Ask Scicurious: So you want to be a biomedical grad student...

Mar 24 2010 Published by under Academia

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:

O neuroscientist-who-have-come-before-me,
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... 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.
5) Extras
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.
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!!!

17 responses so far

  • KW says:

    Thank you. This post was very useful.

  • chodelas says:

    holy crap, this was wildly helpful. thank you!

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    Humility will get you nowhere. You gotta demand worship from these folks!!!!!

  • neuropostdoc says:

    I agree with the majority of this and think it's a fantastic list. The only thing I would reconsider is what you say about location. I did not take location into account and ended up regretting it somewhat. Would I go back and do things differently, probably not, but it is definitely a conversation you need to have with yourself. Yes you are there for the science, and yes several of us even bought our own places because it was so cheap, but location often has a lot to do with happiness and happiness has a lot to do with productivity. just my $0.02

  • bioinformaticgirl says:

    Would that I had read this about 18 months ago. That said... keep in mind that you probably don't know what you want at this point in your life, and the things that seem interesting now will not necessarily seem interesting later. I chose my school for really dumb reasons, and didn't fully know what I was getting in to, but I still found some really awesome stuff to do.
    One other thing - ask about interdisciplinary collaborations, etc. They really do add a lot of richness to your experience... I started as a bioinformatics student with a stat background (and no biology background), and I'm now working in the materials engineering department on vaccine design.

  • eela says:

    Schools will try to dazzle grad student recruits with their RO1s and project grants, but it is equally important to ask about institutional training grants and how many of their graduate students apply for and are awarded individual fellowships.

  • Angermeyer says:

    Contact PIs you are interested in working with well before you apply. Send a polite and BREIF email stating what you like about their research and why their lab might be a good fit for you. This gives you a chance to learn a little bit about potential advisers, but more importantly, and with a little luck, you may have an advocate through the application review and potential interview processes. This can set you apart from the crowd.

  • Dr Becca says:

    Awesome post, Sci. And FWIW, I worship you! But I've already told you that.
    I had NO clue what I was doing when I applied to grad school. I mean really nothing. I picked the school at which I had the most fun during my recruitment weekend and had the best conversations with faculty, and that wasn't in the middle of nowhere.
    I think the issue of location is an individual one. Sure, you're going to grad school to do science, but you're also spending the majority of your 20s there (presuming you're starting soon after college). It's a long time! You know whether you need things like restaurants and plays or whatever to be happy. There are great programs everywhere--if you're a competitive candidate, I see no reason not to limit yourself (within reason) to schools in cities/college towns in which you think you'd enjoy the (small amount of) time you're not in lab.

  • Kevin H says:

    I'm currently a neuroscience grad student (hopefully in my last year) and my advice would be to try and get as many of the PIs on the phone as possible. People are surprisingly open to 15 min phone conversations with people who are interested in their work, and it gives you a lot better feeling for a lab and the personality of the person who runs it than a web site.
    Also, realize that what you do for your grad program doesn't need to be the perfect place for you. You get about 2 or 3 more chances to radically change your mind on your field, and slower migrations or transitions can take place every day. For that reason, I'd focus on who you think can train you the best. Unfortunately, part of that 'training' involves having money, and being well networked in the community.
    Good luck.

  • Joe says:

    Don't settle for bad health insurance and other benefits. Competitive programs work hard to attract the best students and offer the best stipend the faculty can afford and really good benefits. Here at Wisconsin the students get the same health insurance as the faculty, including dental.

  • leigh says:

    lovely post, Sci- should i ever do it again (HAHAHAHAHAHAHA) these are things i would be keeping in mind myself.
    another is: know how you will be funded!!!!!!
    i know graduate students who earn their stipend by teaching, TAing, RAing, whatever kind of assistant-ing you can come up with. my grad funding required none of the above, so i had much more time for research. (and when i decided to find out what it was like to be a TA, productivity dropped.)

  • Per says:

    I'm gonna staple this list to the forehead of my prof.
    May I add that this list applies specifically to US grad schools? We speak americanese in Europe too, you know. (lolhealthinsurancelol)

  • Aaron says:

    If you're having trouble narrowing things down, you should look at everything in light of "what's going to make me a good scientist?"
    In general, if you have a strong application, don't be afraid to push for the big, competitive programs. If you're having trouble figuring out which ones those are, a good place to start is stipend. Competitive institutions pay extra to attract the top talent, so this is a reasonably good proxy for overall badassness. Remember that, although your advisor is the most important factor, the big shiny MRUs have better seminars, speakers, facilities, etc. Also, your peers matter a lot. When it comes time to interview, keep a keen eye out for what your fellow prospectives are like. If they're impressing you with their ideas, passion for science, etc., this is a good thing. Even if it's intimidating, it means that you'll have things to learn from them.
    Another reasonably good indicator or a programs quality is a quick read through facultys' publication record. This is often conveniently listed, so shouldn't take too long. Just keep an eye out for the big two (Science, Nature) and quality journals (varies by field; Cell, Devo Bio, etc.). If you do this enough, you'll get a sense for what's good, and what isn't as impressive.
    I made a long list of labs I thought were interesting, picked out places that were listed more than once, and did some rooting around to get a sense of competitiveness. This worked well for me. I wouldn't recommend applying to much more than six schools, unless you really feel that a good proportion of them won't be that interested in your application. Also, don't be afraid to tell a safety school you're not interested when you no longer need the backup; they'll appreciate the opportunity to invite someone who is interested.

  • Anonymous says:

    Also ask how often (what budget) do you get to use for travel. I don't know how things work in US, but back here in a small European country it's REALLY important that you have a yearly allowance to spend on conferences. Important for feedback on your work, important for getting new inspiration, important for making connections for further career.

  • Laura says:

    Great post, Sci! I struggled with the same issues when I was applying to neuro programs.
    A few other 'extra' items that I think are worth mentioning:
    1. Two-body issues. If you are starting grad school with a partner/spouse who also wants to go to school, can they find a program at the same university or in the same city? If you're moving with a partner who works, will they be able to find jobs?
    2. Dependent care issues. This is one that most folks starting grad school don't think about (myself included), but if you're going to be in school 'til you're 30+ (depending on your age when you start), you might have to deal with childcare or elder care issues before you're done. Is the university supportive of that? Do they offer parental leave and/or family medical leave? Do they subsidize child care or elder care? Are there facilities close to the university? Can you add dependents to your health insurance policy? Etc. I did NOT think of any of this stuff when I started my (otherwise wonderful) program, and some of the benefits here are rather... lacking. Thus I'm left advocating for better benefits, and it's kind of working, but it would have been easier to go to one of the dozens of other grad programs of approximately equal stature that DO offer decent dependent care benefits.

  • Are there other labs in the department that hold work that interests you?

    This is the single most important thing on your list.

    I'm currently a neuroscience grad student (hopefully in my last year) and my advice would be to try and get as many of the PIs on the phone as possible. People are surprisingly open to 15 min phone conversations with people who are interested in their work, and it gives you a lot better feeling for a lab and the personality of the person who runs it than a web site.

    This is absurd. The vast majority of PIs who you would want to work with have neither the time nor inclination to talk on the phone to undergrad applicants to graduate programs.

  • Sena says:

    A few other notes:
    1. Sometimes PI's take on a lot of students because they are cheaper than technicians, so more students in a lab is not necessarily better. Make sure your PI does not have an unusual aversion to hiring technicians (or, at the very least, student help). Otherwise, all general tasks usually fall on the graduate student(s), as they are lower on the totem poll than post-docs. And you will never graduate.
    2. Make sure that your PI is able to provide you with a computer, hopefully a fully functioning one that you can have sole access to.

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