Re: OT: grad school advice

From: Alex F. Bokov (
Date: Tue Oct 30 2001 - 22:10:58 MST


On Tue, 30 Oct 2001, Damien Sullivan wrote:

> So, the little mechanisms in my head seem to have turned over, such that it's
> time to try to Do Something with my life, and I want to go to grad school, in
> some sort of cognitive science program. What I've said for years I wanted to
> do Sometime, only Sometime is Now. Or next year, I guess, given admissions.
> So if anyone has advice, whether about applying in general or about specific
> programs or schools to apply to, it'd be welcome. As background, I've liked
> Hofstadter's type of work as expressed in _Fluid Concepts and Creative
> Analogies_, and Pinker's _How The Mind Works_ was a recent catalyst, towards
> "this is cool, damnit, I want to help". My assets are a planetary science
> degree from Caltech, with a crappy GPA, and not much releated coursework,
> although I should be able to get a good GRE score. So applying is a bit more
> intimidating than when I was headed for undergraduate school as a high school
> prodigy.
> Advice should probably be sent directly to me, since I haven't been
> reading listmail regularly in quite some time.

As one who has been through that recently, I understand and encourage
you to forge right on ahead. I also have crappy undergrad GPA and
decent scores. A book I'd recommend is Getting What You Came For by
Robert Peters

All the following is strictly IMO, IIRC, YMMV, WWAFBD?

Your main hurdle as a returning student, particularly one in a different
field will not be grades, nor scores, but convincing them that you are
sincerely interested in and capable of committing to devoting the next
30 or more years to cognitive science research.

The most important thing to do is to start reading journal
articles. Read three or four that interest you per week. Start with
reviews, and from there track down references that strike your
interest. I don't know any specific references or journals, since I'm
not in that field, but maybe somebody else on the list can help in
that regard. Also, the books you mention probably cite the seminal
papers in the field. The next step will be to go to the local public
library and do a reverse citation search for these references on (it's a subscription site, but it's a good bet
most libraries have it). The reverse search will give you current
papers that are citing those references.

It's also good to keep up with Science and Nature. As you dig up and
read papers that are interesting to you, you'll get a better idea of
what it is specifically that you're interested in. You'll start seeing
the names of the same researchers over and over, and you'll start
noticing that the researchers in what's fast becoming *your* field of
interest publish in a particular constellation of journals... which
you add to the list of journals you monitor every month or so for new
developments that haven't made it into Web of Science yet.

Unless you've been doing something related to cognitive science for
the last few years, you may find that it's tough going understanding
the research papers because you have forgotten a lot from when you
learned it in college, or maybe you never had coursework in that area
to begin with. If the gaps in knowledge are small, you might get away
with buying a couple of textbooks and teaching yourself. Otherwise,
you might have to take the appropriate courses as a non-credit student
at a local college. On the bright side, this will help prepare you for
the GRE if there is a subject GRE required/available for your field.

Your reading of the research literature will help you pick a program--
it will be wherever it is that the most interesting papers are coming
from. Look up those institutions on the web and download their
application materials. If you are at all unsure about getting admitted,
apply to many programs. 20. 30. The only thing it costs you is time and
money, and it costs you less to apply to many once and get it over with.

Keep a spreadsheet or database of the mailing addresses, websites,
admission requirements you still need to fulfill, names and phone
numbers of relevant individuals, etc. with entries for all the
institution. Start applying as soon as you've identified several
institutions of interest, while continuing to follow the research
literature (i.e. keep the battle raging on all fronts

Unless you have a specific reason for doing so, do *not* seek an MS.
Go straight for a PhD. All the Masters students I know are getting a
really shitty deal. It may be harder to get into a PhD program and you
will stay in school twice as long, but at least you'll get a stipend
so you'll have no distractions from their work, the faculty will pay
more attention to your academic needs, and you'll graduate ready to
become a full-fledged scientist (in most fields a post-doc is
customary, but post-docs are full-fledged in my book). Of course your
stipend will not be a luxurious one, especially if you have
dependents. For many returning students, grad school is a lifestyle
adjustment downward. Science is a harsh mistress, what can I say?
Maybe when Extropians take over the world things will get better. :-)

Oh, another thing on what program to apply for. Let's say that there
are two departments working on similar types of projects, and some of
the faculty you like might even be crosslisted in both of them. Which
one to pick? Well, if cog sci is anything like molecular/cell bio, pay
no attention to what the department is called. What matters is the
research getting done there. If other things are equal, you might be
at a slight advantage applying to the smaller program, with the more
obscure sounding name-- simply because it's human nature to judge a
book by its cover and the Department of Endocrine Neuropharmachemistry
may have a harder time filling spaces than the Department of
Psychiatry. Of course, do your due diligence to make sure that you'll
still have the opportunity to work with the people you want to work
with and that there isn't something horribly wrong with said
department at the administrative or fiscal levels.

While you're applying through formal channels, don't neglect to look
up the emails and phone numbers of the principle investigators whose
work you've been following. Call them or email them, tell them about
yourself and how interested you are in their work. Be as specific as
possible, but concise. Mention that you hope to be able to visit their
labs and meet them in person sometime. I don't know if this increases
your chances of getting invited to interviews, but it can't hurt.

Interviews are crucial. Always accept interview invitations even if
you think you've already picked the perfect school. All the forms you
filled out, the tests you took, and all the other bureaucratic crap
you had to do are just the admission ticket to the interview. All of
that takes the back seat once you shake the hand of the researcher
who's going to be deciding whether to admit you or not, look ver in
the eye and tell ver with absolute conviction that you want to do
research in ver department and that you believe you'll be great at it.
I got accepted by every school where I made it to the interview phase.

At a typical grad school interview, you'll get shown around the
campus, chat with students, and meet with a mix of researchers. Some
of them will be the ones you're dying to work with, and some of them
will be working on projects you don't care about as much, but in
either case, get them talking about what they do. People love talking
about themselves, and interviewers are no different. Don't worry,
you'll get opportunities to pipe up with your accomplishments and
ideas-- but if your interviewer is doing most of the talking, the
information you give ver about yourself will better fit into the
context of what ve is talking about and ve may even start thinking of
you as already being a member of The Team. If you have any doubts
about going to the school you're interviewing at, don't show them. As
far as they're concerned, their school is your first choice, but of
course play it cool and don't sound desperate either.

The main thing not to say at an interview is "I don't know what I want
to do, but this sounds kind of neat, and I read some cool
popular-press books on the subject, so I figured I'd try my hand at it
and see if I like it." Do or do not, there is no try in grad school.
And, scientists sometimes view stuff accessible to the general public
with the same disdain you reserve for the 'technical explanations'
given for things in science fiction movies.

I don't mean to imply that an interview is a prerequisite for
admission. That's just how I got in. Other people's experiences may be
different. Certainly don't get discouraged if the invites are long in
coming-- the schools are really unpredictable in when they'll get back
to you after you've completed your application.

It's a daunting task, but well worth it. The first time I tried, I was
so intimidated, I never sent out the applications. Looking back I'm
realizing that I was good enough all along, and so are you. They WANT
you, especially if you are a citizen of the country you're applying to
grad school in; foreigners are expensive because it's harder for them
to obtain grants, at least in the US. Few people have the ambition and
the grasp of the big picture to pursue the science track, and if you
do, the grad schools be glad to have you.

I wish you the best, and don't hesitate to ask more questions as they
come up! Extropy needs us.

- --
* I believe that the majority of the world's Muslims are good, *
* honorable people. If you are a Muslim and want to reassure me and *
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