Gradschool Anyone?
August 17, 2006 4:47 PM   Subscribe

I am interested in going to grad. school for neurobiology. I have been researching rating systems for programs, but so far have not been having much luck.

Has anyone had personal experience with a particular Neurobiology masters or Ph. D. program (or related area) and could comment about size, average GRE scores, or just general opinions?
posted by The Castle to Education (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Really when you're looking at grad schools, you should find a prof who you like and appreciate his/her work and go there.
posted by k8t at 5:10 PM on August 17, 2006

As a seventh year graduate student in molecular biology, I question any rating system for research focused science graduate programs. The quality of your education has nothing to do with the A) reputation of the school or B) size and scores of your classmates. It has everything to do with the lab you end up committing to. Your P.I. (principal investigator) and his/her approach to graduate education is the single most important factor in your graduate education. However, you often do not end up choosing a laboratory to work in for your dissertation until your second year of study - long after you've committed to a particular institution. Therefore, your search should entail finding the institution with the most laboratories that pursue a research topic you find exciting. Hopefully one of those labs is lead by a P.I. who 1) you find inspiring as a mentor, 2) graduates students in a timely manner, and 3) has space available in the lab for you.
posted by dendrite at 5:10 PM on August 17, 2006

Some additional points:

There's a huge difference between Masters and Doctoral programs. Try to determine which one you really want as that will make your search much simpler. Masters programs typically take 2-3 years and probably cost you money. Doctorates will almost certainly exceed 5 years of training and will pay you a little bit of money. This tiny stipend is fantastic in the beginning but frustrating when you are a highly specialized and essentially independent researcher still living below the poverty line. Especially when your undergrad classmates are pulling in much more salary. Then again, without a Ph.D your career choices are somewhat limited.

The search described above should obviously factor in other "life factors" which contribute to your well-being. For instance, don't apply to schools in a geographical area you will not be happy in (i.e. severe cold, heat, distance from family).
posted by dendrite at 5:17 PM on August 17, 2006

The so-called brand-name of the program itself is unimportant. Good programs will still have crappy assistant professors who ultimately won't receive tenure, and so-so programs will still have superstar established PIs who are recognized leaders in their field.

The quality of your potential mentor (how many R01s does (s)he have? Quantity of publications? Does (s)he publish in high-profile journals like Nature Medicine or Nature Neuroscience? Does (s)he get invited to write review articles for Annual Reviews in Neuroscience?) should be your measuring stick.

Classes and such nonsense are unimportant. A real PI teaches you, in addition to the science, how to write and referee papers, how to give talks, and how to write successfully for grants. During your postdoc, and as a tenure track junior faculty member, your ability to bring in funding and publish are what will keep you afloat -- your ability to study textbooks and take good notes on lectures, not so much.

Remember: you come out a Ph.D., and people will judge you by your publications, and your track record of obtaining funding at the pre-doctoral level. No one cares about your GPA or the name of your school/program. A few Nature or Science papers and a slew of grants and fellowships, from the NIH and private funding agencies, are what will impress.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 5:21 PM on August 17, 2006

As a postscript, if you must rank grad schools, look first at the list of U.S. News best medical schools - Research.

By looking at major academic medical centers, you enrich for places where faculty will be well-funded, well-published, and leaders in their field. That's just the starting point, however -- you must then find the neuroscience department, and research individual faculty to make sure they are to your satisfaction.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 5:26 PM on August 17, 2006

Washington University is highly regarded in this area, esp. with its top-ranked medical school (with a huge focus on research) and its related (and highly regarded) programs in PNP (philosophy-neuroscience-psychology) and biology. As someone who just graduated from there with an undergraduate degree in psychology, I can tell you that the PNP program's major focus is research into neurobiology and cognitive processes—philosophy and the more popular social-type psychology are something of an afterthought, mainly in there to attract interest, as far as I can tell. So that might be a program to look into.
posted by limeonaire at 5:43 PM on August 17, 2006

Also, I think ikkyu2 might know something about this field, though I could be wrong...
posted by limeonaire at 5:50 PM on August 17, 2006

Dendrite and NucleiophilicAttack are right--it's mostly about your mentor. In my program at the University of Minnesota, we didn't pick a mentor until the second year, so I looked for plenty of labs that did stuff I found interesting.

I found out later in my time there that the real determinant of your career is your post-doc(s). I was told by many people that in grad school you want a kind mentor who will teach you to do excellent science, while for your post-doc you want to choose a topic that you'll be happy with for a long time (this may be vastly different from your dissertation topic), and possibly aim for a presitgious lab. I'd still vote for a good mentor, though. Post-docs are a tricky time for some of us.

I couldn't find master's programs in neuroscience in 1999. So I applied for the Ph.D. program, got in, finished, and now I hate my job and most of my prospects. I would encourage you to interview people who have the degree and use it in various ways--find someone in research, someone who teaches, someone who does both, someone who is in industry, runs a business, someone who got out entirely... I was stupid in thinking I'd just make it work once I got the degree. The job options for a highly-speicalized Ph.D. are not countless, and many of them resemble each other and require a huge amount of work. See if you can contact recent graduates from the programs that interest you and ask what their experience has been. I'm miserable, but I know some very happy neuroscientists. I also know some who went into real-estate...
posted by aimless at 6:15 PM on August 17, 2006

i second all the notions of finding a professor to work for first.

i'd also like to put forth that it's really important that you go somewhere you're happy to live for ~6 years. I just finished my PhD at UC Berkeley (neuroscience, but there's no way I can be objective about their program right now) and the best thing has been living in the bay area for the past 6 years.
posted by garethspor at 8:07 PM on August 17, 2006

I was a research tech in this lab, and speaking as a random, anonymous internet user, I think you should apply there.

In addition to what everyone is saying about picking a PI from papers you liked, I used to hear a lot from the grad students in my lab and other labs about the importance of funding. Some labs are just going to be better able to support the research you want to do -- in others, more of the infrastructure stuff will fall on you: grant-writing, safety and animal-subject paperwork, freakin' dishwashing.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:53 PM on August 17, 2006

If you know that your interest is in a specific sub-discipline, finding potential mentors is a great way to go about choosing the right grad school. However, as someone who came into biomedical grad school without a clear focus, I'll tell you that it isn't always necessary. I came in without a clear research goal and did just fine hooking up with the right mentor. That's why many schools require lab rotations your first year.

So, if your case is closer to mine, choose a program that's large, distinguished, and has people doing a variety of work that you are interested in.

FWIW, I also have heard fairly good things about the Neuro program where I go to school (Baylor College of Medicine). The people in it seem really happy, and they've got some quality profs. The downside? Houston summers...
posted by chrisamiller at 10:57 PM on August 17, 2006

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