Chapter 8.5: Grad School
by Jeremy Borjon, last updated 08/03/2016 by Bri Christophers
The application process for graduate school starts a year prior to the year you wish to begin. Oftentimes you can jump straight into graduate school from undergrad, but I would actually caution against that. There is no rush to get a graduate degree and taking a few years off to learn different skills and grow-up will never hurt you. Graduate schools are not on the verge of shutting down and will not frown upon your age. In fact, there is a very successful graduate student in my cohort who is about ten years older than most of us, married, and has two children! Live your life before committing to the 4+ year process of a PhD.
Once you know you want to apply, you will need roughly three letters of recommendation from Professors who have worked with you. It is important these come from Professors and not graduate students. If you’re really in a bind, a postdoctoral research fellow will suffice. You will also write a personal statement and sometimes a research statement detailing the work you will be doing. Realize that these research proposals are not binding! Everyone in graduate school knows that your research will take on a life of its own. Be flexible and don't sweat it. Also look into applying for fellowships to help fund your research. These grants come from the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, and other foundations. While these are ultra-competitive, receiving one is a golden ticket into most graduate programs. After all, while the University will pay for your doctoral experience, if you can arrive with your own money you are a more attractive candidate and will have financial independence from your advisor, which can be liberating.
In the natural sciences, especially neuroscience, if you receive an interview invitation, congratulations! You are 75% of the way there. The interview process is often used to determine your personality and whether you would be a good "fit" with the University you are applying to. Universities have different cultures, and you want to choose a school that you feel comfortable with. Also, when choosing a graduate school don’t sweat the school’s prestige! What matters is who your doctoral advisor is, not what school you graduated from. Talk to your advisor and the graduate students in your lab about dress code and interview etiquette. This will vary from field to field. In fact, some fields will accept you without an interview! Like I said before, graduate students are often your best resource for figuring out these field-specific peculiarities.
Once you've received an offer from a graduate program, congratulations! You are on your way to becoming a Nobel laureate!
For more information about preparing for graduate school, check out this guide.