Why study at SWC?

Our students receive a comprehensive introduction to systems neuroscience, as well as intensive training in experimental techniques, including imaging, physiology, molecular, and behavioural methods in systems neuroscience.


Students in the programme are taught and supervised by SWC faculty together with colleagues at the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit and other affiliated institutions, all experts in their respective fields.  Gatsby and SWC students overlap extensively during the programme, building the foundations for long-lasting collaborations and friendships.

You will live and work in central London, with the highest concentration of neuroscience research in the world.

SWC students are fully funded and receive an annual stipend of £27,400, as well as funds to attend international courses or meetings. We also cover the cost of tuition fees for both home and international students.

The SWC PhD is your opportunity to receive world-class training as a neuroscientist and launch an exciting career in academia or industry. Apply now to join our pool of exceptional students from around the globe.

Logo for the SWC PhD programme


Elena Dreosti and Adam Kampff describe The Last Black Box course for PhD students at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre. To find out more about the Cajal Programme visit: www.cajal-training.org


SWC PhD Programme Overview

SWC and Gatsby students discussing at an event

The SWC PhD is a four-year programme. Below is a short overview of each year.

Year one

The first year is centred around courses - Boot Camp, Systems Neuroscience and Theoretical Neuroscience, Experimental Neuroscience, Neural Data Modelling - and rotations.

All students begin by attending Boot Camp, a three-week course covering the fundamentals of neuroscience and technology – the things we believe everyone should know before they begin their quest to discover new things. The course, developed in partnership with the Cajal Advanced Neuroscience Training Programme, is a centred around a fundamental principle: no “black boxes”.

In short, Boot Camp covers everything from electrons to intelligence and empowers students to build an increasingly sophisticated robot, learning about neuroscience principles and technologies (hardware and software) along the way.

Once the first term begins, students in the SWC and Gatsby PhD programmes together attend Systems Neuroscience & Theoretical Neuroscience, an intensive lecture course in which SWC and Gatsby faculty take turns giving lectures from the angle of their area of expertise.

In parallel with this, SWC students learn advanced experimental neuroscience techniques in a hands-on practical course focused on four areas: experimental design, electrophysiology, optics and microscopy, and data analysis. Here, the first-year students will for example implement a 1,000 channel in vivo recording system, build their own two-photon microscope, and develop a closed-loop behaviour assay.

Year two

Students design a PhD project and begin their research at the start of year two. Supervisors are selected from among SWC or affiliated faculty.

In this year, students also help as teaching assistants in the courses for the new first-year students.

Year three

Third year students write a report and take a viva exam to upgrade from MPhil to PhD. Apart from this, the year is centered on research.

Year four and beyond

The last year, students complete their research and make a detailed plan for the time remaining until graduation. They write and submit their PhD thesis and sit a viva examination.

You can access the theses of previous PhD students through UCL Library Services or UCL Discovery.

Across years

All Centre members are invited to participate in journal clubs and learning groups organised by students, post-docs and researchers.

SWC students have access to all that is offered through UCL and the Doctoral School.


Photo of two SWC students building a robot during boot camp


Syllabi for the first year courses Systems Neuroscience and Theoretical Neuroscience, Experimental Neuroscience, and Neural Data Modelling are below.

Photo of SWC PhD students, post-docs, and faculty observing an experiment

Systems Neuroscience and Theoretical Neuroscience

Systems Neuroscience and Theoretical Neuroscience is an intensive lecture course for first-year SWC and Gatsby PhD students, taught by SWC, Gatsby, and affiliated faculty. 

Systems Foundations

  • Measuring activity in neurons / Otis, Tom
  • Voltage-gated channels / Branco, Tiago
  • Biophysics / Latham, Peter
  • Dendritic integration / Branco, Tiago
  • Synaptic transmission and plasticity / Margrie, Troy

Sensory Systems

  • Principles of sensory systems and organisation of cellular circuits / Mrsic-Flogel, Thomas
  • Perception as signal processing / Sahani, Maneesh
  • Perception as inference / Sahani, Maneesh
  • Influence of behaviour and context on sensory processing / Hofer, Sonja

