How to choose a grad school?
November 3, 2009 4:52 PM   Subscribe

How to choose a grad school?

After a couple years of really blah experiences in the corporate world have convinced me it's not for me, I'm ready to go back to school.

My background and experience is primarily in computer science (as is my bachelors), but I've always had a dream of studying cognitive neuroscience to better understand how consciousness arises from the human mind.

I'm primarily interested in schools in the chicago area. Thing is, there are many different neuroscience programs in the area universities and I'm at a loss of how to narrow my selection. My ultimate goal is to study and research the brain/mind, which I'm assuming will involve getting a PhD in neuroscience or a related discipline.

How does one go about settling on a school/program?
posted by 1024x768 to Education (20 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
First narrow the field to schools at which you have a reasonable shot at admission.

Then visit the rest of them, talk to current graduate students, review faculty research to see if anyone is doing something you're interested in. Finally talk to faculty members doing the interesting research and see if you're comfortable with them holding the power of the high and low justice over you for five or six years.
posted by pseudonick at 5:04 PM on November 3, 2009

1. Figure out what, very specifically, you want to research. Which subdiscipline of a subfield of cognitive neuroscience?

2. Find out which professors are doing research most closely related to this.

3. Apply to their schools. There's no way to seriously apply for a Ph.D. while limiting yourself geographically.

4. Throw out any schools to which you're not accepted.

5. Throw out any schools that don't give a full ride plus stipend.

6. Choose the one that has the best combination of money, reputation, and a professor who's enthusiastic about having you come aboard his or her research program.
posted by The Michael The at 5:18 PM on November 3, 2009

Pseudonick - how would I determine what schools I've had a shot at admission at? It's not like they post that information anywhere, or do they?

The Michael The - couple things
Re: 1 - How does one determine what minute little subfields are even out there? It's a huge field so the 'subfields' would be literally limitless
Re: 3 - why would one not be able to limit oneself geographically? There's many amazing universities in the chicago area (and even more if you consider the surrounding states).
posted by 1024x768 at 5:32 PM on November 3, 2009

You don't have to know precisely what you want to study, but you definitely need to narrow it down from "studying the brain". It would be a good idea to look at possible topics of study and see what jumps out at you. There are many, many subfields of cognitive neuroscience - you can study attention, decision-making, emotion, vision, child development, etc., etc. You don't have to commit to it during the interview process, but having some specific idea of what you want to do - and believe me, a PhD gets very specific before long - will show that you are serious about and truly interested in these subjects.

It sounds like you are particularly interested in consciousness. This is definitely a legitimate field of study, but I'd warn you not to assume that all neuroscience labs involve the study of consciousness in some way. 95% (or more!) take it for granted as outside their area of study. So if this is the heart of what you're interested in, look for it explicitly.

To identify labs that study consciousness in the Chicago area, I would do the following:

Option 1:
A - Make a list of all the schools you'd be willing to attend.
B - Go to their psychology and neuroscience department websites. Search for faculty and go look at their individual interests, trying to specifically find mentions of consciousness.
C - Contact the people and ask if they are interested in taking on new graduate students. If they are not, ask them for recommendations of other people in the geographic area doing similar work.

Option 2:
A - Find a database of scientific journals and search for articles using keywords like "neuroscience and consciousness". Read through abstracts and and figure out who's doing research that interests you.
B - If they are in the Chicago area, excellent. If not, look at their lists of collaborators and see if any of them are more geographically suited to you. You can also try contacting them directly and seeing if they know anyone in the area doing similar work.

I'm not sure if you're planning to apply this year, but if you decide to hold off and you have some free time over the coming year, I'd suggest you volunteer in a cognitive neuroscience research lab. This will get you experience for your applications, connections within the field, and most importantly, it will let you get a sense of whether or not you actually enjoy labwork. 4-7 years is a long time to recruit and run subjects, create stimuli, submit IRBs, and process and reprocess (and reprocess!) data, if you find you hate doing it.
posted by shaun uh at 5:36 PM on November 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Unless you're defining "Chicago area" to include Madison and Champaign-Urbana, it doesn't seem like there are actually too many Chicago-area universities offering PhD-level training in neuroscience (the three contenders would be roughly Northwestern, U of Chicago, and Loyola, in roughly that order of "prestige"--which should not be your only criteria--for that particular program).

So if by Chicago you do mean Chicago, you may just as well apply to all three, and see who accepts you and gives you the best financial support package (which is an indicator of how highly the think of you and your potential).

You should spend some time at each school's departmental web site getting a feel for the range of faculty and their specializations, as well as course offerings, requirements, etc. You may find, as a result of this research, that what you're actually interested in might be better pursued from a different program, such as cognitive science or cognitive psychology.
posted by drlith at 5:45 PM on November 3, 2009

When choosing schools, look VERY carefully at their prerequisites. I'm not sure about cognitive neuroscience, but most psychology PhD programs are very competitive and have a certain number of credit hours/specific psych classes you need to have taken. (You don't say whether you have a psychology background in your post but I thought I'd throw that out there. It may help you narrow the field a bit.)
posted by bluloo at 5:57 PM on November 3, 2009

Re: 1 - How does one determine what minute little subfields are even out there? It's a huge field so the 'subfields' would be literally limitless

Not to be a heavy, but if you're still at the point where you need to learn about which subfields are out there, it will be extremely difficult to get a solid application put together by this year's deadlines. If you want to study cog neuro, you'll also need some solid research experience to be competitive.

My subfield is called developmental social (cognitive) neuroscience (we dropped the 'cognitive' in the explicit description just to save some space/make it less unwieldy). If you'd like more info about cog neuro in general, feel free to MeMail/email me. I'd love to chat with you about it.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:00 PM on November 3, 2009

all of this is great advice, ESPECIALLY what Shuan Uh and The Michael The said about specificity and subfields. It's just the way academia works. You're right that it's hard to know what schools you could reasonably get into for precisely this reason. There are a ton of people with great credentials trying to get into PhD programs, so admissions committees usually look for students with the best "fit." Even then it's a crapshoot-- most programs get hundreds of applicants for less than 20 slots. Maybe even more for fewer. That's why being geographically flexible is often important for people who want to get into top programs.

Academia is a very competitive these days (always?), so they're really looking for people who not only know the landscape of all of those minute subfields but have a sense of their place in it. Don't be discouraged, though. I knew I wanted to go back to grad school in a different field from my undergrad degree, but I didn't really have a clear sense of what that could even be, only a sense of what I thought I was interested in. I did exactly what Shaun Uh suggests-- read a lot of journals, researched programs all over the country... it actually took me at least a year or two, but I figured it out, and now I'm a student in one of the top programs for my field.

Look broadly-- check out research being done is communication, education, even HCI or IS or other computery/informationy fields-- you may find stuff you're interested in.
posted by lalalana at 6:04 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Re: 1 - How does one determine what minute little subfields are even out there? It's a huge field so the 'subfields' would be literally limitless
Re: 3 - why would one not be able to limit oneself geographically? There's many amazing universities in the chicago area (and even more if you consider the surrounding states).

1. Read the literature. If you have no idea what subfields of neuroscience exist and which one you wish to pursue, then you're not ready to apply for a Ph.D., full stop.

This is certainly not the canonical list, but I'm sure it's a good start, and you would probably specialize in a subfield of one of those. Here are the subfields listed at Northwestern. Sumit Dhar, is in the hearing sciences, for example, and he "studies the sounds created within the inner ear, then examines their behavior under a variety of conditions. By understanding the physiology involved, it is hoped that better diagnostic tests may be able to be designed to test for hearing loss." Pretty specific, no?

When you're signing on for a Ph.D. you will be advised by one primary advisor with whom you will work closely for five-seven (or more...) years of your life. Yes, the possibilities are technically limitless, but they're proscribed by the actualities of how research has been divided in the field. Some faculty do hearing sciences, and within hearing sciences some do inner ear sounds and some do neural encoding of speech and music and some do genes associated with hearing loss using Zebrafish as a proxy and on and on and on. If you haven't figured out which specific area of neuroscience floats your boat enough for you to endure seven years of poorly paid, highly stressful apprenticeship on your way to maybe a tenure track job someday if you're lucky, then you're not ready for a Ph.D. I'm not saying you shouldn't do it (well...), but don't go into it naively.

2. Because there is such specialization, maybe the two people who do what you're interested in are actually at, say, Columbia and UC Irvine. Who knows. But there's probably only one or two in Chicagoland. And chances are you'll only be accepted to one or two or even none of the schools to which you apply, and if you limit yourself to the three-five schools in the Chicagoland area from which a Ph.D. will maybe someday get you a job not at a community college, then you will probably be very disappointed. Maybe you'll get in first try and there's someone there doing amazing research that you really identify with and then you'll get tenure at Harvard, but probably not.
posted by The Michael The at 6:13 PM on November 3, 2009

Repeating some of what's been said above, but I'd really consider getting some graduate courses under you belt in this new subject area before taking the plunge and formally applying, whether for a PhD or even an MA. Taking few master's level classes, if picked carefully, could fill in some of the background info regarding sub-specialties and other aspects of neuroscience you're asking about; plus, it could help build your track record as a capable student in this new area as well as provide opportunities for networking with faculty who might then provide more specific guidance about some of the options for formally applying at whatever level. Also, there are many more campuses in Chicagoland to pick up a few MA-level classes than just those schools with PhD programs.

