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Applying to Neuroscience PhD without Neuroscience background


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Hi All,

I am interested in pursuing a career as a neuroscience researcher. I'm really interested in the molecular and cellular mechanisms of mental diseases and recovery. This interest is rather new and comes after working three years in industry as a material science research & development engineer. My educational background is in chemical engineering with a good GPA and research experience. I feel comfortable with my chemistry base but I lack biological education that I'm afraid will hurt me in the application process. I plan to take two courses in introductory biology and two courses in advanced biology online before applying. Other than that, does anyone have any advice or recommendation for applying to a neuroscience program without a traditional background?

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My background is not in neuroscience, so I can't help you with that. But I have been in the same situation as you (moved from engineering background to human-centered computing) and know many other who have done something similar (maths to information science, computer science to finance, etc.). 
So just make sure that when you prepare your statement, highlight the factors that motivated you to choose this field, what prepares you for the field, what are the gaps that you see in terms of your skills, and you have filled them up/plan to fill them up. 

From what you have written, it seems like you have all of this in mind, so just remember to also highlight this in your statement. I am pretty sure many people do a switch similar to what you have described, and it's a matter of convincing everyone else that you know what you are saying, and understand what you are getting yourself into. 

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Do you know anyone who studies neuroscience? I think they should be able to provide you a more specific answer. There's also no shame in just asking a suitable person at the universities were you intend to would apply, they could give you more proper guidance on this matter.

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My background is in chemistry (experience in analytical and material), had no neuro experience and am currently a 3rd year neuro PhD candidate (accepted into 3 biomed sci phd programs). It will be very difficult, but it is absolutely possible. I wasnt as proactive as you in taking extra courses, so you just might have a better time transitioning than I did. Just make sure youre comfortable with the possibility of failure and know how to ask for help as soon as you need it. I was personally very transparent about my lack of background during the application process and all throughout the interviews. I think they were impressed with my scientific communication, ability to understand concepts that are not in my field, and general passion for neuro related questions. Chemistry itself wont help much (definitely hasnt helped me), but I've found that engineers are praised in my department. Whoever you interview with should recognize that you wont have any problem understanding how a neuron works because it is basically an electrical circuit. 

Overall, I would say don't worry about it. Be honest, be strong in what you want, and don't let your resolve waiver when its challenged. Do not show/express any amount of uncertainty in your application or interviews.

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Ph.D. student in Biology-Neuroscience Concentration here.

First, if you are interested in applying to Neuroscience graduate programs, it's good that you have a solid technical background with a degree in chemical engineering. Scientists in biology/neuroscience highly value technical skills and aptitude, especially when quantitative and analytical methods are critical in lab work nowadays. Potential principal investigators would deem your background favorable.

Second, I wonder if you have any experience in neuroscience research, or am planning to either start an internship or a research assistant position in a neuroscience lab. I think it's common knowledge that before entering a Ph.D. program in a specific field, it's important to gain some hands-on experience in the field. (M.S. would be generally slightly different because their selection is not as competitive as Ph.D.). Also, I think it'd be good to have at least one recommendation letter from a neuroscientist who can attest to your abilities and potential as a researcher.

So, in conclusion, it seems like it'd be good for you to apply to work in a neuroscience lab first and gain some hands-on experience before applying for Ph.D. programs. If you'd be interested in start applying later this year, it'd be good to start working in a lab pretty soon so that you can at least gain several months worth of experience. I'd say that in your case, applying next year or so might be more realistic. Also, I'll say that taking online classes might help but would not be sufficient in building up a strong application.

I also recommend emailing professors/researchers whose reearch interests align with yours and asking them for a video conference call to talk about your future plans, what sorts of graduate students they are looking for, etc. It'd be also good to ask whether they are looking for a research assistant, lab manager, or a lab technician in their labs, so that you can possibly fill a role.

Edited by Ignatius
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@Ignatius Since this post I have taken on a volunteer research role at a local university in a neuroscience lab. I am doing ~10 hours a week in addition to my full time engineering job. My plan was to volunteer part time atleast through the end of 2020, then possibly seek out a research assistantship if all goes well and I like it. Do you think volunteer (6 months) + RA (6 months) would be enough experience to be competitive in the application process? Or do programs typically look for more experience? Right now I plan to apply in the fall of 2021 for enrollement in 2022.

Also, are there good opportunities for neuroscientists wishing to study the neurobiology of mental illnesses? I read that private industry is not really investing in this area but there seems to be support through govt funding.

Edited by drm1
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On 3/15/2020 at 2:04 AM, daromi said:

@Ignatius Since this post I have taken on a volunteer research role at a local university in a neuroscience lab. I am doing ~10 hours a week in addition to my full time engineering job. My plan was to volunteer part time atleast through the end of 2020, then possibly seek out a research assistantship if all goes well and I like it. Do you think volunteer (6 months) + RA (6 months) would be enough experience to be competitive in the application process? Or do programs typically look for more experience? Right now I plan to apply in the fall of 2021 for enrollement in 2022.

Can I ask you if you've researched out to potential professors/researchers you want to work with? It might be better to talk to them through virtual meetings etc to get better answers that suit your interests and background. Pick out some of the recent journal papers you've read in topics you'd like to pursue and contact some of the authors there. 

Generally, I'd say 12 months of volunteering + RA would be okay, but the amount of time you spend in research is only one the factors in your application. For instance, by the time you're applying to different programs, would you have made good and worthwhile contributions to the lab(s) you've been in? Would you have built up a good relationship with your PI who can write a good recommendation letter for you? Do you know enough about the work of potential advisors you'd be apply to work with, etc?

On 3/15/2020 at 2:04 AM, daromi said:

Also, are there good opportunities for neuroscientists wishing to study the neurobiology of mental illnesses? I read that private industry is not really investing in this area but there seems to be support through govt funding.

I can't speak about the opportunities in general terms. This would be another topic to talk with some of your labmates or PI. For the most part, private industry does not invest heavily in basic science. 

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