Thank you so much for your interest in my lab! I have assembled here a list of questions people frequently ask about admissions, and my answers. I hope this will be helpful to you! My apologies for the “canned” nature of this reply. I hope the detailed information in this document is more useful than any brief reply I could send personally.
First, a disclaimer. The general advice I offer below is my opinion, based on my experience doing graduate admissions at Stanford (Psychology), MIT (Brain & Cognitive Sciences), and UCSD (Cognitive Science). Different programs and different faculty members may have different takes on this process.
Will you be taking students this year? Yes, current through 2015
What department should I apply to? Cognitive Science
Yes (current through 2015). My lab is in the Cognitive Science department at UCSD.
If you are interested in having me as you primary research advisor, please apply to the Cognitive Science Department at UCSD.
No. Really. This advice is specific to me (other professors may want you to get in touch). The only way I consider applications is through our organized admissions process. I won’t be able to look at any materials that you send me directly. So please, put that good proactive energy into your official application. I take admissions very seriously and I will read your official application very closely once I receive it through our admissions process. There is no reason to email me before you apply and no advantage to doing so. Unfortunately, I typically do not have time to read or reply to individual emails about admissions.
All graduate admissions in our department are done through a once-a-year systematic central application process. This is the only way to apply to be a graduate student in my lab. All of the information you need to know is here and here. If you have any questions not answered by these websites, the best thing to do is email email@example.com.
In the interest of fairness, I ask everyone to just apply and go through the same application process. I do not set up special meetings or phone calls with folks before they apply because it would not be fair to all of the other people who apply who don't get a special meeting or phone-call. So, please just apply. If you are selected by the admissions committee, you will be invited to our departmental open house, where you'll get to meet all the folks in the department and spend time with the graduate students and learn a great deal about what we all do here and what life here is like. So, please apply, and if the admissions committee selects you, you will be invited. Unfortunately my lab can't accommodate visits otherwise.
There is an organized admissions process conducted by an admissions committee. The committee considers all applications at the same time and makes its decisions. So unfortunately, I can't tell anyone if they'll get in. There is just no way to know until the admissions process is complete. Really, the only way to find out is to apply.
Yes. We often accept students who do not come from one of the traditional cognitive science disciplines. Lab members have come in with undergraduate degrees in English, Classics, History, Biology, Religious Studies, and Opera, as well as Psychology, Linguistics, Computer Science, Anthropology, Symbolic Systems, and occasionally even Cognitive Science.
The best way to get a sense of our current research is to look at recent papers (available on my website) and to look for conference presentations from the lab.
When the admissions committee considers your file, many different elements will be important. In particular, grades, GREs, statement of purpose, relevant research experience and/or technical preparation (when appropriate), and letters of recommendation. Competition for spots in good graduate programs is very tight. On average, our program is able to enroll only 6% of those who apply. That means you should do your best to make sure all aspects of your application are strong.
In doing admissions, we are trying to select the very strongest candidates. We are looking for people who have the ability, preparation, and drive to become great scientists. Most good PhD programs will commit 4 or 5 years of full funding to you when they accept you. This is a very serious commitment both in money and faculty time. When we admit you, we are serious. This is why we want to make sure you are also serious. So, if you want to get into a good program, start your preparations early by getting good grades, learning relevant skills, and gaining hands-on research experience.
Generally, yes. Best case scenario is that you have excellent grades.
If your first couple of years of school were lost years, or it took you a little while to find your footing, all is not lost. If you can demonstrate an upward trajectory, and in the final years of school your grades are excellent, this will greatly help your case. If your undergraduate grades simply weren’t good, but you have since become serious about pursuing an academic path, the way forward may be to start with a Masters program. If you can show that you got excellent grades in a Masters program somewhere, there is a good chance a PhD admissions committee would overlook poor grades in your undergraduate years and give your file serious consideration. That said, it’s much better if you just have excellent grades in the first place.
If you are coming from a system where the grading scheme is different from the standard American model, make sure that somewhere in your application there is a guide to understanding your grades. For example, an 80/100 grade average would be pretty poor performance for most US schools. If 80/100 is the highest grade anyone has ever gotten in your program, be sure to let us know.
Most faculty members will want you to have good GRE scores. You can be admitted with lower scores, but here is why it matters.
