Tuesday, February 5, 2013

DrugMonkey on grad school interviews

Got any interviews coming up? Do you have good answers for the questions posed in this thread over at DrugMonkey?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Poor ol' blog

Hello, readers (if I even have any, these days)... it's been a while.

As you may have noticed, I don't update this blog anymore. But I do still receive blog-related emails regularly, especially from folks who are applying to graduate school, so I think it's important to preserve these posts for future generations of applicants. I'm also always happy to provide a little e-mentoring to folks who read my blog and have questions. (If the question and answer seem of general interest, I might post them here!)

This past year I had the honor of representing Emory's Graduate Program in Neuroscience at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans, which held its first ever graduate school fair. That experience was totally fun and I loved talking with all the prospective students. I'd love to do it again next year -- I think I convinced at least a couple of people to apply. This week, the first wave of interviewees will be descending on Emory's campus, and I look forward to having pizza with them on Thursday.

If you're wondering what I'm up to lately: mostly, trying to get my experiments done so I can graduate. I'm in my 5th year now! I will definitely be here for some or all of my 6th year, but I'd like to avoid a 7th. In other news, I recently gave a flash talk about innovative teaching methods for the interdisciplinary "Eat. Talk. Teach. Run." program (link includes a photo of me and my rapt audience -- alas, I did not win the prize).

I also am somewhat active on Twitter (@lauramariani), so follow me there if you'd like more tweet-sized updates about my life in the lab.

I hope 2013 treats you well, and good luck to everyone currently applying/interviewing for PhD programs!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Applying to Graduate School - Contacting Professors

When I first started this blog, I wrote some posts about the graduate school application process that are indexed here. Optimistically, I left space for more posts to be written in the future, including one about contacting potential faculty advisers. Ah, to be a first year student again, with so much time for blogging!

Obviously, my grad school application guide has been languishing for a while. But I recently received emails from two different neuroscience graduate school applicants who had questions about contacting faculty at their prospective schools, so I guess it's about time to write this post.

In general, I think it's good to contact faculty before submitting your graduate school applications. This is especially true if you're applying to a program based on the strength of one or two labs -- if those labs aren't taking new students, you might not want to spend the time and fees on that school. I recommend writing to faculty even if you're not committed to a particular lab, though. If you make a good impression via email or phone conversations with a professor, you are more likely to get invited for an interview.

Read on for tips about how to reach out to faculty at potential graduate programs.

Whom Should I Contact?

Most people apply to multiple graduate programs, and I strongly recommend identifying multiple faculty of interest at each school where you plan to apply. That adds up to lots of potential advisers. You don't need to email all of them! Resist the urge to write a form letter and send it out en masse. Professors are smart; they can tell whether you put thought into your message. Plus, they talk to each other, and if they all get identical emails from the same student, they will realize that you're just spamming the entire department.

My advice is to contact professors if you feel like you actually have something to discuss with them. If your previous research experience is similar to their lab's focus, you should be able to have a scholarly conversation about their work. If you're less experienced, but really enthusiastic about their lab, you should be able to convey your reasons for feeling that way. If you're not planning to work in their subfield, but you have a networking reason for contacting them (maybe they collaborate with one of your undergraduate advisers, or you met them at a conference one time, or...), you should be able to remind them of who you are and how you're connected. Don't write to someone if you have nothing to say beyond "I'm applying to the graduate program at [University X] and I really, really want to get in!"

What Should I Say?

Once you've decided to contact a professor at your prospective graduate program, it can be intimidating to craft that initial email. You don't need to sweat it as much as an application essay, but it is important to make a good first impression. I recommend following these guidelines:

1. Be clear and concise. Professors are busy people who receive a ton of email. You want them to be able to read, comprehend, and respond to your message as quickly and easily as possible. Keep your first message down to a few short paragraphs.

2. Identify yourself. As I said above, professors get a ton of email. Make sure they know who you are and why you're writing to them. Give your email an informative subject line and state that you're applying to their graduate program at the beginning of your message. This distinguishes you from undergrads taking their lecture course, collaborators asking for reagents, random eccentrics who stumbled upon the lab website, and any number of other people who might send unsolicited emails.

3. Ask questions. You want to give your potential adviser a reason to respond to you. If you're interested in joining their lab, let them know, and ask whether they have room for new graduate students. If you're interested in learning more about their research, ask specific questions that can be answered in a few sentences (something like, "Can you explain why you used the tail suspension test instead of the forced swim test in your most recent J. Neurosci. paper?" and not something like, "Can you tell me more about your research?"). On the other hand, don't make up a question just for the sake of asking a question -- as I recommended above, you should only be contacting professors if you actually have something to talk about.

4. Be available and accommodating. You're asking this person for a favor; make it easy for them to help you out. It's nice to offer to continue the conversation by phone if they'd prefer that to email, and to offer to send them additional information about you (CV, transcripts, etc.) if they'd like to learn more about your background.

5. Proofread! Run spellcheck. Avoid text-esque abbreviations and emoticons. If you're worried about your writing, ask a friend to read over your message before you send it. In general, you want to come off as intelligent and thoughtful, so try to avoid glaring errors. This isn't as formal as an application essay, but you should still put some effort into it.


Back in 2007 when I was applying to graduate schools, I wrote the following message to a potential faculty adviser. I would do it differently now, but I wanted to give you a real example, and also to show that even though this email was far from brilliant (marvel at my complete ignorance of neuroendocrinology!), it got a positive response. The professor in question later chatted with me on the phone, and I ended up receiving an offer of admission from this program (although I can't say for sure that my conversation with her had anything to do with it!).

