So, you want to study neuroscience in graduate school. Acknowledging that you are ready to further your education is the first big step. Now you must choose the few programs you want to apply to out of hundreds available.
Although this may seem overwhelming, you can narrow your search by focusing on certain key factors.
The most important criterion when choosing a neuroscience graduate program is the research. In contrast to undergraduate programs, graduate programs prioritize independent research projects over didactic coursework. Because you will spend the majority of your time performing research, it is important to find programs with multiple laboratories that interest you. That expands your options when it comes time for you to join a lab for your thesis work, plus you will probably have better access to the resources and technology you need.
There are, of course, several other factors to consider when applying to graduate school, including the program’s location, student outcomes, culture, and requirements. You should also think about the type of training, community, and mentorship that you are looking for, as well as how a program would complement your strengths and weaknesses.
How can you learn about a school’s research program? You can go to the program’s website for faculty and laboratory profiles and research summaries. Be on the lookout for particular research themes, such as “sleep” or “synaptic mechanisms.” Programs make an effort to highlight their strengths so take note of what each program tries to tell you through its website. Do additional research through literature searches — as detailed below — and contact the program’s current investigators and trainees.
Other ways of finding programs that match your research interests include:
- “Author mining.” If you read a particularly interesting paper, look up the authors’ affiliations to see where the investigators are doing the research. Similarly, if you see an impressive talk or poster at a conference, look up the presenter’s home institution.
- NIH RePORTER. NIH maintains a database of all grants given to investigators and research institutions. You can search this database for particular PIs, schools, or key terms. This is a great way to find out who is currently getting funded to do the type of research you want to do. Keep in mind that there are tools to search for funding sources in addition to NIH.
- Attend graduate school fairs. Graduate school fairs are an excellent way to learn more about a program’s “personality,” which includes research emphases. For example, a program may be hiring young faculty in a particular area — information you may not find online or in a brochure. Last year, the SfN annual meeting’s graduate fair hosted more than 50 programs. You can also go to graduate fairs at local universities and even online.
Once you gather information about an institution’s neuroscience research, there are many ways to evaluate the quality of the program. For example, looking at funding records, student publications, and awards won by students and faculty can give you an idea of a program’s resources and strengths.
Contact faculty and students to learn about the quality of training and mentorship you will receive, which is an important part of a graduate school experience.
Applying to and selecting a graduate program is a long process. After researching program options, such as through SfN’s Neuroscience Departments and Program Directory, set yourself up for success by only applying to programs that match your research interests — you’ll be more excited about the application process and the admissions committees will be more enthusiastic about your application.