Cogcast #2: Applying to grad school - an interview with Rachel Buckser


20 October 2016

by Ming-Ray Liao, Cognitive Science undergraduate student

Graduate school applications are a sincere source of anxiety that seems to exacerbate the closer it gets to the December deadline. As a student thinking about graduate school myself, the application process seems extremely daunting. Fortunately, the Cognitive Science Student Association have organized a Graduate School Application Panel to alleviate some of our worries. The panels that will be in attendance are:

Pamela Riviere (1st year, neuro)
Reina Mizrahi (2nd year, psych/behavior)
Tricia Ngoon (2nd year, design/HCI)
Eric Leonardis (3rd year, neuro)
Tom Donoghue (3rd year, neuro)
Rachel Bristol (3rd year, language/behavior)
Conor Frye (5th year, psych/behavior)

However, I wanted to conduct an interview with a graduate student prior to the event to get some of my queries answered, help formulate more profound questions as well as getting another perspective. Rachel Buckser is a 1st year Ph.D student who I’m currently working with in the Cognitive Neuroscience Lab interested in the perception of biological motion and how that helps us understand people. She did her undergraduate in Purdue University studying Brain and Behavioral Sciences and worked in labs for a year before joining UCSD this fall. Rachel provided various insights and opinions into not only the graduate school application, but life as a graduate student, a side we undergrads rarely see in our TAs.

This is my first podcast interview and it involved a lot more work than I initially thought. With that knowledge, I am certain that the interviews I conduct in the future will be a lot more streamlined and just better overall. Without further ado, enjoy!

Listen to the Cogcast here

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Ming-Ray: Hi my name is Ming-Ray Liao and this is the Cog Sci podcast and here with me today I have a guest from the Cog Sci department. Why don’t you introduce yourself.

Rachel: Hey I’m Rachel Buckser I’m a first year Ph.D student here in the Cognitive Science department.

Ming-Ray: Would you like to talk a little a bit more about research and where you came from?

Rachel: Sure. So I did my undergraduate degree at Purdue University in Brain and Behavioral Sciences. While here, I’m really interested in studying how the way we perceive other people move helps us understand them. I did a little bit of that in my undergrad, mostly I just worked on learning how to do research and I made some great contacts who told me I should apply here. Purdue is a great place to study and the professors I met there really got me ready to come here.

Ming-Ray: The purpose of this podcast interview was to act as a preface for the CogSci Grad Panel on Thursday. So that’s going to be the theme of the podcast, so I’m going to mostly ask questions about your opinions, perspectives, experiences with grad school applications. And so before I get into the more specific questions, can you just briefly run through when you decided that you’re going to apply for grad school.

Rachel: I actually started my undergraduate career as an English major. Thought I was going to be a novelist but that did not pan out. I started studying psychology and it grabbed me right away. When I started working in a lab with a professor I really liked I realized that it was a career that I really wanted and that research was a fantastic thing to do. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to apply to a Ph.D program and I actually didn’t apply while I was in undergraduate. I took a year off and worked and I applied while I was working. So I tried to get some experience because I felt like my application wouldn’t be strong enough coming right out of undergrad.

Ming-Ray: I guess this kind of leads up to my question of applying straight to grad school or taking time off? I know a lot of people do recommend taking some time off to actually figure out where you want to go in life first before committing yourself to a five year long program and so…

Rachel: Well, there’s a couple reasons I think to take time off. One is yeah to figure out what you want to do because just because the work of the program itself applications are actually a huge financial investments and a huge time investment and if you end up not going to Grad School that’s a humongous waste of time and a lot of money. So there’s that. If you don’t want to do research you shouldn’t waste your time applying. I also think taking time off is helpful to strengthen your CV. If you didn’t do any research in your undergraduate career it’s actually going to be very hard to get into a Ph.D program especially in cognitive science or psychology because researcher is a huge part of it. In fact, a lot of programs will look really favorable at people if they have a first author paper. So if you don’t have anything like that going on in your past, I think that’s where it was helpful for me to work in research for a year. Another thing that people do is get a masters before they apply to a Ph.D program which gets some of your coursework out of the way, and also helps you narrow down your research interests. I think that’s all really helpful and coming right out of undergrad, I think you can often be exhausted and not know exactly where you want to go. So I’d recommend taking at least a little time off. Although I’d say that I took so much time off that I got really bored and I was really glad when I came back to school...like now I have something to do everyday.

Ming-Ray: Especially with the first 2 years of Ph.D which I’ve heard are the most strenuous.

Rachel: It’s really intense. We read like....Last week I read like 100 pages for class...just of papers. And I also wrote a paper and I read a bunch of papers for just narrowing down my research questions for a lab rotations and I’m always working 100% of the time. I read papers on the bus and before bed...it’s intense.

Ming-Ray: It must be refreshing if you’ve gone that long - a year or so - without doing much work.

Rachel: Yeah I was working part time in one lab and I was working part time in another lab for free but I still wasn’t occupied very much and it varies depending on where you work and what you decide to do if you take time off. But I really had so much free time that I actually got kinda understimulated. It’s nice to have something to do everyday but I am very tired.

Ming-Ray: So just to backtrack a bit and talk more about the actual application process itself. I want to ask how you got about getting your letters of rec, because those are...as an undergrad myself possibly thinking about applying to grad school it’s a weird thing to ask for.

