Applying — Choosing a grad program, supervisor and lab

As neuroscientists we know how important it is for the developing brain to choose the right connections.  That developmental process depends on experience.  It is an active process designed to optimize the maturation of neural circuits to support complex functions and behaviors.  To us this is a nice analogy for the process of choosing a graduate program.  You need to apply your experiences to help sort through the various grad school options.  You want to select the program and supervisor that will be the best fit for you and help you develop to achieve your full potential.

So what factors should you consider while choosing a program and supervisor?   We asked our students — MiNDS grad students — about what factors they considered when deciding to choose the MiNDS program.  Here’s what they had to say.

By far the greatest influence on our students’ decision to choose MiNDS was the recommendation from a professor or another student.   This links back to one of my earlier articles about selecting a grad program.  It is important to talk with professors and grad students to get recommendations for programs and labs that will be the right fit for you.

MiNDS students were also influenced by the location of the university.  Most students weigh a number of factors when choosing a grad school, location being one of those factors.  Often a student has heard about MiNDS and wants to come here, then goes and asks a professor about MiNDS and for recommendations of potential supervisors.  Or they like the  location of the university, near Toronto but less expensive.  Or they have an external reason to be in this area (eg their spouse has a job here).  MiNDS students like the location of the university.

Our student also use targeted web searching (eg google) to find out more about the program and supervisors.  This shows that MiNDS students take an active approach to searching out the information that they need to choose a grad program and supervisor.

The reputation and expertise of the supervisor were very strong drivers of the decision to choose the MiNDS program.  MiNDS has over 70 faculty who are internationally recognized experts in a wide range of areas of neuroscience research.  So there are a lot of fantastic supervisors to choose from.

Three other factors were very important for our students’ decision: the research project that they would work on; the research facilities in the supervisor’s lab; and the structure of the program.  These influences can be described as part of the reality check — can I see my self in that lab and program?

You have to find the research project interesting, you need to know that you’ll have the resources to do the experiments, and you need to be comfortable with the requirement and goals of the program.

A quick look at the MiNDS faculty and student pages gives you an impression of the wide range of research topics.  The facilities in our labs are second-to-none.  I recall a student visiting my lab and saying how they were blown away by the equipment and facilities in everyone’s labs.  Mac is a research intensive university and we have received many grants for research equipment so that our researchers and students have everything that they need to do cutting-edge research.

Finally, the MiNDS program is research focused, there are not a lot of course requirements, instead students are being trained to be leaders in the field of Neuroscience research.  We have a cooperative and collegial environment where students are encourage to take an integrative approach to learning about neuroscience.   You need to have a burning desire to learn more about the brain and be ready to take charge of charting a path to achieve your goals.

Some of our students want to become professors, others want to get an MD as well as a PhD, while others want to go into industry, and even get an MBA.  MiNDS is flexible enough to be tailored to meet the needs of individual students.  Not all grad programs have this kind of flexibility and while it is wonderful to be able to tailor the program for a student it also means that more is expected from the students.  They have to take an active role in designing the grad program.  MiNDS students love this aspect of the program structure.

Money is always going to be a consideration when choosing a program.  How much is the stipend? How long is it guaranteed? Is it enough to cover my living expenses?  All of these are important questions and concerns for students when choosing a program.  Ask about the stipend.  Find out what you have to do to get the stipend.  Ask students in the program if it is enough to live on.

Finally, social and recreational activities are an important part of helping to make your graduate studies an enjoyable experience.  MiNDS students said that the range of social activities and recreational facilities at the university contributed to their decision.  Ask students in the program what kind of social activities they do or go visit the recreational facilities at the university.  Take the time to make sure that there are enough activities and events outside of work to keep you happy.

Bottom line is that you want to figure out if you can see yourself working with the professor, working on that research question, studying in that program and living in that city.    The information in this article will help you figure out the questions to ask as you look to choose the right connections for your grad studies.

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2 responses to “Applying — Choosing a grad program, supervisor and lab

  1. Great information, thank you!

  2. Pingback: GRADsKool 2010 in review | GRADsKool

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