This section will address how to select which program you should attend.
MOTIVATIONS FOR DEGREE
If you are interested in studying the nervous system in great detail and wish to conduct research in this area, a doctoral degree in Neuroscience may be suitable for you.
A PhD in Neuroscience is a research-focused degree, meaning that you will spend most of your time as a PhD student working on research that can be published in a peer-reviewed journal. Most programs will have some coursework and research exploration in the first few years, followed by a written preliminary exam, a thesis proposal, thesis research and a thesis defense. As a student you can expect to be paired with an advisor who is your primary research mentor, in most programs.
You may also have some presentation and outreach components as a part of your program -- meaning you may have to present your research after specific time periods (as defined by the university/program) to faculty and other graduate students. In the end, i.e. for your final PhD defense, you will have to give a public presentation in which you showcase your research in a “comprehensive and cohesive manner, and field questions about [your] research” (JUNE).
This link lists down some of the probable career pathways you will have available to you if you choose to do an advanced degree (doctorate) in Neuroscience. It also lists down the possible career pathways you can expect after completing a Master’s degree, or an undergraduate degree in this field. You can go through them and see which pathway appeals the most to you, and then decide accordingly which degree you want to apply for. Note: these careers opportunities are for the US; if you are interested in working in Pakistan or some other foreign country following your PhD, please try to conduct some research on the kinds of career options available there. For Pakistan, you can try to get in touch with people who have already done a doctorate in this field, and ask them about potential career options.
- Choices in neuroscience careers (please note that this resource needs to be rented/purchased. Also note that this is a US-based source and so the information within it may not be relevant to Pakistani students or the Pakistan job market)
You will not have to fund yourself for your PhD; most neuroscience graduate programs will not only pay you a stipend, but will also provide tuition and health care benefits. If you want to not go through a financial burden and also earn some money while studying, a PhD could be a good option for you to consider.
TYPES OF DEGREE
The following degrees + sub-fields/ specializations are available for Neuroscience:
How to select the best option for yourself (among degrees/programs within this field)
Focus areas for this program typically include: molecular and cellular biology, psychology, biophysics, vision science, neural disease, synaptic transmission, developmental neurobiology and regeneration, vision, computational and systems neuroscience, and neuropharmacology. You are also advised to visit the web-pages of the universities you hope to apply to to see which focus areas are available.
How to select the best option for yourself (among specializations and sub-fields within this field)
Select your field/focus area on the basis of: which area do you wish to conduct research in, or contribute to? Is there one specific aspect of neuroscience that you wish to learn more about? You should also try to conduct research on the different career pathways neuroscience can lead to -- and then choose your specialization according to whatever career pathway interests you most. This is a useful resource to help you decide which field of neuroscience you should work in (note: accessing the article may require payment).
If you are interested in a PhD Neuroscience, you might also like::
- PhD/Master’s in Psychology
- Biomedical Science
How to select the best option for yourself (among allied fields)
- If you choose to do a postgraduate degree, you will conduct research in various behaviours and personalities. Psychologists are more focused on learning more about the “mind” whereas neuroscientists focus more on the “brain”. If the mind (and associated behaviours/personalities) appeals to you more, a degree in Psychology may be more suitable for you. A Master’s in Psychology may also be significantly shorter in length as compared to a Phd in Neuroscience.
- If you are interested in working in healthcare and do not want to focus on the brain specifically, a degree in Biomedical Science may be suitable for you.
- If you hope to become a neurosurgeon (i.e. you hope to be involved in the diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of disorders affecting any part of the nervous system), a degree in Medicine, with a specialization in Neurosurgery will be most suitable. Keep in mind you will have to complete a degree in Medicine first, then do an internship/house job and then apply to a specialist medical college.
It is recommended that you should only apply to those universities which seem to be the right fit for you. So how should you choose the right program?
You should take the following into account when selecting your prospective PhD program (JUNE):
- Faculty and their research: Is there a sufficient number of faculty members in your area of interest? How collaborative/approachable is the faculty? Are there any existing procedures in place in case you want to switch your advisors? Do you have the opportunity to do your rotations in different laboratories or do you have to select your advisor immediately?
