Computation & Neural Systems California Institute of Technology

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PhD Program

Students receiving a Ph.D. in CNS are expected to have mastered the following:

  • The ability to conduct research at the interface of neurobiology, computational neuroscience, psychology, engineering
  • The ability to conduct research independently, which means selecting topics, carrying out experiments and modeling, and effectively communicating the results
  • Breadth of knowledge across the disciplines
  • Depth in one or more specific fields
  • Research findings of high novelty and value, which corresponds to approximately two to three articles in first-rate publication venues

During his or her first year in the Ph.D. program, the student is required to complete three lab rotations, and take six nine-unit courses. At the end of the first year, the student is expected to decide on a research group and begin work there. The first summer is thus expected to be spent entirely on research in that lab. Advancing to candidacy requires passing two tests: the general knowledge exam, and the research and candidacy exam. These exams are supervised by the CNS option representative. Degree is awarded upon successfuly completing the thesis and passing the final oral examination.

bullet Laboratory Rotations
bullet First-Year Course Requirements
bullet General Knowledge, Research and Candidacy Exams
bullet Thesis and Final Examination
bullet Opportunities for Postdoctoral Study

Laboratory Rotations
Mandatory rotations through research groups (labs) provide a unique opportunity for the student to experience the CNS culture. To broaden the student's knowledge and to provide familiarity with different techniques and ways of thinking or doing research, each student undertakes three 12-week laboratory rotations (one per term) during the first year, and is encouraged to engage in research. During each rotation, the student is expected to take part in the life and routine of the lab by attending lab meetings, participating in research projects and discussions with members of the lab, and meeting monthly with the faculty of that lab to discuss science.

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Course Requirements
Six nine-unit courses are required during the first year: CNS 187, Bi9 or Bi/CNS 150, a neurobiology or modeling course, a math course, and two other CNS, Bi, EE, AMa, or Ph courses (for example, a schedule of CNS 187, CNS 221, CNS 182, Bi 150, Bi 161, and CNS 124 satisfies this requirement). All CNS students are required to take two additional classes: the one unit survey course "Introduction to Computation and Neural Systems" (CNS100) and the four unit Bi 252 class "Responsible Conduct of Research", offered in the third term. These eight classes must be taken with letter grading; that is, they cannot be taken on a pass/fail basis. Students are free to take additional classes, and a research advisor may require that a student take a specific, complementary course as a requirement for joining the advisor's lab.

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General Knowledge, Research and Candidacy Exams
The general knowledge exam satisfies the breadth requirement. A list of about 100 questions, grouped by category, and a list of classical research papers are provided to students at the beginning of the year, thus providing a clear idea of the scope of knowledge that each student is expected to know well. Students are encouraged to organize working and discussion groups to prepare for this exam; the format and implementation of such a system, however, is left to each student.

The general knowledge examination is an oral one, with five faculty (including the heads of the student's three rotation labs and two others chosen for "breadth," of whom one can be from outside CIT). It should be scheduled by the student (who contacts the committee members) to take place during the last six weeks of the third term of year one. For the exam, the student must answer questions (from more than one category) taken from this list, which is modified each year. The exam can be retaken after six months. Upon completion of the exam (whether successful or not), the chair of the exam panel must send a written report (e-mail is acceptable) to the option representative as well as to the cns secretary, who will place this in your individual file for future reference.

During year two, the student is expected to produce a piece of work of quality sufficient to be presented at a professional meeting during the first term of year three. The objective of this piece of work is to offer a way to calibrate the level of expected research achievement and involvement. Acceptance of the abstract or paper is not a requirement for passing candidacy. During year two, the student may take other courses, as needed, but is expected to present a high standard (quality, originality) of research at the time of this second part of the candidacy exam.

This second---research and candidacy---examination satisfies the depth requirement. This is an oral exam that takes place in the spring term of year two, to the same, or similar, exam committee that conducted part one of the exam. The exam focuses exclusively on research (accomplished and/or planned). At the conclusion of the exam, the student will need to have all committee members sign the candidacy form (to be obtained from the cns office beforehand). The student should also provide proof of having passed the first part of the candidacy exam at this time. This can be done by bringing to the 2nd exam a copy of the e-mail sent out at the conclusion of the 1st exam, or asking the CNS secretary to forward said e-mail to the chair of your exam panel.