To: [Prof of Interest]
From: Laura Mariani
Subject: Prospective graduate student

Dear [Prof of Interest],

I'm applying to the PhD program in neuroscience at [University] for fall 2008. When I read the research profiles of [University] faculty, I was drawn to your work. I have long been interested in neuroscience, but your research on how the brain interacts with the reproductive system strikes me as a new way to approach the subject, studying more of the whole animal rather than restricting the focus to the brain. My research experience is primarily in cellular/developmental neuroscience, studying mouse models of the developmental disorders Rett syndrome and tuberous sclerosis, but I hope to explore other aspects of neuroscience in graduate school.

I am writing to ask if you are currently accepting new graduate students. If so, I would love to hear more about your work (the [author names] paper listed as being in press on your CV sounded particularly interesting). I would also be happy to tell you more about myself and my background.

Thanks for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon!


If I had to do it again today, here's what I would write:

To: [Prof of Interest]
From: Laura Mariani
Subject: Prospective graduate student

Dear [Prof of Interest],

I'm applying to the PhD program in neuroscience at [University] for fall 2008, and I'm especially interested in your lab. My previous research experience is in mouse models of neurodevelopmental disorders (Rett syndrome and tuberous sclerosis), but I am also interested in neuroendocrinology.

I would like to learn more about your work, particularly your recent paper on [hormone stuff]. My experience working with [developmental stuff] taught me [something relevant to endocrinology], so I am especially intrigued by the connections between the endocrine system and neural development. Is this something that I could explore in a rotation with your lab? Are you currently accepting new graduate students?

If you have the time, I would love to discuss this with you by email or by phone (you can reach me at [number]). I am also happy to tell you more about myself and my background, and can provide copies of my CV and transcripts upon request.

Thanks for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon!


The revised version doesn't sound as warm and fuzzy because I tried to eliminate "filler" text. It also makes some intelligent connections between my own background and her research. Of course, back in 2007 I didn't know enough to make those kinds of connections -- I've actually learned a few things in grad school! Still, I think it's best to have something specific to talk about, and asking a question about possible rotation projects makes for a better conversation starter than "I would love to hear more about the stuff in this paper."

Both emails are short, focused, and give the professor an easy question to answer in her reply. They also make it clear that I put some thought into the message before sending it, because I comment specifically upon her research program and how it relates to my own interests.

Of course, neither of these examples is a perfect template, and you should let your own interests and priorities shape your interactions with a potential adviser. Even so, I hope that this post makes the process of writing that first email a bit less overwhelming.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Sick Papes

I have seen the future of science blogging, and it is called Sick Papes.

100% pure gold, guys. Science gold AND comedy gold. The only thing better than seeing a new Sick Papes post on Google Reader is reading Sick Papes posts out loud.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


I'm in the Washington Convention Center right now! No time to write a blog post (who knows when there will be...?!) but I'm tweeting up a storm, which is unusual for me but has been fun so far. Stay strong, laptop battery!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

More nerdy podcasts for you!

Way back in 2009, I wrote a post about my favorite science podcasts. Since then I spend less time on the cryostat, so my listening habits have changed. But I still love a good radio story, so I thought I'd share an updated list with you.

Radiolab: Probably everyone already knows about Radiolab. If you're not already listening, you should. It takes a while to get used to the unorthodox audio production style, but I think it's worth sticking it out even if you're initially annoyed by it. The episode entitled Limits of Science was a particular favorite of mine, but they're all pretty interesting. And Jad Abumrad won a MacArthur this year for his work on the show!

The Story Collider: This is my newest discovery, so I haven't listened to that many episodes yet, but it seems promising. It's basically The Moth for science-themed stories. (And if you're not already listening to The Moth, you should be. Certain Moth stories have reduced me to tears on the shuttle bus, they're so powerful.)

Planet Money: OK, this one isn't technically about science. But as a scientist, I find that I often get a "Tell me something I don't know!" kind of attitude when I'm listening to popular science stories. Planet Money takes topics that I don't know much about (economics / finance) and explains them really well. I always come away feeling like I've learned something, even if I don't necessarily agree with their analysis. They work closely with the best radio show ever, aka This American Life. And their blog is fun, too.

Just for fun...

In the run-up to SfN, things are getting pretty stressful. I'm frantically trying to get those last tidbits of data together for my poster. I'm preparing myself for the onslaught of massive amounts of neuroscience. And, I'm beefing up my immune system with a flu shot (scientists aren't invulnerable to Con Crud!).

During this hectic time, it's nice to have a labmate who is willing to inject some whimsy into the most tedious experiments. We're currently immortalizing mouse embryonic fibroblast cells. These are skin cells taken from mouse embryos that we use for a lot of different cell culture based experiments in our lab. The problem is, primary cells (i.e., cells harvested from a donor animal) don't keep growing forever, so eventually you have to go back and collect more from new mice. In "immortalizing" the cells, we're selecting for cancer-like cells that will keep on dividing and dividing and dividing indefinitely, making our lives easier and requiring the use of fewer mouse embryos in the future.

So, naturally, my labmate and I gave this experiment a Mortal Kombat theme, and named each dish of cells after a different character from the video game. Which line of cells will be the champion?!


I'm personally rooting for Goro. Look at that dude! Talk about an interesting model system.