Best behavioral neuroscience graduate programs

    Best behavioral neuroscience graduate programs

      To become a behavioral neuroscientist, you’ll need a doctorate in most cases.

      Behavioral neuroscience master’s programs provide foundational knowledge and research experience to prepare for a PhD program or entry-level positions in the field.

      Behavioral neuroscience PhD programs provide in-depth expertise, helping you attain coveted spots in research, academia, and related professions.

      To choose, consider your career aspirations; while many entry-level behavioral neuroscience positions require a master’s degree, most mid-level opportunities require a doctorate.

      If you’re more interested in the research side of psychology, particularly its biological – i.e., neural – foundations, then behavioral neuroscience may be an excellent career fit for you.

      Behavioral neuroscience, the place where biology and psychology meet to explain human and animal behavior, is exciting, academically rigorous, and competitive.

      To enter the profession, you’ll typically need a graduate degree.

      In your search for the right behavioral neuroscience program, we’ll touch on behavioral neuroscience as a concept, what you’ll need to know to enter the field, and highlight some of most renowned behavioral neuroscience master’s and PhD programs in the United States.

      What is behavioral neuroscience?

      Behavioral neuroscience, or biological psychology, is the field in psychology concerned with how behavior is shaped by the brain – in other words, the study of the biological basis of human and animal behavior.

      To date, the field has drawn most of its insights on the brain-behavior connection from experimentation on (non-human) animal subjects.

      Despite this limitation, increased opportunities for noninvasive experimentation on human subjects have allowed researchers to cover more ground, particularly in assessing neurological disorders.

      A related discipline is cognitive neuroscience, or the study of the biological basis of cognition (thinking processes like memory, reasoning, and language). Behavioral neuroscience is markedly different in its focus on external behavior.

      How to study behavioral neuroscience

      Those who want to study behavioral neuroscience can do so at the bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate level.

      That said, most careers related to the field require a master’s degree at minimum – and, as mentioned, a doctorate is typically required for mid-level (i.e., non-entry level) research and academic roles.

      As such, the following sections will showcase only master’s and doctorate programs in behavioral neuroscience.

      Behavioral neuroscience master’s programs

      Behavioral neuroscience master’s programs are typically research-oriented and designed to prepare students for entry-level research positions in the field, such as laboratory technicians, or for admittance to behavioral neuroscience PhD programs.

      While most behavioral neuroscience graduate programs on the market are PhD track, meaning that admitted students intend to earn a doctorate, some schools offer master’s-level equivalents of their PhD programs or psychology degrees with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience.

      Among this smaller selection, we’ve handpicked a few of those programs; either due to their connection to behavioral neuroscience or usefulness for future plans to pursue a PhD program.

      CUNY, Queens College – MA in Behavioral Neuroscience

      Queens University, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, prides itself on having one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation. It offers a 2-year Master of Arts in Behavioral Neuroscience that prepares its students for a career in research and academia.

      Students write a master’s thesis on a research area of their choice, with the chance to present findings at conferences and in new publications – positioning them competitively later if they decide to apply to doctorate programs.

      Working closely with Queens College neuroscience faculty, program participants can make valuable contributions to contemporary topics in behavioral neuroscience, some of which include:

      • Adult neurogenesis
      • Sensory motor integration
      • Addiction
      • Cognitive neuroscience
      • Mechanisms of ADHD

      This program is well suited for those interested in gaining research experience in the field – both to increase employability and to improve the likelihood of acceptance into a competitive PhD program.

      Program name – Master’s program in behavioral neuroscience

      Name of school (dept.) – Queens College, CUNY Department of Psychology

      Accreditation – Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)

      Location – Queens, New York

      Program format – On-campus

      Program length – 2 years

      George Mason University – MA in Psychology (Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience Concentration)

      George Mason University’s master’s program in psychology offers a Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience Concentration (CBNR), which focuses on translational neuroscience – the application of animal neuroscience research to human behavior.