Bottom line: graduate degree programs can be great places to learn specialized expertise about a given subject, but, sadly, there're usually crummy places for students trying to find themselves or figure out the big picture of life/career (it shouldn't, ideally, be this way but often is). Nonetheless, best of luck - there are many options/opportunities.
posted by 5Q7 at 6:41 PM on November 3, 2009

You need to get in touch with science professors whose courses you took as an undergraduate. You will need letters from them testifying to your ability in your chosen field, and you need to have a serious conversation with someone who knows more than you do -- because your current ideas about grad school are based on very incomplete information.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:50 PM on November 3, 2009

0. You are probably not ready to apply this year if you don't even have a vague idea of what the major subfields are. Plus, research experience & some non-degree coursework will both give you a better idea of what you want to do and make you a much more appealing applicant. (Depending on the program, you may also need to take a subject GRE, and you're pretty much out of time for that.) Grad school applications are very competitive - perhaps even more than usual given the economy - and you shouldn't waste your time applying until you're really ready.

1. Work in a lab. Neuroscience can be pretty different from CS; in some subfields you'll essentially be doing biological research. Not everyone can deal with labwork, and you want to know that you can before you commit to 6 years of a PhD program. Additionally, some actual neuroscience lab experience will go a long way toward helping you get in - good letters of recommendation and research experience are what grad schools care about the most. Oh, and your can learn more about the field in general, the various subfields, and your overall quality as a candidate.

2. Take classes in the field. It doesn't sound like you have much of an academic background in neuroscience either. Your first few years will be easier if you don't have to learn everything from scratch. You'll also be more able to figure out which subfields interest you (via the coursework and talking to the profs) - which will help while picking a lab. (Again, some coursework will help grad schools see that you're both qualified and dedicated enough to switch to their field and do well.)

3. Your research will be the biggest part of your PhD experience. Go to department and faculty websites for research overviews, go to PubMed and Google Scholar to check out recently published papers so that you can find out what projects the lab has focused on in the past few years, and what techniques you use. You need to be able to deal with scientific papers to be able to succeed in grad school.

4. Two things to consider when looking at programs: are there multiple professors doing work you find at all interesting in the dept., and does the program offer rotations (2-3 month stints in several research labs before you choose your final lab)? The former is important in case it turns out you don't get along with your advisor, or they decide to move to another institution, or whatever - you need options. Rotations allow you to spend time in several labs before committing, which can help you avoid labs and advisors that you would feel uncomfortable in, and which would also expose you to more techniques and ideas. Though they delay graduation a year, I think rotations are, on the balance, a generally good idea and a particularly good idea for people like you with limited research experience.

5. Funding. How does the program fund its grad students? You should not be paying for your PhD, and you should not have to take on an outside job to get by. Science PhD programs generally cover your tuition, health care, and give you a stipend (plus other random stuff.) Programs that do not offer this are not programs you should apply to, or attend. Pay attention to whether students are guaranteed financial support until they graduate (it can often take 6 or 7 years!). Pay attention to whether your stipend is tied to officially TAing classes in a given term (which can eat up a lot of time).

6. Funding again. Does the program, your potential PI, the institution have it? Lots of brain-related research makes heavy use of expensive things like fMRI machines these days. Are you going to have easy access to the sort of equipment you'll need? Prestige isn't everything, but larger and more prestigious programs are more apt to have the funding that will let you learn cutting-edge techniques and avoid wasting your time with antiquated methods. It can also mean more funding for things like travelling to scientific conferences as well - important for a young scientist.

7. Limiting yourself to Chicago means that you are limiting your options severely. There are at most a handful of schools in the area that have PhD programs in neuroscience, period. Many of the "amazing universities" here focus on undergraduate education and don't offer neuro-related PhDs at all. As for the handful of Chicago schools that do, well, what if they don't accept you, don't give you good funding, or simply don't have that many people doing work you find interesting? What if they don't want to bet on someone switching fields? There's a reason young scientists move around a lot: it's actually very hard to find positions which pay decently, which are focused on your kind of research, which have sufficient funding and facilities for your research, and which are in your desired location.

