Grad School Advice from Experts at SfN 2014


Washington DC Convention Center

Albion’s Neuroscience Concentrators (well, some of them) attended the 2014 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, DC.  During the trip, students heard many lectures by senior scientists about cutting-edge science, attended cutting-edgier posters presented by younger investigators (typically grad students, post-docs, and un-tenured faculty), and networked with many other neuroscientists.  In conversations with some established neuroscientists (recent PhDs, assistant professors,
and famous full professors) over drinks or meals our students got some good advice about grad school; I summarize it here.


Albion neuroscience students with Jim Pfaus (center).

First, all scientists regardless of their level stressed the importance of research experience for people seeking admission to PhD programs in neuroscience.  Such experience demonstrates to potential grad school mentors that a student understands what science is all about.  One established professor who routinely decides between applicants to the lab indicated that she looks for evidence of failed research attempts; students with such experience understand that science is not all glamorous and are better prepared for life as a grad student.

Some Albion alums who have gone on to PhD programs suggested that knowledge of coding is important.  They suggested that computer science courses should be  part of an undergraduate neuroscience curriculum.  Physics courses were also identified as being important.  (My take on this is that physics is important for the student interested in imaging, perhaps less so for behavioral neuroscience.  And programming is an important tool for all scientists.)


With Sheri Mizumori (3rd from right).

Assuming that research experience is part of an applicant’s background, another respected scientist indicated that passion is critical.  He views passion as more important than grades; it’s a student’s passion that will see her through the hard days and nights of lab work, seldom for the big scientific pay-out and never for big financial reward. A student should not get a PhD as a stepping stone to what she really wants to do.  What she does on the way to getting the PhD is what she will be doing later. Grad school is a job in science that will lead to other jobs in science with more responsibilities; if what one does in grad school is not appealing, the rest of one’s career will not be appealing.

Many students hear this advice and decide that a PhD program is not for them, and that’s good. One must be certain that research is interesting, that unanswered questions are worth pursuing, that being the first (and for a while only) person in the world to know something is pretty cool, before undertaking a life of science.  I can tell you that when my student and I first found out that earthworms use the same neurotransmitter receptors for learning as do humans I was thrilled — soon the rest of the neuroscience community would know this, but for a while this new knowledge about the world was known only to those of us who did the science, and this was way cool.  If you would appreciate this first-hand experience with new information, then science is for you.


With Arik Nagel (left), Moriel Zelikowsky (front, 2nd from left), Robert Twining (peaking over Moriel’s shoulder), and Marieke Gilmartin (front, 2nd from right).

Among the people with whom we met were Sheri Mizumori (University of Washington), Jim Pfaus (Concordia University), Marieke Gilmartin (Marquette University), and Moriel Zelikowsky (California Institute of Technology). We also met with several successful Albion alums who have gone on to graduate programs or post-baccalaureate research fellowships in neuroscience.  In addition I know that many of the students spoke with other scientists and learned from those conversations.  All-in-all I am grateful to my colleagues in neuroscience, some old friends and some new, who were willing to share their advice.  I know the students appreciated it — those who will decide to go for PhDs as well as those who will heed the advice and recognize that grad school is not the life for them.


Current Neuroscience concentrators, with alums (A). From left: Kate Sears, Amanda Komur (A), Nicole Ferrara (A), Erik Brink, Katie Pickworth (A), Emily Stephens (A), Jeff Wilson, Ashley Glenn, Brandon Johnson.


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