      George Mason psychology undergraduates also have the option to attend the program as an accelerated master’s.

      Pursuing an MA in psychology with a concentration is particularly advantageous for students planning to continue to the doctoral level, as it provides them with in-depth research experience in a specialization.

      Faculty in George Mason’s Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience Concentration cover a wide range of unique topics in the field, forging connections between areas like:

      • Metals, Alzheimer’s disease, and traumatic brain injury
      • Brain systems and human error
      • Neural activity and human performance

      Note that the prerequisite coursework for eligibility to the program involves at least 15 credits in psychology, a lab course in psychology, and a statistics course.

      Program nameMA in psychology, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience concentration

      Name of school (dept.) – Department of Psychology

      Accreditation – Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)

      Location – Fairfax, Virginia

      Program format – On campus

      Program length – Not specified, though doctorate track-minded students can save 2-3 years on the PhD

      University of Missouri, St. Louis – MA in Psychology (Emphasis in Behavioral Neuroscience)

      The University of Missouri in St. Louis offers a master’s program in psychology with an emphasis in behavioral neuroscience, in addition to a doctoral program of the same name.

      To prepare students for a career or doctorate program in behavioral neuroscience, the program targets the development of the following core skills:

      • Psychological science knowledge base
      • Critical thinking
      • Scientific inquiry – thesis track
      • Communication
      • Ethical and social responsibility
      • Professional development

      The master’s program consists of a thesis and non-thesis track. Students of the former track benefit from an apprenticeship with a faculty member. Thesis track students usually receive financial support in the form of a Graduate Teaching Assistantship – $5,000 per semester and tuition remission.

      Program nameMaster’s in psychology, behavioral neuroscience

      Name of school (dept.) – Department of Psychological Sciences

      Accreditation – Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

      Location – St. Louis, Missouri

      Program format – On campus

      Program length – 2 years

      University of Alabama, Birmingham – MS in Behavioral Neuroscience

      University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Behavioral Neuroscience MS is an interdisciplinary program designed to prepare aspiring scientists for entry into the field, offering a mix of foundational and advanced coursework (e.g., statistics and research design).

      The program offers two tracks: Plan I and Plan II. While both are comprised of 30 hours of coursework, Plan 1 involves a research and formal thesis component. Plan II students, however, can still volunteer in research facilities.

      UAB’s laboratory-based training program is a good fit for students training to enter a relevant professional role, for instance, to become lab technicians, or to prepare for a PhD program.

      Program nameMS in Behavioral Neuroscience

      Name of school (dept.) – Department of Psychology

      Accreditation – Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)

      Location – Birmingham, Alabama

      Program format – On campus

      Program length – Not specified

      University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign – MS in Psychological Science

      University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a national leader in research with psychology among its most popular majors, offers an MS program in psychological science. The program, while not designed for behavioral neuroscience, equips students with a solid foundation in psychological research and pathway to entry into a PhD program.

      The MS in Psychological Science is research-based and interdisciplinary in nature, drawing from psychology, biology, and neuroscience programs. Students enjoy a high degree of flexibility in tailoring their curriculum to their interests, with only a few required courses defined by the department.

      Upon being paired with faculty sponsors, students can explore topic areas like:

      • Drug abuse and addiction
      • Eating, behavior, and exercise
      • Neural plasticity
      • Hormones and neural development

      The school offers a wide range of modern facilities to provide students with hands-on research training, including animal housing facilities and group facilities for research involving microscopy and fMRI.

      Program nameMS in Psychological Science (MSPS)

      Name of school (dept.) – Department of Psychology

      Accreditation – The Higher Learning Commission

      Location – Urbana, Illinois

      Program format – On campus

      Program length – 2 years

      Behavioral neuroscience PhD programs

      If you’re looking to become a full-fledged behavioral neuroscientist, you’ll typically need to earn a PhD.

