Curriculum & Program Requirements

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Neuroscience and Behavior students will be expected to fulfill the following requirements for the Ph.D. degree:


Within the first two years of graduate study, with a grade of B or higher:

  • Proseminar
  • Research Ethics
  • NSB 617 & NSB 618 (“core course”)
  • Three electives (9 credits)
  • At least one quantitative course

Before graduation:

  • At least 18 credits of Ph.D. Dissertation Independent study (NSB 899)
  • Two consecutive semesters of 9 or more credits to fulfill the graduate school’s residency requirements

Milestones (and required timeline):

  • Formation of Guidance Committee (by the end of the first year)
  • Completion and oral presentation of a "research colloquium to NSB at large (prior to part 2 of the comprehensive exam
  • Comprehensive Exam:
    • A preliminary doctoral comprehensive examination based on papers assigned by NSB faculty (January of the second year)
    • A written grant proposal and defense (by September 1 of the third year)
  • Formation of Dissertation Committee (by the end of the third year)
  • Dissertation:
    • A formal written proposal
    • Completion and oral defense of an original dissertation (a private defense followed by a public defense).

Students are strongly recommended to seek advice and guidance from their committees concerning curricula, career plans, and especially research. Faculty members outside the student's specific research area often provide valuable insights concerning these matters and may be able to facilitate greatly the completion of requirements in a timely and beneficial manner. Thus, formation of committees as soon as possible and subsequent meetings to follow the student's progress are encouraged.



All incoming NSB students are required to take the NSB Proseminar (NeuroS&B 792A) during their first semester in the program. The Proseminar is a 1-credit, pass/fail class that introduces students to the program and its faculty, and covers issues such as research ethics, grant-writing, and the art of oral presentations.

Ethics in Life Sciences for Graduate Students

This seminar is required of all first year Neuroscience and Behavior graduate students. The 1-credit pass/fail course is designed to stimulate critical thinking about ethical research and to engage students in discussion regarding research ethics in the life sciences. Topics to be covered will include responsible conduct of research, workplace ethics, publication practices and authorship, and collaborative research.

Core Courses

All students are required to take two core courses in Neuroscience and Behavior. These courses can be taken in any order, but both must be completed (with a grade of B or better) by the end of the second year. The core courses are intended to provide a common base of knowledge in contemporary neuroscience for students from diverse undergraduate backgrounds. The core courses are: NEUROS&B 617, Cellular and Developmental Neuroscience, Fall; NEUROS&B 618, Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience, Spring


While we wish to encourage breadth in the curriculum, we recognize that it will be necessary for students to orient their programs of study toward their proposed areas of research early in their graduate study. Therefore, a number of existing courses are designated as NSB elective courses. Each student will be required to satisfactorily complete three of these courses, totaling 9 credits, in addition to the two core courses described above, within the first two years in the program. At least two of the three electives, or 6 credits, must be 600-level or above. It is expected that for courses to count as fulfilling the elective requirement, they must be three or more credits.

In addition, any course (or 3 credit special topics seminar) at the 600 level or above taught by a member of the NSB core faculty may be used to satisfy the elective requirement. Students may substitute three journal clubs for one 500-level NSB elective. Each of the three journal clubs must be graded and led by a faculty member. Students wishing to substitute journal clubs for an elective should submit to the Graduate Operations Committee a memo requesting the substitution and the reading lists/syllabi of the journal clubs.

Common courses from which students may choose include:

