Recently, I have been flooded with questions regarding grad school, the PhD track and other matters so I decided to update this post from 3 years ago. I have expanded on some sections that I know more about now.
I have gotten so many questions about people who are interested in neuroscience as a career that I have created this post so I can reference back to it in the future.
Note: This is a guide directed towards people that want RESEARCH careers. My graduate program’s approach towards neuroscience integrated knowledge from many areas like electrophysiology, cellular and molecular biology, and computational neurobiology relying on mathematics/physics. Also, a number of you seem to be under the impression that I am studying neuropsych, which I am not. Neuropsych is traditionally a more clinically-oriented branch within neuroscience.
First of all, if you want to become a neuroscientist, you will most likely have to complete formal graduate training in a related branch or field. You have to be ready for this, because it is something that will take a long time. Not to worry though, time flies and if you like what you’re doing you won’t mind…
In college, the most common options are majoring in either biology or psychology. Some schools have a neuroscience or biopsychology major that may be in the biological sciences department or the psych department or even a combination of both. For example, you could major in biology and minor in psych or vice versa… Because neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field, I would recommend taking courses outside your major (especially if you’re in a psych dept). Helpful and attractive courses include: physics, calculus, organic chemistry, biochem, genetics, cell and molecular biology, bioethics, and neuropsych/psych courses. Importantly, some people come from other backgrounds like electrical/computer engineering that are also helpful in areas like electrophysiology, computational neurobiology and neuronal modeling. Thus, a major in biology or psychology is not a MUST but it definitely gives you an advantage.
While in college, it is also important to gain research experience (try volunteering in labs just to learn or for course credit) while maintaining a decent GPA. And by decent I mean higher than 3.5 on a 4.0 scale. Of course, not all is lost if your GPA is below a 3.5. It will just be a little harder as you might not be regarded as competitive as other students. You can make up for this with research experience. Mind you, if you have a 4.0 but all your classes are in the soft sciences and you didn’t take challenging courses, you’re in trouble as well… Third year of college (assuming you will graduate in 4 years) is crucial. This is the time to beef up your CV/resume, take the GRE, talk to people who will be your references, and complete your application to graduate schools. Graduate schools have a wide variety of programs (i.e. neurobiology, neuroscience, neuropsych) with different kinds of focus. Look at the curriculum for each program and find one that is well-suited for your interests and career aspirations. Remember to apply early and to ask for fee waivers, if available (I applied to 8 schools and got fee waivers for all but one of them!). Your personal statement is essential. And by that I mean it absolutely has to be great. Different schools have different criteria for this essay and you should remember to pay attention to these criteria and follow instructions. You should also have several people proofread it before you send it. Do not skip this part, as any proofreaders will likely catch mistakes that are invisible to you- no joke.
After you submit your application, send an e-mail to make sure everything is complete. If you get an interview, ask who your interviewers will be and familiarize yourself with their research and areas of expertise. Be nice, enthusiastic and ask smart questions. Also, during your interview, highlight why you want to be part of the training environment at that particular university or location and why you’d be a good match for the program and the department. If you are interested in conducting your doctoral work with a faculty member that you’re interviewing with, ask about funding and the possibility of rotating in the lab. For example, I interviewed with a faculty member that interested me, but I found out during interviews that he could not take me because of funding- even if the rotation went well. Also, this should go without saying but remember to be cordial to students that you meet and other interviews. Finally, remember to send thank you e-mail to the faculty that met with you and anybody else you deem appropriate to thank.
Graduate school: Do your best to learn and understand the material presented in your intro classes, as it will be the foundation that most of the other classes will be built upon but don’t worry about learning EVERYTHING. You will find that you will learn what you need most as you go along- acquiring knowledge is a process. You don’t need stellar grades in graduate school, but you do need to pass, which for most universities is a solid B. While you are during your first year, you will most probably rotate through different labs in which you will be able to get to know the lab, learn the techniques and figure out if it’s a good fit for you. After you finish classes, you will be working towards your thesis proposal. This is the meat of grad school. Work, work, work. Most likely, you will need to propose your thesis, select a review committee (composed of experts in fields relating to your research), work in lab and collect data to support your thesis, and defend it. Be savvy about your committee choices because once you propose, many programs will not let you switch members unless something our of the ordinary happens. This being said, pick faculty members that you have a good relationship with (or are interested in developing a good relationship with), but that are thoughtful and critical of your work. Hold committee meetings regularly (once or twice a year). Get that thesis out, present at scientific conferences, and publish well. Bonus if you learn how to write grants. Your committee will tell you when you are ready to graduate, although this is often a conversation involving your committee, yourself, and the PI. After you defend your thesis, your committee decides your fate.
Post-graduate school: Postdoctoral fellowships are a common way of learning additional techniques or addressing a different but related question. Or you could also go into something you don’t know much about. I keep hearing that a postdoc is supposed to add versatility, diversity and publications to your CV. This is also the time period in which you learn how to run a lab, work on your own independent projects, write grants, and decide where you want your career to go (i.e. industry, academia, clinical). Think about it as an extension of your training in which you get more freedom and flexibility. Start looking for postdoctoral positions early (up to a year in advance). Talk to your PI, other PIs, and your network (you should have one by the end of your PhD) about possible opportunities. You can also look for T32 programs, which include a limited period of funding and other perks.
Alternatively, some people enroll in medical school to pursue an MD degree in addition to the Ph.D. one while others go back to school for other degrees (ex. PsyD, law, etc…). Others find industry jobs or go into public policy.
Hope this helps. Good luck to-be PhDs!