- Choosing your faculty advisor. When you are picking an advisor, you will need to take their training and personal styles into account (how often can they work with you or meet you). What is the goal of the thesis, how are the manuscripts written, how does the laboratory decide which projects need to be done -- these are all important questions that you need to ask. Make sure that the university and specific faculty member’s style is well-aligned with yours, otherwise a mismatch in styles could prove to be problematic later.
- The curriculum: how comprehensive is it? Does it cover all the essential/foundational topics you are hoping to have in your backgrounds?
- Publication Requirements and Expectations: do students have the opportunity to publish first author papers?
- Funding: is full funding completely guaranteed for these PhD programs?
- The social climate/environment of the programs: how collaborative and supportive is the student community, and the faculty?
- Career support: Does your prospective program provide career facilitation support for a variety of outcomes, because career goals may change (with time/experience)?
Complement the above field-specific tips with general tips on program selection (under the tab of ‘selection’).
A lot of our tips talk about how you can strengthen your application, but you can build a stronger application when you’ve done the things this program values in the years prior to the application. The application itself is the communication part (in which you communicate what you've done to the admission committee); but this section gives guidance on the substance part (what you can actually do before you apply). In this section we talk about what you can do in the years leading up to applying that can make you an ideal candidate. Supplement the following tips with general tips (under the tab of ‘Pre-Application’) to become a competitive applicant.
There is no specific degree requirement for a PhD in neuroscience as long as you have relevant and comprehensive research experience. Many students have past degrees in Biology, Psychology, Chemistry, Mathematics, or Physics when applying for this doctoral degree. A number of programs may also admit students who come from Humanities-based backgrounds. However, if you are coming from such a background and wish to be a competitive applicant, you need to have taken some classes in the sciences before you apply for your PhD.
It is recommended that you check your prospective university website to find out what the exact requirements are -- and make sure your course/degree and subject requirements are in line with those.
CourseWork and Transcripts:
You should try to have at least some Biology, some Physics, and some basic Chemistry (specifically Organic Chemistry) and college-level Mathematics (specifically Calculus) courses under your belt when you apply. Even if you are pursuing a very different degree in your undergraduate, you should try to take these courses as electives to make sure that you are a competitive PhD probable when you apply.
Complement the above field-specific tips with general tips on transcripts (under the tab of ‘transcripts’).
GPA requirements will typically vary by university -- most typically do not list a strict GPA cut-off under which they will not admit someone. However, your GPA is a critical component of your overall application so make sure you try your best to get as high a CGPA as possible.
Do not worry if your CGPA is low -- you might still be a competitive applicant for a PhD program. If your CGPA is low because of weak performances in your first and second years but you have managed to do quite well in your third and fourth years, you might make for a highly competitive applicant. If you had one very difficult semester/year due to extenuating circumstances, you should make sure you mention this in your personal statement (and the admissions committee will definitely take this into account). Although most admissions committees do not “rank” schools, the “expected difficulty” of the applicant’s previous program is usually taken into consideration when grades, courses and GPAs are being evaluated (JUNE).
Please check your specific university website for exact GPA requirements, but generally, for the higher-ranked schools, you should aim to get a CGPA of at least 3.4 or 3.5.
Research experience is compulsory for applying for a PhD in Neuroscience. Most admissions committees will only consider applicants if they have enough research experience, and those who do not will not make it through the initial filtering process.
So what sort of research experience should you ideally have? Do not worry if you do not have publications under your name (if you do, it will of course contribute positively to your application). A lot of other experiences can fulfill this research prerequisite -- for instance, doing one or more summer internships in a laboratory, or conducting a directed research project, or an independent research project as part of your coursework, an internship in a research company. If your university does not have strong research opportunities available, make sure you try to become involved in summer/other internship programs so that you gain this expertise (Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education - JUNE).
The key question that the admissions committee will ask is: “does the [applicant] have real-world experience in doing research, and in spite of methodological difficulties, does the applicant still have a love for the scientific process?”. It will usually not make too much of a difference if your research did not bring about some conclusive results, or if your project was left unfinished, or not published -- as long as you have actually gained the experience (JUNE).
Make sure you are well-acquainted with recent research and discoveries in this field, but reading journals and publications. You can consider going through the following links: The Journal of Neuroscience, The Society for Neuroscience Publications and other similar sites. Note: reading about research is not the same as doing the research, although both can help your application.