Rachel: I got mine from professors that I knew really well. The best thing you can do to get letters of recommendation is while you’re an undergrad, form relationships with professors you like. You have to actually take the time to get to know them. Go to meet with them regularly and see if...even if they just want to talk to you about grad school, that can usually help you form a relationship with them before you ask for a letter of recommendation. Because it’s true if you go up to a random professor and say I’ve had a couple of classes with you, will you write me a letter, it’s not going to be a very strong letter that’s really helpful. So yeah if your professors know who you are outside of class, it’s actually pretty easy to get a letter of recommendation.

Ming-Ray: My next question is on the actual application. How long did it take you to finish the entire application for 1 school.

Rachel: A month. You need to write an essay so you need to start planning out your essay...The essay takes way longer than you might think to write it well. There’s a statement of purpose and statement of research interest. You also have to know for a lot of schools before you apply, you have to know which professors you want to work with. You have to do some research and figure out how your interests fit in with their interests and a lot of times they’ll ask you to list that. I think the actual application, like filling it out took me a couple of hours, but the process of getting all the materials took like a month. And you also have to order your transcripts that takes a while. Don’t underestimate how long it takes.

Ming-Ray: So a more personal to you. How many grad school applications did you send out? And did they each take that long?

Rachel: 9 and I did them concurrently, but they all took a long time. Because you have to write a good statement of purpose and you have to make sure that what you're putting into your application lines up with the research interests of people you want to work with at that school which really takes a lot of effort. And there’s a lot of paperwork stuff like making sure your recommenders all get their letters in on time. And sometimes you have to talk to them, poke them and ask hey did you remember to submit that? One of my recommenders also wanted me to make him a packet with my CV and a bunch of stuff I’ve written so that took a while so yeah, it took me a couple of months to get it all together. I filled out all the applications at once in a couple of days which I do not recommend.

Ming-Ray: This question now is more pertinent to being in grad school. How did you find that transition? I know you went from not being in school to going back to school so first of all, how was that?

Rachel: It was kind of abrupt I guess? Here in this program at least they hit you in the face right away with a bunch of information about...not just about the program but also about the research that all the faculty do and all the things that you need to know to being a good cognitive scientist and it was incredibly intimidating. But once classes and work actually started the curve was not as punishing...like it was easier to get going than I thought it would be. We did a bootcamp here the first week and it was really tiring and really intimidating. But everyone in my cohort is actually great so that helped a lot. We’re all friends so that’s cool.

Ming-Ray: So tell me more about the bootcamp because that’s something I didn’t know about.

Rachel: Yeah so basically for about 8 hours a day, you sit in a conference room and faculty basically make presentations either about their research or the classes they teach or about some things that are helpful to know for graduate school like writing grants or teaching...working with researchers, working with undergrads. And we also had representatives from CAPS and academic integrity and we had a talk about how to do ethical research. And then there’s TA training and also grad orientation that they fit in but most of it you just sit and listen to faculty tell you what they do.

Ming-Ray: So tons of lectures?

Rachel: Yeah tons of lectures and it is a lot to take in. It’s a lot of dense information really quickly. And actually, it turned out that...actually taking it all in and recording it was less intense that I thought. The boot camp made me think the program was way more intense and terrifying than it actually was.

Ming-Ray: I’d like to ask you more about lab rotations, is it just within the Cog Sci department?

Rachel: You can rotate with people outside of Cog Sci but you’d have to petition to work with a specific professor. So if you wanted to work outside of Cog Sci you definitely can but your advisor has to be in Cog Sci.

Ming-Ray: So the majority of the time it's within your first year?

Rachel: Yeah you should have them finished probably by the end of your second year. But you can do 1 quarter with 3 professors or you can do 1 quarter with 1 professor and alternate but you have to do at least 3 basically.

Ming-Ray: So that’s the questions I have for the application process and getting acquainted with Grad School. You mentioned that you used to be or were thinking about an English major. Could you possibly talk more about that?

Rachel: My parents were both academics and they came from a strong liberal arts background so I never got much exposure to science at home and then I got high school I was sort of a drama geek and then I went to college I wanted to do something creative and artistic but then I found out that I didn’t really like the English program. I didn’t like the subjective stuff, reading and reading and never getting a concrete answer to anything. I took a psychology class and it was really exciting. As soon as I took it I became really, really interested and I’ve never experienced that before. I never experienced this...click in your head. That’s awesome.

Ming-Ray: But those skills of reading and reading and reading a lot, that’s probably very transferable

Rachel: Reading a large volume is definitely a skill that you need, but you also need to be able to...I guess you have to do this for English - to read with a really critical eye and….take in the main points pretty quickly and decide what you think about their conclusions and what you can say about their conclusions based on your own experiences so it’s not just about reading a lot, it’s also about comprehension and critique, which is very important. As an undergrad I often thought we read papers for comprehension and then we talked about them but we were never really asked what’s wrong with this, what would you do differently and that’s actually really important in grad school. You have to know what’s wrong with it as well as what you like about it.

Ming-Ray: Well this concludes the interview. Do you have anything else to say. Parting remarks?

Rachel: I love grad school, it’s amazing, but you definitely should not apply or go for a Ph.D program if you’re not sure you want to because it’s hard and it’s expensive and you do not get paid a lot of money. But if you love research you should go.

Ming-Ray: Than you so much for this.

Rachel: You're welcome!