  • AnSci 697J Cells, Genes, and Development (provisional approval; Spring 2012)
  • Biochemistry 720 Biochemistry of Cellular Membranes
  • Biology 521 Comparative Anatomy
  • Biology 523 Histology
  • Biology 544 Ornithology
  • Biology 548 Mammalogy
  • Biology 550 Animal Behavior
  • Biology 564/565 Vertebrate Physiology
  • Biology 568/9 Endocrinology
  • Biology 566/567 Comparative Physiology
  • Biology 571 Biological Rhythms
  • Biology 580 Developmental Biology
  • Biology 750 Advanced Animal Behavior
  • Computer Science 581 Neural Modeling
  • Computer Science 683 Artificial Intelligence
  • Microbiology 721 Neurovirology
  • NeuroS&B 691A Modeling the Brain: Perception and Learning
  • NeuroS&B 891E Landmark Papers in Sexual Differentiation (offered from time to time
  • Psychology/Biology 591 Primate Behavior
  • Psychology 591 Various topics changing each semester
  • Psychology 617 ABCD (Applied & Basic Cognitive Development)
  • Psychology 630 Research Topics in Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Psychology 650 Brain Development and Behavior
  • Psychology 711 Sensory Processes
  • Psychology 721 Conditioning
  • Psychology 723 Animal Learning
  • Psychology 731 Neuroanatomical Bases of Behavior
  • Psychology/ 732 Neurochemistry
  • Psychology 733 Psychopharmacology
  • Psychology 891 varied topics changing each semester

Coursework in other areas, including genetics, embryology, cybernetics, histology, cell biology, and cell regulation, may be strongly recommended by the Guidance Committee in relation to an individual student's chosen field of research, interest, and specialization.

Quantitative Requirement

All students must take at least one graduate level (500 or above) course to satisfy the quantitative requirement. The course(s) to be taken will be determined by the student's guidance committee. In most cases the requirement will be satisfied by taking one or more statistics courses, such as:

  • Psychology 640 and 641, Statistical Inference in Psych II
  • Public Health 640, Intermediate Biostatistics
  • Statistics 501, Methods of Applied Statistics
  • Statistics 506, Design of Experiments

However, if the guidance committee deems it appropriate, the quantitative requirement can instead be met by taking other appropriate quantitative courses in areas such as bioinformatics, modeling, etc.

NSB Seminar

Students will also be expected to regularly attend the weekly colloquia series sponsored by the NSB program.

Guidance Committee

Upon entering the program, each student should identify a faculty advisor whose research interests closely match those of the student. The student, in conjunction with his/her advisor, will then choose two additional faculty members to serve on his/her Guidance Committee. The Guidance Committee should be formed no later than the spring semester of the student's first year and the composition of the committee transmitted to the Chair of the Graduate Operations Committee. Two of the three members of the Guidance Committee must be core NSB faculty and one member must be from a department other than that of the student's major advisor. Postdoctoral fellows may serve as fourth members of the Guidance Committees.


The function of the Guidance Committee is to supervise and evaluate the student's coursework and first year presentation (see below). The committee will first assist the student in the development of a curriculum plan, taking into account the student's proposed research area as well as the need to prepare for the Preliminary Doctoral Comprehensive Exam taken in the second year of graduate study (see below). In this context, the Guidance Committee will determine whether there are areas of weakness or deficiency that warrant specific coursework in addition to the normal core and elective requirements of the NSB program. The Guidance Committee will also determine how the student will fulfill the quantitative requirement (see above).

At the end of the second year of graduate study, the Guidance Committee will evaluate the student's laboratory work, coursework, and presentation of the first year talk, and will make a formal recommendation to the Program Director as to whether the student should continue in the program.

Research Colloquium and Progress Meeting

By the end of the Spring semester of Year 2, all students should meet with their thesis committee members in person to discuss progress and future directions. 

It is important for all NSB graduate students to acquire, early in their careers, experience in the design, conduct, and reporting of empirical research. Therefore all students will be required to present a talk to the NSB community at large prior to the grant proposal portion of the comprehensive exam (usually by early in the third year). Students should sign up for NEUROS&B 696 Independent Study to get credit for this pre-dissertation work. This presentation will be discussed with the student's advisor and Guidance or Grant Proposal Committee, and should provide sufficient background, data, and future directions.