      Master’s programs, while a good source of foundational knowledge in behavioral neuroscience, lack the depth provided by PhD programs required for many roles in research and academia. And, with more expertise and connections under their belt, behavioral neuroscience doctorate holders generally have an easier time securing teaching jobs at universities, participating in research and publishing scientific work, and entering relevant industries like biotech or pharmaceuticals.

      While competitive to get into, behavioral neuroscience PhD programs do not typically list a master’s in behavioral neuroscience as an eligibility criterion. Instead, students from diverse academic backgrounds can make the cut, provided they’re in good academic standing (and, of course, fulfill the course prerequisites).

      The following is a curated list of some of the most nationally renowned behavioral neuroscience PhD programs in the US.

      Brown University – Psychology or Cognitive Science

      Brown University’s interdisciplinary Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences (CLPS) Department offers two PhD degrees in Psychology or Cognitive Science, with behavioral neuroscience as a research focus area.

      PhD students in the Behavioral Neuroscience/Comparative research area focus on relevant topics in the field, including:

      • Emotional development and dysfunction
      • Auditory perception, memory, and cognitive functions
      • Neurodevelopment, plasticity, and regeneration

      The doctorate program consists of a first-year research project, 4 semesters of teaching assistantships, a dissertation proposal, a preliminary exam paper, a dissertation, and an oral presentation. The program requires a 2–3-year residency.

      Admitted students receive 5 years of financial support in the form of tuition, a stipend, and a health fee.

      Program namePsychology Ph.D. Program (Behavioral Neuroscience/Comparative research focus area)

      Name of school (dept.) – Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences

      Accreditation – NECHE

      Location – Providence, Rhode Island

      Program format – On campus

      Program length – 5 years

      Duke University – Psychology and Neuroscience (Cognition & the Brain)

      Duke University’s PhD program from its Department of Psychology and Neuroscience offers 5 graduate training areas, including a cognition & the brain (CB) track, which uses behavioral methods, among other approaches, to study human cognition.

      The systems and integrative neuroscience research area is another option for students interested in neuroscience.

      The department embraces an interdisciplinary approach, pulling in diverse research methods such as epigenetics, neuroimaging and lab experiments.

      Along with completing core and elective coursework, students will need to defend their Major Area Paper (MAP) and pass an oral exam. A dissertation proposal is also required before it can be completed and defended for graduation. Students also need to complete 2-4 years of teacher assistantships.

      All admitted graduates receive 5 years of financial support, provided they remain in good academic standing.

      Program nameCognition and Cognitive Neuroscience Graduate Program

      Name of school (dept) – Department of Psychology and Neuroscience

      Accreditation – Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)

      Location – Durham, North Carolina

      Program format – On campus

      Program length – 5+ years

      University of California, San Diego – Psychology, Cognitive-Behavioral Neuroscience

      In University of California, San Diego’s Department of Psychology’s PhD program, students can choose from among 5 specialized fields in experimental psychology, including cognitive-behavioral neuroscience.

      The school provides advanced training in modern laboratories where students have research opportunities in experimental psychology.

      UCSD provides 5 years of funding to graduates, including fees, tuition and additional support, provided students serve as teaching assistants for at least 4 years during the program. There is also a full-time residency requirement of 9 months per year.

      Additionally, graduates must complete first and second-year projects, attend seminar courses and practicums, and submit and successfully defend their thesis.

      Program nameCognitive-Behavioral Neuroscience PhD Program

      Name of school (dept) – Department of Psychology

      Accreditation – WASC Senior College and University Commission

      Location – La Jolla, California

      Program format – On campus

      Program length – 5+ years

      University of California, Los Angeles – Behavioral Neuroscience

      University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) PhD track in Behavioral Neuroscience is 1 of 8 programs offered in the department. The goal of the program is to train students focused on careers in research that will contribute to the field.

      As a leader in the neurobiological study of behavior, UCLA exposes scholars to a wealth of research opportunities at its Brain Research Institute and other faculty labs.

