Choosing a neuroscience graduate program

TL;DR talk to current students & trust your instincts

Photo: Tony Webster (Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

Recruitment season is finally over, and you have a couple of weeks to decide where you’d like to spend the next chunk of your life. After several weekends spent explaining your research in 10-minute segments to complete strangers, you’re hoping to ultimately have a place to call lab, and a city to call home.

As you look back on your visits, it’s a whirlwind of graduate students, science, faculty members, walking, and beer. How, in Carl Sagan’s name, are you supposed to choose one school over another? To complicate such decisions, opaque ranking systems are putting dubious numerical values on your hodgepodge of memories and tired feet.

I’m no expert on choosing graduate schools or advisors — after all, I’ve only done it once. However, I’ve witnessed my colleagues disperse in all sorts of directions as far as institutions and advisors, some for better, and some for ehh not so good.

Who are you? Before comparing programs, it’s a good idea to do some personal reflection. It’s impossible to know how you’ll feel at the end of graduate school, or even in a year, but your current decision depends on how you feel now. Check in with yourself:

  • Why are you going to graduate school?
  • What do you see yourself doing after graduate school?
  • With those two answers in mind, how long would you like to spend in graduate school?
  • Based on prior work experience, consider the kind of leadership you work well with. Do you prefer supervisors to be hands-off, or very involved in your daily activities?
  • Consider taking this comprehensive survey sponsored by AAAS to help identify your needs, strengths, and weaknesses, as well your career options.

Now, young reckless Jedi, ready are you?

Did you like the students?

This is a major aspect of visiting the campus. Did you meet people you can see being scientifically as well as socially supportive? Were they, in general, pleasant? The emotional state of students (especially those past the third year) is incredibly indicative of the health of a graduate program. Think about the kind of people you want to be surrounded by for the next five years; even if the individuals change, the ethos of the program is unlikely to change that quickly.

All together now.

Science thrives in a collaborative and cohesive environment built on personalities that promote these characteristics. Ask students if they would feel comfortable asking another student in the program for experience or insight on a particular project or technique. In most of the places I’ve worked, people readily email around to borrow reagents or equipment and research moves quicker as a result. An institution that promotes collaboration across students and labs is likely to be a happier and better place to do science.

Make sure there are five advisors you can imagine yourself working with (applicable for programs with research rotations).

Hopefully, you’ve heard this already: do not choose an institution for one star faculty member. Yes, you interviewed with them and the research is absolutely jaw dropping, but you should not depend on one person unless you have an explicit agreement with them or extensive prior experience with the lab.

Make sure there are 2–3 people you’re confident would be a good fit, with at least another 2 that you see as very strong possibilities. Reflect on your own goals for the type of research you hope to do (behind a computer or a lab bench?) and make sure the institution has several faculty members in each corner of your comfort zone.

Lastly, compare your expectations for the length of your PhD to the program’s average as well as the labs that interest you. Some advisors regularly have graduate students for 7+ years, whereas others are known for graduating students much earlier. You might not mind sticking around for 7 years, but it’s a good thing to know in advance.

Ask ahead of time about funding.

If you’re not coming in with your own funding, make sure the program will fund you for at least the first year. It is a very good sign if the program has an institutional training grant (hint: you can search for your institution/organization on NIH RePORT).

If you’re worried about funding in a particular lab, it is definitely okay to ask if they will be able to fund you. Funding is a fact of life in science; the earlier you have those open conversations, the better off you’ll be.

Ensure there is administrative infrastructure for student support.

You want an administration that will help structure your experience in graduate school, elicit and implement your feedback, as well as springboard you into the next phase of your career. Graduate school can be quite amorphous without some structure; although this is okay for some students, it can be unmanageable for others.

Some programs involve students on executive committees and schedule yearly feedback meetings. Not only does this demonstrate that the program cares, but also that it is organized enough internally to seek external advice. It’s definitely a plus if the department takes the time and money to plan seminar series and social events for students.

It’s not all about the science.

Of course, you want to attend a university with an abundance of top-notch research, but you also need to be in a place where you can be a happy person. It is not shallow or unprofessional to choose a place where you think you’ll feel safe and at ease. You might decide that you’d prefer to be in a bustling city versus a quiet suburb, or in a place that offers cultural and social opportunities that fit your needs. You’ll spend long hours in the lab, but you also need long hours relaxing and doing things that you love, like having picnics. After all, your life outside of the lab enhances your ability to do good science.

It’s totally reasonable to choose a program simply because of the presence of palm trees. Too far? Too far. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re currently making a choice between schools, don’t hesitate to ask additional questions of your host, other graduate students, or faculty you spoke to. This is your chance to gather as much information as you can so that you can feel confident in your decision. If they don’t answer your concerns, you may have your answer right there.

Spend a week pretending you’re going to one school. Take the next week and pretend you’re going to another school. Dwell on those indescribable responses to how it feels, remain open to unforeseen opportunities, and trust your intuition. As Richard Feynman aptly said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

This post is the beginning of a conversation

This piece is part of a series that will eventually morph into a book, tentatively titled “So you want to be a neuroscientist? An honest account of life as a researcher” (Columbia University Press). The goal is to offer aspiring neuroscientists honest, informative insight about our field as well as education and careers in it. Most importantly, it will reflect the opinions and experience of our entire community — so, I’d greatly appreciate your feedback. What did I miss? What do you disagree with?


This post was originally posted on NeuWriteSD and The Spike has been edited to update its content.