In my view, the GRE is not an indicator of intelligence, nor does it necessarily test knowledge that is terribly relevant to what you will be doing in graduate school (others may disagree). But it is an indicator of a particular kind of skill that is important: your ability to organize yourself to overcome somewhat arbitrary obstacles and to succeed on intellectual tasks that may be orthogonal to your goals, only because they are required. There are many tasks like this in the life of an academic, and knowing that you can organize yourself to succeed on such things is an important predictor of future success. The GRE is not a very difficult test. If you are the kind of person who should be going to graduate school, and you can organize your energy effectively, you can do very well on it.
It is very rare for people to be admitted to our PhD program without some research experience. Research experience is important for a number of reasons. First, it helps you figure out whether or not you really like research. Second, it helps us figure out whether or not you're good at it. Third, getting research experience is the best way to get contentful letters of recommendation. So, if you are thinking of going to graduate school, definitely try to get some research experience.
The PhD program is all about research. It is very risky for a program to admit a student who hasn’t done research before. Many people like reading about ideas, but being the primary researcher is a very different set of skills and experiences. You have to be self-motivated, you have to persevere in the face of frequent failure, you have to know how to learn from mistakes and probe deeper, you have to stick with a single question for a very very long time, you have to constantly adapt and reconsider and be ready to be wrong over and over again. Some people love the daily work and rhythm of research and some people hate it. Some are good at it, and some are not. You can’t know until you try it. If you’re signing up for a life-time (or at the very least 4-5 years) of research, you should do your due diligence and try it first. Get your hands dirty and see whether you really like it and whether you’re good at it.
If you’re an undergraduate at a major research university, get in touch with professors in your chosen field and get involved in their labs. This may be through a special research for credit opportunity or through work-study, or as paid position or as a volunteer. Stick with it so that you become a meaningful contributor to the research and can follow through on things you started. Do an honors project. Get experience in more than one lab so you get a little breadth.
If you’re an undergraduate at a liberal arts college where there aren’t resources for the kind of research you want to do, then get research experience during the summers by volunteering or applying for jobs in labs at larger universities.
If you’re already out of school, you can likewise volunteer or work on the side in a lab at a university while you do your normal job. My lab has hosted several such volunteers who have gone on to great PhD programs as a result of getting experience. Another option is to get a masters degree that will allow you the relevant research experience before you apply to PhD programs.
If you’re in a country where no such research labs exist, or your chosen topic is simply not available as an option, your situation is somewhat more complicated, but you still have options. I sympathize deeply - geography can be cruel. Here are some ideas. You can apply to a Masters program abroad that will allow you the kind of research experience you seek. Or you can attempt to educate yourself about research methods by replicating published studies on your own. Many studies in cognitive science can be done with little or no resources (some only with pen and paper). Finally, you can contact researchers whose work you admire and ask if you can volunteer remotely. One such student started as a remote assistant to my lab, and ended up with a PhD from Stanford. In some cases your remote location might be a big bonus for researchers interested in looking across cultures. If you can’t attract the attention of a busy faculty member, perhaps there is a graduate student or postdoc who could use your help? In general, show initiative. If you want to do research so much that you will find ways to do it no matter what and nothing will stop you (and you have a way of demonstrating this through your actions), then a good PhD program will notice you.
In the course of your studies be sure to acquire and demonstrate the technical skills that will be required on your chosen path of research. If your dream is to do computational modeling of cognition, but you have never taken a programming course and didn’t do so well in math, then the chances of a computational modeling professor liking your application are slim. Get relevant experience and demonstrate that you’re good at the things you want to do.
Yes. Very much so.
You will need three strong contentful letters of recommendation. The most valuable letters are from people who are known in the field and who know you well in a research context and can say meaningful and positive things about you. People reading your application will have many years of experience reading letters from their colleagues. They know that if so-and-so says X, then that really means something, and so on. Letters from professors in your chosen field are most valuable because the people reading them will know how to interpret them. The richness of experience a professor has with you is extremely important. Don’t ask a “famous” professor to write you letter unless that person actually knows you and can say something meaningful. If all they can say is Student W took my course and according to my records got an A- in it, then this is not a recommendation that will help you (having a luke-warm or bland letter like this can actually hurt your case).
To make sure you will have 3 contentful letters of recommendation by the time you apply, cultivate intellectual relationships with faculty. Your research advisors are obvious choices. In some cases, a professor whose class you take may become a good recommender if you have contentful conversations with them about ideas, if you frequently ask interesting questions in class, or show a special interest in office hours or go above and beyond in a class project. In general, be interested in ideas, behave like an engaged intellectual, and the letters of recommendation will take care of themselves.
