Programs.

Discussion in 'Education and Employment' started by neurobadger, Jan 24, 2011.

  1. neurobadger

    neurobadger Vampyroteuthis Registered

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    So I'm looking at a few places - advisors rather than programs - and I'm wondering if I should expand the list much and if there might be any problems.

    I'd like to study cephalopod brains in some fashion for grad school.

    Places I'm thinking of so far:

    Stanford
    UC Berkeley
    MBL (Brown)
    Chicago (possibly)

    These are, honestly, the only American places I can dig up that have PhD programs in biology and have someone doing stuff with cephalopods or allows study of cephalopod brains. The only other place I can think of, Millersville, is a dinky 4-year private college in Pennsylvania with no PhD program, and if it had one, I suspect it would have no real reputation.

    I can think of Dalhousie and Lethbridge in Canada and the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, but I have to be honest - I'm skeptical about the impact on my career if I go to a non-American university (sounds USA-biased, I know, but it's not harder to get hired abroad with an American degree, as far as I know, and it's harder to get hired in America if you're an American who has a PhD from anywhere outside of America but Oxford and Cambridge or some other well-known and highly prestigious universities), though I'm not planning to stay in the US after I finish my PhD, or at most my postdoc.

    Who else is doing this stuff in a place that won't ultimately make me regret going to that institution?

    If these are going to make my grad school search unnecessarily restricted, I also need a little advice on how to find an advisor who might let me do a project that they're not already working on with cephalopods, or even how to find a project that's somewhat tangentially related.

    I have about a year to gather all this information.
     
  2. robyn

    robyn Vampyroteuthis Supporter

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    So, a few questions to help get a better idea of what you want to do:

    What is the area of neuroscience in which you most interested? "Cephalopod brains' is very broad in some respects (there are an awful lot of ways you can study the brain), and very narrow in others (cephalopods and even molluscs in general are not major model animals these days, and specialising in a very oddly put-together nervous system so early in your career might not be a great plan).

    Have you considered looking for a general neuroscience program that has faculty strong in the particular area of neurobiology you want to focus on in cephalopods, even if there are no ceph people there? I think this might make more sense for a couple of reasons - generally 'skills' are harder to learn and more important than 'preparations' - skills are pretty easy to transfer from one animal to another, so if you learn to patch rat neurons you can most likely learn to do it fish or cephalopods without too much trouble. But being great at electrophysiology doesn't mean you can easily adapt those skills to surgery or DNA sequencing or any other technique. Being a grad student is about training yourself to be a scientist, your project is just a way of measuring your success at that. If you focus on 'where can I get the best training to be able to succeed on my own, in my own area?', you might be able to look at your prospective choices in a different way to help you decide.

    If you are going to a do a neuroscience PhD, you need to accept that most jobs are in biomedical fields and at research institutions focussed on biomedical problems. Even if you want ultimately to make a career out of cephalopod neuroscience, you should make sure you're employable in your early post-PhD stages where you can gain more practical skills and expand your experimental techniques. Being willing to work on, and having experience with, the standard neuroscience models (rats, mice, flies, worms, etc.) will make your employment prospects much better. Few of the cephalopod labs in the US do a whole lot of cellular or molecular neuroscience, most focus on behaviour, ecology, physiology or systematics.

    Other thoughts - In my experience neuroscientists with non-US PhDs tend to be judged exactly the same as neuroscientists with US PhDs - publications, letters or recommendation from your colleagues and grant funding matter far more in employment decisions than which college gave you your degree. Broadening your horizons beyond the US is unlikely to be to your detriment.

    And lastly, cephalopod research is a pretty small world, so disparaging other researchers or the quality of the institutions in which they conduct their research is unlikely to win you many friends. Diplomacy is a very useful skill for negotiating graduate school admission and the scientific field.

    Good luck with the search. Picking your graduate school is exciting! But it's not the sole determinant of your future.
     
  3. tonmo

    tonmo Titanites Staff Member Webmaster Moderator

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    Just want to jump on to say - :thumbsup: helpful response Robyn, thanks!
     
  4. neurobadger

    neurobadger Vampyroteuthis Registered

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    Well, my research interests as I've tended to explain them a little more fully (I apologize for the inadequate description) revolve around the neuroscience and genetics of higher-level behaviors such as cognition, and I have a special interest in the comparative neurobiology and neurogenetics of cephalopods as a comparative model to the vertebrate brain.