8. What do you want your PhD for? Academia is competitive, and if you have any desire to possibly stay in it - or to join a government lab - your choice of grad school and lab can make that easier or harder, and you should be aware of that when applying to grad schools. Good facilities, funding for conferences, and well-known professors make it easier to network and get the recommendations you'll need for your after-graduation career.

9. Once you do apply, and get accepted to some programs, the grad school interviews will be your first chance to meet many of the professors and talk to them, and you'll also be able to interact with current grad students and find out if they are generally happy with the program and with their labs. It's really worth taking advantage of this: you are going to be spending the next six (or more) years in grad school, and you need to find a place where you'll be comfortable in all parts of your life, not just in your research.
posted by ubersturm at 7:52 PM on November 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

why would one not be able to limit oneself geographically? There's many amazing universities in the chicago area (and even more if you consider the surrounding states).

The main reason is that, assuming you narrow your interests enough to be convincing on a grad school application, it isn't really all that likely that there will be more than a few labs (if any) in any given geographical area that will match these interests, and also be worth the time investment. As someone pointed out there are basically no more than ~3 PhD programs worth applying to in Chicago itself, and depending on the details, your interests might rule out as many as all of them. A secondary reason is that it is overwhelmingly unlikely that you will have any control over where your career takes you after grad school, and if sticking with one geographical area is really that hard of a constraint, you might want to reconsider this kind of career.

I would strongly recommend that you find some way to get involved with a nearby program, say, as a volunteer or paid research assistant, lab manager, or something like this. And/or try to sit in on some classes nearby. One reason is that I suspect that, coming from computer science, you may well find that "cognitive neuroscience" isn't what you think it is, and that you would like to work on the brain at a higher level than is common. But also, you ideally need to be able to get a letter from someone on the inside, which it sounds like you couldn't right now. As a computer science BS you are actually in a decent position to get into many programs I think (esp. if they have a more computational bent), but you need to be crystal clear in your application about what it is that you want to do, and why the program/lab you are applying to is the perfect fit for you (and vice versa).
posted by advil at 8:35 PM on November 3, 2009

why would one not be able to limit oneself geographically?

It's generally unwise because the graduate department you go to plays a very strong role in determining the course of the rest of your professional life. Restricting yourself to only schools in Chicagoland means throwing away all of the other departments in the world, even if those are better than the ones in Chicago. Or it might be the case that for whatever reason the Grade A departments in Chicagoland aren't interested in you, but a Grade A department somewhere else is.

It is also the case that you can't reason from general reputation of the university to the reputation of caliber of a given department within that university. This will be less true of capital-intensive fields like neuro than my own field of political science, but it's still likely that you can have world-class universities without world-class neuro programs, and that you can find world-class neuro programs in schools without world-class reputations.

Also too and as well, your future in academia is going to be profoundly limited in terms of geography. Unless you are shit-hot, you will have very little control over where you live, and many universities are in places that are in some respects undesirable for adults.

To be sure, geography isn't nothing. Graduate school takes a good while, and it's not totally unreasonable to rule out a few places as too miserable to spend 4+ years or however long a PhD program in neuroscience takes. Likewise, it's not unreasonable to rule out some small part of the country when applying for jobs. That is, "Anywhere but Arkansas" or "Anywhere but Boston" are reasonable, but "Nowhere but Chicago" is not a reasonable way to approach a graduate career.

What about the corporate world did you find blah? Because many aspects of the academic world are similar to the corporate world, but with a lot more sitting alone in your office.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:49 PM on November 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

While you're sorting out which exact areas appeal to you, it may help to keep in mind that you are not necessarily committed to one tiny subspecialty of a subfield of for the rest of your life. My stated interests in my grad school application have absolutely no connection to what I'm doing now, barely a year after starting, and nobody's even batted an eye. You mostly want to demonstrate to the schools you apply to and to yourself that you understand your chosen field, that you are capable of choosing sensible research directions, and that you can make plans appropriately.

As far as selecting a school goes, you might want to take a look at section 5 of this guide. It was incredibly valuable to me when I was making my grad school decisions and writing my applications. The guide is written for computer science Ph.D. applicants, but I suspect most of its advice holds for science and engineering Ph.D. programs in general. It might not hurt to read the guide front-to-back and make sure you've considered all of the questions that it raises.
posted by Serf at 9:27 PM on November 3, 2009

You say you are interested in cognitive neuroscience but given your computer science background you would really have a leg up into computational neuroscience, assuming you don't want to get away from computers. Computational neuro, out of the many subfields, is probably one that gets you closest to actually working on understanding how consciousness arises from the mind. Its all about figuring out how neurons talk to each other and form networks that behave in ways that are more than the sum of their parts, right?