If you feel you do not have enough research experience following your undergraduate degree, you can consider taking on a research assistantship (preferably full-time) to gain the relevant experience and also to find out what full-time research is, what it entails and whether or not you can see yourself doing this kind of research for 5-6 years in a PhD. You can also consider connecting with your undergraduate professors and ask for their advice on the sort of research they think you should do before applying for a PhD in Neuroscience.
This section provides an overview of general guidelines pertaining to the application process. It also delineates the key components of the application process.
The most important components in your application would be: your research proposal, your prior research experience and your personal statement. Additionally, your letters of recommendation and your grades (undergraduate and graduate - if applicable) would also be very important. The importance of standardized tests would typically vary by programs (some programs may require the GRE, others may not). You may or may not have an interview (most are invitation-based, meaning the school will extend you an invitation for an interview), but if you do it is extremely important - so make sure you prepare adequately.
All in all, each of the components listed below are fundamental to your overall application. And you should ensure that you are dedicating enough time to each of them, and putting your best foot forward for all of them.
Refer to the Program Selection Section for further information.
Is this component required?
How important is this component (in the overall review of the application for admission)?
Standardized tests or entry exams
May be required
Transcripts (past academic records)
Letters of recommendation
Resume or CV
May be required
- At this point, if you are seriously considering graduate school, begin your search by reading this guide and by searching the websites from the following links:
Complement the above field-specific tips with general tips on overview (under the tab of ‘overview’).
Pakistani applicants suffer most because of inadequate information -- or wrong information -- about essays and personal statements. This section will address those inadequacies specifically in relation to applying for this program. Supplement the following field-specific tips with general tips (under the tab of ‘essay’) to craft a stellar personal statement.
The personal statement is an extremely important part of your overall application, and you should give its preparation the time it requires. There are three main areas that you should include in your personal statement -- and each of these areas should be adequately addressed (if they are not, it may have a detrimental effect on your overall application). The three areas are as follows (JUNE):
- Why do you want to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience specifically?
- What independent research have you conducted (talk about the specifics)?
- Why are you applying to this specific program?
Advice for each of these three areas is given below.
Some universities may also ask you to include the name of the faculty member you wish to work within your statement of purpose.
Which resources should I make use of?
- Read the following links before you start planning your personal statement:
- Applying to Graduate School - Statement of Purpose (written by a Neuroscience PhD candidate at Emory University)
- The following links contain advice that has been shared by specific universities. This advice may be applicable to other programs, but you are advised to read this with caution -- and look at similar pages on the webpages of universities you are interested in applying to.
TIPS ON GOOD AND BAD STATEMENTS
What is essential in the statement:
- Why do you wish to pursue a PhD in neuroscience: here, you need to clearly articulate why neuroscience interests you to this extent; what has compelled you to pursue a doctoral degree in it? If any of your relevant experiences (i.e. a laboratory research experience, or some independent research you conducted) motivated you to pursue neuroscience at this level, mention it here. It is important to show your motivation for the field, and also the relevant past experiences that have led you to this point.
- Your independent research: make sure you provide a description of all the research you have conducted/performed upto the time you are applying. “The research description should focus on the big picture: What was the big question? What choices were made in the experiments? What controls were done? Why were the specific controls used?”. (JUNE). Make sure you are doing this for each of your independent projects. This will help show the admissions committee how you view science and the research process in general.
- Your fit with this particular program: you can do this by researching your program thoroughly. Find out what its strengths are (for you) -- these could include things like: expertise of the faculty, certain courses, alignment of your research interests and the faculty’s etc. Make sure you identify things that distinguish it from other programs so that your application is unique and tailored to this specific program.
- Make sure that your statement of purpose sounds coherent and logical, and authentic to you and your interests. You can consider having a family member/friend/professor from your Bachelor’s/Master’s university review your statement for you.
What are bad statements/ what things to avoid:
- Make sure your grammar and writing is not poor and sloppy. That will make you come across as an applicant who is not meticulous and does not pay attention to detail. Since this is a research and writing-intensive degree, your writing skills need to be very strong.
- If you are applying to multiple PhD programs, please make sure you are tailoring each statement to that particular school. Make sure that when you are mentioning program strengths or university strengths, they are relevant to that specific university and program. Otherwise it will reflect very poorly on you.
How can applicants manage the process of writing?
You can follow the steps written below to help you with the process of writing (taken from Laura E. Mariani’s blog, PhD, Emory University, 2016):
- You can first try to brainstorm -- and come up with a list of important achievements/experiences/milestones in your academic career. Describe specifically those experiences that are significant or unique in your journey (e.g. a specific class that inspired you to apply for this field, or some fieldwork you conducted that led you to an important final project, or how you conducted research for your research project etc.)
- Following this, you should try to highlight the most important parts of your academic career (maybe your lab experiences, or other significant research projects including the methodology you used etc.). You should also come up with other important skills you have managed to gain through your experiences (for instance, if you have strong problem-solving skills, you should definitely mention those here). Once you have finalized the important parts of your application are, you can move on to structuring.
- Now you can begin to augment all your various ideas into one cohesive essay.
- Once you have successfully done this,you should make sure you add your purpose for applying to this specific graduate program. Add your long-term goals, and what you hope to gain from this program to your statement.
- Keep revising it, until it sounds complete and cohesive, and has substantially addressed all the fundamental points.
Some universities might require a separate research proposal/statement. Some may make the research statement one aspect of the personal statement -- and will expect you to cover the research-based questions in your personal statement. Please visit your university website to find out exactly what the requirements are: are you required to submit a personal statement and a research statement? Or are you required to submit a single statement that incorporates both aspects? If a research statement is required, you should go through the following advice:
The research statement is one of the most, if not the most, important component in your overall application. After the initial shortlisting of applications (on the basis of test scores, and grades), universities will typically turn to the research statement which should ideally include the following:
- Your reasons for applying to your proposed program, and your preparation for this field of study
- Your research and study interests
- Your future career plans and other aspects of your background/interest which may help the admission committee evaluate your aptitude/motivation to study.
Please visit your university website to learn more about the specific guidelines for applying (format, length etc.). Make sure your research statement is well-written and to-the-point. It should not contain any flowery language, and should very clearly talk about the aforementioned areas. For more information regarding the statement (and how to choose a faculty member you wish to work etc.), please visit the university webpage.
This section will cover the basics about recommendation letters, which are one of the most important parts of the application process. Supplement the following field-specific tips with general tips (under the tab of ‘recommendations’) to ensure you have strong letters of recommendation.
Your letter of recommendation is an essential and critical part of your overall application. Who you choose as your recommender, and what they decide to say about you are are two things that are of great significance to the admissions committee. You will typically have to send 2-3 letters of recommendation (check your prospective university website to confirm what the exact criteria is).
How to choose your recommenders:
The most helpful and relevant letters would come from your research mentor/supervisor with whom you did a directed/independent research project. If you do not have such a letter, the admissions committee might feel like the extent and the value/contribution of your research experience is not that great. So you should try to make sure that you worked with at least one of your mentors in this student-research mentor capacity.
Less useful recommendation letters would come from course directors who can speak to your time management skills, your ability to persevere and work well under stress, how likely you are to take initiative -- these would be considered to be useful letters if the director could speak to exceptional academic achievement (e.g. you as an undergraduate student doing extremely well in a graduate class).
Least useful letters are those that come from non-academic sources (recommendations from friends and family members should always be avoided) -- letters from employers would not prove to be very useful or sufficient because they would be unable to talk about your potential for success in an academic environment, and secondly you choosing a professional reference over an academic one might make the admissions committee think that you do not have sufficient academic mentors to provide the full number of required reference letters. And this may damage your chances of gaining admission.
Letters from graduate students or postdoctoral fellow may be acceptable (if you have done your undergraduate research under their supervision) at some programs, and may not be accepted at others. At one particular place (University of Minnesota), a letter from a postdoctoral fellow was accepted but it did prevent the applicant from receiving a nomination for any university-level awards. Therefore, if you are in such a situation, you can request them to write you a letter (after ensuring that your prospective program will accept it), and request your professor/senior supervisor to co-sign your application.
