Research for Unit Credit: NEUR 490


Students with junior or senior standing interested in earning credit for research may register for NEUR 490: Directed Research (pre-requisite: GPA > 3.0), or a Directed Research course in another Department with approval as long as the project is Neuroscience-related. Students may choose to earn 2 or 4 units of credit in NEUR 490, the units awarded being dependent on hours per week spent in the lab; the rule of thumb is that students spend 4 hours/week in the lab for each unit of credit. Students who earn 4 units in NEUR 490 may apply this coursework to the Neuroscience major. NEUR 490 coursework receives a letter grade.

NEUR 490 research projects require a minimum 3.0 GPA (science and cumulative) and approval by the Neuroscience Major Co-Directors. All projects must contain a substantial component of neuroscience research – i.e., they must be a neuroscience project as opposed to one in biology or psychology that does not involve investigation of neural mechanisms. NEUR 490 requires the support of a faculty sponsor whose lab is engaged in neuroscience research, so you will need to find a sponsor well in advance.

You will need to start planning your project and writing the research description for the application form at least a month in advance of the deadline, working with your faculty sponsor.

Please see the applications form for further instructions. We have also posted an example of an excellent research proposal there.

Consider joining the Honors program in Neuroscience! Honors students must have a GPA of 3.5 or better. In addition to taking 4 units of NEUR 490 Honors students also take a proseminar (NEURO 493) and write a thesis (NEURO 494). Click on the Honors Program link (above right) for more details.

NEUR 490 applications must be submitted by 5:00pm on Friday, the first week of classes in the semester in which you wish to enroll.Remember: this means you need to alert your advisor and start working on your proposal well in advance! You can submit your proposal by:

Sending the application as an email attachment to your advisor: Please fill out the PDF Application form using the Typewriter function, and sign the form using a verified electronic signature in Adobe (i.e., use the Sign feature in Adobe). Your faculty sponsor can sign the form electronically or they can send a separate email with the text of the agreement on the NEUR 490 Application (“I agree to sponsor…this student’s research proposal.”) to your sponsor noting their support for your research. An alternative is to fill out the form manually (preferably typed but if not make sure it is legible), sign it, have your sponsor sign it, and scan it. You will then need to create a single pdf including the form and your research proposal.

Please make arrangements to meet with your sponsor well in advance (at least 3 weeks), and allow about one week for a decision from the Department Co-Directors following submission. Once research proposals have been approved, students will be granted D-Clearance and will be able to enroll in the course.

Students requesting 2 unit credits for NEUR 490 are expected to be actively working in their chosen lab eight hours per week, while students requesting 4 unit credits of NEUR 490 are expected to be in the lab sixteen hours per week.


Time Management

Students who sign up for NEUR 490 are expected to spend a minimum of four hours of weekly lab work per credit hour (e.g., 4 credits would require 16 hours per week in the lab). Some students prefer to pursue their project by signing up for 2 credits of 490 in two consecutive semesters (i.e., eight hours per week of lab work for two semesters). Some students who pursue this option are expected to work on the same project with the same sponsor both semesters. Joining a lab represents a serious commitment. A research lab will spend considerable time and energy helping you to learn the ropes and acquire research skills. In turn, it is expected that you show up exactly on time whenever you are scheduled to be in the lab and carry out your work with scrupulous care and attention to detail. Do not even consider working in a lab if you are not prepared to meet these responsibilities.


Faculty Sponsors

The selection of a faculty sponsor is an important aspect of the research experience. Your sponsor may be any regular faculty member of the university who is carrying out neuroscience research in a university laboratory. Neuroscience research is broadly defined, but the project must involve basic research and cannot be clinical medicine. The selection of a sponsor is a student-initiated process and should involve your becoming familiar with several faculty members’ research interests. Once you have looked over the web pages of faculty in whose labs you are interested, you can do further web searches and/or read published papers from that lab.

