CNS Aims and Scope of the Graduate Program
An integrated approach to graduate study combining computation and neural systems is organized jointly by the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering, the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences. This curriculum is designed to promote a broad knowledge of aspects of molecular, cellular, and systems biology, cognitive neuroscience, computational biology and computational neuroscience, information and learning theory, emergent or collective systems, and computer science and electrical engineering in conjunction with an appropriate depth of knowledge in the particular field of the thesis research. For more details, see cns.caltech.edu.
Ideal applicants will have a Bachelor of Science degree or equivalent with a strong quantitative background and some facility with computer programming. They will have shown an interest in understanding the brain and/or in autonomous intelligent systems. The GRE tests (general and advanced subject) are not required and scores will not be considered for admission.
Advisory Committee and TA Requirement
An advisory committee of three CNS faculty members is constituted for each student by the CNS admissions committee upon admission to the program. The faculty in whose lab the student is staying first chairs this committee. The advisory committee meets with the student when they arrive, guides and approves first-year course choices, and answers questions and offers advice about the program and the way of life in CNS. The CNS faculty are available to students during the year for formal and/or informal discussions.
It is expected that each graduate student will serve as a teaching assistant in one or two CNS courses during his or her residency at Caltech as part of the Ph.D. graduation requirement.
CNS Master’s Degree
Only students who expect to pursue the Ph.D. degree will be admitted to the option. The master’s degree may be awarded in exceptional cases. The awarding of this degree requires fulfilling the Institute requirements for a master’s degree, satisfying the option breadth requirements (see following section), the completion of a master’s thesis, and receiving from a candidacy examination oral committee a recommendation for awarding the degree.
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 should carry out three 12-week laboratory rotations (one per term) during the first year, and should 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.
Six nine-unit courses are required during the first year: CNS/Bi/Ph/CS/NB 187, either Bi 9 or equivalent, or NB/Bi/CNS 150, a neurobiology or modeling course, a math course, and two other CNS, Bi, EE, ACM, or Ph courses (for example, a schedule of CNS/Bi/EE/CS/NB 186, CNS/Bi/Ph/CS/NB 187, NB/Bi/CNS 150, and CS/CNS/EE 156 satisfies this requirement). CNS students are required to take two additional classes: the one-unit survey course CNS 100, and the four-unit course Bi 252. These eight courses must be taken for letter grades. Students are free to take additional classes, and a research adviser may require that a student take a specific, complementary course as a requirement for joining his or her lab.
Four faculty, including the three faculty in whose labs rotations have been done, should be on the student’s candidacy exam committee. 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. To be recommended for candidacy you are required to pass two tests: the general knowledge exam, and the research and candidacy exam. These exams are supervised by the CNS option representative.
The general knowledge exam satisfies the breadth requirement. A list of about 100 questions, grouped by category, is available at
www.cns.caltech.edu, 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 the students.
This is an oral exam with the four faculty (including the heads of the student’s three rotation labs and one other chosen for “breadth,’’ of whom one can be from outside Caltech). 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 the list, which is modified each year. (The exam can be retaken after three months.)
The research and candidacy exam satisfies the depth requirement. During year two, the student is expected to produce a piece of work of a quality sufficient to be presented at a professional meeting. (The objective of this description is to offer a way to calibrate the level of expected research achievement and involvement. Professional acceptance of the abstract or paper is not a requirement for passing candidacy.) This work is presented in an oral exam in spring term of year two, before the same exam committee (if possible) that conducted part one of the exam. The exam focuses exclusively on research (accomplished and/or planned). 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.
Thesis Advisory Committee
Once admitted to candidacy, the student chooses a Thesis Advisory Committee of at least three faculty. This committee serves as a source of advice independent of the Ph.D. adviser throughout the student’s tenure. Each year, before the end of June, the student delivers a written progress report, followed by a meeting with the Thesis Advisory Committee.
Thesis Examination Committee
This committee should consist of a minimum of four voting members, three of whom must be Caltech faculty. The final oral examination covers principally the works of the thesis, and according to Institute regulations must be held at least three weeks before the degree is to be conferred.
CNS Subject Minor
Students majoring in other fields may take a subject minor in CNS, provided the program is supervised by a CNS adviser, is approved by the CNS option representative, and consists of 45 units, including NB/Bi/CNS 150, CNS/Bi/Ph/CS/NB 187, Bi 252, and other CNS cross-listed classes. A subject minor is not required for the Ph.D. degree in CNS.