2017 Neuroscience Handbook

The Neuroscience Graduate Degree Program at Penn State College of Medicine is a campus-wide program coordinated by various faculty located at the Hershey campus. The program is administered through the Office of Graduate Student Affairs. Information on Neuroscience faculty members based in Hershey, and throughout Penn State, and their research projects can be found at http://med.psu.edu/neuroscience-phd.

Jump to topic



Activate Intent to Graduate Expand answer

At the beginning of the semester in which the student intends to defend his or her thesis the student must activate his or her intent to graduate via LionPATH.

Competency in Written & Spoken English Expand answer

The Graduate School requires that all PhD candidates demonstrate high-level competence in the English language, including reading, writing and speaking. At Hershey, competence is assessed in the Professional Development course [NEURO 530]. Passing these courses satisfies this requirement. In the event of failure, the Option Director will recommend a program for improvement and subsequent re-examination.

Grade Point Average Expand answer

Credit hours are earned only for the grades A, B, and C. However, all D and F grades are included in the computation of the grade point average.

Grade points are assigned as follows:

A= 4 (above average graduate work)
B = 3 (average graduate work)
C = 2 (below average graduate work)
D = 1 (failing graduate work)
F = 0 (failing graduate work)

Grades D and F are not acceptable for graduate credit. If a course is repeated, then both grades are used in computing the cumulative grade point average.

Responsible Conduct of Research Expand answer

All new students in the Neuroscience graduate program must complete an online Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training course during their first year. The online course is offered through the CITI (Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative) Program and supplements the in-class, discussion-based RCR training provided in BMS 591, Biomedical Research Ethics, a required 1-credit course typically taken during the second year. Together, these two courses satisfy RCR training requirements mandated by Penn State’s SARI (Scholarship and Research Integrity) Program, an RCR initiative organized through the Office for Research Protections.

First year students should register for the online CITI RCR course as soon as possible in the Fall semester. To register, go to the Academic and Research Integrity page and follow the instructions. Select Pennsylvania State Univ – Hershey as the participating institution and register for Biomedical Responsible Conduct of Research Course 1, RCR.

All modules must be completed by the end of the first Fall semester; and a copy of the student’s Completion Report must be submitted to the Program administrative office before January 15th.

Thesis Expand answer

Students must present their thesis in accordance with the Penn State University guidelines as described in “Requirements and Guidelines for the Preparation of Master’s and Doctoral Dissertations.”

Current copies can be obtained from the Thesis Office:

115 Kern Building
University Park, PA 16802

Unsatisfactory Scholarship Expand answer

Students are required to have a minimum grade-point average of 3.0 for the doctoral candidacy examination, admission to the comprehensive examination, thesis defense, and graduation. One or more failing grades, a cumulative grade-point average below 3.0, or failing any of the examinations may be considered evidence of unsatisfactory scholarship and be grounds for dismissal from the University (see the Appendix III of the Graduate Programs Bulletin).


First Year Faculty Advisor Expand answer

The Program Director serves as the faculty advisor for students entering the program. The Director is available for specific questions about the program and for more general discussions of a student’s progress. The Director also signs course registration forms during the first year. After a student has selected a thesis advisor, that faculty member will assume these responsibilities.

Thesis Advisor Expand answer

It is the student’s responsibility to identify a thesis advisor and permanent laboratory home by the end of the first academic year. Students should consult the First Year Faculty Advisor with any questions about this process. A student may choose any member of the Neuroscience Graduate faculty, provided that the faculty member is willing to accept the student and that there are space and resources available to the student. Usually, the student will have rotated with this faculty member and is familiar with the laboratory and research program.

Doctoral Students

Academic Requirements Expand answer

The coursework in the Neuroscience Graduate Program consists of required courses and electives. This website lists all the required courses that the students need to take during the first two years (numbers in parentheses indicate the credit hours). In addition to the required courses, students also need to take a minimum of three (3) credits of elective courses during the first two years. PhD students may take no more than 12 graded credits (A-F) of IBIOS 600 Thesis Research, and Master-level students may take no more than 6 such graded credits. Statistics is a required course in the neuroscience program.

Candidacy Examination Expand answer

The purpose of the Candidacy Exam is to establish that the student has acquired sufficient proficiency in the discipline of Neuroscience for admission to Candidacy for the Doctoral Degree.

The Candidacy Exam is taken at the end of the first year. As prescribed by the Graduate School, students must have a minimum grade-point average of 3.0 to be eligible to take the Candidacy Examination.