Preliminary Doctoral Comprehensive Examination ("Comps")

During the second and third year in the program, all students must pass a preliminary doctoral comprehensive examination. This examination serves both an educational and evaluative role. Its objectives are twofold: 1) to enable the student to develop and demonstrate a level of scholarship and knowledge in his/her chosen area of study that is appropriate for the doctoral level neuroscientist, and 2) to demonstrate the student's critical, integrative, and theoretical abilities within the broader scope of Neuroscience and Behavior. Students may not register for NSB 899, Ph.D. Dissertation, prior to completing the preliminary doctoral comprehensive examination. NEUROS&B 696 or NEUROS&B 796, Independent Study, should be used instead.

Format of the Preliminary Comprehensive Doctoral Exam ("Comps")

The Comprehensive Doctoral Examination will be divided into two components: I) a written examination, and II) a grant application (prepared either in National Research Service Award or National Science Foundation format).

I. The written examination part of the Comps will be given at the end of the third week in January of the student's second year (i.e., third semester) in the program.

Three weeks before the date of the exam, students will be assigned several papers (usually four) from the primary scientific literature (1 paper for each examination area), which might be accompanied by relevant review articles. The students will also be given a set of study questions to be determined by the examining committee. The exam itself will be based on the assigned papers as well as pertinent background questions, all designed to probe the students' understanding of the rationale, methods, conclusions, and limitations of each paper. A Comprehensive Exam Committee, composed of NSB Program faculty members, will be responsible for assigning papers, drawing up the study and exam questions, and grading each part of the exam.

Each exam will be graded blind (i.e., student identity will not be known to the examiners) on a scale of 0-10, with half points allowed (e.g., 8.5). A passing grade on each exam is considered to be a score of 8.0 or higher. In order to pass the examination part of the Comps overall, students must receive an average grade of at least 8.0 (i.e., a total score of 32 for the four exams). If a student fails to achieve this average, then the Comprehensive Exam Committee will convene with the GOC in order to review the student's record in the NSB Program. The student's advisor will be notified of the failing grade and will be asked to provide additional feedback concerning the student's aptitude. If the student has not been making adequate progress in the program with respect to her/his coursework and research, then the joint committee has the option of recommending to the Program Leader of NSB that the student be denied qualification for the Ph.D., in which case the student will be given the opportunity to write up his/her results to obtain a terminal Master's degree. Termination decisions will be made by consensus of the GOC and the Program Leader. Students will be given the opportunity to appeal this ruling to the GOC and the Program Leader before the termination decision has been finalized. If the student has been making good progress in the program with respect to his/her coursework and research, then s/he will be offered the opportunity to remain in the program but with a probationary status. In such cases, the student will be required to retake the Comps exam the following spring and must pass the exam at that time or s/he will be terminated from the program with the Master's degree option as described above.

II. The written "Grant Application" part of the Comps will be due on September 1st of the student's 3rd year in the program. Normally, the First Year Presentation and Committee Meeting from year 2 are expected to provide guidance and suggestions for the application, thereby integrating these two training components more closely.  The grant proposal should be in NIH NRSA format or a similar format approved by the GOC.  The grant application must be an original idea; however feedback and other formative advice from fellow students and others are encouraged.  Drafts of the application may be shown to committee members in advance to obtain constructive feedback.  Before September 15th, the student should defend the grant application via presentation to their thesis committee.  The committee will grade the combined presentation and document as "pass," "conditional pass," or "fail."

If a student who has already failed the exam portion of the Comps also fails the Grant Application component, s/he will be terminated from the program with the Master's degree option available. Students who pass the exam portion but who then fail the Grant Application component will be evaluated as outlined above and either given one more opportunity to rewrite and defend the proposal or be recommended for termination from the program with the Master's degree option. The deadline for a second defense of the Grant Application proposal will be December 15th of that year.

Students are encouraged to refine and submit their Grant Application proposals to NIH or another appropriate granting agency. In this regard, it should be noted that there is a January 25th deadline for NIH Kirschtein-NRSA proposals, which allows ample time for the student to work with his/her advisor to refine the proposal from its original version and with the benefit of comments and suggestions from the second year committee meeting and presentation.

