Resources for Students

Advice From Former Students

Graduate school involves a lot of self-motivation and self-teaching. At CC, professors make it clear that they are there to help you and that they want you to succeed. In graduate school, you'll find that you have to learn many things on your own. You may have a great advisor, but ultimately, you and only you are responsible for your thesis. If you don't get it done, no one else will.

Classes are much more effectively taught at CC. In grad school, the faculty is more focused on their research than their teaching, and it often shows.

You have to juggle multiple responsibilities at once. This may seem obvious, but even if you're prepared, handling multiple classes, lab research, and departmental duties simultaneously can be a bit of a shock after the block plan. Decide what you'll learn the most from and what's most important to you, prioritize, and don't forget to leave at least a little bit of downtime for yourself.

Coursework is not the center of the universe. It's a formality designed to separate those who are truly committed (the dropout rate for grad school is higher than that of Med. School). After that, the focus shifts to developing you into a skilled scientist and communicator. Another significant difference is the need for self-initiated organization of your time and resources. Multitasking becomes the name of the game, and there is no such thing as a block plan. Organize your time efficiently to ensure you don't spend a decade in grad school.

Graduate school is more of a "sink-or-swim" environment compared to CC. The individuals you interact with are generally older.

Graduate school doesn't adhere to the Block Plan schedule. Don't expect to take leisurely afternoon naps or frequent weekend skiing excursions. I don't mean to make graduate life seem harsh; once you get used to it, it is extremely rewarding. However, as a graduate student, you have many roles beyond just being a student. Research and classes become your life (much to the chagrin of significant others, although truly great relationships can survive it). When you're not in class, you're in the lab or holding office hours for your TA-ship. When you're at home, you're usually up reading or writing until the wee hours of the morning. Experiments don't necessarily stop for holidays, meals, or sleep; they stop when they're finished. You need patience and flexibility. Graduate school has its perks, though, as you're one step higher on the totem pole than before (you get to boss around undergrads!). Also, you're not expected to excel in your courses because you have more crucial things to do. This may not hold true for all neuroscience programs, but it's certainly the case in large, research-focused universities.

CC is an extremely sheltered environment. Professors at CC are primarily interested in teaching, and Colorado College doesn't require professors to constantly publish papers for tenure. The pressures on professors at research universities are entirely different. They invest less effort in teaching and more in research. To maintain their research programs, they must continually succeed in publishing papers and writing grant applications that secure funding. This creates a more competitive environment. As a graduate student, you'll face different types of pressures. For me, the most challenging pressures weren't academic but interpersonal. The work you do as a graduate student isn't laid out for you. You must decide the research project you want to pursue and how you'll execute it. Probably no one will explicitly outline what it takes to earn a PhD. It's a kind of hazing process, and you must be very patient and persistent to achieve your goals. Clarify your expectations and discuss them with your advisor. Establishing a good rapport with your advisor and lab colleagues is crucial in the beginning. Be open about your role in any projects you work on. Indicate that you expect to be included as an author on any publications that result from projects you dedicate significant time to. In any project, it's best to specify from the beginning who will be involved, their responsibilities, time commitments, and the order of authorship upon project completion.

You'll have more responsibilities, both in the lab and in your education. Much of what you learn in graduate school is up to you, but the expectations are always high.

I feel that CC is very different from the graduate school environment. While the block plan requires students to learn concepts quickly, which benefits graduate students, it differs greatly from the constant rigor experienced in graduate school. There are no extended block breaks, and weekends may often be spent in the lab catching up or meeting deadlines. Also, courses may become less important because students have numerous other commitments. Another major difference is the professor's attitude towards students. In graduate school, you aren't under the constant watchful eye of a professor; you're on your own. Learning early on how to work independently of a faculty member is vital.

Let me clarify that I'm not currently in graduate school but am working at the National Institutes of Health alongside M.D.s, Ph.D.s, graduate students, post-docs, and other undergrads. Therefore, I can't comment on courses, advisors, etc., but the environment is very similar. Having said this, you must be much more independent at the graduate level. No one will pull you aside and tell you to work harder or even what you should be doing. CC is also more laid back. To emphasize, there are no breaks in research, and you will be expected to be in the lab whenever needed, including Friday nights and Sunday mornings, even after a full week in the lab. Additionally, nobody will care if you complain.

The neuroscience class I took during my sophomore year played a significant role in shaping my interests. Engaging in a thesis project also proved invaluable. The process of designing my project, collecting data, and analyzing and writing up my results allowed me to determine if research was a true passion. Furthermore, it provided me with hands-on experience in an area of interest and demonstrated to potential employers and graduate schools that I possessed more than just classroom knowledge.

Giving PowerPoint presentations.

Writing my senior thesis.

Working on my thesis project. This experience closely mirrors the demands of graduate school at CC. It fosters the development of lab skills, patience, organization, grant application proficiency, application of class materials, research (including critical analysis of journal articles), writing, and presentation skills. Proficiency in these areas is essential for success as a graduate student (not to mention that graduate schools typically require this experience for admission).

Research Design. Neuro classes. Summer and senior research projects.

My most valuable experience, by far, was the senior research I had the opportunity to conduct. No single course can provide the laboratory experience, critical thinking, and writing skills that a block or two of research offers. Additionally, graduate school closely resembles a year-round schedule of independent research rather than the usual "read and discuss" format of CC courses. The process of integrating undergraduates into the realm of scientific research is best initiated as early as possible. Only through direct lab experience can students grasp the level of academic and personal commitment required to excel as researchers. Undergraduate and inexperienced graduate students often fail to comprehend that research continues beyond weekends and holidays. They sometimes struggle to view their lab work as more than a punch-in, punch-out job. Working on a project with Professor Jacobs helped me recognize that genuine dedication was essential for the integrity of the work. It was during this time that I truly began to love what I was doing. For anyone entering this field, it is this passion for science that paves the way for success as a graduate student and neuroscientist.

Gaining research experience and writing a senior thesis are among the most beneficial steps you can take at CC to prepare for graduate school.

The "hands-on" research experience and the process of writing my senior thesis were the most valuable educational components during my time at CC. Seize the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member on their research—this is a rare experience for most undergraduates and will provide you with a head start in graduate-level research.

The most valuable educational experience for me at CC was my summer work in Bob's lab. It is crucial for undergraduate students to learn how to work independently from faculty guidance. While Bob was always available, he allowed me the freedom to experiment and learn through trial and error, giving me a glimpse of what working in a lab on my own would entail.

The most valuable experience I had was the research project I worked on with Dr. Jacobs over a summer and two blocks. This experience not only prepared me for the research world, teaching me the procedures of experimentation, analysis, paper writing, and submission, but it also taught me time management and how to approach independent projects. While upper-level biology courses (e.g., Biochemistry) were helpful, their strict instructional nature still falls short in preparing you for graduate-level research, where independence is crucial.

Take time off after you graduate from CC and try to get research/lab experience. Not only will working in a lab make you a stronger applicant, but you might find that your interests shift or become more focused as a result of your internship. Additionally, you might make valuable connections with people who can help you get into the graduate school of your choice.

Don't assume that once you have taken an exam you can forget the material. It is true you can learn it again if need be, but it will be assumed that you remember what you learned in undergrad, and that material will be used as the basis for more in-depth study.

Try to decide on a general area of research that interests you. Make sure there are multiple researchers within that field that you could work with at any school you wish to apply to.

Assess for yourself why you want to go to grad school and make sure the programs and faculty you are interested in will support your goals. If basic science research interests you, be certain that your curiosity is enough to motivate you through the mindless and tedious parts of research. If you are interested in research with direct clinical applications, ask professors how their research is or will be applied in the clinical setting. If you are interested in teaching, make sure the faculty you are interested in working with (not just program directors) would be supportive of you taking time to gain extra experience TAing/teaching (Most faculty in large research universities have chosen to be there because they want to do research, and many find teaching a chore to be avoided. I've found some faculty don't understand why anyone would want to teach and/or don't want students taking time from their research to teach/TA.) If you are thinking of going to graduate school because you don't think you can get into medical school and graduate school is something else you can do in science, explore other options that will keep you working directly with people—physical or occupational therapy, counseling degrees in psychology or social work, etc.