Most faculty members will accept undergraduates in their laboratories if they have space and funding, and if they are impressed by your interest and preparation. Once you know the rules and regulations for 490 projects, you should make a list of three to five faculty members whose research interests you and contact them to set up an appointment to see if they have an opening in their labs. Be aware that faculty members are very busy and you will need to plan well in advance to meet with them, write a proposal with their guidance, and meet the deadline for submission of your proposal.


Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is NEUR 490 Directed Research? 
This is a course that give undergraduate students the opportunity to work in the laboratory of a USC faculty member as a research assistant. NEUR 490 may count toward up to 4 units of Upper Division elective credit for Neuroscience majors.

2. What will I be doing throughout the course of my research experience?
This is entirely based upon the plan you and your faculty sponsor lay out during the application process. Your duties in the lab will depend on your prior research experience, interests, and the necessities of the lab. You will likely employ some of the techniques you have learned through your laboratory coursework. It is important that you not participate merely as a “drone” or errand person, but that you are engaged intellectually and broadly. One criterion is that your participation allows you, assuming that the research goes well, to be a co-author on a conference presentation (poster or talk) or publication. See question #8 below. Refer also to the 490 application instructions.

3. How do I sign up? Am I eligible? 
In order to participate in NEUR 490, you will need to submit an application (found here). The minimum overall and science GPA to apply for either course is 3.0. This may include courses taken outside of USC. Your sponsor must be a USC faculty member. For the application, you will need to develop a proposal for your research with your faculty sponsor (a description in your own words of your role and responsibility in this research), and include an abstract or cover page from a research article related to the work you will be doing, and your faculty sponsor’s CV if they are not associated with the Neuroscience Program. You need to start developing your proposal in conjunction with your faculty sponsor one month before the deadline for submitting your application.

4. What are my chances of being accepted? Is the process competitive?
The application process is not competitive. Any student who is eligible for the course and whose proposal meets the criteria will be accepted.

5. How will my work be evaluated? 
Your faculty sponsor will assign your grade based on the criteria mutually agreed upon at the beginning of the semester. The student is responsible for initiating this conversation with their sponsor. Typically, sponsors evaluate their students on lab attendance, performance and the final project (discussed below). For NEUR490, your sponsor will need to submit your final grade via email directly to the program director (David McKemy:

6. What are the criteria for a research proposal? Who will review my application?
For NEUR490, projects focused in Neuroscience are likely to be accepted. Projects focused on clinical research trials typically will not qualify. The Co-Directors of the Neuroscience Major review all NEUR 490 applications.

7. What are the course requirements? 
For every one unit of NEUR 490, you are expected to work in the lab for 4 hours per week. For example, if you are taking 4 units of NEUR 490, you are expected to work in the lab for 16 hours per week. Also, you will be expected to turn in a project report, due at 5:00pm on the last day of classes of the semester in which you have enrolled. As some students take NEUR 490 for multiple semesters, a report is due for each semester a student is enrolled in NEUR 490. You should discuss and work with your faculty sponsor on this report, and the format for these written reports are in the Application Instructions. You are expected to turn in a copy of your project to Dr. McKemy, in addition cc your faculty sponsor by the last day of instruction in the semester in which you are enrolled for NEUR 490x.

8. I’m interested but I have no idea on how to find a sponsor. 
It is critically important that you make an informed decision as to the lab in which you would do your research. Talk to your current instructors, graduate students and undergraduates who have had relevant experience. Review the websites of the labs. Visit the Neuroscience website ( to locate faculty by research topic, and perhaps review some recent papers of the lab. There often are more students wanting to work in a lab than there are available positions, so in your initial communication (usually best by an email) to the lab director, you should detail your interest and relevant background that might enhance your value to the lab (i.e., coursework, programming and lab skills, math skills). Many pre-health/pre-med students have participated in exciting research experiences in labs on the Health Sciences Campus with their faculty. If you are still having difficulty locating a faculty sponsor or you would like additional tips, please speak with your academic advis