Applying to Grad School (Part 1):
The Graduate School Application

Kalama Beach Park

First, a word of caution: this set of blog posts, intended to be a living one, is only intended to be of use to those applying specifically to Ph.D. programs in neuroscience; something I've learned in this process is that programs (even those ostensibly similar in discipline) differ wildly in their expectations and application processes. Caveat emptor.

This is the first in a series of posts on this graduate school application process and will go over my opinions of who should pursue a PhD, my application profile, and the parts of the application.

I also would greatly appreciate any comments or questions; you can shoot me a Twitter message @KenjiEricLee or an email at erickenjilee[at]gmail.com

Being back home in Hawaii, I've been afforded an indulgence that I so rarely (if ever) have had over the past eight years: to just sit, to just think. On the white sands of Kalama Beach (see banner photo), I took stock of the past year applying to graduate schools: what went wrong, what went right, and about what I would wish for others to know should the subject themselves to the same unsparing referendum of one’s scientific self-worth. Although I wasn’t a better applicant than others—mistakes were made that have since probably been overlearned from—what follows next is hopefully still of some use to others.

I tried to think deeply about what I might offer given the already excellent contributions to the "Getting into Neuroscience Grad School" literature from others like Lucy Lai, Vael Gates, and Oriol Pavón (each of whose blogposts I found to be immensely helpful in my own application process). I thought about what I could possibly add of value given that I've always been a relatively poor student, went to an undergrad few have heard of, and hadn't met an academic until college. But in this, I think, I might have some advice for those that find themselves in a similar situation and still desire to attend a good (even great) Ph.D. program in neuroscience.

This post will be less prescriptive and more personal; it's meant to be an account of my experiences, with as much honesty as possible.

But before I jump into my application experience, there was one very important question I (and you will have) had to answer

Should You Even Go to Grad School?

Coming from a small liberal arts college, I always assumed that if you got your Ph.D., you could become a professor. I believed this largely because this is what was true when my professors were going to school and there were no postdocs or grad students around to tell me otherwise; how wrong I was! It's important to first get some facts about the odds regarding landing a tenure-tracked professorship.

Getting a tenured professorship is extremely difficult

"Life of the Mind!" they tell you as an undergraduate and what could be better than spending your days pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge? What they don't tell you is that very few students who enter a Ph.D. program become a tenured professor. It's very difficult to get any exactitude regarding how many students end up as faculty although some have tried. Here's a thread from Penn professor Konrad Kording; although this discussion is about "competitive" summer schools, there is some discussion about the rate that PhD's end up as TT professors at R1's. The number that's thrown around for neuroscience currently is 7%.

If you make it to a competitive summer school (say with 50% acceptance rate), what do you think is the probability that you will end up being professor? I believe baseline of PhD-> prof=7%

— KordingLab (@KordingLab) August 12, 2019
This number isn't the same for every school! Go to a top school and your chances are quite a bit better (albeit still not great).

Follow-up for neuroscience PhD programs, specifically:

Here's UPenn's Neuroscience program as one example (n=60+). Similar data exists for UW, UCSF, and UNC. Across these four programs, ~31% of grads are in TT roles 10 years post-PhD.

The numbers & data: https://t.co/sazAoJlaSM pic.twitter.com/Z8wr07FIxd

— ashley juavinett (@analog_ashley) August 14, 2019
But it seems like, if other fields are any indication, that these top schools are supplying the great majority of faculty members. In fact, one study found that graduates from approximately the top 10% of institutions filled around half of all faculty positions; the top 20% filled 75% of the available positions; and the top 50% filled around 95% of positions. On a personal note, this is why it was so important to me that I had alternatives should Academia no longer be an option. I made it a priority to get my masters degree in Applied Math which opens up the option of a career in data science.

Publish or perish is real

You must not only be very productive during the 5-7 years you are in grad school and 2-7 years you are a postdoc, you must also publish often and in the right journals.

Here are the funding and publication records of 61 new faculty in the life sciences who started labs at 21 large public R1 universities in 2018-2019. 36% have a first-author CNS paper, 75% have published in a CNS-family journal, and 16% have a K99. pic.twitter.com/IHsbn4UsJl

— Jason Sheltzer (@JSheltzer) June 17, 2019
The top journals, called CNS (Cell, Nature, and Science), are disproportionately represented and most new faculty have published in the CNS-family. These results were also mirrored in a study here which finds that "whether or not a scientist becomes a PI is largely predictable by their publication record, even taking into account the first few years of publication".

My personal reasons for going to grad school

Knowing all this, I still ultimately decided to continue onto graduate school for several reasons:

What type of person I think should go to grad school

So it goes without saying that my opinion, as a first year, should be taken with a massive evaporated Mesozoic North American inland sea's sized grain of salt. But if you'll allow me to indulge, I think that a Ph.D. is a good idea for the type of person who desires a career leading a research team or conducting independent research; furthermore, they should not be ignorant of the outcomes for those in their field and able to clearly assess the likelihood of their own success in said space. They should also be well aware of the opportunity costs of such an endeavor both monetarily and on a personal level. This is why I had/have no real qualms about taking several years off: it gave me time to reflect on what I wanted out of life and gave me a taste of life outside of Academia rather than being informed of what "real life" is through the Instagrams of non-academic friends. It was enough time to see that a lot of the qualms students have about grad school as being conflated with the angsts of "Emerging Adulthood". Now to get to the point, here's my application experience.

The Grad School Application

This section will go over the parts of the application and my personal application (all made available!); There are three resources I've found to be tremendously helpful for this process but be warned, the last one on this list you click at your own risk: it sent my anxiety to 11 once I knew about it.

My Application Profile

In 2015, I graduated from the University of Puget Sound with a double-major in math and biochemistry minoring in neuroscience. I also spent three years in a neuroendocrinology lab exploring the estrogenic effects of bisphenol-A on zebrafish. Unfortunately, I also graduated with a 3.1 GPA and some C's in relevant classes for neuroscience (curse you biochemistry like I even care about the pKa's of AA sidechains). I decided that it was pretty unlikely I'd get into any decent grad schools so I decided to take some time off and for the last four years or so I was a research associate at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and also pursued my master's degree in applied math at the University of Washington. I also took the GRE and did fairly well on it although not nearly as well as I suppose someone with an undergrad background should be expected to do. Perhaps it'll be more fun instead to show my stats instead of prattling on. There are left and right arrows that are currently invisible; I haven't quite figured out how to make them a different color in Bootstrap. If you're on mobile, you can swipe left and right.