In addition to what I said in question 2, when searching for a graduate school, research the school thoroughly. Know the city and the people (students and professors). Really be able to match names (professors) with the work they do. Collegiality is an important aspect of graduate school. Know the strengths and weaknesses of programs and make sure they match your interests. When applying, be in contact with professors that work in your area of interest, and make sure they would be interested in you. Sometimes professors don't want students in their lab, can't afford another student (literally not having proper funding), or already have enough students in the lab.

An absolute must is research experience and a solid background in molecular biology. If computational neuroscience is an interest, coursework in computer science and mathematics is a must. This is, of course, in addition to the neuroscience coursework. Best to cover all bases, especially at a liberal arts school where many specialized types of courses are not available.

Do LOTS of research on graduate programs before you apply. Also, if necessary (and I would actually recommend it), take a year or two off to think about what type of neuroscience you are interested in pursuing. Neuroscience is a much broader discipline than you think it is... figuring out what kind of methodology/ies you want to concentrate on in grad school takes a lot of time and research but is immensely helpful. With regards to picking a program, the best thing you can do is to read up on the research of professors whose labs you are interested in joining. If you find a few researchers whose work particularly intrigues you, you should contact them by email and inform them of your interest in becoming part of their lab. If possible, visit each lab in person and get to know the professor and grad students. It will make a world of difference when final admissions decisions are being handed down. I know of a number of present grad students in Cornell's biopsychology and neurobiology programs whose grades and test scores did not meet the programs' minimum levels, but who managed to squeak by through the recommendations of one professor.

Neuroscience is an extremely broad field, so it is a good idea to have an understanding of the different areas of research in neuroscience before you start graduate school. Try to acquire basic knowledge of biochemistry and molecular biology, genetics, physiology, computer science (particularly if you are interested in modeling), and psychology. Pick a university which is strong in your particular area of interest, or if you are not sure what kind of research you want to do ultimately, pick a school which has a broad variety of research options.

Also, it is important to get some research experience while you are still an undergrad. It would be a good idea to spend a summer doing research in a big lab at a research university. You may be able to get a temporary position as a research assistant or find some kind of scholarship you can apply for so that you can afford to do this. Pick a university where you think you might enjoy going to graduate school. You can make contacts there which will facilitate your acceptance to graduate school. Also, because the atmosphere at a research university is quite different than at CC, you will learn a lot about how to get along in that kind of environment.

Thoroughly research any programs that you are interested in attending. Ask specific questions about coursework requirements, funding, and graduation rates. Make concrete plans with the professors you are interested in working with. Be upfront about your interests in joining the lab, and ask about projects, grants, and time availability of that professor. You may want a professor who provides instruction every day, or you may want more independence but it is important to find out what to expect ahead of time. Also, think about what type of questions you want to research, what methodologies you want to learn, and how you feel about animal research.

Again, do a senior thesis. Nothing can prepare you better for graduate school life than writing your paper in undergrad. Also, undergraduate research is a must! No student can make an educated decision on whether or not graduate school is the appropriate choice for them if they have never previously worked in a lab. Finally, students should always research the many different fields of neuroscience before they make a decision. There are so many choices, and nobody wants to look back and think "I wish I would have..." I would first of all take advantage of all the helpful faculty at Colorado College. They have already been through the process, first of all, and second, they have a large network of resources. I would also recommend taking all available challenges that you can at CC. By this, I mean that you should take every applicable class no matter how difficult it may be, and that you should choose to work on more challenging projects instead of ones which will take less time (for example, do a senior thesis instead of taking a couple of blocks off). I suggest this because 1) it will look better to grad schools, and 2) because you will end up doing it again anyway, so you might as well have an introduction to these topics while you are in a nurturing environment like CC. Think of it this way, it might seem hard now, but it will be twice as hard in grad school.

