A few days ago (ok, maybe it was more than that, the days kind of blur together), Sci got an email in her inbox, and the instant she got it…she knew she had to address the crowd. For it went like this:
I am a neurobiology undergrad. I am looking at graduate programs. I
have figured out that there are a great many labs out there that I
would enjoy, which is bloody great – except the number of schools
they’re at is about 30.
How do I narrow this down and not either gloss over a really good
program that might be in a crap location or not select good criteria
for a curriculum or other things?
I want to hear from you especially because you’re a grad
student right now.
First off, Sci noticed a vast difference between this letter than the letters full of flattery and awe which are sent Isis’ way. Sci’s a little jealous. Perhaps her humble manner makes her more approachable, but we all want some worship, don’t we?!
Anyway, on to the question. When looking at grad schools, how do you narrow it down? What should one look for in a grad program in neuroscience?
Sci will have to be honest, here. When she first started looking for grad programs, she looked a lot like this:
Sci had no idea what she was looking for. She was looking to go to grad school. She likes neuroscience, but then she also liked cancer biology. She liked biology, and psychology, and chemistry was kind of cool, and…
…you can see where I’m going here.
But Sci blundered her way right into the grad program that turned out to serve her needs very well. And now, as she looks back on it, she knows what she should have been looking for. Keep in mind that a lot of these things are thing you have to figure out when you get to the interview stage and can talk to the grad students and PIs in the programs you’re looking at. But some of it (like #1) you can often figure out before you start.
1) The grad program
Look at the program (hopefully they have a decent website), or see if you have someone to talk to there.
– Are the grad students happy and relatively well-fed? This is relative.
– What is the retention rate? How many people graduate, and when they graduate, where do they go? You want a relatively high retention rate (obviously not everyone is going to make it), where it’s clear they only take people who they think can make it in the first place. You also want to see where those people end up. Do they end up in good post-doc positions? Do they go on to become faculty? Do they go on to end up in other types of things (industry, govt, SLACs, etc) where you feel you might like to be, too?
2) The grad students
Are they motivated and interested in their work, or cynical and bitter? Keep in mind, many grad students LOOK cynical and bitter, and then perk up a lot when you ask them about their stuff over beer. You want to see grad students who support each other. They don’t all have to be friends, but they WILL be your colleagues (if you go there) and you want to know you’re going somewhere with people who you can trust scientifically, who will not try and sabotage your work (these people do exist. We dislike them).
3) The labs
Of course, you are going to want to look for labs with work that gets you totally excited. You want to see projects that you want to do, and techniques that you think are cool. But you ALSO want to look for several other things:
– what’s the PI like? Often PIs are very supportive, or at least distantly supportive, but a good publication and funding record CAN conceal a truly scary personality. I’ve heard more than once of PIs who threw things at their lab people. A good indicator of not-so-great mentoring material is a mid-career or older PI who has no students, has had no successful students, or whose students take a VERY long time to graduate. Keep an eye out. Often senior grad students will warn you off. We’re all in this together.
– Is the PI proud of their students? The best labs, in Sci’s experience, are those where the PI is 100% behind their students, boasts about them, continues to mentor after they graduate, and is generally really proud of their students, wherever they end up.
– does the lab have lots of recent publications? A quick pubmed search of the PIs name can tell you this. How many pubs does a typical grad student in the lab get out?
– lab collaborations: is the lab a lone wolf, or does it play well with others? A pubmed search can tell you this, too, if you look for other names in the department or other names in the field.
– if the lab has a lot of students, do those students get time with the PI? Who trains them? Do the people in the lab appear pleased to be there, and are they productive? Where do the people in that specific lab end up professionally?
– Does the lab have money? I know that sounds crass, but in biomed it’s REALLY REALLY important. Can the PI get funding? Can they support a grad student? Can they help the grad student to get their own funding (this is a big one, getting grad funding of your own is a great way to begin your career)? Or will you end up playing board games on the floor for months because there is literally no money to buy supplies to do your experiments with (this actually happened to a friend of mine)?
– Is the lab a good environment that you think you would be productive in? Some people like quiet labs, some like the party labs. It’s a personality thing.
4) Contingency plans
You see this lab. It’s sparkly, it’s shiny, the work is cool, and it’s TOTALLY where you want to work. You think. Heck, maybe you KNOW. But sparkles don’t always bear out. You need some contingency plans.
– Does the dept or program require rotations where you rotate through more than one lab? Not all depts do this, but Sci thinks it’s a good idea. Sci came in thinking she wanted to try one thing, and ending up doing something else entirely, with which she has been very pleased. She never would have figured it out if she hadn’t had to do rotations.
– Are there other labs in the department that hold work that interests you? Sparkles can cover some crappy stuff, from toxic, cannibalistic lab environments, to major funding problems. If you head in, and all is not as it appears, you don’t want to be stuck in a dept where there is ONLY ONE lab doing anything remotely like what you want to do. Look for things like core centers for memory, vision, Parkinson’s, hypertension, breast cancer, heart disease, or whatever else strikes you. These will have several labs looking at different aspects of the same problem, which gives you not only a potential second choice, but also people that you can collaborate with. Wins all round.
– Is the department supportive of its students, or do they tend to dump people by the way when the lab they were in doesn’t work out? This is the sort of thing you can find out from the other grad students, who are often very good about helping a n00b out.
Some other things to consider about various programs, depending on your goals in grad school.
– Does the program offer teaching opportunities? Outreach opportunities? Many biomed programs in particular want people who will spend 24/7 in the lab, and do not encourage teaching. That’s not a bad thing, depending on what you want.
– Location: this is an extra. You’d be amazed how many killer neuroscience programs are located in the middle of Physioproffin’ nowhere. And that’s ok. You are not there for the nightlife or the culture or the dating. You’re there for the science. If you ARE really worried about this, of course take it into account, but many people don’t.
– Living conditions: also an extra. The good thing about the middle of Physioproffin’ nowhere is that it’s often affordable. If you go to grad school in NYC, your stipend (even with a cost of living supplement) may mean you’re in a small shoebox with three other grad students, in which you will be living for the next five years. OTOH, the middle of nowhere can often afford you your own apartment. But this is secondary.
– Health insurance: HAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA *breathe* HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHA
ooh, that hurt a little. You’ll probably get health insurance. Don’t bet on dental. It probably won’t be good.
And that’s…all Sci can think of off the top of her head. The things you can check before you apply include: dept funding, funding rates for the professors, funding rates for the grad students, the retention rate, the time to degree, the number of grad students a lab has had, where the grad students ended up, extras. The other stuff may have to wait til you get to the interview.
Now keep in mind, this is only Sci’s humble little opinion. Your mileage may vary. And Sci knows she didn’t hit it all. What do other people think? Am I full of it? Sci would very much like to hear what you guys think people should look for in the comments!!!