Ask a Neuroscientist: How do I get into the Stanford Neuro PhD Program?

In this edition of Ask a Neuroscientist, what does it take to get into the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program?

I’m a recent psychology graduate from a private university in Malaysia and am currently working as a graduate tutor in my department. I’m interested in pursuing my postgrad in the neurosciences (especially in the field of multisensory integration) at Stanford University. May I know what will best prepare me for it? Thank you for your time!
— Yan Shan

Updated (5/16/15): It was pointed out to me that advice here for international students is not necessarily representative. Under the Advice for International Students, I've added the thoughts of Dr. Egle Cekanaviciute, an alumni of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program, and an international scholar. 

How do I get into graduate school?

That’s the basic question here, albeit one with an extra international nuance. And it’s a question that is rarely answered; a veil of secrecy shrouds the graduate school admissions process. What does an applicant need to ensure their admission into a Neuroscience PhD program (and the Stanford program in particular)?  How big of a factor is foreign nationality? How critical is scholastic achievement, or previous experience in neuroscience research?

To help me answer this question, I sat down with the newly minted director of the Stanford Neurosciences PhD Program, Dr. Anthony (Tony) Ricci. Before his appointment as Program Director, Tony served on the Stanford PhD Program Admissions Committee; he also was involved in graduate admissions at Louisiana State University prior to his appointment at Stanford. Tony believes that graduate admission should be a transparent process, and so was happy to share his personal approach to selecting applicants.

What follows is my summary of our discussion.

[Note: I'd like to emphasize that the discussion below is centered on graduate admissions into Stanford's Neuroscience PhD Program. Other programs, and other universities, will have different requirements. Also, these thoughts represent the personal approach of Dr. Ricci, as well as my personal experiences as both a participant and observer of the Stanford admissions process. Other members of the Stanford Admissions Committee may prioritize different candidate attributes. Lastly, and I really can't stress this enough, any individuals chance of acceptance is dependent not only on her profile, but also the profiles of the rest of the applicant pool. The advice below could help raise your chances of getting an interview, but it can not guarantee anything.]

General Advice

Here’s something everyone applying to Stanford must realize. For better or for worse, Stanford University is an elite institution. This means that in order to be accepted into the Neuroscience PhD program, you need to be the best of the best. You need to be exceptional, in a pool of exceptional individuals.

What does this mean? It means that good grades aren’t enough. Of the approximately 500 applications Stanford receives per admissions cycle, maybe 100 of those will boast high GPAs and GRE scores. And so while those records of academic accomplishment are enough to prevent your application from being triaged, they are not enough to ensure you are selected as one of the 30 applicants given the opportunity to interview for a slot in the next years’ class.

Most graduate programs in the US have one (or more) interview sessions, which are an opportunity for faculty members to conduct in-person interviews with applicants. As I mentioned above, of the 100 triaged applications, roughly 30 will be invited for the in person interviews at Stanford. So if good grades and test scores are enough to get you into the 100 applications, are they enough to get you into the top 30? No.

When Tony Ricci is handed a stack of 100 applicants, he doesn’t look at their test scores. He assumes that if they survived the triage, their test scores are all roughly the same: exceptional. Instead, he turns to the research statement. In this essay, applicants are asked to state:

1. [Their] reasons for applying to the proposed program at Stanford and [their] preparation for this field of study.
2. [Their] research and study interests.
3. Future career plans and other aspects of [their] background and interests which may aid the admission committee in evaluating [their] aptitude and motivation for graduate study

Tony reads the responses, looking for evidence of research experience. And more than pure experience, he’s looking for evidence that the applicant has demonstrated independence and ownership of their work. These characteristics are critical for success in graduate school, and if Stanford University is going to invest in the education of an individual, Tony wants evidence that this particular individual will be a wise investment.

So research experience is a critical component of a successful application. And furthermore, a successful applicant will provide clear evidence that she was more than just a technician, blindly following orders. Writing such evidence into your research statement is good. Having your statements supported by your letters of recommendation is better. Having a first author peer-reviewed paper is best.

Regarding teaching experience; it’s not a huge priority for Stanford. Stanford PhD students have no teaching requirement. Now, this will be different at other institutions; there are many programs where teaching is a requirement during graduate school. For those programs, clear teaching experience may be extremely valuable. But Stanford Neuroscience isn’t one of those programs; for better or for worse, we prioritize research experience over teaching.