I'm working towards my Ph.D. in Neuroscience, specializing in Behavioral Genetics. I'm intrigued by the genetic and environmental factors influencing addiction, particularly alcohol abuse, and related traits like impulsivity, aggression, and anxiety. Currently, my project involves studying behavioral and physiological variations among inbred lines of mice in response to stress and ethanol. I'm assessing anxiety behavior, stress hormone levels, and gene expression.

I joined a general molecular and cellular biology program initially but later became a part of the Molecular Microbiology and Immunology department. My research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of neuroprotection in a stroke model.

I'm currently in my first year, conducting research rotations. My primary interest lies in nervous system development. In one rotation, I explored genes possibly involved in early spinal cord development using a unique technique involving DNA injection into developing chick embryos' spinal cords. In another rotation, I investigated the role of microRNAs in regulating developmental genes. Recently, I've been part of a lab using structural MRI to compare brain growth in autistic children and typical children.

I'm still rotating through labs and haven't settled on one yet. In my current rotation, I work in an occupational/environmental toxicology lab, focusing on the impact of environmental toxins and genetic repair capacity on neurodegenerative disease. Specifically, my project examines differences in cellular degeneration, genetic degeneration, and metabolic degeneration in a knockout mouse model for AP Endonuclease under oxidative stress from environmental toxins. The study involves both in vivo and in vitro methods, with independent variables including toxin, toxin concentration, AP Endonuclease wild type/heterozygous partial knockout/heterozygous complete knockout, tissue type (fibroblasts vs. neurons), and toxin application protocol (continuous vs. single administration).

My research involves electrophysiological, molecular, and computer modeling techniques to understand how neurons control behavior in the medicinal leech (Hirudo medicinalis).

I'm enrolled in Cornell University's Biopsychology program, conducting research in neurobehavioral toxicology. Specifically, I'm investigating cognitive changes resulting from low-level lead exposure in neonatal and juvenile rats, elucidating the neurochemical ontogeny of these changes. My work involves immunocytochemistry to pinpoint region-specific alterations in enzyme, neurotransmitter, and receptor expression in control and Pb-exposed animals. Additionally, I collaborate with a researcher from another university who performs in vivo neurophysiological recordings in the same animals undergoing behavioral testing. Our goal is to understand the neurobehavioral consequences of early-life lead exposure and develop suitable interventions for affected children.

My project, "Human Neuroanatomical Systems for Perceiving Emotion in Music," explores music perception in both normal human subjects and individuals with brain damage. By studying how specific brain regions' damage affects music perception, we can infer the brain's role in various aspects of music perception, employing the lesion method.

My research merges neuroanatomy and behavior, focusing on the impact of bilateral amygdala lesions on social behavior development in rhesus macaques. Additionally, I investigate the development of serotonergic projections to the macaque amygdala.

I'm currently a student in a Doctor of Pharmacy program while conducting research in the Department of Pharmacology. Alongside my pharmacy coursework, I investigate adrenergic receptor responses in the bovine inferior alveolar artery when exposed to different local anesthetics commonly used in dentistry. This research demonstrates the versatility of a neuroscience background.

My clinical research project involves comparing cortical activation during working memory tasks among schizophrenic patients, their siblings, and normal controls using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We also perform structural scans to compare brain region volumes and spectroscopy scans to assess brain chemical composition via MR. These studies are part of a larger project at the National Institutes of Health involving schizophrenia patients and their siblings, including DNA testing, neuropsychological assessments, eye-tracking tests, and various experiments. My daily work includes teaching subjects the memory task, running scans, and analyzing fMRI data.

I would have taken more biology and chemistry courses as I am still catching up in my Ph.D. program due to differences in my knowledge base compared to some other students.

I would have prioritized achieving higher grades, as I underestimated the competitiveness of graduate program admissions.