Here is a list of faculty research in computational neuro at Northwestern.

Since you still only have a vague idea of what you are interested in and not dead set on studying, say, some minute detail on some esoteric worm for some very specific reason, I think you might be okay limiting yourself to the geographical area you are comfortable with. Very few people end up studying what they started out wanting to study when they entered grad school (so I've heard).

I agree with many here that you may not be ready to apply now. Research what programs require what, look at what research is going on in the Chicago area. Get to really know what's out there before "settling on a school/program."
posted by bobobox at 4:40 AM on November 4, 2009

Thanks for all the great info! Just to clear up a few things:

1) I'm not completely clueless as to what sub-specialties exist and that I'd be interested in. The 2 main areas I'm interested in are computational cognitive neuroscience based on simulating neuroanatomical areas involved in cognition and Neural prosthetic/neural interface research. 2 very different fields, the former would be a computational course and the later would be a heavily lab oriented biological study. I am more curious how I would get my feet wet in both areas so that I can determine which to focus on.
2) To address the concerns that I'm not ready to apply just yet - well, duh! If I was ready I wouldn't be asking this question! I'm just starting the process of researching how to get the ball rolling. The actual starting of the application process is at least a year or 2 out, provided I can find a uni/program/adviser I'd be interested in working with.
3) The point about geographic areas is well taken, I am limiting myself too much by looking in a specific area.

Again, thanks for the info everyone, I especially like the ideas of taking classes in the field without committing to a program just yet and trying to do some type of work in a lab. With my CS background I would guess I could probably find work as a minion/code monkey in a computational neuro lab, at least.
posted by 1024x768 at 7:23 AM on November 4, 2009

Neural prosthetic/neural interface research

I almost posted this in my earlier answer but wasn't sure it was relevant enough for the general case. Many subfields (including, I believe this one) can involve some serious animal experimentation, up to and including primate work. So you may want to think hard about how comfortable you would be with that, and use this as a filter.

You may also find this thread useful.
posted by advil at 9:17 AM on November 4, 2009

I once heard the advice "look for an adviser, not a grad program," and I think that has been well emphasized above. I'm just chiming in to say you should definitely talk to several students in any program you're seriously considering. That advice often gets thrown in as a footnote in response to questions like this, but it is very important. The most brilliant researcher is not necessarily the best adviser, whether s/he is overly restrictive, not responsive to your advising needs, hard to get along with, or whatever. The way you find that out is by talking to current students, because they know the faculty and the reputations.

It's easy to think you'll go to school and sail through on your hard work and brilliant mind, but (like most things in life) it turns out the people you have to work with make a huge difference in both your happiness and success. Don't trick yourself into thinking you can "feel out" a school or a program or an adviser by yourself. Ask the people who know what they're talking about.
posted by vytae at 1:44 PM on November 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is lots of great advice here. I would add a couple more things.

i) You need to find out if the lab is toxic. Supervisor passive-agressive, aggresive, bipolar, domineering, capricious? Dubious science done there under high pressure? These are all attributes that high-powered academe seems to select for.

After your interview, take the graduate students out to dinner. Buy them a drink - a beer or glass of wine - maybe even a bite to eat. Don't get drunk yourself. Loose lips may crack the facade that's been portrayed about the work environment. This will be the best $25 you ever spend.

Chat to them about what it's actually like. Has anyone left the lab in a hurry? Is there a grad student/postdoc that the boss said you couldn't talk to? What's the worst thing about working there? Do their advisees get jobs, or is thier repuation toxic because of personal issues or shoddy science? Best to know early : 5-7 years is a long time to spend with someone being the sole determinant of your progress in academe.


When narrowing down schools from a list of places that have offered you a position the question you should ask yourself is:

ii) If my science is going to shit, what place will make me happy - or at least somewhat content?

When research is going well, when your personal life is stable, when the mild penury you experience as a grad student isnt bothering you, the 80+hr weeks and hothouse atmosphere don't matter. Science is good, you're generating data, the brain and hands hum ike a well oiled machine.

Often research sucks for months at a time. You're depressed, broke and need to spend a lot of time at the lab. You need to be somewhere that doesn't drive you insane.

i.e. City person? Dont move to the middle of nowhere for grad school.
Like nature? Hate crowds?Don't move to a city.
Can't stand hot weather? Don't move to the south. Cold? No far-north-places for you.

This is critical. The intense misery people often experience in grad school is survivable - if their surroundings can nurture them when their studies can't.

Good luck!
posted by lalochezia at 5:00 PM on November 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

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