      Graduates must complete core coursework, a research project, and a dissertation proposal. An oral exam is required before students can continue with their dissertation research. Students also take a final oral exam where they defend their research. Participants should also complete at least 2 years of residency.

      UCLA provides financial support to graduate students in the form of paid teaching and research assistantships, grants and fellowships.

      Program nameBehavioral neuroscience

      Name of school (dept.) – Department of Psychology

      Accreditation – WASC Senior College and University Commission

      Location – Los Angeles, California

      Program format – On campus

      Program length – 6 years

      Yale University – Behavioral Neuroscience

      Yale University’s Department of Psychology offers a neuroscience graduate program, a rigorous and selective program that enrolls about 15 PhD students a year.

      The program is flexible, allowing students to tailor their coursework and earn their master’s degree while working towards their Ph.D. Research methods and statistical analysis courses are required, along with a first-year research paper, teaching fellowship, pre-dissertation paper and dissertation.

      Students have access to a diverse range of modern research methods and are encouraged to start their research as early as possible while attending regular seminars. There is also a 3-year residency requirement.

      Yale offers the following graduate programs in areas related to behavioral neuroscience:

      • clinical psychology
      • cognitive psychology
      • developmental psychology
      • social/personality psychology

      All graduate scholars in good standing receive full tuition funding and a stipend for at least 5 years.

      Program nameNeuroscience Graduate Program

      Name of school (dept.) – Department of Psychology

      Accreditation – New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)

      Location – New Haven, Connecticut

      Program format – On campus

      Program length – 6 years, 12 semesters

      California Institute of Technology – Social and Decision Neuroscience

      The California Institute of Technology’s (Caltech) Social and Decision Neuroscience PhD Program prepares students to conduct research on the neural basis of learning behavior, social interactions, and decision making.

      Research techniques at the school’s Chen Institute of Neuroscience include neural measuring methods, such as EEG and fMRI, and computational modeling.

      Students complete lab rotations, serve as teaching assistants, and attend seminars throughout their graduate careers. They also attend conferences, submit grant proposals, and give talks. Scholars must also submit and defend a thesis to earn their PhD.

      Caltech’s doctoral students with satisfactory academic progress also receive full tuition funding in the form of external and internal fellowships, teaching assistantships and research assistantships.

      Program nameSocial and Decision Neuroscience PhD Program

      Name of school (dept.) – Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences

      Accreditation – Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Senior College and University Commission

      Location – Pasadena, California

      Program format – On campus

      Course length – 5 years

      University of Texas, Austin – Behavioral Neuroscience

      The University of Texas, Austin’s Department of Psychology offers a PhD program with behavioral neuroscience as an area of specialization.

      Apart from conducting research in the field, students of UT Austin’s Behavioral Neuroscience Program are expected to take courses across the psychology department and in related departments (e.g., pharmacy, neurobiology, and kinesiology).

      Graduate work is supervised by the Committee on Graduate Studies.

      Doctoral students are typically fully funded through research and teaching assistantships, fellowships, and, later, teaching positions. This support includes tuition, health insurance, and a living stipend.

      Program nameBehavioral Neuroscience PhD Program

      Name of school (dept.) – Department of Psychology

      Accreditation – Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)

      Location – Austin, Texas

      Program format – On campus

      Program length – 4-5 years

      University of California, Berkeley – Psychology, Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience

      The University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Psychology offers a doctorate program with 6 training units to choose from – including a Behavioral & Systems Neuroscience unit.

      Specialty areas in this unit include sensory systems, neuroethology, neural basis of learning and memory, among several others.

      Program participants can draw from an extensive pool of modern research methodologies to investigate their areas of interest, from the study of human and animal behavior to neural circuits and systems.