Action Systems

  • Basal ganglia / Stephenson-Jones, Marcus
  • Open loop control / Latham, Peter
  • Cerebellum / Otis, Tom
  • Dynamical systems/closed-loop planning / Sahani, Maneesh
  • From sensation to action / Hofer, Sonja
  • Whole-brain dissection of motor planning / Duan, C. Ann

Cognitive Systems, Decision Making, and Learning

  • Deep learning and connectionism / Saxe, Andrew
  • Reinforcement learning basics / Stephenson-Jones, Marcus
  • Neuromodulation / Stephenson-Jones, Marcus
  • Working memory / Akrami, Athena
  • Neuroeconomics / Erlich, Jeffrey
  • Abstract representation in sensory & memory systems / Burgess, Neil
  • Behavioural flexibility / Behrens, Timothy

Social and Affective Systems

  • Animal models of multi-player games / Duan, C. Ann
  • Neural circuits underlying innate behaviours / Kohl, Jonny
  • Limbic system / O’Keefe, John
  • Hippocampus / O’Keefe, John
  • Sleep and hypothalamus / Harris, Julia


Experimental Neuroscience

Experimental Neuroscience is a hands-on practical course for first-year SWC PhD students, organised and taught by SWC faculty, post-docs, core leads, and more senior students in the centre.

You will learn about:

  • Experimental Design and Data Analysis
  • Electrophysiology
  • Optics and Imaging


Photo of a SWC PhD student optimising an experiment in the Experimental Neuroscience course

Neural Data Analysis


Image removed.

The SWC hosts a large number of events, some open to the larger community and some specific to Centre members. 

Open events

  • SWC Special Lectures
  • SWC Annual Symposium
  • SWC Seminar Series
  • SWC Emerging Neuroscientists Seminar Series

Internal events

  • Speed Science
  • Data Club
  • Journal Club
  • Tea Hour
  • Lunch with Seminar Speakers
  • PyClub
  • PyStarters
  • Data Analysis for the Rest of Us
SWC Special Lectures

The Centre annually invites a high profile speaker to hold a special lecture. Past invitees include Sir David Attenborough, Professor Frans de Waal, and Professor Daniel Dennett.

SWC Annual Student-Sponsored Symposium

At the beginning of each academic year, SWC and Gatsby students organize the SWC Annual Symposium. This consists of an afternoon of talks by invited speakers, followed by an evening dinner.

SWC Seminar Series

Each week sees an interesting seminar given by an internationally renowned speaker. Students have the opportunity to have lunch together with invited speakers in conjunction with the seminar.

Emerging Neuroscientists Seminar Series

This seminar series is an open competition for postdocs around the world to apply to present their work at the SWC. The aim of the series is to give exceptional early career neuroscientists an opportunity to visit London, present as part of the regular SWC seminar series and discuss their science with SWC faculty, postdocs and students. 

Speed Science

In this summer networking event, students or postdocs from each group in the building give a brief presentation on the work of their lab. Each presentation is followed by a Q&A and then further discussion over a barbeque on our rooftop terrace.

Data Club

Data Club takes place bi-weekly at lunch time and involves a member of one of our labs presenting experimental results and questions from an ongoing project.

Journal Club

Students at the Centre meet regularly to discuss important scientific papers.

Tea Hour

Taking place each Friday afternoon, the content of Tea Hour is varied and ranges from broad research talks to game nights and quizzes. Students determine the topic for at least every second Tea Hour.

PyClub and PyStarters

Initiated by post-docs and students, these learning forums are aimed at learning and sharing best practices in Python Programming between Centre members. PyClub caters to more experienced programmers and PyStarters to beginners.

Data Analysis for the Rest of Us

Like PyClub and PyStarters, the initiative for this learning group came from post-docs and students who wanted to deepen their proficiency in data analysis methods relevant to modern neuroscience. And like the former, it is also open to anyone in the building with a commitment to learn.

Meet some of our students

Shanice Bailey quote

Meet Shanice, a PhD student in the Isogai lab at SWC. Thanks to her previous lab experience at University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and University of Reading, she had few surprises when embarking on her PhD at SWC. Now in her second year, Shanice shares her experience so far and one thing that did surprise her:

“One thing that did surprise me about my PhD at SWC though was just how interdisciplinary it is! I didn’t realise this would stretch to things like electronics and 3D printing. In our optics course, we built a two-photon microscope and for our PhD Boot Camp we even built a robot! I never thought I would get to do these things in a biological PhD.”

