Frequently Asked Questions

Should I reach out to a PI beforehand? What are the benefits to doing so? How soon before applying should I reach out? Is it a bad sign if they don’t respond?

It is not necessary to contact PIs before submitting an application, but it can be helpful in terms of: 1) deciding if NGG will be a good fit for your interests, 2) writing your research statement, and 3) requesting PIs you would like to interview with. Students are admitted to NGG and not directly to specific labs, so choosing not to contact PIs will not harm your application.

The most common reason to contact a PI before applying is to ask if they will be accepting new rotation and/or graduate students. There is no obligation to rotate or join the lab of a PI that you email while preparing your application. If you do choose to email a PI, here is some guidance: 

  • Email early in the application process. PIs are busy so assume that it may take a few weeks to get a response. Sending emails earlier in the application season also gives you plenty of time to consider responses and how they might impact your application.

  • Keep it short and to the point. Introduce yourself, give specifics about why you are interested in their work, and list your questions. Emails are most likely to be answered if you demonstrate genuine interest and they are personalized for each PI.

  • If or when you hear back may vary. If you don’t get a response it is likely that your email just got lost in their inbox, so don’t be discouraged!

Is it okay to reach out to students?

Of course it is! It is not required, and reaching out to students does not influence the admissions decision to offer an interview or accept. However, students and alumni are great resources for learning about Philadelphia, Penn, NGG, a specific lab, and other opportunities that may not be on the website. 

Who can write my letter of recommendation (LoR)? Does it matter if my LoR is from someone not well known?
  • Letters of recommendation should come from professors (not postdocs or students) who can speak to your academic/research ability and potential. Ideally these letters will come from PIs of labs you have worked in, either in academia or industry.

  • Because most programs require multiple LORs, other letters will be needed. These letters could be from professors who collaborated with the lab on a project or participated in joint lab meetings with your lab. The most important consideration is that you feel that whomever you ask knows you and your work.

  • Letters from course directors should come from directors of upper-level courses in which you have had a chance to make a presentation or write a paper, and thus the recommender can address critical thinking skills.

  • Think about trying to get different perspectives from each letter writer (e.g., someone who can speak about you as a researcher, another person who can speak about you as a student, etc.). It is okay to be specific about what you want each person to talk about in their letter.

  • With a field as large and diverse as neuroscience, it is unlikely members of the admissions committee will be personally familiar with your letter writer. The best letter is personalized and attests to your specific strengths, so ask for LORs from people who know you well and are able to give you a strong recommendation. 

  • If you were mentored by a postdoc or student, you can ask them to work with your PI to make the letter more specific.

Does NGG accept students from liberal arts/smaller/less-known schools?

Absolutely! NGG prides itself on accepting students from a wide variety of backgrounds, institutions, and scientific disciplines. Successful applicants generally demonstrate intelligence, drive, and a genuine passion for neuroscience—all of which are traits that do not depend on the size or reputation of the applicant’s undergraduate institution. That being said, a good way to demonstrate passion for neuroscience is to show a track record of relevant research experience, so if your undergraduate education didn’t include a year or two of laboratory research (neuroscience or otherwise), it may be worth pursuing a postbaccalaureate research position before you apply.

Does NGG accept students who did not study neuroscience in college?

Yes! We have students who studied psychology, biology, microbiology, computer science, math,  and other non-neuroscience fields. Some NGG students never took a neuroscience course before they got to grad school. You can supplement the lack of a formal neuroscience education with research. 

What should go in my personal statement? My research essay?

NGG applications have two written components: a personal and a research statement. The personal statement is an opportunity to share your personal journey as a scientist and talk about what is motivating you to apply to a PhD program. The research statement is an opportunity to share the details of your research experience. Both are opportunities to highlight your interests and achievements. There is no one ‘right way’ to write either statement. For those looking for guidance, here is a fairly standard structure for each:

Personal Statement:

  1. Introduction/"hook"

    Provide a few sentences explaining why you are interested in pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience. 
  2. What were your most meaningful research experiences?

    You can save the nitty-gritty details of your projects for your research statement. Use your experiences here to create a story arc for yourself. How did your work experiences build on each other and inspire and convince you to pursue a PhD?
  3. What are you interested in doing next?

    This doesn’t have to be super specific. You can also use this space to describe both your short term goals for grad school and your long term career goals.
  4. Why Penn? 

    List some SPECIFIC reasons you think the program is a good fit and some specific faculty members you might be interested in working with. This information is not binding, it just shows that you have looked into the program and are not sending the same statement to every school.
  5. Finish with a few sentences summarizing your interest in NGG!

Research Essay:

  1. Introduction

    This section can be organized in several ways, depending on how you want to frame your research experiences. For example, you could start with a brief overview of how you started research, and then describe some or all of your experiences chronologically. Alternatively, you could start by describing the overall arc of your research experiences, and then cover the most meaningful experiences.
  2. Describe your research experiences! In general, follow the outline below. To emphasize your independence as a scientist, use “I” statements.
    • What is the question you were or are trying to answer with the work? Why is that question important?
    • What methods did you use to answer the question? 
    • What were the findings? What do those findings mean?
    • What comes next?
  3. The goal isn’t to describe ALL the research you’ve ever done. Instead, you should aim to to show that you can think and write clearly about your most important projects (and figuring out which projects are ‘most important’ is part of the challenge). Quality over quantity! Try to highlight your independent contributions.

For more information on what to put in your statements, go to the NGG LIVE! Slides under the admissions tab.

What is NGG Live and why is it worth my time?

NGG Live was a 2019 informational seminar organized by NGG leadership, including the Program Chair, the Directors of Admission, and the Program Coordinators. The seminar was specifically designed to answer common questions about grad school and the grad school application process, and it was also recorded so that future applicants could watch it at their leisure. Watching the recording--or specific segments of the recording--could be worth your time because doing so allows you to hear answers to important application questions straight from the people who will actually be reading and reviewing your application. Curious about what the Directors of Admission look for in an applicant, or what they think is important to include in a personal statement? NGG Live has those answers, and you can watch the videos here.

What honors and achievements can I put on my CV?

Most college-level presentations and achievements should be included, and you can consider including high school honors that you are particularly proud of. Examples of what you can include (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Capstone project

  • Chalk talk

  • Symposium

  • Summer internship presentation

  • Conference poster presentations and co-authorships

  • Publications 

  • Departmental honors and awards

  • Honor society memberships

  • Service to the community including activities dedicated to bringing science to the public or engaging younger students in science activities

Please make sure that your research experiences are listed on your CV. It is useful to include the name of the PI(s), institution, location, length of time in the lab, and short summary of what the applicant did there that focuses more on scientific projects/questions than on techniques. For more information on what to and not to put on your CV, go to the NGG LIVE! Slides under the admissions tab.