      A few of the research methodologies used include:

      • Electrophysiology
      • ERP and fMRI
      • Immunohistochemistry
      • In vivo 2-photon imaging
      • Chemical genetic methods (DREADDs)
      • Quantitative RT-PCR

      UC Berkeley Department of Psychology’s PhD program provides 10 semesters of funding through fellowships and teaching or research appointments.

      Program nameBehavioral & Systems Neuroscience PhD track

      Name of school (dept.) – Department of Psychology

      Accreditation – The WASC Senior College and University Commission

      Location – Berkeley, California

      Teaching approach – On campus

      Course length – 4-6 years

      University of Michigan, Ann Arbor – Neuroscience (Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience)

      The Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor is a laboratory research-focused program and the oldest neuroscience training program in the U.S.

      The program offers 7 sub-disciplines in neuroscience to choose from, including Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience. Others include:

      • Cognitive Neuroscience
      • Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience
      • Clinical Neuroscience
      • Developmental Neuroscience
      • Sensory Neuroscience
      • Computational Neuroscience

      This program is well suited for students interested in the neuroscience field in general. While flexibility is allowed in tailoring their training program, participants should complete at least 3 research rotations before choosing the laboratory for their dissertation research.

      The funding package for PhD students of good academic standing includes fully paid tuition, a stipend, and health care benefits.

      Program nameNeuroscience Graduate Program

      Name of school (dept.) – Interdepartmental

      Accreditation – The Higher Learning Commission

      Location – Ann Arbor, Michigan

      Program format – On campus

      Program length – 5-6 years

      How to become a behavioral neuroscientist

      As mentioned, becoming a behavioral neuroscientist in most cases requires earning a doctorate in the field to participate in academia and research.

      However, that journey begins at the bachelor’s level. While a psychology undergraduate degree is not mandatory, electives in math, science, or programming can increase your chances of getting accepted into a master’s or PhD program.

      1. Earn a bachelor’s degree

      If your goal is a career as a behavioral neuroscientist, it may be a good idea to begin to specialize at the undergraduate level.

      Your options include a bachelor of science (B.S.) in behavioral neuroscience or cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. A general psychology major, a related subspecialty, or any field with a minor in behavioral neuroscience, are other possibilities.

      As a behavioral neuroscience major, your focus is on the biological bases of behavior and how our physiological systems respond to external stimuli.

      Topics covered include human development, mental health disorders, neuroplasticity, data analysis, and research methodologies.

      What jobs can you get with a behavioral neuroscience bachelor’s degree?

      A bachelor’s degree can lead to entry-level positions in psychology. Higher-level roles in most cases require advanced credentials.

      • Psychiatric technician

        Median salary: 40K US$

        Considered an entry-level mental health job, psychiatric technicians provide frontline care to individuals with developmental or mental health issues in group or long-term care homes, hospitals, or at-home settings.

        A specific license or training with the target group are usually offered as on-the-job training. Psychology students may choose this type of employment on a part-time basis while in school.

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      • Laboratory technician

        Median salary: 49K US$

        A lot of work in this field is connected to medical and pharmaceutical research. With a bachelor’s in behavioral neuroscience, you may find employment as a lab technician, performing lab work used in research studies. Tasks can include carrying out immunoassays, blood tests, and cultures, as well as quality control checks on tests.

      • Research assistant

        Median salary: 43K US$

        Working under the supervision of a lead researcher, research assistants help gather and enter data to analyze, perform tests, help with record-keeping, create and manage spreadsheets. They assist as part of a bigger team, trying to prove a hypothesis or conduct a specific study. Research assistantships may be part of a bachelor’s in behavioral neuroscience.

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      2. Earn a master’s in behavioral neuroscience

      Once you’ve earned a bachelor’s in behavioral neuroscience, psychology, or a related field, the next step is to earn a master’s degree.

      If your bachelor’s is not in behavioral neuroscience, it’s recommended to specialize at this stage. Specializing can improve your chances of acceptance into a doctoral program.

      Keep in mind you may not get accepted into a master’s program without college-level coursework in psychology, math, cell biology, and chemistry.

