Graduate study in neuroscience

Douglas Fitts dfitts at carson.u.washington.edu
Tue Aug 17 01:56:09 EST 1993

rittase at wam.umd.edu (W. Bradley Rittase) writes:


>I am a junior psychology major interested in a neuroscience program or 
>biopsychology type program for graduate school.  I am wondering if anyone could
>give me information concerning:


Dear Brad:

In bionet.neuroscience you write:


>I am a junior psychology major interested in a neuroscience program or 
>biopsychology type program for graduate school.  I am wondering if anyone could
>give me information concerning:


>Brad Rittase

I know little of CA schools, so you'll get no help from me there.
There are a few basic tricks that I've tried to teach my own
students over the years about how to get into  grad school.  I serve
as graduate admissions coordinator for the physiological psychology
area in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington 
and also sit on our graduate training committee.  These are my opinions
and not necessarily the opinions or policy of my University.

Rule number one is to get some research experience.  It doesn't matter
if you FIND YOUR CALLING or not, just get in somebody's lab and work
your ass off.  This will show that you can learn and use lab skills
an will get you close to a faculty member who can write a glowing letter
about you because s/he knows you so well.  If you do independent work and
get an abstract or proceedings paper or gawdforbid an actual piece of
a publication, all the better.

Rule number two is to use a highly targeted approach rather than a 
shotgun approach to applying to schools.  If you mass market yourself,
you're bound to get tossed into a stack with all the other over-ther-transom
applicants.  Go to your library and look up the absolute recent catalog of
the schools you'd like to go to.  Do this now, and if they don't have
a recent catalog, complain.  They may get one by the time you need it.

Another souce is the Science Citation Index Corporate Index.  Look up
the institution you want to visit and write down all the names and 
journal publications of the faculty you'd be interested in working with.
If you do both (catalog and SCI), you can tell who in the department is
publishing andwho isn't.  Don't give another thought to someone who looks
good in the blurb in the catalog but hasn't published since that Science
paper they mention in their bio from 10 years ago. 

Read several representative articles by three or four faculty whose
work you would be interested in doing.  Write a letter, or better yet call
or visit the faculty member and express an interest in working with them.
Let them know that you've read their work, even if you don't understand 
if clearly.  If the interest is there, they'll take care of the 
understanding, so don't be shy to express your confusion now.  Ask 
questions and let your personality shine through.  That way, when you
apply the professor will remember you and pull your application into
a short stack with the few other prospects.  The worst that can happen
is that you'll find out the only faculty member you're interested in 
working with is going to be on sabattical next year and won't be taking
any new students.  This saves you the application fee.

Rule 3 is a tightrope:  MEntion your interests, but don't overdo it to the
point that the evaluation committee thinks you're already too focused.
If nobody in the Department can advise you doing what you suggest is
the love of your life, they'll ignore you likely as not.  Show them that
you *can* focus, but that you are also flexible in your interests.  Mention
faculty by name in your letter, show that you are familiar with the 
work of more than one of them and you'll have people passing your file 
back and forth.  Assuming that you have good credentials anyway, this is
a very positive development for you, in that more than one or two people
will have become familiar with your folder when the time comes to discuss
individual applicants in the committee meeting.  

Rule 4:  Have top grades, excellent GRE scores, and dynamite letters
submitted on top of your two first author publications.  Lacking some of these
qualities, at least get some good independent research experience, something
you yourself can control, get as many of these things as your talents allow,
and be candid with your referees -- show them all the information you are
sending to the program of interest.  They're less likely to brag on your
brightness and intelligence if they suspect that you may not have done well
on your GREs or GPA.  If you open up to them, they can help to explain away
that year the Black Hole destroyed your transcript, or other anomalies
in your past.  If you were sick, flaked out, working full time, or too
in love to finish your courses, your pal the prof can explain this away,
and show how you've matured and found your focus now.  Believe me, this works
as long as it's truthful and believable (not always the same thing).

I don't think this is what you were asking for, but I think it's better
advice than whether to take an extra quarter of physics.  You already
know what to do on that score:  Get the best fundamental science background
you can.  This includes finding someone at your institution who will
take you under the wing, advise you, and work with you one-on-one.  Nothing
I could tell you will give you better advice than this.

Doug Fitts
Department of Psychology
University of Washington
dfitts at u.washington.edu

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