Doctoral Dissertation

It is expected that the dissertation will normally be completed within four years of entering the program (three years for students entering with a Master's degree in a related field). The dissertation committee should be formed by the student in consultation with his/her advisor no later than May 1st of the third year in the program. The committee must consist of at least four members of the graduate faculty, from at least two different departments, and including at least three NSB core faculty members. Committee members will be available for advising and consultation throughout the planning, execution, and writing of the dissertation. In accordance with Graduate School requirements, the student should inform the Graduate Program Leader as to the proposed membership of the Dissertation Committee. The Graduate Program Leader will then nominate these individuals to the Graduate School, which carries out the actual appointment of faculty to such committees. As with the Guidance Committee, it is recommended that dissertation research be discussed with, and preferably approved by, the Dissertation Committee before the student invests too much time in the proposed research. To facilitate this goal, Dissertation Committees are required to meet with students at least once each year to discuss the student's progress as well as possible changes in the research plan. The NSB Program will be notified of such meetings by e-mail or written memo from the committee chair (dissertation advisor) to the Program Coordinator for inclusion in the student's permanent file.

A dissertation proposal outlining the student's planned dissertation research must be submitted to his/her Dissertation Committee for approval and submission to the Graduate School. The deadline for submission of a draft proposal to the Dissertation Committee is November 1st of the student's fourth year in the program. After making any revisions of the proposal that have been requested by the Dissertation Committee, the student should submit the approved and signed proposal to the Graduate School by December 15. A photocopy of the signed proposal must also be submitted to the Program Coordinator for inclusion in the student's file. The dissertation proposal should contain:

A title page with space for signatures from all committee members and the NSB Graduate Program Leader.

A statement of the research problem or question that the student proposes to investigate.

A review of the background and rationale of the problem.

A clear statement of the hypothesis to be tested.

A description of the proposed experiments, the methods to be used, and potential interpretation of the results.

An accurate bibliography

Preparation of the dissertation and the dissertation defense will be held in accordance with Graduate School regulations. Students should consult the Graduate School Checklist for Doctoral Degree as well as the Graduate School Handbook for full information.

To facilitate adequate preparation and defense of the doctoral dissertation, the following procedures and timetable should be adhered to.

(1) The student should hold a "predefense" meeting with his/her Dissertation Committee approximately 6 months before the anticipated defense. At this time, the student will present a "progress report" and discuss any problems that have been encountered and/or any change in research plans since the last committee meeting.  The Graduate Program Leader and the GOC Chair must be informed of the outcome of the meeting.

(2) The final defense will have two parts: (a) a public presentation of the dissertation to the entire NSB Program, followed by (b) a formal defense with the Dissertation Committee (and any other Graduate Faculty who wish to attend). The NSB Program Office and the Graduate School must be notified of the date of the formal dissertation defense 1 month in advance.

(3) Six weeks prior to the intended dissertation defense date (i.e. 2 weeks prior to informing the NSB Program Office and Graduate School), the Dissertation Committee members will be presented with a  complete draft of the dissertation that has been prepared by the student and deemed acceptable to go to the committee by the student's advisor. The committee must approve this draft as being suitable for defense before the defense can be held. If revisions are required at this time, then such revisions will be made and the revised version of the dissertation provided to the Dissertation Committee. All committee members must deem the dissertation to be acceptable for formal defense by the student. If necessary, the defense will be postponed by notification of the Graduate School and the NSB Program until the draft dissertation has been approved by the Dissertation Committee. Note, however, that if at any time the chair of the Dissertation Committee believes that another member of the committee has acted inappropriately or unfairly in preventing the formal defense to proceed, then s/he and the student may appeal to the GOC.

(4) At least 1 week prior to the date of the formal defense, an announcement will be sent to all NSB Program faculty members so that any faculty member who wishes may attend the defense. However, there will not be a general program announcement at this time. Instead, once the student has successfully defended the dissertation at the formal defense (i.e., received a "pass", pending revision of the dissertation in accordance with the suggestions of the Dissertation Committee), then a public presentation will be scheduled shortly thereafter by the NSB Program office and announced to all program members. The public presentation is required in order for the NSB Program to approve the final dissertation. If the student fails to successfully defend his/her dissertation before the Dissertation Committee, then he/she will have an opportunity to revise the dissertation and prepare for another defense. In the unlikely event that the student also fails the second defense before the Dissertation Committee, then the student will be subject to termination from the NSB Program by order of the GOC.