And so providing evidence of previous research experience is so important, that, according to Tony, as more and more people apply with multiple years of post-undergraduate research experience, it’s getting harder and harder to justify accepting individuals straight out of undergrad. And as the number of applicants that have previous experience in science research expands, it’s becoming harder to make it into the final 30 applicants on the strength of your research alone. If you never had the opportunity to do research (and many colleges don't have those opportunities), you're application isn't sunk. But it's set back; you're going to have to compensate. 

So what else does Tony look for? He looks for evidence that the applicant will bring something new to the Stanford Neuroscience community. Applicants are asked “Why Stanford?” Tony wants to know that the applicant hasn’t submitted a generic application. Yan Shan should explain why the goal of studying multisensory integration must be achieved at Stanford University specifically? Reasoning that doesn’t go beyond “Stanford is a great institution”, will not be sufficient. We all know that Stanford is a world-class institution. An applicant needs to tell us why Stanford is the only place where he can study. Is it the presence of a specific laboratory (or laboratories)? If so, the applicant should contact the heads of those labs, and inquire about whether they have room for graduate students and as to the direction of the labs research. Although individual PI’s cannot hire graduate students, the applicant can state that they have communicated with the PI. This type of detail is something that Tony notices.

Another aspect to the question of what an applicant will bring to the Stanford Neuroscience Program is the concept of diversity. Diversity is mentioned at various points in the application materials. Tony commented that most applicants incorrectly assume that “diversity” exclusively means “racial diversity”. For him, this is absolutely not the case. His definition of "diversity" is more nuanced, best identified by asking: “What new perspective will this person bring to our community.” Basically, to show your diversity, show that you are unique. So international citizenry doesn’t count as “diversity” per se. What’s a memorable example of this “non-traditional” definition of diversity? Tony remembered an applicant who wrote in her Diversity Statement that, since she was a stand-up comedian, at the very least, she’d be able to make the other people in the program laugh. The applicant ended up being accepted into the program, and Tony commented that, although he can’t usually remember application materials, this answer has stuck with him for years. It was a unique answer. And uniqueness is what a successful applicant must achieve.

Advice for International Applicants

What about international applicants? Is foreign nationality a concern during the admissions process? At this point, for Stanford University, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. And it’s all because of funding.

Currently, an NIH Training Grant covers the tuition and stipends of incoming graduate students. The Training Grant provides funding for students within their first 2 years at Stanford, but only for students who are legal residents of the US (citizens, green card holders). It will not cover most international applicants. And because of this, an international applicant needs one of two things. Either she needs her own source of funding, or he need to be so exceptional, so clearly superior every other applicant (“Exceptional, in a pool of exceptional applicants”), that the admissions committee decides to invite him anyway, saying, in essence, “Well, we can probably find the money to pay for him, somewhere.” So unless you are absolutely sure that you are the number one applicant that Stanford will receive that year, an international applicant must secure independent funding. But funding alone won’t get you a position. It will prevent you from not being asked to the interview session. But that’s it.

Now, Tony said that this is probably all going change in the next few years. Stanford Neuroscience is undergoing a bit of a re-organization, and the short story is that Stanford wants guarantee 4 years of funding for every PhD student, regardless of nationality. If/when this happens, more international students will likely be accepted each year. Indeed, a postdoc in my lab who attended Rockefeller University, which guarantees funding for its students, noted that half of the people in his PhD class were international students.

Update (5/16/2015): The advice above is unintentionally focused on countries that have sources of funding for students pursuing their PhDs abroad. This situation will only apply to a small minority of international students. If your country does not have these resources, it doesn't mean it's impossible for you to attend a school in the US. Dr. Egle Cekanaviciute wrote to me with some advice for you. She says: "it IS possible to get into a PhD program with full funding via a "random" stipend.... Such students better apply to a lot of grad schools (15-20+), preferably private/as rich as they can find (the likes of Lousiana State U are unlikely to be able to afford them), and hope that some school would just decide to pay them, just as Stanford did by giving SGF (Stanford Graduate Fellowship) to me."

Conclusion

So what is the best advice I can give you, Yan Shan?

  1. Get some research experience. Apply to work in a research lab. Work as a technician. Get a masters degree in a scientific field.
  2. Find a source of personal funding.
  3. Make personal connections to labs at Stanford University.
  4. Widen your search for graduate positions to other universities. Apply to a range (like college applications, think in terms of “safe” and “reach” schools). Tony comments that the bar for admission at Louisiana State University, while high, was not as stratospheric as Stanford’s. For instance, at LSU, first author publications were in no way necessary, while at Stanford, they serve as a metric for ownership of a research project.

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Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog