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MUSC Laboratory

PhD and MS in Neurosciences


The requirements for a PhD in Neurosciences are exciting and challenging.


Year 1

New PhD students with an interest in neuroscience are accepted into the College of Graduate Studies (CGS) , which includes the Neuroscience Institute PhD Program as well as nine other training programs. All PhD students in CGS are required to participate in the first year curriculum, which is designed to provide a broad interdisciplinary background devoted predominately to the principles of the basic sciences.

Fall Semester

  • Proteins: Dynamic Structure & Function (CGS 765) The 18 sessions of this 5-week, 3 credit hour course present fundamental principles of protein structure and function. Proteins, the most abundant and diverse family of macromolecules within the cell, play a myriad of essential catalytic and structural roles within the cell. They undergo multiple post-translational modifications and interact with numerous partners, including other proteins, RNA, DNA and membranes. These topics will be considered within the context of health and disease, with an emphasis on the molecular mechanisms underlying fundamental cellular processes and underscoring the impact of mutant proteins on cell behavior and the importance of proteins as therapeutic targets.
  • Genes: Inheritance/Expression  (CGS 766) The 25 sessions of this 7-week, 4 credit hour course present the fundamental principles of  inheritance, maintenance and expression of the genetic material. The first 6 sessions focus on the principles and practice of classical and molecular genetics, and the next 7 focus on the replication, repair and transmission of the DNA genome within the context of the mammalian mitotic and meiotic cell cycles.     The final 11 sessions focus on the expression of the genome, incorporating discussions of transcription, epigenetic modifications of DNA and histones, nucleolus and rRNA synthesis and maturation, mRNA processing, nuclear export and translation, and regulation by non-coding RNAs.
  • Cells: Organization/Communication (CGS 767) The 18 sessions of this 5-week, 3 credit hour course address the fundamental principles of cell structure, compartmentalization, and function. The first 10 sessions focus on the structure, function and dynamics of the endomembrane systems of the cell, the cytoskeleton, major organelles and programmed cell death. The final 7 sessions address cell:cell and cell:matrix interactions and the complex process of signal transduction. The overarching principles involved in the process of signal transduction, which most often involves the transduction of a signal from an extracellular ligand to a nuclear response, will bring together the principles discussed in the initial part of this course and those discussed in modules I and II.
  • Techniques & Experimental Design - TED (CGS 768) TED represents a unique and timely approach to learning. The topics covered in TED synch with the fundamental concepts covered within the Core Curriculum course (CGS 765-767). TED highlights essential tools and approaches required to achieve a high level of competency in biomedical research. Students will be equipped with the knowledge necessary to tackle protein biochemical studies such as protein isolation, understand the basics of genetics, including the use of cutting edge gene editing strategies and execution of genetic screens, and gain exposure to central concepts and approaches highly relevant to cell biology. Collectively, this training is expected to provide students with foundational knowledge and an invaluable toolkit that will collectively prepare students to successfully embark on their thesis research.
  • Laboratory Rotation (CGS 720)
    To acquaint students with potential dissertation mentors. Two rotations of 8 weeks each during the fall semester.

Spring Semester

  • Fundamentals of Neuroscience (NSCS 730)
    This course is the first component of the core neuroscience curriculum and is designed to provide an overview of the fundamental concepts in the field of neuroscience. Neuroscience I covers the anatomy of the nervous system, the electrical properties of neurons, synaptic transmission, as well as an overview of sensory and motor systems.
  • Important Unanswered Questions in the Biomedical Sciences (CGS 760)
    First year seminar series
  • Laboratory Rotation (CGS 720)
    To acquaint students with potential dissertation mentors. Two rotations of 8 weeks each during the spring semester.
  • Seminars/Journal Club (NSCS 780)
    Students are required to attend both the weekly Department of Neuroscience seminar series as well as the weekly graduate student journal club.

At the end of the first year (May) the student chooses a PhD program and faculty mentor for their dissertation research.

The summer between the first and second years is free from coursework and the student focuses on lab research with his/her chooses mentor.

