Program Description

Aims and Objectives

The goal of the International PhD Program in Neuroscience is to train excellent scholars in modern neuroscience disciplines. The program is specifically designed for students interested in pursuing a professional career in neuroscience research. Emphasis is placed on the development and enhancement of essential skills to prepare students for their future roles as neuroscientists. This includes the planning of research projects, from conceptualization to experimental design, and to final evaluation. Another important element of the program is the development of skills of communication, interaction with other scientists, and scientific writing. Since doctoral students enrolled in the Program originate from different biomedical branches, they will be encouraged to actively seek interaction amongst themselves to facilitate the exchange of research ideas and to encourage interdisciplinary research.

Training is provided over the duration of the PhD thesis (3-4 years) to prepare students for neuroscience careers at an advanced level. The curriculum consists of two major parts: firstly, coursework which provides students with a theoretical background of the existing body of knowledge in selected neuroscience fields and with research skills to address specific questions; secondly, a closely supervised thesis which provides the experience of conducting a substantial piece of original research.


All PhD students from ZNZ groups with a thesis topic in neuroscience will participate in the Program. The duration of the Program is determined by the successful completion of the PhD thesis (3-4 years). During this period the student will attend the mandatory Introductory Course during the first year (two hours per week) and, for the subsequent years, choose from a palette of advanced lectures and practical courses (organized by the ZNZ or from the existing teaching program of the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich as well as external courses and workshops). Credit points are awarded for each course and the student is expected to obtain a minimum of 12 ECTS points by the end of the thesis period. At least one third of the credit points should be collected with courses outside the area of the student's PhD topic but in the area of neuroscience.


Introductory course in neuroscience and retreat (mandatory)

The first year of the program provides the students with an overview and theoretical background of the various neuroscience disciplines in the ZNZ, including the most recent knowledge and concepts. This will be presented in a structured series of lectures and tutorials amounting at least to two hours per week (28 weeks comprising of two semesters of 14 weeks).

Students participate at least once in the annual PhD Retreat at the beginning of their thesis work to connect to our large neuroscience community. This retreat, held at a venue outside Zurich and lasting for several days, also invites recognized international scientists in the field to act as tutors.

Advanced courses, practical courses, colloquia and workshops, transferable skills courses (elective)

During the second, third and possibly fourth year, the student, with the help of the supervisor, selects a program from the list of advanced lectures and practical courses available at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich. External courses and workshops may also be accredited on a case to case basis. Emphasis will also be placed on active participation in research seminar programs and journal clubs of the various neuroscience research groups. The lively discussion promoted by research seminars and journal clubs provides an ideal environment to encourage and enhance the development of communication skills.

Students are also encouraged to develop their communication, scientific writing and social skills. A selection of courses is offered by the ZNZ, the Life Science Zurich Graduate School, the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich. As a rule, a maximum of one third of the required credit points may be acquired from transferable skills courses.

The PhD Thesis

PhD thesis steering committee

At the beginning of the PhD thesis the student, together with his/her supervisor, will nominate the thesis steering committee (a minimum of three persons) which will evaluate and supervise the progress of the PhD work at regular intervals. The guidelines of the corresponding UZH faculties and ETH departments have to be respected. In addition, the ZNZ recommends that the PhD thesis steering committee consists of:

  • The immediate supervisor of the PhD project
  • A scientist (independent group leader or higher) from the same research field who is familiar with the subject area of the PhD
  • A (senior) scientist from another research field whose expertise is outside the main subject area, but within the field of neuroscience

At least one member of the thesis committee must be a ZNZ group leader. Members of the committee can also be affiliated with external universities, except the immediate supervisor of the PhD project.

Thesis proposal

Within the first 12 months after the beginning of the PhD work the student presents a written thesis proposal to the members of the steering committee and hands in a copy to the ZNZ office. The thesis proposal will also be presented orally to the committee.
The steering committee examines the theory and methodology underlying the research project. Furthermore, the committee will ensure that the proposal is feasible, and the goal attainable within the allocated time.

The PhD project

During the PhD work the steering committee will continuously evaluate the progress of the student to ensure that milestones are met for completion of the PhD. The student presents yearly written research progress reports together with an oral presentation to the committee. The first annual written progress report is handed in at the latest one year after submission of the thesis proposal. The reports must also be handed in to the ZNZ office. It is also expected that during the PhD project the student will have additional regular meetings with his/her immediate supervisor.
Based on the first annual report and the oral presentation, the steering committee will decide together with the student, whether the project should be continued, redirected or terminated.

The PhD thesis

After completion of the experimental work the written PhD thesis will be submitted to the faculty. The PhD thesis may be presented in the form of several original articles, with at least one publication as first author in a high impact journal. It should, however, include a general introduction and discussion written by the student. After completion of all requirements and the thesis defense a certificate will be awarded to the student by the ZNZ. The PhD degree will be awarded by the University of Zurich or the ETH Zurich.