • Specific ideas for methods to test those hypotheses
  • 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:

  • An oral presentation (typically 30-45 minutes) of the contents of the written exam
  • Questions from the Committee about the exam and reading lists
  • Closed session: advisor leaves and committee discusses progress with student
  • Closed session: student leaves and committee discusses progress with advisor
  • 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. Thesis Committee and Meetings

Thesis Committee

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 another university), 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:

  • 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.
  • Confirming that the student has passed the requirements of each annual committee meeting, and remains in good standing in the program. 

Thesis Committee Meetings

The thesis committee must meet annually beginning in the fourth year. To document student progress, and to assist the student with the organization of their thoughts and goals, each year has a corresponding form with the expectations for written items that the student must complete and attach to the form. 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 should be returned to the BCS Graduate Program Assistant in BCS HQ.  

An annual committee meeting includes:

  • An oral presentation of the student’s ongoing and planned research, including discussion and scientific feedback
  • Closed session: advisor leaves and committee discusses progress with student
  • Closed session: student leaves and committee discusses progress with advisor
  • 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:

In the third year:

In the fourth year: 

Starting in the fifth year:

Thesis Proposal and Doctoral 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 work with their advisor and the chair of their 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
  • 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 their 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 passes. If the student 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:

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

Switching Labs after Quals

Graduate students who wish to switch labs after passing quals should notify the BCS Senior 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 and 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).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. 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 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. 

In order to receive a Master’s degree:

  • All course requirements of the graduate program must be completed. 
  • The student must submit a thesis on research approved by the Graduate Officer

The thesis must be turned 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).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.

Committee members:


Sierra Vallin, BCS Academic Administrator:


Required Courses

1. Responsible Conduct in Science

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

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

2. Core Subjects

(Must complete 2 for a grade) 

9.012 Cognitive Science
9.011 Systems Neuroscience Core I
9.013 Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience Core II
9.014 Quantitative Methods and Computational Models in Neuroscience
9.015 Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience Core I
9.017 Systems Neuroscience Core II

3. Statistics

(Must complete 1 subject)

Subjects currently accepted as fulfilling the course requirement are :

9.073 Statistics for Neuroscience Research
9.272 Topics in Neural Signal Processing
9.660 Computational Cognitive Science
9.014 Quantitative Methods and Computational Models in Neuroscience (cannot be used to meet both the core and the statistics requirement; it must be one or the other)
9.520 Statistical Learning Theory and Applications
9.521 Mathematical Statistics: a Non-Asymptotic Approach
7.57 [doesn’t exist?]
12.444 MatLab, Statistics, Regression, Signal Processing
6.434J Statistics for Engineers and Scientists
16.391J Statistics for Engineers and Scientists
PSY 1950 (Harvard) [doesn’t exist?]
MCB 131 (Harvard) Computational Neurobiology

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

4. 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.

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