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Year 2

Fall Semester

  • Introduction to Biostatistics  (CGS-700) 
    This course provides a survey of descriptive and inferential statistics commonly used in biomedical research.  Topics include elementary probability theory, an introduction to statistical distributions, point and interval estimation, hypothesis testing, regression and correlation.  The course is intended for graduate students in the basic and clinical sciences, clinical residents/fellows, and medical and dental students who seek a working knowledge of biostatistical methods and their applications.
  • Clinical/Systems Neuroscience (NSCS 735)
    Building upon the anatomy and physiology covered in Fundamentals of Neuroscience, this course covers the development and plasticity of the nervous system, higher brain functions such as memory and language, and clinical neuroscience.
  • Seminars/Journal Club (NSCS 780)
  • Research (NSCS 970)

Spring Semester

  • Neuroscience Electives- Neuroscience is a rapidly expanding and evolving field and it is impossible to capture this breadth within our core curriculum. In order to provide students with a greater diversity of course options, the department offers a series of half-semester courses during each spring semester. Two different courses are offered concurrently during each half of the semester for a total of four elective courses each spring. Each elective class is offered on a biennial basis. Students are required to attend four of these electives during the course of their graduate training. For a listing of potential elective courses, please click the "Neuroscience Electives" link.
  • Seminars/Journal Club (NSCS 780)
  • Research (NSCS 970)

The qualifying examination for admission to candidacy is normally administered during the summer session of the second year of the PhD program. This examination consists of both a written and oral component.

The summer between the second and third years is free from coursework, and the student focuses on lab research.

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Year 3 and beyond

Following successful completion of the qualifying examination, the third and subsequent years are primarily dedicated to dissertation research. During this period students are required to attend the weekly graduate student journal club and department seminar series. Students are also required to attend a total of four elective courses in neuroscience prior to their admission to candidacy. Finally, the college of graduate studies requires that PhD students receive training in the statistical analysis of data. This may be achieved either by enrolling in and completing CGS700 in the second or subsequent years of graduate study, or by providing transcript evidence of satisfactory completion of previously-taken statistical course(s) that fulfill the College requirement.

Written Qualifying Examination

Prerequisites - Prior to this examination, the student must satisfactorily complete the first year graduate school curriculum, the core Neuroscience program curriculum and be in good academic standing (3.0 overall GPA or better, and a GPA of at least 3.0 for the Neuroscience program courses). This examination will ordinarily be taken during the summer term following the student’s second year.

Objectives -

  • To assess the student's general knowledge base in the Neurosciences
  • To examine the ability of the student to integrate information in that knowledge base

Committee members - Each year, the director of the Neuroscience Institute (NI) will appoint a qualifying examination committee. The committee will consist of 4 faculty members from the NI. The committee will have the responsibility of constructing the written qualifying examination for that year's students.

Examination Format - The qualifying examination committee will solicit examination questions from the departmental faculty involved in graduate education. The submitted questions will be reviewed and selected by the committee. All students will take the same examination at the same time. The examination will be administered over a 3-day period. Each day, students will be given 3 questions, from which they must answer 2. One of these questions will be a required question that all students must answer. Each day's testing will consist of a 4-hour morning and afternoon session with a 1-hour break for lunch. Typically, the required question would be given during the morning session and the optional questions given during the afternoon session. The faculty member who wrote the particular question will grade the student's answer.

Committee Feedback - At the completion of the examination, the examination committee will meet to evaluate the performance of the student. The committee will make a recommendation to the NI advisory board as to whether the student may proceed to the oral examination. The NI advisory board will then vote on whether the student has passed the written examination.

Once the student has passed the written examination, a summary of the strengths and weaknesses of the student's performance will be compiled and forwarded to the appropriate oral examination committee along with the student's graded examination questions. A critique of the student's performance on each examination question will be provided to the student. However, an individual grade for each question will not be provided; only an overall pass/fail for the entire examination.

Failure of Examination - If a student fails the written qualifying examinations, the student must petition the NI examination committee to be allowed to retake the examination. The student's progress in the program will be a major factor in determining whether a student will be permitted to retake the examination. Other factors will include the recommendation from the student's advisor, an evaluation of the student's grades, the student's participation in seminars and research committee meetings, and evidence for research progress. The examination committee will determine the format of the written re-examination. The decision to deny a student the opportunity to retake the written examinations must be unanimous. If the examination is failed after the second attempt, the student will be dismissed from the Neurosciences doctoral program.

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Oral Qualifying Examination

After successfully completing the written examination, the student will take an oral examination with his/her advisory committee. The oral examination should be scheduled within one month of the completion of the written examination. This examination will typically last 2-3 hours. Following the oral examination, the committee will vote on whether the student passed the oral examination.

Committee - Each student will have an individual oral examination committee. Typically, this committee will also serve as the student's dissertation committee, but the student may elect to make changes in the makeup of the dissertation committee after successfully completing the oral examinations. The oral examination committee will consist of a minimum of 4 faculty members, of whom at least 3 must be members of the graduate faculty and in the Neuroscience Institute. The committee will also have the prerogative to request one or more non-committee faculty to attend the oral.

Objectives - 

  • To test the ability of the student to think on his/her feet
  • To explore weaknesses in the student’s knowledge base that were identified in the written examination

Following the oral examination, the committee will vote on whether the student passed the oral examination.