TIPS ON GOOD AND BAD LETTERS
What is essential in the LoRs:
Your mentor should write a detailed letter, in which they can clearly provide an indication that they knew you in this capacity, and therefore can assess your potential for success in such a program. Your recommender should also do a comparison of your abilities relative to those of their other students/mentees. This would make for useful information for the admissions committee.
This section will cover everything else related to the application process; including interviews, resumes, and standardized tests.
Typically most graduate schools, after receiving and filtering all the applications, will invite a portion of the students for an interview (you should make sure you visit your university website or connect with admissions to find out how the interviews are conducted. Useful questions to ask include: are interviews conducted online or in-person? How should candidates prepare for interviews?). After the interviews are conducted and evaluated, a portion of the interview candidates will be given admission offers.
“Some programs call single students or small batches of students to visit their campus, meet and interview with faculty, and see what possibilities could come from matriculating into the program. Other programs bring all their interview candidates at the same time as one single cohort (JUNE)”. The interview is very important in determining your admission, but if you are called for an in-person interview (and the logistics to help you attend it), you should use the interview as an opportunity to learn more about the program and the university; ask yourself: does the campus, the faculty, current students, research opportunities and facilities seem to appeal to you? Are students receiving the sort of training and support you were hoping for? Are the faculty members well-engaged and well-acquainted with the students? Are there faculty members who you can directly work with/learn from -- since their research interests are well-aligned with yours? You should also remember that as a PhD candidate, your goals and interests -- and even your research direction can change. So when you visit the campus or have your interview, you should research on whether or not the program is accommodating towards such changes.
What can you expect in your interview:
- The admissions committee’s primary aim is to see the fit between the applicant and the program. They will also ask you specific questions to learn more about ‘how you think about and view science’.
- Some graduate programs often have current graduate students/PhD candidates sit in on the interview panel, and provide insight/input to the admissions committee. Comments you make when only the graduate students are present are important since these students are involved in the decision-making process. An unnecessary/unprofessional comment in front of these students could lead to a rejection of your application -- so make sure you are completely professional and well-behaved throughout the entire interview process.
- The interview is an opportunity for you to ask questions about the program as well: How much advisor-student time is there? What is the mentoring style? Is it very hands-on? How much freedom do students have when conducting research? etc.
Most programs will require you to submit a resume. Please make sure that your resume is updated, and contains no irrelevant information or “fluff”. For specific structure/layout/format guidelines, please visit your prospective university website.
You may be required to take the GRE. Recently, some neuroscience graduate programs have decided to remove the GRE from their application requirements. Others have decided to give it less weightage (as compared to grades/personal statements, letters of recommendation etc.). To find out exactly what your program requires, please visit its specific website. Check to see if: a) you are required to take the GRE, and b) if so, what is the minimum cut-off (if specified).
Note: the quantitative portion of the GRE is quite important (if you are required to take the test) so make sure you aim for a high score for that section.
Additionally, you may also need to take an English language proficiency test (IELTS or TOEFL) since you are an international student. Please check your university website for those specific requirements, and the criteria/minimum score requirements.
This section will cover approximate costs of the program and provide information of resources that may help with funding. Complement the following field-specific tips with general tips on finances (under the tab of ‘finances’).
TIPS ON FUNDING OPTIONS
Typically PhDs will be funded. However, some universities (like Stanford) may not offer funding to international students -- citizens may be prioritized over international students unless the international student is considered ‘exceptional’. Do check your prospective university website to find out what funding options are available. If the university does not offer international students funding, please make sure you have other sources of funding that you can utilize to fund your study.
These tips were compiled with the valuable help of SHAHEEN volunteers.
We thank our volunteers for their contribution, and hope their tips and advice help you in your application.
The following sources were consulted in developing this tip-sheet and we encourage you to consult these sources for additional information and guidance on your application.
Furthermore, the following sources were also consulted in developing this tip-sheet: Nathan Perkins - Statement of Purpose, Applying to Graduate School - Statement of Purpose, Laura E. Mariani, Preparing for a neuroscience PhD, What you might not know about applying to PhD programs, Preparing a statement of purpose: Northwestern University, Strategies for applying to graduate school: Princeton University, How do I get into the Stanford Neuroscience program, The Journal of Neuroscience, The Society for Neuroscience Publications, Ohio State University, Choices in neuroscience careers .