A common question in the undergraduate neuroscience sphere is, “How do I get into graduate school?” In this field, an advanced degree is required for most careers, but how does one go about obtaining said degree? We put the question to some admissions directors to get the inside scoop.
A graduate application breaks down to three major components: your undergraduate transcript, research experience, and GRE scores.
This seems like a no-brainer (no pun intended), but a major part of your application comes down to the courses you took during your undergraduate tenure. While most graduate schools do not require that you completed a major specific to neuroscience, most do want to see that you have a strong scientific background in either biology or chemistry. If you did not major in a science area, consider taking basic science core courses such as chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, statistics, calculus, physics, and any offered neuroscience course. This will also give you a good idea as to whether or not neuroscience is worth pursuing. Additionally, you can find free online classes that cover courses like neuroscience.
The other component of your transcript that is important is your GPA. Be sure that your GPA is at least high enough for the minimum requirement for admission. This varies between programs, but is generally between 3.0-3.5.
This section is arguably the most important component when applying for graduate school. Since pursuing an advanced degree requires a great deal of research, schools want to see that you are comfortable with the process. If you are currently a student, find a researcher at your institution that is investigating something that interests you. This doesn't have to be neuroscience related, but it should incorporate techniques that can be used for neuroscience. It can take a few months to find a lab where you are able to work due to the amount of students wanting to help, but be persistent. You may need to volunteer at first, receiving no compensation for your work. See if you can find grants for research assistants, as it will help your financial situation and also be something you can put on your CV.
While working in a lab, work as hard as you can and always be on time. This is a chance for you to build relationships with leaders in the field for the first time. This first impression will go a long way when seeking letters of recommendation. Also, whomever you work for has connections to researchers at other universities and institutions to which you may be applying. Be sure to go above and beyond what is expected of you, without crossing any lines. You are there to work and make other staff’s life easier; never get in the way or question the authority of someone above you. That being said, ask questions and try to learn all that you can while you are in the lab.
The GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, is a standardized test that most programs require to be considered for admission. Think of it as the SAT for graduate school. The test costs between $100-200 and you should plan on taking it twice. The test is split up into 6 sections: verbal, quantitative, analytical writing – issue task, analytical writing – argument task, and the experimental section. While the experimental section does not count toward your score, you do not know whether the section you are taking is the experimental section or another section.
We recommend that you prepare extensively for the test. Several schools offer classes that review the material on the exam. Additionally, you can find practice exams that will give you an idea of what to expect.
What if I am deficient in one category?
If you are not strong in one area, do not worry. For example, if you are a poor test taker and have lower than expected GRE scores, you can make up for this by having a stellar GPA and research experience. The one section that cannot be made up for, however, is research experience. This is why it is vital to be working in a lab and have strong letters of recommendation. Try to contact the schools that you are interested in and find out what they look for in a candidate. Prepare a CV of the work you have done, including any teaching experience, leadership experience and publications. Applying to grad school is a long daunting process, but stay focused and do not give up!