Program Information for Current Students

Each entering student in the doctoral program interacts closely with program co-directors and program faculty during orientation, first semester courses, personal meetings, and a series of lab rotations. Once the student has chosen a thesis advisor and has passed the qualifying exam in year two, a thesis committee is formed to help guide the student through his or her thesis research.  Typical timelines for progression through the PhD program are given below. The program maintains a flexibility that allows it to meet the needs of individual students.

Trajectory of PhD


Late Summer: Boot Camp and Program Orientation

At the end of August before the fall semester, the incoming cohort of graduate students participate in "Boot Camp" run by current students and a faculty mentor.  The purpose of boot camp is to familiarize incoming students with techniques used in neuroscience research. This is done through lectures and laboratory demonstrations.  Topics include basic methods in microscopy, biochemistry, electrophysiology, genetics, computational neuroscience, behavior, imaging, anatomy, and cell culture. Faculty, postdocs and students lecture and participate in lab demonstrations.

Year 1: Courses and Laboratory Rotations​

PhD class of 2014

In their first year in the program, students engage in rotations in the labs of training faculty and begin the required coursework. Rotations are designed to help students choose a dissertation mentor, and broaden their practical and theoretical knowledge of neuroscience. Rotations are initiated by students according to individual interests and typically last one semester. In the first semester Experimental Approaches course taught by program co-directors, students hear from second year students about their rotation experiences, engage with training faculty about their research, and participate in a month-long series of workshops for NSF proposal preparation. 

During this early period, one of the three co-directors serves as a primary advisor to the student on any aspect of the graduate program, from rotation and course selection to administrative matters. Entering students meet with this advisor after they arrive at Columbia and before the semester begins. Continuing students in their first and second years meet with the advisor during the summer, and at any other time during the year upon request. For this summer meeting, each student prepares a brief written report, indicating the courses, seminars, rotations, and professional experiences in which he or she has engaged.


Martin Chalfie and lab

Year 2: Lab Selection, Advanced Electives, and Qualifying Exam

The Qualifying Examination, taken near the end of year 2 in the program, establishes that students are ready to undertake the research required for the PhD degree. Students must possess an in-depth understanding of the literature in their field and formulate a research proposal addressing an important scientific problem. The written qualifying proposal follows the format of the NIH NRSA (F31); most address a proposed thesis project, though these may be based on any topic. The proposal is defended in an oral examination before an examining committee chosen by the student and thesis advisor.


Students are expected to pass this examination by the end of May of their second year in the graduate program.


The Qualifying Examination is in two parts: a written research proposal and an oral defense of that proposal before an examining committee.

Examining Committee:

The committee consists of four faculty members including the student's proposed thesis sponsor or co-sponsor. Members of the committee may come from outside the training program when appropriate. The Qualifying Exam Committee can remain as the student's Thesis Committee.

Initiation of the Examination Process:

At least eight weeks in advance of the date desired by the student for the oral defense of the proposal, the Students must prepare a 1-2 page synopsis of the project. The synopsis should include a brief rationale, a set of aims, and a description of the experimental (or other) approach and receive approval by the mentor. It is then submitted to one of the co-directors, along with the proposed members of the examination committee, for review. A co-director must approve the committee composition. Students then provide the synopsis to the committee members. Once the members have agreed to serve on the committee, the student should schedule a mutually agreeable date for the exam. Composing a committee and disseminating the synopsis should take place at least six weeks prior to the expected exam date. Student may have general discussions with their mentor or other relevant colleagues during proposal preparation, but the final full-length version should be written independently. The finished proposal should be presented to members of the examining committee no later than one week before the oral exam. Details on the format of the qualifying exam written proposal can be found on the internal site for graduate students.

Oral Defense:

The student will deliver a short (15-20 minute) presentation. Questions by the Examining Committee may initially focus on the proposal itself but can lead to questions on any area of neuroscience. Depending on the student's orientation, questions may cover other areas of contemporary science. The qualifying examination is comprehensive; students are therefore required to demonstrate an appropriately broad background in neuroscience and an understanding of underlying principles.


Years 3 and Beyond: The Thesis Advisory Committee and Dissertation Defense

Thesis committee meetings are a key mentoring mechanism for doctoral students. They provide students an opportunity to receive focused feedback on their studies from a panel of program faculty.

After successful completion of the qualifying exam, a co-director helps the student and their mentor choose three faculty members to join a thesis advisory committee. When appropriate, a colleague from outside the program or outside the university may be added to the committee. This committee has primary responsibility for advising the student until graduation.

For the first thesis committee meeting, students should prepare and distribute a brief written thesis proposal to guide discussion during the initial dissertation committee meeting; this proposal is updated as the thesis progresses. The text should provide brief background to the project that provides a motivation for the work and an outline of methodology. For subsequent meetings, the student prepares a report describing the progress since the last meeting in the context of the larger goals, and the work remaining for each current experiment. If aims are either added or abandoned, explain why.

Meetings should occur at at regular intervals (at least annually during the first two years of thesis research, every six months as the student prepares to defend their thesis, and a pre-defense meeting three months before the planned defense date). Following each meeting, the chair of the thesis advisory committee (chosen by the advisor) prepares a written report along with a copy of the student’s thesis report for submission to the Graduate office. The report summarizes the results of the meeting and recommends whether the next meeting should occur in 3, 6 or 12 months.

Dissertation Requirements:

Students defend their doctoral research ideally in the fifth year of graduate studies.

The dissertation is an extended piece of scholarly, experimental and/or theoretical work typically arranged as an introductory chapter followed by chapters presenting the results of experimental or theoretical work and a chapter on overall conclusions. View the formatting instructions.

The goal of the Introduction is to define the sweep and scope of the thesis. This chapter sets the stage for the work by describing the questions asked, the background of what was known prior to these studies and the approaches taken. The introduction can be short—with specific background for each set of studies provided instead in each results chapter—or be a longer scholarly review of the fields that are brought together in the dissertation. The latter approach often forms the basis for a published review article.

Each Results chapter describes research that generally forms the basis of one publication. The Methods section of the dissertation may be a chapter that follows the Introduction, or it may be incorporated into each Results chapter. The final Summary or Conclusions chapter should tie together the individual Results chapters and may point the way for future studies. A collection of past dissertations by students in the program is available in the 7th floor conference room in the Kolb Annex for consultation.

The thesis defense typically includes an open research seminar in which the work is presented followed by a closed session in which the PhD candidate is examined by the Dissertation Committee. At the conclusion of this examination, the candidate is asked to step outside of the room and the committee votes. The three options are: pass, incomplete (typically additional experiments) or fail. After the vote, the candidate is informed of the result and any textual revisions (assuming the thesis is in the pass category) are outlined. The dissertation mentor is usually responsible for making sure that these revisions are complete before the thesis is deposited (within 6 months of the date of the defense).

The requirements for distributing, defending and depositing a dissertation may be found at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences web site. The PhD defense or Dissertation Committee consists of five faculty members, including the mentor. This committee typically includes the members of the thesis advisory committee. In the case of co-mentors, one acts as the official Dissertation Committee member. The Neurobiology and Behavior Program recommends, but does not require, that the Dissertation Committee include a faculty member from outside Columbia University with particular expertise in the subject of the thesis. Read more detailed information on the internal program website for students.