BSN Social Sciences Track

Year 1.

During your first year in the Ph.D. program, you are required to complete three lab rotations and take six 9-unit courses. At the end of the first year, you are 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. Advancing to candidacy requires passing two tests: the general knowledge exam and the research and candidacy exam. These exams are supervised by the BSN option representative.


As a BSN student through the SS program, during year 1 of the PhD, you are required to take the following courses:

  • SS 201 abc – Decision Theory, Game Theory, and Social Choice
  • SS 222 abc – Econometrics
  • Bi 150 – Introduction to Neuroscience
  • CNS/Psy/Bi 102 a,b – Brains, Minds, and Society
  • CNS 187 – Neural Computation
  • You must also audit (by attending regularly) one course for which you are likely to work in future years as a teaching assistant (TA). Students have often audited EC 11 (Introduction to Economics) or PS 12 (Introduction to Political Science), but other courses can be audited with approval of the BSN graduate advisor.

Course descriptions are available on the Office of the Registrar website. The above classes must be taken with letter grading; they cannot be taken on a pass/fail basis. Students are free to take additional classes, and a research advisor may require that a student take a specific, complementary course as a requirement for joining the advisor's lab.


In addition to these required courses, there are a number of courses that BSN students are encouraged to take. These include:

  • CNS 251 – Human Brain Mapping
  • CNS 105 a,b – Frontiers in Neuroeconomics


Mandatory rotations through research groups (labs) provide a unique opportunity for you to experience the BSN culture. To broaden your knowledge and to provide familiarity with different techniques and ways of thinking or doing research, you will undertake three 12-week laboratory rotations (one per term) during your first year. During each rotation, you are 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. By the end of year 1, you are expected to identify a faculty advisor under whom you will embark on and complete the research component required to attain a PhD in the program.

Year 2.

In year 2 of the Social Sciences BSN track, you are required to take the following courses: Foundations of Economics (SS 205 abc) or Political Institutions and Political Behavior (SS 202 abc), as well as the graduate writing seminar SS 281.

Students are also required to write a research paper in the second year. Some advisors will also require you to present the paper in a seminar.

Year 3 Onward.

In the first and second quarter of the third year of BSN, students are required to take two graduate social science courses. In the third quarter, students must enroll in at least one advanced social science course. Beginning in their third year and in all subsequent years, all students must enroll in the 3-unit graduate student seminar (SS 282) every quarter. Students are also required to write and present a research paper in the second and third year in order to be eligible to be admitted for Ph.D. candidacy.


The general knowledge exam satisfies the breadth requirement. A list of about 100 questions, grouped by category, and a list of classical research papers are provided to students at the beginning of the year, thus 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 each student. The general knowledge examination is an oral one, with five faculty (including the heads of the student's three rotation labs and two others chosen for "breadth," of whom one can be from outside Caltech).

The exam 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 1. For the exam, the student must answer questions (from more than one category) taken from this list, which is modified each year. The exam can be retaken after six months. Upon completion of the exam (whether successful or not), the chair of the exam panel must send a written report (email is acceptable) to the option representative as well as to the CNS secretary, who will place this in the student's individual file for future reference. During year 2, the student is expected to produce a piece of work of quality sufficient to be presented at a professional meeting during the first term of year 3. The objective of this piece of work is to offer a way to calibrate the level of expected research achievement and involvement. Acceptance of the abstract or paper is not a requirement for passing candidacy.

During year 2, the student may take other courses, as needed, but is expected to present a high standard (quality, originality) of research at the time of the second part of the candidacy exam. This second—research and candidacy—examination satisfies the depth requirement. This is an oral exam that takes place in the spring term of year 2, with the same, or similar, exam committee that conducted part one of the exam. The exam focuses exclusively on research (accomplished and/or planned). At the conclusion of the exam, the student will need to have all committee members sign the candidacy form (to be obtained from the CNS office beforehand). The student should also provide proof of having passed the first part of the candidacy exam at this time. This can be done by bringing to the second exam a copy of the email sent out at the conclusion of the first exam, or asking the BSN secretary to forward said email to the chair of the student's exam panel.


The candidate is required to take a final oral examination covering his or her doctoral thesis. It will consist of a public thesis seminar and an associated oral examination on the thesis and related fields. This examination will be held at least two weeks after the doctoral thesis has been presented in final form, and prior to its approval.

General Goals

The thesis committee can play an important role in the career of a graduate student. In addition to and in parallel with the thesis advisor, the committee can help to foster the development of a student's research plans, to refine the student's writing and presentation skills, and to develop future research plans. Although obviously not replacing the advisor's role as a mentor, the committee can offer an outside perspective that can be important, especially in making hard decisions about dropping or altering a particular research direction. The thesis committee can only play this role if there are regular meetings (at least yearly).

These meetings will take somewhat different forms as the student progresses. In the early years, the committee will serve to administer the required exams and advise on future research directions. In later years, the committee will help the student with his/her research, determine when enough research has been accomplished toward the PhD thesis, assess progress and hurdles, and help solve problems that might arise.

It is the intention of the BSN faculty to see each graduate student complete his/her thesis work before or during the sixth year of graduate study. The BSN faculty feels strongly that, with correct guidance, six years should be sufficient time, except in exceptional cases. To ensure that students working beyond this normative time get sufficient feedback on their progress, the student's committee will meet every six months (or more frequently if needed) during and beyond the sixth year. It will be part of the committee's responsibility to assess the status of the student and to recommend to the BSN option representative and to the dean of graduate studies that registration be approved for the years beyond the Caltech limit. Each request for an extension will be accompanied by a package from the student containing a detailed explanation, progress report, and plan for completion.


  • Year 1: Breadth oral candidacy exam
  • Year 2: Depth oral candidacy exam
  • Year 3: Thesis committee meeting
  • Year 4: Thesis committee meeting
  • Year 5: Thesis committee meeting
  • Year 6: Two thesis committee meetings at about six-month intervals

This schedule will ensure that each student meets with his/her committee at least once a year. The proposed schedule will apply to all students, although a certain latitude will be given to those presently beyond their fourth year, if such requirements may hinder rather than help progress. Phasing in of the present format will hopefully be possible for most.


Meetings in years 3 and beyond should be concise and planned to last under an hour. In addition to the usual research material, the student should prepare two transparencies. The first will show the proposed research plan (indicating how the scientific goals are to be achieved). The second will be a copy of the conclusions and plans of the previous committee meeting, so that everyone can assess the progress made or hurdles encountered since the time of the previous meeting.


The goal should be to organize both the exams and the committee meetings for years 3 to 5 during the month of May of each year. The faculty will make every effort to be on campus for at least two weeks during that time, so that enough of them can take part in the exam and thesis committees.

The detailed timing remains to be finalized, but efforts will be made to schedule all exams during a short time period. This implies that a large burden will likely fall on a fraction of the BSN faculty each year, but this designated faculty will rotate from year to year.

Committee Makeup

To facilitate this plan, four (and not five) faculty (including the advisor) must be present during these exam and committee meetings, though five is the ideal. Of these four (or five), at least three must be Caltech faculty and at least two must be BSN faculty. The final thesis defense will continue to require five faculty members.

Each committee will have a chair, whose responsibility will be to write a short report of the meeting, with detailed comments on progress, future plans, and potential problems (if any). The three faculty in whose labs rotations are done will be on the student's candidacy exam committee. This report will be sent to the option representative, the executive officer, and the BSN secretary. A similar short report should be written by the student and sent to the same parties. The committee's chair must be someone other than the student's advisor.