Preparing for a neuroscience PhD

You don’t need a neuroscience background, and it might even help if you don’t. You do, however, need research experience.

Wrangle your studies before Catwoman steals your books. (Photo: Ashley Juavinett)

You’ve given it some thought, and a neuroscience PhD could be in your future. So, what do you need to get there?

Undergraduate degrees before the PhD

In theory, you could come from almost any academic background before coming into neuroscience, as long as you also have research experience (see below). According to a recent Society for Neuroscience report, most students who matriculate into Ph.D. programs in the U.S. have degrees in neuroscience, biology, or psychology. However, a huge chunk of applicants also come from chemistry and mathematics, and many students come in with dual degrees (see SfN 2016 for more details).

I was curious about the broader population of neuroscientists beyond those currently enrolled in PhD programs, so I conducted a Twitter survey:

Many, many people had write-in responses. When we pull together all of the responses (n=950), here’s what the breakdown looks like:

There were a host of other undergraduate degrees ranging from biotechnology to animal behavior to economics (okay, isn’t that just very advanced animal behavior?) with one or two folks claiming them. They’re not included in the graph for simplicity, but the full dataset is here. Not surprisingly, the answers for computational neuroscientists were slightly different.

Among the list, there were a few fun answers. Neuroscientist and Journal of Neuroscience Editor-in-Chief Marina Piciotto was a Biology & English major. Famed neuroscientist David Eagleman also had a surprising answer: British & American Literature. “No joke,” he added.

In summary, neuroscientists come from a wide range of backgrounds, and you shouldn’t feel like there’s only one path into a career of neuroscience. Neuroscience is a wonderfully diverse field that touches on almost every other discipline — after all, it is fundamentally the study of how brains (and their owners) interact with the world. Our field is better off with perspectives from every intellectual angle, as well as with people who have thought deeply about very specific subfields.

How competitive is it?

Regardless of your undergraduate major, you should be at the top of your game academically. Neuroscience programs in the U.S. receive anywhere between 5 and 875 program applicants — 170 on average. For the academic year 2016–2017, the average acceptance rate for U.S. PhD programs was 19%. Although there’s more applicants, most programs report that they’re accepting the same number of students, largely because of limited funding from training grants and space in faculty labs. So, it does seem to be getting more competitive, and it’s not clear that more positions for graduate students are going to be opening soon.

What are admissions committees looking for?

Most graduate programs will evaluate you on three main categories: your research experience, your GPA (grade point average from college), and your GRE scores (Graduate Record Examinations, a commonly required standardized test in the U.S.). The relative weight of those attributes will vary between school to school, and even depends on the members on the admissions committee. Some schools will set hard cutoffs for the numerical categories there, but they’re typically not disclosive about it. Applicants in 2016 had an average undergraduate GPA of 3.56, and average verbal as well as quantitative GRE scores of 158.

Your best bet is to do as best as you can in those three categories. Of course, if you’re out of college, it’s hard to go back and change your GPA. If you have a low GPA and GRE scores, the best way to improve your chances of getting into graduate school is by spending some time working in a lab.

Research experience before graduate school

While there isn’t usually a strict requirement for research experience, a striking 98% of applicants to U.S. PhD programs have at least some previous experience working in lab. Still, you should get some research experience for more than just getting into PhD programs— you should have research experience so that you have insight into whether or not you like doing research.

Your research experience could be in one lab for a long time, or short bursts in other labs. If you’re at a college that doesn’t have a ton of research, there are many summer research programs out there. I found it really informative to find research experiences beyond the brick walls of my small liberal arts school. Many summer programs are also specifically for underrepresented minorities, and most of them will pay you a stipend as well as cover room and board.

My personal advice is this: Take the courses that keep you engaged and motivate you to learn. If your gut homunculus pulls you into cognitive science, follow that. If you find molecular models dreamy, by all means, build them all. Put in the time and effort to do well on your GREs. Apply to many summer research programs, either at your home institution or beyond. You’ll excel when it becomes less about grades and more about the mysteries that the brain refuses to simply roll out on a red carpet for us. And ultimately, that’s what being a neuroscientist is about, anyway.

This post is the beginning of a conversation

This piece is part of a series that will eventually morph into a book, tentatively titled “So you want to be a neuroscientist? An honest account of life as a researcher” (Columbia University Press). The goal is to offer aspiring neuroscientists honest, informative insight about our field as well as education and careers in it. Most importantly, it will reflect the opinions and experience of our entire community — so, I’d greatly appreciate your feedback. What did I miss? What do you disagree with?

Twitter: @analog_ashley