    It strikes me as a rather underappreciated area of research considering what I know has been published on the potential value of studying it (I think JZ Young, Bernd Budelmann, Graziano Fiorito, and Binyamin Hochner, among others, have published articles saying this at one time or another).

    I could possibly do this, but the problem there then becomes 'will they admit me if I tell them what my actual interest is, or will I have to fudge it on the application?'.

    It's good to have another data point on this; it seems to be difficult to really get a handle on how the politics of this plays out in institutions in general. Were these neuroscientists from the US and in a US institution?
     
  5. robyn

    robyn Vampyroteuthis Supporter

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    So it sounds like your research interest is pretty specific, and as you say, it's an underappreciated area. Given that, you are probably not likely to find a lab or an advisor whose work fits closely with your interests initially. I don't think you would be harming your chances by making it clear in applications or in initial discussions with potential advisors that your interests are in cephalopods, even if their lab is working on something different. Just be careful to express a genuine interest and engagement in what they do work on, and you can use it to your advantage. No one wants their students to become their direct competitors, and most want to see good PhD students branching out into their own niches.

    Regarding foreign vs US PhDs - I work at a giant medical center with numerous research hospitals and universities on site. In my department's recent hiring spate, nearly everyone granted an interview was either foreign-born or foreign-trained. The US-trained applicants had either a very famous advisor or post-doctoral PI. This tells me that the perceived value of foreign training may actually be higher than domestic, as to compete the US-trained applicants were probably benefiting, at least partially, from networks. Not to say that they weren't equally as good, but there certainly did not appear to be any bias against non-US training.

    If you were going to medical school, where a US grad trained overseas might be seen as being driven there because they couldn't be placed inside the US, maybe a non-US degree would be less favoured. But in basic research there is more understanding that the reason for going outside the US is probably because the lab you chose was the best for your interests. Each lab is unique, so you find the best fit for you. For a medical degree or other graduate program where the training is basically exactly the same up to graduation, going outside your own country is more likely to raise questions.

    I hope some others will jump in here with their own advice - I am stating here my own opinions based on my own experiences. I am a foreign-trained undergrad with a US PhD from a small graduate program (chosen for my advisor, not the school), now at a large US research facility. Being a non-US undergrad from an excellent university (Univ. Melbourne, Aus) was far more help than hindrance. As for the PhD being from a less-highly regarded graduate program, it didn't impact my job search at all. Potential employers hire a person, not a piece of paper, and I think most of them would be impressed by a student who showed enough drive to leave their home country to be trained in the best possible program for their interests.
     
  6. neurobadger

    neurobadger Vampyroteuthis Registered

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    I've got a handful of labs at this stage that I'd like to apply to - a mixture of domestic and foreign (one of the big issues, also, is funding. Robyn, how did you scrape up funds? If I remember correctly, foreign students often have to bring in their own funding) - and I suppose I'm trying, also, to figure out what other labs out there might not be working on cephalopods, but might have excellent applicability in terms of techniques or methods to the cephalopod research I want to do.

    There are, of course, a bazillion labs out there that probably have some sort of applicability, so that's a huge search in itself.
     
  7. hallucigenia

    hallucigenia O. bimaculoides Supporter

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    Well, John Allman's lab at Caltech works mostly with primates, but I know he's big on comparative neuroscience and on social cognition, if you're into that kind of thing...
     
  8. perke

    perke O. bimaculoides Registered

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    Robyn is right it's about the person and their research not the school, although I'd also say who your supervisor is can be quite a good stepping stone for some people. As robyn also said it is a small world in cephalopod biology
    I'm currently in the UK doing a phd and my qualifications were from New Zealand so again an example of it not mattering where exactly you got your qualifications from.

    Graziano Fiorito is doing some amazing stuff down in naples I would highly recommend taking a look, there is especially a lot of cognitive work going on down there at the moment. A new eu directive is likely to come in in the next 2 years in europe which will change how we do things over here but possibly in the lead up have funding attached to research projects. If by any chance you can (although very short notice and a lot of money) you could attend euroceph 2011 which has a lot of people who would possibly have phd's in the pipeline.
     

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