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Thesis and Final Examination
The candidate is required to take a final oral examination covering his or her doctoral thesis. It will consist of a public thesis seminar and an associated oral examination on the thesis and related fields. This examination will be held at least two weeks after the doctoral thesis has been presented in final form, and prior to its approval.

1. General Goals
The thesis committee can play an important role in the career of a graduate student. In addition to and in parallel with the thesis advisor, the committee can help to foster the development of a student's research plans, to refine their writing and presentation skills, and to develop future research plans. Although obviously not replacing the advisor's role as a mentor, the committee can offer an outside perspective that can be important, especially in making hard decisions about dropping or altering a particular research direction. The thesis committee can only play this role if there are regular meetings (at least yearly). Thus, this document outlines a set of guidelines for the timing and procedures for thesis committee meetings.

We wish to ensure the scheduling of yearly meetings between each student and his/her thesis committee. These meetings will take somewhat different forms as the student progresses. In the early years, the committee will serve to administer the required exams and advise on future research directions. In later years, the committee will help the student with his/her research, determine when enough research has been accomplished towards the PhD thesis, assess progress and hurdles and help solve problems that might arise during those years.

It is the intention of the CNS faculty to see each graduate student complete his/her thesis work before or during the 6th year of graduate study. The CNS faculty feels strongly that, with correct guidance, six years should be sufficient time, except in exceptional cases. To ensure that the students beyond this normative time get sufficient feedback on their progress, the student's committee will meet every 6 months (or more frequently if needed) during and beyond the 6th year. It will be part of the committee's responsibility to assess the status of the student, and to recommend to the CNS Option Representative and to the Dean of Graduate Studies that registration be approved for the years beyond the Caltech limit of five year. Each request for an extension will be accompanied by a package from the student containing a detailed explanation, progress report and plan for completion.

2. Schedule
Year 1: Breadth oral candidacy exam.
Year 2: Depth oral candidacy exam.
Year 3: Yr 3 thesis committee meeting.
Year 4: Yr 4 thesis committee meeting.
Year 5: Yr 5 thesis committee meeting.
Year 6: Two thesis committee meetings at about 6 month-intervals.

This schedule will ensure that each student meets with his/her committee at least once a year. The proposed schedule will apply to all students, although a certain latitude will be given to those presently beyond their 4th year, if they feel that such requirements may hinder rather than help their progress. Phasing in of the present format will hopefully be possible for most.

3. Format
Meetings in years 3 and beyond should be concise and planned to last under an hour. In addition to the usual research material, the student should prepare two transparencies. The first will show the proposed research plan (indicating how the scientific goals are to be achieved). The second will be a copy of the conclusions and plans of the previous committee meeting, so that everyone can assess the progress made or hurdles encountered since the time of the previous meeting.

4. Timing
We wish to organize both exams (1 and 2) and the committee meetings for years 3-5 during the month of May of each year. The faculty will make every effort to be on campus for at least 2 weeks during that time, so that enough of them can take part in the exam and thesis committees.

The detailed timing remains to be finalized, but efforts will be made to schedule all exams at least during a short time period. This implies that a large burden will likely fall on a fraction of the CNS faculty each year, but that this designated faculty will rotate from year to year.

5. Committee Make Up
To facilitate this plan, we will insist that 4 (and not 5) faculty (including the advisor) be present during these exam and committee meetings, noting that 5 should be hoped for. Of these four (or five), at least three must be Caltech faculty and at least two must be CNS faculty. The final thesis defense will continue to require five faculty members.

As already in place, each committee will have a chair, whose responsibility will be to write a short report of the meeting, with detailed comments on progress, future plans and potential problems (if any). The three faculty in whose labs rotations are done will be on the student's candidacy exam committee. This report will be sent to the Option Rep., the Exec. Officer and the CNS secretary. A similar short report should be written by the student and sent to the Option Rep., the Exec. Officer and the CNS secretary. The committee's chair must be someone other than the student's advisor.

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Opportunities for Postdoctoral Study
Most of the faculty whose research programs are described in this site are able to accommodate postdoctoral fellows who wish to obtain further research training. In some cases, funding can be provided by research grants or through Institute-administered fellowships. Interested individuals should apply directly to the most appropriate faculty member, indicating, if appropriate, alternative faculty members whose work interests them.

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  last update: 06/10/2015
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