Advice for applying to graduate school in Neuroscience

First off, welcome to the world of Neuroscience - its huge with people working solely on computers or bioengineering to people who do direct readings off of brain cells. The important thing about finding a lab for graduate school is finding a good fit, both with your advisor and with the people in the lab. I spend as much or more time in the lab as I do with my husband. Most people spend years picking a significant other but only meet/speak with an advisor for about an hour before picking which college to go to. Its important you like the lab you work in as it is a long term (4+ year) commitment.

A poor fit with an advisor can add years to the amount of time you are in graduate school.

You should also think about what is important for you - some people want a high profile advisor. While these advisors tend to be really busy, so not as easy to get in touch with, but they usually have good funding so you don’t have to TA your way through. Some advisors are doing work related to but not exactly on what you are interested in and so may not be able to advise you on your methods - Alison and I have this kind of relationship. In this case, you can either use your advisors contacts (I did) or have a co-advisor who specialize in the methods but not the topic. Fair warning though, getting two good advisors is at least twice as hard as getting one. Some people hate having to meet with their advisor too frequently, while others prefer lots of feedback. For some where they are living and working matters more. I know of a post-doc who hated living in a small Midwest town so bad he developed an autoimmune disease or a professor that choose a huge pay cut to work someplace he could go hang-gliding on the weekends.

Most people spend years picking a significant other but only meet or speak with their future advisor for ≤1 hour before settling on a lab.

Also think about what type of research you want to do in graduate school. Do you want to be in the field or at the bench? Does the topic matter (e.g. I only want to study cancer/personality/aggression, etc) or do you want to work with a specific system (fish, turtles) or are you happy with a bigger category (evolution, conservation, behavior)? Communicate this to potential advisors along with your more specific ideas for a projects so they can help guide your thinking to fit projects they may already have in mind and have funding for. Remember that webpages can get out of date so their lab may have shifted focus.

Getting 2 good matches for co-advisors is of at least twice as hard as getting 1.

As for contacting potential labs - YES - do it early and often. However do try to include at least one sentence personalized to the specific lab if not more. It helps the potential advisor get to know you and allows both of you to judge if its going to be a good fit. A potential advisor helping push your application through can make a huge difference for getting into your choice of graduate program. Advisors will want to know what kind of projects you would be interested in doing - give specific examples of the type of experiment, question or work you see yourself doing in their lab. You can also tell point them to references (previous labs) they are free to speak with, but always check with those people in advance.

Focus more on clear communication rather than telling them everything. It can be better to say that you have done 3 different internships involving field work and then describe a single interesting project in one sentence rather then being overwhelming.

Be persistent - it is easy for emails to get lost in inboxes. Following up on an email lets them know you are motivated and interested. Try to get in touch at least once a month if not every other week. It can be as simple as up-dating them on your progress applying or to discuss project ideas, etc. Here are some potential questions or topics:

  • How much do they want you to TA?
  • Do they have expectations on work hours (i.e. 9-5, 10-6, how ever long it takes to get the work done, etc)
  • How many hours a week do they expect you to work (this can range between 40 and 60, but many on the high end wont want to put that in writing)
  • What does a typical week look like, for example field vs. bench work?
  • How frequently do they meet with their advisees?
  • Does the lab get lots of undergrad assistants?

You should spread the questions out so that you can keep a constant line of communication open. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t reply - just send a polite follow-up about a week later asking if they saw your prior email.

Try to get in touch with your top picks at least once a month if not every other week.

Don’t just contact the PI; also email the other students (grads and post-docs) in the lab. You can ask them what the advisor is actually like - are they hands-on, how is the funding situation (do they need to TA every semester?), are they easy to talk to or get in touch with, etc. If they don’t want to discuss their advisors this is a huge warning sign. A bad advisor can add years to the amount of time you are in graduate school. You don’t get paid well in graduate school (either as a TA or RA) and will almost certainly want to graduate as fast as possible.

Use bold and bullet points to make it easier to skim your messages.

If you can, try to meet with potential advisors in person or via skype. The Society for Neuroscience has their big (~30,000 people) annual conference in October and it can be a good chance for you to see the variety of things that people feel are Neuroscience. Joining SfN is just $5 for undergrads and then conference fee is like $120. Its also a chance to meet with a potential advisor in person. However, if you can’t make it, no worries.

As for my experience - yes I contacted all the labs I was interested in. I did contact several labs including ones that I considered 3rd tier (unlikely to be a good fit). I actually found another lab during the interview process that I wasn’t already aware of. Alison didn’t have the funding to take me directly and the other lab was willing to take me and pushed for me to get a scholarship for the 1st year from the university. I think it was because I kept emailing that professor every week that I was able to get into my choice of grad school.

I had a specific paragraph in each email detailing what I thought I might be able to bring to their lab and what type of question I might want to research in their lab. I included a single paragraph about myself, attached my resume (1 page), and invited them to contact me for any additional information that would help them get to know me better. I don’t think a single person read more than the paragraph if they read anything at all. I used bold and bullet points to help make the email easier to skim over. Focus more on clear communication rather than telling them everything. It can be better to say that you have done 3 different internships involving field work and then describe one complete project rather than overwhelming them with too much detail. They will probably be more interested in your ideas for future work than they will be in what you have already done.