To be sure your application is complete by the deadline, ask your recommenders for letters well in advance (at least a month in advance, but more is better).
If you have been involved in research, tell us something meaningful about that experience, making clear the roles you played, why you did what you did, what you learned, and what it means. If you have published papers as a result of research, mention these and include a bibliography at the end of your statement. Don’t just laundry-list experiences or personal qualities, demonstrate an intellectual engagement and understanding through your writing.
Show don’t tell. Don’t tell us that you’re a good writer or that you are serious or that you have tons of interesting ideas about how the mind works. Show us by sending in a well-written statement that demonstrates serious engagement with interesting ideas.
Your statement should make clear which faculty members you see as potential mentors. Research fit is extremely important, so help the committee see how your interests fit with those represented in the department. In your statement, explain how your prior experiences lead to your present day interests and plans for graduate study.
When you describe your interests you want to have some specifics, but don’t unnecessarily pigeonhole yourself. If you have ideas, go ahead and propose some specific studies you would be interested in doing. But don’t make it sound like some one experiment is the one and only thing you’re set on doing. You’re coming to graduate school to collaborate on research projects with faculty and if all goes well you will learn new things and your interests will grow, mature, and change as a result of the stuff you learn.
In the context of applying to graduate school, experiences from when you were 3 or 5 years old are unlikely to have a lot of weight. Skip childhood stories and instead talk about your research and academic experience, your ideas and interests for the future.
Be sure that the faculty you’re applying to work with are actually in the department you’re applying to (we get several applications a year seeking to work with faculty members that are all in other departments.)
Do your homework! If you claim to be super inspired by a finding or a paper, be sure to have actually read the whole paper.
You should apply broadly. Admissions are a stochastic process - there is a lot of random noise in the process you can’t predict. Apply to 10 or 12 programs if there are that many that interest you. Only applying to 1 or 2 is risky - be more broad-minded in your search.
Another advantage of applying broadly: If your application is strong and you’re invited to visit programs, this will be your first real in-person introduction to your field. You will get to meet many of your intellectual heroes and also your cohort (the students from around the world who are applying with you). People you meet on these visits will keep track of your progress and keep in touch with you for many many years (possibly your whole career). Becoming an academic is in part becoming a part of a new community, a field or a network of scientists. You will experience a gradual personal transformation as your identity becomes tied to your research accomplishments and ideas. This is your first real dip into this world. Cherish the opportunity!
Apply only to programs that you might actually select if you are accepted - otherwise it is just a waste of everyone’s time.
If you try and don’t succeed, but are still serious about pursuing an academic path, don’t give up! Spend a year or two getting more research experience and improving your application so that you can get into a good program. This may mean getting a masters to show that you have improved your grades, improving your GRE scores, getting seriously involved in research, deepening and refining your research interests (or all of the above). We do get repeat customers who spend a year or two getting the right experience and are successful on a second try.
Congratulations! First, you should celebrate!
The best programs for you will have several faculty members whose research overlaps with your interests. You want to find a rich intellectual environment and a deep and broad pool of expertise in your general area. The more experts you have around to interact with, the better and more rigorous your work will be.
One of the most important dimensions when evaluating grad school options (and the easiest one to overlook) is what your life is likely to be like after you graduate. Does your prospective advisor or your program have a good track record of placing students? Will good universities want to hire you? Ask your prospective advisors about their track record on this: it is a good peek into a likely future.
Don’t get hung up on geography. Some people never want to leave California, some never want to leave New York, some can’t imagine living in a cold place, etc. Really, this matters very little. You are going to graduate school to become a world-class scientist. This is an investment of 4-5 years into the rest of your academic career. If you’re very serious about being an academic, don’t worry so much about where you’re going to live for 4-5 years. And, remember, I am saying this from UCSD - the most relentlessly pleasant place in the US! It is wonderful swimming with dolphins in January, but that’s just a bonus - the real reason to choose any graduate program is the intellectual environment it provides for your research interests.
If you maximize your intellectual environment and opportunities during graduate school, you maximize the jobs and other research opportunities you will have after you graduate. If all goes well, your life after graduate school will be a much longer period than your life during graduate school. Make your choices accordingly…
And congrats again! Getting into graduate school is huge!