I would have enrolled in additional math classes and a computer programming course since they are essential for modeling neuronal networks and analyzing MRI data. Additionally, I would have taken more discussion and writing-intensive courses to improve my communication skills, which are crucial.

Taking a genetics course and continually reviewing past coursework would have been valuable, as neuroscience requires a broad knowledge base encompassing various fields. This includes physics concepts like RC circuits, current, voltage, capacitance, and resistance, which apply to neuron physiology. Organic chemistry and biochemistry principles are relevant to benchwork, histotechnique, and cellular mechanisms. Mathematical knowledge in differential equations, integrals, and statistics is essential for modeling biological systems and data analysis. Self-initiated study to retain this information is crucial for success in graduate school.

I would have pursued more molecular biology classes and increased my computer science coursework.

One thing I regret is underestimating my ability to handle challenging courses. Taking the most demanding course load possible would have better prepared me for graduate studies, as a strong foundation in biology, psychology, and biochemistry is invaluable. Planning for graduate school earlier in my undergraduate career and visiting labs, talking to professors, and making personal contacts before choosing a graduate school and mentor would have been beneficial.

Taking more mathematics courses and beginning graduate school planning earlier in my undergraduate career would have been wise. Establishing personal contacts and selecting a good mentor are essential steps in the process.

I would have taken more biology and chemistry courses, considering that even though some graduate programs offer these courses as part of their curriculum, the undergraduate classes provide a more conducive learning environment.

I would have completed a senior thesis to gain valuable research experience and avoid basic mistakes in my early graduate school research.

Although I took upper-level biology and chemistry courses, I wish I had also taken a computer programming class, as it is essential for research that heavily relies on computers. Additionally, molecular biology knowledge would have been beneficial since many labs are moving in that direction.

Even if you don't want to undertake a thesis project (which you should consider), try to participate in a couple of research blocks. At CC, we have the privilege of having extensive interaction with our professors. Make the most of this opportunity and strive to establish connections with your advisors or other professors who have taught classes you found interesting.

Most programs assume that incoming students will have spent a year or two working as lab technicians before pursuing a graduate degree. Therefore, if you apply directly from undergrad, don't be disheartened if you are not admitted. Additionally, if you contemplate dropping out during your first year (or first two years in the case of medical school), remember that things often improve, and it's worthwhile to persevere.

I recommend applying for fellowship support BEFORE entering graduate school. Organizations like the National Science Foundation designate certain fellowships for undergraduates who apply early, making it potentially easier to secure funding. While you have to propose a research project, you are not necessarily bound to that specific project. Crafting a project proposal can be challenging, but conducting background literature searches can be a valuable experience, even if you don't ultimately receive the fellowship. Be prepared for the application process, which occurs early in graduate school (with deadlines in the fall) when you're already managing a demanding schedule.

Explore different schools thoroughly. The school's location and the people there are more crucial than you might initially realize. Despite assuming you'll spend all your time in the lab, you'll find that's not the case, and a supportive environment is paramount. Don't hesitate to ask questions, engage with faculty, and experiment with new opportunities. Take advantage of lab rotations to determine your best fit. Remember, coffee can be your ally.

Conduct comprehensive research on the graduate schools you plan to apply to. Check prerequisites for courses, funding availability, and the professors you may want to collaborate with.

When researching graduate schools, also consider the cities where they are located. Keep in mind that a graduate student's time is more likely spent at a quiet coffee shop than at a campus fraternity party. Focus less on campus life and more on the quality of the city and program.

While this point has been reiterated, it's essential to be aware that life outside of CC may not be as supportive. You'll quickly realize that, more than ever, you are in control of your path. Be assertive and communicate your goals clearly, rather than waiting for others to inquire. In the research environment, personal initiative is critical, as you'll encounter people with varied agendas and potentially limited interpersonal skills. This holds true in many work situations, but it's especially important in research settings, where everyone pursues their objectives. Be mindful of this dynamic, which is prevalent in numerous labs.

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Report an issue - Last updated: 02/08/2024