Read Shanice’s full story here: Embarking on a PhD in systems neuroscience

Steve Lenzi quote

Meet Steve, the first ever SWC student to be awarded their PhD. He shares some of the highlights during his time as a PhD student in the Margrie Lab, some of the hardest parts and also his top tips.

“One of the nice things about finishing my PhD is that I can now devote some time to thinking about what I want to do next. I didn’t spend much of my time during my PhD thinking about next steps. The SWC is a great environment – I don’t have a strong incentive to leave just yet!”

Read Steve’s story here: What is a neuroscience PhD really like? 


Nicole Vissers quote

Meet Nicole, a PhD student in the Hofer lab at SWC.  She shares her journey in science so far and her advice to those interested in pursuing a PhD in neuroscience, including what being a PhD Student involves day-to-day and some top tips for applying.

“I am a first-generation student as no one in my family ever went to university. I remember when I first started my undergraduate degree, I had no idea what it would be like and I didn’t want to ask questions. I didn’t even know what a PhD was! A PhD involves working on one specific project (for around 3-7 years) and conducting the research yourself. You start out with a research question you are interested in and diverge or focus on a specific topic based on your findings. On top of that, you plan your experiments yourself, with help from your PI and postdocs in your lab.”

Read Nicole’s journey here: Pursuing a PhD in neuroscience

Read about our alumni

Check out our Alumni page to see SWC students that have been awarded their PhDs and their graduate destinations.

Cartoon of faces with text overlaid SWC PhD Alumni Where are they now?

Meet Alex Fratzl, formerly a PhD student in the Hofer Lab at SWC, and now a Postdoctoral research fellow in the Roska Lab at the Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology (IOB) in the beautiful city of Basel. He shares how his PhD helped equip him for a career in neuroscience research:

“Given my goal of opening my own independent research lab in the future, the experiences during my PhD helped me to develop scientific, intellectual, and transversal skills needed for succeeding in an academic career.”

Read Alex’s full story here: From a systems neuroscience PhD to a postdoc in visual research

Alex Fratzl photo and quote "Fundamentally during my PhD at the SWC, I learned much more than just methods and techniques; it was about learning a way of thinking"

Meet Matthew Phillips, formerly a PhD student in the Branco Lab at SWC, and now Co-founder and CEO at Learney, a start-up building learning software for companies that need help upskilling their employees in new technologies such as data science, machine learning and AI. He shares how his PhD helped him decide to co-found a start-up:

“My PhD helped a lot with this decision because it helped me realised I enjoy working on long-term projects that I have control and ownership over. I really like the feeling that when you get a result in the lab, or build some new software or gain a new customer, it’s your work that has gone into that and my PhD helped me realise that was appealing to me.

Read Matthew’s full story here: From a neuroscience PhD to building software for learning

Photo of Matthew Phillips and quote "The same persistence that you need during a PhD in science is exactly the same as when you're starting your own company"

Support during your PhD

Doing a PhD is both exciting and challenging. To help students navigate through it all, the structure of the programme is designed to provide several sources of support, both informal and formal.

Fellow students form an inner circle for support and advice. The structure of the first year encourages students to make close connections with in-year peers from both the GCNU and the SWC programme. Together with GCNU students, SWC students have formed a PhD Student Association, which organises regular social events and meetings.

Photo of students from the Gatsby PhD programme, the Wellcome PhD programme in Neuroscience, and the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre Phd programme, socialising at an event.

The first year, through courses and events, also brings students into contact with a large majority of the Centre community. In addition to introducing students to the research going on in all the groups, this makes students feel at home and helps them start to build a network.

More formal sources of support include the PhD Programme Committee, the PhD Programme Coordinator, and our Human Resources staff. In the first year, students are encouraged to consult any of these support networks for questions related to career, academics, or pastoral care.

At the beginning of the second year, students assemble a thesis committee, which in addition to the main supervisor will have at least two more members. The thesis committee becomes an additional avenue for guidance and help.

For students wishing to discuss with someone outside of the institute, the UCL Doctoral School has a range of resources that can provide advice in many areas, from academic progress to mental health and wellbeing. To explore these services, this page is a good starting point.


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