• Graduate work is very different from undergraduate education, in that you will not be taking courses, but rather working in someone's lab for 5 years. It implies a very close intellectual relationship with a small group of people (the lab members) and an important and not always easy to navigate mentoring relationship with the professor.
  • For that reason, a large part of the process is about a good fit rather than just how smart you are or what are your grades -- we often try to take to our labs people whose interests align with what we do. Also, we look for people who we get along with well, where the conversation flows etc.
  • The former kind of fit (topic-wise or method-wise) is one you can and should address in your research statement -- what we want to hear is not how great your grades are (that has relatively little predictive power for how you will be as a researcher) but rather all about your past research experience (even if through coursework and papers that you have submitted -- anything that involved you independently researching a topic and answering a question), and what you want to do next. This does not have to be very detailed, but talk about your past work in ways that show us your independent thinking, your ownership of the work. Basically, we want to know that you know what you are talking about, and it is not just that you blindly carried out what someone else told you to do. Then, when talking about what you want to do in the future, again, you don't have to be specific, but just saying "I am fascinated with the brain" does not demonstrate deep thinking. So try to show us that you have thought deeply about graduate school and why you are applying, that you have thought deeply about this particular school and why it is a good fit to your interests in general (see below). You will not be held strictly to what you write -- you are allowed to change your mind later, and we know it happens frequently. You are still young.
  • For the latter kind of fit (personal fit), you should treat the interview process at schools not only as "they are interviewing me" but also you are interviewing them -- that is, be attentive to the environment, your interactions with the professor (do you "click"?) and ask other students about the lab atmosphere and the advisor (you can even contact lab alumni -- they are often mentioned on lab websites and you can email them your questions).
  • One way to show the good fit is to mention in your statement of purpose professors that you would like to work with. This is very helpful to us too, as then these are the people who will read your application. By mentioning names you give us an idea of the areas you are interesting in, in one short sentence. But for this, you should look at websites of different faculty etc., to make your choice an informed one. At PNI, your application is to the whole program, not a specific lab, and you will get a chance to rotate in several labs before choosing which you want to join. So again, we won't hold you strictly to what you said in your application -- but still it is helpful for us to know.
  • Some people like to email professors they are interested in working with, to introduce themselves and make a connection. Some professors like this as they can make a shortlist of what applicants to seek out later, once all the applications are in, and they can tell some in advance that there is not a good fit, and save them the effort (and money!) of applying. But other professors do not like this or even reply to such emails. So it is up to you whether you want to email people or not. In any case, if you do: 1) make sure your email is brief but has content. Don't just say "I looked up your site and I am really interested in your work" -- that generic message might as well have been sent by a bot to all the faculty in the department (you would be amazed how many such messages we get!), but write something that shows you are a person and you are genuinely interested in their research. 2) don't take it personally if you don't get a reply -- we are all overwhelmed with emails! It is not a sign of someone not wanting you in the lab.
  • Finally, if you read the above and think "hmm.. I don't have that kind of research experience," and/or "I don't actually know what I want to study at all.." then you might want to take time to acquire that experience and/or do that thinking. For the former, many go on to a full-time paid research assistant job after college, for 1-2 years. This is not only to gain knowledge and experience, but most importantly, to experience full-time research and what it entails, and make sure you really want to do that for the next 5-6 years! It is a hefty time commitment, and liking college does not mean you will like research. For the latter, you can read books, papers, etc.. try to think about what excites you. What stuff that you learned about in college really made your eyes sparkle.. what did you want to tell your roommates or friends and family about. Research is hard and you have to go through many failures for every one success, but it is all worth it if you are doing something you are very excited about. Otherwise, there are much better ways to spend your time!