Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

A common question I am asked, on my blog and in real life, is what is the “trick” to getting into a good graduate program (for the sciences). The trick is that there is no trick, but there are a few preparatory steps that *do* make all the difference in the application process. And no, it isn’t all about GPA. Cause I didn’t even have one. The first ten in this post, the next ten will follow. (More under the fold….)

1. Spend your spare time doing research.
This one should be a no-brainer, so to speak. If you want a career in research, you need to show your committment early on. Also, as tough as it might be, many research positions are not paid. You gotta just suck it up and frame it like you’re getting valuable experience and research tools (which you are), which will be worth far more than minimum wage in the long run. Also, participant in a few different labs in diverse fields. This will give you the breadth of experience to help you decide what field you will fit into best.

2. Cultivate awesome letters of reccommendation.
Admissions committees have told me that these letters are given tremendous weight in the selection process. So you should only ask someone to write you a letter you know will be stellar. This is sometimes difficult in a large school, to have someone know you at a personal level. But take the time to stay after class, email the prof, whatever it takes to get face time. Its essential.

3. Take the relavent classes, but have a few other interests too.
Show your interest and build the background, but be a well-rounded person. Play an instrument. Write. Volunteer. Whatever does it for you.

4. Have a reason why you want to do research.
The most common question I was asked in interviews was why I wanted to do research, and in what areas I was most interested. Have good answers to these questions that sound smart, sincere, and not trite.

5. Read the literature, know the basics, and a few tough surprising facts.
Everyone you talk to in interviews knows who Eric Kandel is, but do they know about (insert your favorite scientist here)? Make them realize why YOUR favorite is cool, and why it excites you. They’ll respect you for being nerdy, I promise.

6. Know your interviewers, and their research.
When you find out who you are interviewing with, read a couple of their papers. If they have a big paper in Science or Nature, read it! You will be stuck in a room for an hour with this person, so you might as well have something to talk about other than you. They will be flattered and impressed you took the time and effort.

7. Shell out the money for a GRE tutor if you are a nervous test-taker.
GRE General (and subject when required) are given a lot of weight as well, especially if you don’t have a GPA. Therefore, if you are a bad test-taker, get a tutor and take lots of practice tests. There are some good cheap ones on CD-ROMS now.

8. Apply to schools based on labs, not the US News and World Report Rankings.
When you graduate, you graduate from the lab more than from the school. So you may be in Harvard, but if your lab sucks you’ll still have problems landing a postdoc. Also, US News and World Report is subjective and biased. Take in the whole picture. Prestige is over-rated and, I believe, unimportant. Sniff out the great labs that are doing great science, and it will serve you better.

9. Email professors you are interested in working with.
It is vital to make contact as soon as possible. If the professor likes you and wants to work with you, a way will be found to get you into the program. This is also important in finding out if there is space and money for you.

10. Follow the funding.
Many students come to a school only to find out that all the labs they want to work in are academically broke. Your mentor must support you (at least for a few years in most cases), and this is not cheap. With the current funding situation, this is more of an issue. You may be the best student to come along in years, but money talks and bullshit walks.

Comments

  1. #1 Sean Carroll
    June 12, 2006

    Great advice, especially about cultivating awesome letters of recommendation. We did a couple of posts about the same topic a while back:

    http://cosmicvariance.com/2005/12/20/unsolicited-advice-1-how-to-get-into-graduate-school/
    http://cosmicvariance.com/2006/03/29/unsolicited-advice-part-deux-choosing-a-grad-school/

  2. #2 Katherine Moore
    June 13, 2006

    Great advice! I also have a website (albeit still under construction) that repeats some of this advice and adds more as well.

  3. #3 wheatdogg
    June 13, 2006

    Great advice, with broader application to finding your first (paying) job.

    How did you not have a GPA?

  4. #4 wheatdogg
    June 13, 2006

    Ah, nm. Could it have something to do with attending the New College?

  5. #5 Shelley
    June 13, 2006

    Yeah, no grades at New College. We got evaluations instead. :)

  6. #6 dr. techne
    June 14, 2006

    I agree with #6, but I always found that interviewers were MORE THAN HAPPY to talk about their own research. Asking relatively intelligent questions about same disposes them favorably towards you, too.

    In a larger sense, one should have a very good answer–for oneself–to “why do I want to do this?” Getting in is only the beginning, then you have to stay in, and that’s where the pain and angst are. Be sure that you are doing it because you love research and the area/topic, and not because you are avoiding something. And even if you are sure you love research, consider the lack of jobs/money with clear eyes, and think productively about what you’ll be able to do if research becomes unworkable.

  7. #7 Shelley
    June 14, 2006

    Very good points Dr. Techne

  8. #8 steve h.
    June 15, 2006

    >2. Cultivate awesome letters of reccommendation.
    >This is sometimes difficult in a large school, to have >someone know you at a personal level. But take the time to >stay after class, email the prof, whatever it takes to get >face time. Its essential.
    Get more than one good letter. One person can be a bullshitter but 2 shows agreement on how awesome you are!

    >3. Take the relavent classes, but have a few other >interests too.
    >Show your interest and build the background, but be a >well-rounded person. Play an instrument. Write. Volunteer. >Whatever does it for you.
    I don’t really think this matters in the sciences as much- perhaps clinical psych, lawschool, medschool, and business school. You barely have to have a personality as long as your research abilities back you up (I’m not saying personality can’t help though…or hurt in extreme cases)

    >4. Have a reason why you want to do research.
    >The most common question I was asked in interviews was why >I wanted to do research, and in what areas I was most >interested. Have good answers to these questions that sound >smart, sincere, and not trite.
    You know… I don’t know that I have a real answer for this question- besides, I can’t imagine really doing anything else – well…maybe being a musician.

    >6. Know your interviewers, and their research.
    >When you find out who you are interviewing with, read a >couple of their papers. If they have a big paper in Science >or Nature, read it! You will be stuck in a room for an hour >with this person, so you might as well have something to >talk about other than you. They will be flattered and >impressed you took the time and effort.

    I heard the head of the grad program at UPenn (psych-now deceased) once say that they always know who there are going to admit before the interviews and that they don’t add too much to the decision process. There are also plenty of programs which admit first then interview for this reason (although I can point out some people who shouldn’t be here, and probably wouldn’t be here if there were interviews-man there are some weirdos in science!).
    You should by all means try to impress people but the interview should be just as much for you to decide whether you can work with the person whith whom you’re interviewing.

    7. Shell out the money for a GRE tutor if you are a nervous test-taker.
    Totally agreed- If you are getting sub 600′s in each area (and even sub 700 in math) shell out the money. Many admissions commities will automatically put you on the reject pile if you don’t meet this criteria.

    >8. Apply to schools based on labs, not the US News and >World Report Rankings.
    >When you graduate, you graduate from the lab more than from >the school. So you may be in Harvard, but if your lab sucks >you’ll still have problems landing a postdoc. Also, US News >and World Report is subjective and biased. Take in the >whole picture. Prestige is over-rated and, I believe, >unimportant. Sniff out the great labs that are doing great >science, and it will serve you better.
    I actually disagree with this. Unless you are planning on staying in the same subfield for your career, then school status counts. As soon as you start looking at Industry jobs or working at smaller liberal arts colleges whose department members often won’t know your particular lab (since they are all in different areas) people are a lot less likely to look at whose lab you’re from and what school you came from.
    You also have to realize that if something doesn’t work out in the lab you enter the school with, then at a lesser ranked school there fewer good labs to switch to.
    USnews rankings are B.S. up to a point…for example the real differences between the top 20 schools aren’t all that apparent – but if you are considering going somewhere in the ranks below that… I’d seriously think long and hard about whether its worth it.

    >.9. Email professors you are interested in working with.
    >It is vital to make contact as soon as possible. If the >professor likes you and wants to work with you, a way will >be found to get you into the program. This is also >important in finding out if there is space and money for >you.
    It shocked me to findout some people didn’t do this.

    >10. Follow the funding.
    >Many students come to a school only to find out that all >the labs they want to work in are academically broke. Your >mentor must support you (at least for a few years in most >cases), and this is not cheap. With the current funding >situation, this is more of an issue. You may be the best >student to come along in years, but money talks and >bullshit walks.
    This varies greatly department to department and school to school. My department for example (UIUC-psych): faculty has to fund people through grants or you have to teach (don’t teach your first year unless you absolutely have to and didn’t get in anywhere else). Carnegie Mellon though- the department funds people so you don’t have to worry about all the funding B.S. So the lesson… do what Shelley says: find out about the funding before you decide on the school.

  9. #9 Shelley
    June 15, 2006

    Thanks for the input, more great points!

  10. #10 Tony P
    December 16, 2006

    Thankfully I’m having the crisis of what to do post B.S. in Information Science. If I want to do the graduate side I realize it’ll be either an MBA, MLiSci, or MInfoSci. The MLiSci actually is more attractive to me for some reason.

    But then I think I should just go back and work on a second B.S. in Electronic Engineering. Decisions, decisions. Oh, and student loans out the wazoo!

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