It is important to view the written and orals as an integrated examination. In addition, this oral examination is separate from the oral defense of the student's dissertation proposal, and should cover a broad array of topics.

Failure of Examination - If the student fails his/her oral examination, the same appeal process as described for failure of the written examination will be followed with the exception that the petition will be directed to his/her oral examination committee.

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Dissertation Proposal

Prerequisite: The student must have successfully passed the written qualifying examination. The defense of the dissertation proposal will ordinarily occur no longer than 6 months after the written qualifying examination.

Committee Members: The dissertation committee will consist of a minimum of 4 faculty members, of whom at least 3 must be members of the Neuroscience Institute. The student's major advisor normally chairs this committee.

Written Proposal: The student's committee will have a major responsibility to ensure that the student is ready to submit a well-constructed proposal and to defend that proposal and demonstrate knowledge of neuroscience and experimental design. The proposal will be written in the format of a National Institutes of Health research grant, as described below:

Specific Aims: The purposes of the research proposal and the hypotheses to be tested.

Background and Significance: Sketch briefly the background to the proposal. State concisely the importance of the research described in this application by relating the specific aims to broad, long-term objectives. This section should be 4-7 pages. The literature survey should include relevant information, but need not be exhaustive.
Preliminary studies: (1-4 pages). This will vary a great deal because some students will be further along by the time they complete this section.

Research Design and Methods: Provide an outline of:

  • Research design and the procedures to be used to accomplish the specific aims.
  • Tentative sequence for the investigation.
  • Statistical procedures by which the data will be analyzed.
  • Any procedures, situations, or materials that may be hazardous to personnel and the   precautions to be exercised
  • Any courses planned which support the research training experience.
  • Potential experimental difficulties should be discussed together with alternative approaches that could achieve the desired aims.

Dissertation proposals must be distributed to the doctoral committee and be available to the entire program faculty at least two weeks before the examination.

Oral Presentation: The candidate will present a 30-40 minute seminar presentation of the proposal followed immediately by an oral discussion. The discussion will begin with questions from all those in attendance and then proceed to questions from committee members. All of the doctoral committee members must be present. Questions may broadly cover aspects of neuroscience and research design, but primarily will be oriented towards the proposal. After this phase of the examination, the dissertation committee will adjourn to discuss the candidate's performance and to vote.

Failure of Proposal: In the event a student fails the proposal defense, the committee will either recommend the student be given an opportunity to reschedule the defense, or the student will be dropped as a Ph.D. candidate in the Neurosciences Program (a terminal M.S. would be possible). At least three months must elapse between a failed defense and the re-scheduled defense. The proposal defense may be taken a maximum of two times. Two failures result in termination of enrolment in the Graduate School.

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Final Defense of Dissertation

After the dissertation committee has accepted the dissertation proposal, the student will keep the committee informed about the progress of the dissertation research through semi-annual meetings, culminating in the dissertation defense. The student's committee will have a major responsibility in ensuring that the student is ready to submit a well-written dissertation in the area of experimental neuroscience and to defend that dissertation orally.

Instructions and guidelines for preparation of the written dissertation can be found here. Final dissertation copies must be distributed to the doctoral committee and be available upon request to the entire program faculty at least two weeks before the defense. After the committee members have read the dissertation, they will provide the student with oral and/or written feedback that may require revisions to the document. When the dissertation is submitted, the date and location of the defense should be carefully scheduled in order to enable broad participation by the faculty.

The defense is public and the time and place will be announced to the MUSC community via a memorandum.

All of the doctoral committee members must be present at the defense in accordance with the rules of the College of Graduate Studies. The defense consists of a seminar-style presentation of the dissertation research by the candidate (30-45 minutes) followed by questions. All those in attendance are invited to question the candidate. In addition to questions about the dissertation research, questions in relevant fields of neuroscience may be entertained. After this phase of the defense, all those who are not members of the graduate faculty are excused and the candidate is questioned further. The candidate is then excused and the dissertation committee proceeds to discuss and vote on the candidate's performance.

MS Program of Study

While the graduate program is primarily oriented toward obtaining a PhD degree, a program of study leading to a Master's Degree is offered on a more limited basis. This program can be completed within two years, and consists of successful completion of selected coursework and an original research program. MS Students are required to take Fundamentals of Neuroscience (spring semester) and Clinical/Systems Neuroscience (fall semester). Students are also required to attend the weekly graduate student journal club where more advanced topics in neuroscience are discussed. Once each year, all students are also required to present a seminar dealing with their dissertation research or another topic.

MS Dissertation
To complete the dissertation requirement, masters candidates will submit an original manuscript of their work to a peer reviewed scientific journal. The student should write this manuscript as first author with guidance from the major advisor. The manuscript will be submitted to the students advisory committee for their critique and approval.

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