The thesis must be submitted along with the Doctoral Degree Eligibility Form to the Graduate School Office of Degree Requirements, 534A Goodell Building by the deadline for the appropriate degree granting period. The deadlines (link is external) are absolute and no exceptions will be made by the UMass Graduate School.

Teaching Requirement

All students will be required to fulfill a teaching requirement. The way in which this requirement can be met is left to each student's Guidance, Preliminary Exam, and Dissertation Committee, but the intent is to give the student experience in teaching, not merely in the duties often associated with teaching assistantships such as grading examinations. There is a range of ways in which this teaching requirement might be met. These include, but are not limited to, the student giving 2 or 3 guest lectures in an appropriate class, by being a Teaching Assistant in a course in which the Teaching Assistant actually teaches, such as in a laboratory course, or by teaching a Continuing Education course. The student must transmit the proposal for completing this requirement to the Chair of the Graduate Operations Committee for approval, and the Chair of the Graduate Operations Committee must be informed of its successful completion.

Master's Degree Requirements

Students will not be admitted to the NSB program for a terminal Master's degree; however, any student in the program may petition to earn an M.S. in Neuroscience and Behavior while completing requirements for the Ph.D. In addition to those requirements specified by the Graduate School, requirements for an M.S. degree in Neuroscience and Behavior will be:

  • Completion of the Proseminar, two core courses, and one statistics course with grades of B or better*.
  • Submission of a formal Master's thesis based upon original research. The student's Guidance Committee will direct and evaluate the Master's thesis in both written and oral presentation.

* In rare cases, a student who has earned a B- in an elective or statistics course may petition the GOC for permission to use this course to fulfill Master's degree requirements. In deciding whether to grant the exception, the GOC will take the entire student's record into account. In no case can a grade of B- or lower be accepted in a core course.

Program Requirements for Students Entering With Previous Graduate Work

Students admitted to the NSB Program who have done previous graduate work at another institution (including the attainment of a Master's degree) must form a Guidance Committee to assess their background in relation to our Program and to assist in curricular planning. Such students must fulfill all NSB requirements including coursework, Research Colloquia, Preliminary Doctoral Comprehensive Examination, and Ph.D. Dissertation. However, waiver of certain requirements may be granted upon written petition of the Graduate Operations Committee.

Course Waivers

If a student has previously completed (with a grade of B or better) graduate level courses that appear to be comparable to any of the NSB course requirements (core, elective, statistics, or methodology) described on pp. 2-4, the student may request a waiver of the specified courses according to the following procedure. The student should first consult with the University of Massachusetts faculty member who normally teaches the course in question. Upon being provided with a description of the course content (preferably including the course syllabus, textbook, etc.), the faculty member will check off his/her approval or disapproval of the waiver on a form obtained from the Chair of the GOC. Appropriate considerations include similarity of content with the analogous U. Mass. course, breadth and depth of coverage, and how recently the student has taken the course (e.g., perhaps courses taken more than 5 years earlier should not be recommended for waiver unless the student presents evidence of having actively maintained contact with the subject matter of that discipline). A written request for course waiver(s) along with the appropriate course materials, faculty member's approval, and official student transcript (to verify course enrollment and grade) should then be forwarded to the Chair of the GOC.


At the end of each academic year, and when deemed necessary by the Graduate Operations Committee, graduate students in the program will be evaluated with regard to their progress and standing in the program.

