Neuroscientists are medical researchers who probe into the inner workings of the brain and nervous system. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that medical researchers, including those specializing in neuroscience, typically hold a Ph.D. A few neuroscientists are also licensed medical doctors. Findings from neuroscience research spark new ideas for cures and treatments of medical conditions.

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Neuroscience Ph.D. program rankings offer insight about program quality. You may also want to consider which school most closely suits your research interests.

Best Schools for Neuroscience in the United States

U.S. News & World Report ranks several neuroscience programs in the U.S. among the finest in the world. Ratings of the best schools for neuroscience are based on reputation, award-winning faculty, publications and state-of-the-art laboratories. Moreover, quality programs offer doctoral students support and ongoing mentoring as they immerse themselves in exhausting research studies.

Harvard University

Harvard’s Program in Neuroscience, also known as PiN, consistently ranks among the best colleges for neuroscience in the world. Harvard is known for intensive training. Students assist faculty in studies being conducted at the Harvard Medical School neurobiology department, at affiliated hospitals and on campus. Students and faculty come to Harvard from all over the world to engage in cutting-edge research. The Harvard neuroscience website emphasizes the close-knit community of scholars in the neuroscience program.

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The mission of PiN includes preparing Ph.D. students to be change agents and leaders in advancing science. Harvard students are financially supported and personally encouraged and inspired during the course of their studies. Graduates land jobs in many different areas, such as academic research labs, biotech companies and pharmaceutical companies.

Stanford University

Stanford University offers a high-tech Neuroscience Ph.D. Program that attracts diverse students with backgrounds in biology, mathematics or psychology. Competition is keen for admission and fellowships. Neuroscience students can work with faculty in many different departments, such as electrical engineering, psychiatry, applied physics and cellular physiology.

Faculty have earned international reputations in their field of expertise. According to the Stanford neuroscience website, all professors in the department have made significant discoveries when studying cognition, molecular biology and much more. Students seeking a study break may enjoy participating in graduate student movie nights and similar networking outings.

University of California, San Francisco

Located in the Silicon Bay area, the Neuroscience Program at the University of California, San Francisco trains Ph.D. students to tap the power of technology to solve vexing problems in medical research. Examples of methods used include imaging, computational informatics and electrophysiological analysis. This integrated approach leads to deeper understanding of neural system functioning and disorders.

Admission decisions are made holistically, meaning that many factors are considered. The GRE is not required. Competitive applicants have a compelling personal statement, extensive undergraduate research experience and excellent letters of recommendation attesting to the student's academic drive. Students and faculty from all disciplines participate in seminars, lectures and retreats hosted by the neuroscience program.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences engages in cross-disciplinary research that could benefit society. For instance, the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory program studies how patients with mental disorders process and store information. Findings could help bring about new treatments for mental illness.

Doctoral students rotate between three different labs, where they learn the latest models and methods for answering important research questions. First-year students are paired with a faculty mentor who will oversee the student’s Ph.D. research and thesis. Required coursework is typically finished by the end of the second year. Students then spend another two to four years researching in labs, attending seminars and finishing their doctoral dissertation.

Columbia University

Researchers in the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University share an interest in the biology of neural circuitry in relation to normal and maladaptive behavior. The rigorous curriculum covers integrated subjects and techniques, such as brain imaging, electrophysiology, biophysics, cell biology and behavioral theory. Doctoral students have an opportunity to work with faculty in many different research centers.

Interdisciplinary research is being done in many scientific areas, such as behavioral genetics, developmental neuroscience, computation and theory. Doctoral students with a background in psychology may be drawn to studies in intrinsic motivation, human curiosity, psychiatric disorders, machine learning and human intelligence. Entering doctoral students work closely with a faculty adviser to develop a plan of study that will include coursework, research, writing and defending a thesis in their fifth year of the doctoral program.

University of Pennsylvania

More than 150 high-caliber faculty are involved in a wide variety of research fields at the Neuroscience Graduate Group program at the University of Pennsylvania. The doctoral program offers a broad foundation in neuroscience along with the opportunity to pursue specializations of interest to the student. For instance, students working toward a Ph.D. may study systems neuroscience, developmental neuroscience, behavioral neuroscience or the neural etiology of disease.

Year one and two in the Ph.D. program entails coursework and three lab rotations. Students take a candidacy exam at the end of their second year. Students must complete a one-semester teaching assistantship during their third year. The next year or two is spent researching and finishing all dissertation requirements. Besides conducting research, doctoral students publish in journals and join student organizations.

Washington University in St. Louis

The Neuroscience Program for Ph.D. students at Washington University in St. Louis focuses on virtually every aspect of brain function, development and disease. Faculty and students have won many prestigious awards for contributions to the field of neuroscience. Students may seek advising and take courses from faculty in many departments besides neuroscience like biochemistry, biomedical engineering, neurosurgery, pathology and psychiatry.

Doctoral students receive individual attention and close mentoring. Like other top-tier schools, admission is competitive. Some students also enroll in medical school. Training in neuroscience and neurology can lead to better approaches to strokes, epilepsy, spinal cord injuries and other serious conditions.

​Johns Hopkins

The Neuroscience Program at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is one of the oldest and most respected neuroscience centers in the country. Faculty-led research teams have been on the forefront of discoveries in areas such as circuit functions, cell development and neurotransmitter signaling. Besides invaluable experience, doctoral students receive a stipend and full-tuition remission. Postdoctoral fellowships are also offered.

The expansive program is designed to attract students from many different disciplines. First-year students meet regularly with an advisory committee before being paired with a thesis advisor who helps them throughout the process of the dissertation. Students also receive career guidance to help them find good jobs in research and teaching upon graduation.

Yale University

Yale University’s Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program offers a multi-disciplinary Ph.D. degree that offers breadth and depth of instruction. Doctoral students in the neuroscience track take four core courses that delve into neuroscience principles, neurobiology, bioethics of brain research and functions of the human nervous system. Next, students enroll in advanced neuroscience classes and finish two or more laboratory rotations in areas such as neuro-immunology, neuropharmacology or computational neuroscience.

The curriculum is enriched by seminars, retreats, journal clubs and collaborative projects with scholars in the other tracks offered through Yale’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program. Yale’s main campus is conveniently located within walking distance of the medical school. Doctoral students have access to a 60,000 square foot neuroscience laboratory as well as access to all other BBS labs, courses and faculty.

About the Author

Dr. Mary Dowd is a dean of students whose job includes student conduct, leading the behavioral consultation team, crisis response, retention and the working with the veterans resource center. She enjoys helping parents and students solve problems through advising, teaching and writing online articles that appear on many sites. Dr. Dowd also contributes to scholarly books and journal articles.