      Program structure

      This discipline may be offered as either a Master of Science (M.S.) or Master of Arts (M.A.). Generally, M.S. programs focus more on lab work and analysis, whereas M.A. programs include more discussion and essays. Some schools offer a master’s in psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience.

      Most students complete this degree in 2 years.

      Thesis and research

      Most programs include a master’s thesis and lab or research requirements. Students work directly with faculty on research topics like neurodevelopmental disorders, neuropathology, neuropsychiatry, and clinical neurology. A focus on research methodology is also essential.

      Fun fact

      Data science models are increasingly popular among neuroscientists as tools for modeling neural networks and the brain. Network science contributes to working models that scientists can use to represent neural processes.

      What jobs can you get with a behavioral neuroscience master’s degree?

      Most senior careers in behavioral neuroscience require a doctorate. Upon completing a master’s, you can move a step closer to these careers by taking on assistant or technical roles in the field.

      • Clinical research associate

        Median salary: 74K US$

        Research in behavioral neuroscience is usually carried out at universities or in private labs, often funded by pharmaceutical companies investigating new medical treatments.

        Research associates assist in carrying out clinical trials, including the development of trial protocols, identifying trial sites, coordinating the approval process, and overseeing technical staff.

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      • Neuroimaging technician

        Median salary: 74K US$

        Diagnosis and treatment of and research into brain and mental health are highly dependent on neuroimaging techniques such as PET and CAT scans and MRI. Neuroimaging technicians operate the machines that produce these highly detailed soft tissue images.

      3. Earn a PhD in behavioral neuroscience

      Becoming a fully-fledged behavioral neuroscientist in most cases requires a doctorate. Students may pair a behavioral neuroscience doctorate with a degree in psychology, resulting in something like a PhD in behavioral neuroscience and comparative psychology (BNCP). Others may choose a doctorate in psychology (PsyD) with an emphasis on behavioral neuroscience.

      Doctoral students commonly conduct advanced research in highly specialized areas such as:

      • aging
      • hormone modulation
      • learning and memory
      • neurodegenerative diseases
      • mathematical modeling of behavior
      • behavioral and neurobiological consequences of stress and drug abuse

      Doctoral programs can take 5-7 years to complete.

      Students are typically required to prepare a dissertation and pass a final oral examination or thesis defense. PsyD programs focus more on clinical practice, while PhD programs emphasize research. Choosing the right doctoral program for you ultimately depends on your career goals.

      What can you do with a behavioral neuroscience doctorate degree?

      Behavioral neuroscience jobs can be broadly divided into clinical and research positions.

      Research positions are usually in psychology or medicine, focused on treatment and medication for various physical and mental illnesses. Medical positions involve helping individuals overcome or manage brain-based illness, impairment, or disability.

      • Behavioral neuroscientist

        Median salary: 87K US$

        Behavioral neuroscientists are in most cases researchers rather than practitioners. Employed at government, university, or private labs, they study human and animal brain physiology, genetics, development, and their relationship to mental processes and behaviors.


      • Clinical neuropsychologist

        Median salary: 104K US$

        Clinical neuropsychologists assess, diagnose, and treat psychiatric and neurodevelopmental conditions, as well as learning and cognitive disorders. 

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      4. Get licensed, depending on your field

      In psychology, whether licensure is required depends on your career goals and the state you wish to practice in. As a researcher, you likely won’t need a license.

      For careers that involve providing psychological services to the public, for instance, as a therapist, psychological licensure is required.

      Final thoughts

      Behavioral neuroscience is, like clinical psychology, a field in psychology that typically requires a PhD to take full advantage of professionally. That said, as we’ve seen, there are plenty of careers in the field that only require a master’s.

      If, after reading this article, you find yourself curious about other paths in psychology, particularly those which only require a master’s degree, check out our related articles:

      Alternatively, for a more curated experience, consider taking our degree quiz below. Happy searching!

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