The Candidacy Examination consists of written and oral components and is administered by the Curriculum Committee, which solicits propositions from program faculty and assigns oral examiners. For the written component, students are asked to defend or refute a general proposition in an area of neuroscience: students are provided with a list of propositions and asked to select two within 2 days. The written paper (15 pages) is due 14 days later and is graded by two to three faculty members who are experts in the subject area. The oral examination is based on topics in neuroscience covered in the first year courses. This examination is administered by faculty representatives of the first-year neuroscience courses.


Students are judged on their combined performance in the written and oral portions of the exam. In the event of failure, the Neuroscience Curriculum Committee will determine whether the student may take another examination. If the student fails a second examination, the status of the student with the graduate program shall be terminated.

Comprehensive Examination Expand answer

The Comprehensive Exam is designed to test the student’s maturation “from a consumer of knowledge to a generator of knowledge”. This exam is usually taken at the end of the second year and consists of a written research proposal followed by an oral examination. The Comprehensive Examination is administered by the student’s doctoral committee. It is a rule of the Graduate School that students must have a minimum grade-point average of 3.0 to be eligible to take the Comprehensive Examination. The student must also have satisfied the English competence requirement and should have completed all required coursework. The oral examination must be formally scheduled by the Graduate School, which requires three weeks’ notice.

Written Proposal

The proposal may be on any topic, including the student’s prospective thesis research, and follows the format of a NIH Predoctoral Fellowship application. The topic of the proposal and the Specific Aims must be agreed upon by the student and his/her thesis advisor. After agreeing to the topic and wording of the Specific Aims, the student’s advisor should have as little to do with the proposal as possible. This means no verbal or written communication, no access to grant proposals, and as little interaction with other people in the laboratory other than what is needed to continue ongoing experiments. Obviously, the student is free to utilize any published (or in press) papers that are available, but the logic, experimental design, and writing must belong entirely to the student. The written proposal must be completed and delivered to the members of the doctoral committee at least one week before the oral examination. It should be emphasized that this proposal need not correspond to the student’s intended dissertation research, although it usually does. The purpose of the exam is to test the student’s ability to develop a coherent research plan and support that plan with logical arguments, supported by literature.

Oral Examination

Students are expected to present the rationale and general approach of their proposal (approx. 20 minutes), followed by an oral examination by the committee on the proposed experiments, predicted results, interpretation of data, and knowledge of relevant background material. Evaluation Students are judged on their combined performance in the written and oral portions of the exam. A favorable vote of at least two-thirds of the committee is required for passing. In the event of failure, the examining committee will determine whether the student may take another examination.

Dissertation & Final Oral Examination Expand answer

Completion of the requirements for a PhD degree in the Neuroscience Program entails the preparation of a dissertation (written thesis), a final oral examination (thesis defense), and formal acceptance of the thesis by the student’s doctoral committee. Thesis Preparation The Graduate School has strict guidelines for the preparation and format of the written thesis; see the thesis guideline for details. Extensive consultation with the thesis committee is strongly encouraged: it is expected that the student should distribute one or two drafts of the dissertation to committee members for review and critique prior to the defense. Students should plan to provide a first draft of the dissertation no less than 2 months before the anticipated date for the final oral examination. The goal is that the dissertation should be in final form for the oral examination. Oral Thesis Defense The final oral examination consists of a public presentation of the thesis research, followed by a closed meeting with the student’s doctoral committee. The examination should be scheduled after the student has fulfilled all of the Graduate School requirements for the degree; three weeks notice is required by the Graduate School for scheduling this examination. The dissertation should be delivered to the members of the doctoral committee two weeks before 7 the defense. A favorable vote of at least two-thirds of the thesis committee is required for passing the final oral examination. Thesis Acceptance This is the final step of the process: the thesis must be accepted, as indicated by the signatures of two-thirds of the doctoral committee and the program director.

Doctoral Committee Expand answer

According to the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin published by the Graduate School regarding Doctoral Committees, the Doctoral Thesis Committee should have:

  • A minimum of 4 members of the PSU Graduate Faculty.
    • 2 members must be faculty members in the Neuroscience Graduate Program
    • 1 member must be from a disciplinary field outside neuroscience (Outside Field Member)
    • 1 member must be outside the home department of the thesis advisor (Outside Unit Member)

The Outside Field Member represents a field outside the candidate’s major field of study and is expected to provide a broader range of disciplinary perspective and expertise.

A person not affiliated with PSU may be added as a special member (beyond the 4 members of the approved PSU Graduate Faculty) upon recommendation of the head of the program and approval of the graduate dean.

The thesis advisor who usually serves as the committee chair. In addition to the above requirements:

  • The doctoral candidate and three committee members must be physically present for the comprehensive exam and defense. No more than one person may be present via telephone. Telephone or video conference arrangements must be approved by the Dean of the Graduate School. A form letter is available for this special request.
  • The student needs approval of 2/3 of the committee members for passing the comprehensive exam and dissertation defense.
  • The student needs to submit paperwork 3-4 weeks prior to scheduled comprehensive exam and defense to:
    Ms. Kathy Shuey, H170, Hershey Medical Center; 717-531-8982; kes6@psu.edu

Master's Students

Courses Expand answer

Masters students must have a minimum of 30 credits and a 3.0 overall GPA (see the MS Requirements Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin).

If pursuing a master’s thesis option, up to six 600-level credits from relevant departments may be A-F graded and 12 credits need to be in the major at the 400-600 level. The students select a thesis committee (upon consultation with faculty advisor), write a thesis, and defend their work.

See the course list here.


Assistantships and Student Status Expand answer

Students must be registered as full time students to maintain stipend eligibility. Full time status is considered either a minimum of nine credits each fall and spring semester (pre-comprehensive exam) or NEURO 601 for zero credits (post-comprehensive exam).

Governance Expand answer

The Neuroscience Program is governed by the Neuroscience Advisory Committee. The committee for this academic year is:

Hershey Campus

  • Colin J. Barnstable, DPhil, Director, Professor and Chair, Neural and Behavioral Sciences
  • Alistair Barber, PhD, Professor, Ophthalmology
  • Kirsteen Browning, PhD, Associate Professor, Neural and Behavioral Sciences
  • Andras Hajnal, MD/PhD, Professor, Neural and Behavioral Sciences
  • Greg Holmes, PhD, Associate Professor, Neural and Behavioral Sciences
  • R. Alberto Travagli, PhD, Professor, Neural and Behavioral Sciences
  • Dan Waschbusch, PhD, Professor, Psychiatry
Internships Expand answer

The internship experience is optional. Typically after the second year in residence, students can spend a summer in an internship at a medical center, government laboratory or in an industrial environment. The time frame for the internship is negotiable with the Thesis Advisor and Co-Director (see further details under General Information).

Laboratory Rotations Expand answer

Students undertake three 6-week laboratory rotations, one in the Fall semester and two in the Spring. The purpose of these rotations is to provide students with the opportunity to become acquainted with different projects, laboratory environments and techniques to allow an informed choice of a thesis project and advisor. The rotation advisor will provide the student with a defined project and clear expectations as to the amount of work involved and the work schedule; the student should also meet regularly with the advisor to discuss the progress of the rotation.

Students may choose any member of the Neuroscience Graduate Faculty for a rotation. If research in a particular faculty member’s lab interests you, make an appointment to discuss the rotation plan with the faculty member. The Director will be available to provide guidance to narrow your choices.

Safety Training Sessions/Examinations Expand answer

Within the first semester of residence, all students are required to complete all necessary safety-training courses. These are generally offered during Orientation, before the start of the first semester.

Seminars Expand answer

It is a program requirement that all Neuroscience Graduate Students attend all Neuroscience Seminars.

Teaching Expand answer

Teaching experience is a requirement of the Neuroscience Program. Students should take this opportunity to develop teaching skills in a classroom or laboratory setting. Students who have successfully taken NEURO 511 are encouraged to consider teaching in the neuroanatomy laboratory sessions of the Medical school course NBS 725. Students interested in this opportunity should initiate discussion early on with their advisor and Graduate Program.

Thesis Submission and Exit Interview Expand answer

Upon completion of the degree, students are to provide the Graduate Program with a copy of their thesis. Students also participate in both the University and Huck Institutes’ Exit Interview Process. For the latter, students may meet with the Graduate Program Director or appropriate representative.

Vacation/Sick Leave Expand answer

Full time graduate students in the Neuroscience Graduate Program who receive stipends are permitted two weeks of vacation per academic year (July 1 to June 30).

Leave should be arranged at least two weeks in advance with consent of the Program Chair (first-year students) or dissertation/thesis adviser (second year and above students). Students will not be routinely granted vacation leave while enrolled in class work. For extenuating circumstances, special arrangements may be made for additional vacation days. Such arrangements need approval of the Program Chair (first-year students) or the dissertation/thesis adviser (advanced students). Vacation leave days do not accrue from year to year. Holidays designated by The Pennsylvania State University are separate and in addition to vacation days.

No sick leave is formally assigned or earned, but may be used as necessary with approval of the Program Chair (first-year students) or the dissertation/thesis adviser (advanced students). Under normal circumstances, up to five days of sick leave per calendar year will be granted, when necessary. Sick leave in excess of five days will be recorded as vacation time. It is the student’s responsibility to contact the Program Chair or dissertation/thesis adviser when he/she is absent from the classroom or laboratory due to illness.