The Graduate Operations Committee will meet with each student and thesis advisor. These meetings will serve to establish an efficient mechanism to identify problems while they are small and help with resolution and to allow the GOC to get to know all of the students as a means to provide better guidance. In advance of the review meeting, students will be asked to submit a current CV to the IDGP office and complete a form detailing coursework, teaching, service, and milestones achieved so far in the program. The review meeting will last for roughly 20 minutes. The advisor will speak with the GOC first, then the student will join the meeting, and finally, the advisor will leave and allow the student to speak to the GOC. Prior to the beginning of the next academic year, a letter summarizing the student’s progress will be sent to each student and advisor.

Any recommendations by the Graduate Operations Committee concerning change of status or termination of students from the program will be presented to the NSB Steering Committee. The Steering Committee will make all recommendations concerning continuance of students in the program.

Academic Standing

To remain in good standing in the Neuroscience and Behavior Program, a student must meet the requirements of both the Graduate School and the Neuroscience and Behavior Program.

The regulations of the Graduate School state that "A student who in any two semesters, consecutive or otherwise, has semester averages of below 2.8 is subject to academic dismissal upon recommendation of the graduate program director to the Dean of the Graduate School". The Graduate School regulations also state more generally that "A student who is not making satisfactory or reasonable progress is subject to termination upon the recommendation of the graduate program to the Dean of the Graduate School".

For the NSB program specifically, a graduate student must maintain a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 in NSB core and elective courses and in related graduate courses at the 500 level or above. This will not include independent study, masters, or dissertation credits. For students who transfer into the NSB program, all NSB core and elective courses and related graduate courses at the 500 level or above that were taken at the University of Massachusetts will be included in the calculation of the cumulative grade point average. The NSB program also expects students to receive a grade point average of 3.0 or above in NSB core and elective courses taken in a given semester.

"Satisfactory and reasonable progress" in the NSB program also requires excellence in research. The faculty advisor(s) and the Graduate Operations Committee will determine whether satisfactory progress is being made on the dissertation research in general.

If a student fails to remain in good standing, the Graduate Operations Committee will consider appropriate action. A student who, during a given semester, receives less than a 3.0 average in NSB core and elective courses will at the very least be issued an Academic Warning. Failing to maintain graduate school requirements or other NSB requirements will lead to either an Academic Warning or Academic Probation. If a student is placed on Academic Probation for any reason, the GOC will cite specific problem areas and will state specific goals that the student must achieve to be removed from probationary status. If at the end of the probationary semester, the student has failed to achieve the goals established by the GOC, the student will be considered by the GOC for dismissal from the program or for a terminal Master's degree. Recommendation for a terminal Master's degree normally will also include withdrawal of all funding from the NSB Program (including travel funds).

Travel Funds

Doctoral students in good academic standing in the Neuroscience and Behavior Program are eligible to receive travel funds of up to $450 (pre-dissertation proposal) or $800 (post-dissertation proposal) per fiscal year (July 1-June 30) to defray the cost of travel to professional meetings. There is a lifetime limit on NSB travel funds of $2,500. Beginning in the third year, students are expected to present their research in order to be eligible to receive NSB funds. These funds are in the form of reimbursement for expenses incurred.

An online pre-travel authorization form must be completed according to general University guidelines at least two weeks before the date of travel.

Leaves of Absence

NSB students wishing to take a leave of absence must satisfy the following conditions before obtaining approval for a one-year leave of absence:

  • The student must apply for a leave of absence by March 1, unless an unexpected major emergency or medical crisis is the reason for the requested leave. In the latter case, the Graduate Operations Committee will consider a request for leave based upon the specific circumstances involved.
  • The student must be in good academic standing with a minimum cumulative grade-point average of 3.0 in graduate-level academic courses and must have demonstrated satisfactory progress in research.
  • The student must have met the time schedule appropriate for his/her year in the program and have full-time student status.
  • Leaves of absence will be granted for one year and one year only, except in cases of medical emergencies, in which case, leaves may be granted either for one semester or for one year.
  • Students on leave must notify the Graduate Operations Committee of their intent to return to the NSB Program by March 1 of the subsequent year. Students who miss the March 1 deadline must reapply for admission to the NSB Program if they wish to return to the program.≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈≈