Wednesday, June 24, 2020

how (not) to apply to a phD program in psychology / neuroscience (to work on consciousness)?

it’s that time of the year again. students are starting to think about applying for grad school. over the years i find myself giving some of the same advice to people, and thought i might as well write them down for open sharing. this is mostly from a US perspective, but some of these apply elsewhere too

(why) should one go to grad school?

it shouldn’t be like this, and it is on people like me to fix the system asap … BUT the current reality is grad school pays people very little (~US$30k a year, varies from places to places), and does not offer very good career opportunities after. in the old days, if you’re in a good phD program, chances are you’ll become a professor one day, if you work hard towards that goal. professors aren’t paid super well either, but pay isn’t everything. we have extremely rewarding and meaningful jobs; tenure is a nice guarantee of security & freedom, and an undeniable privilege.

but the old days are gone. you should look up the phD -to-tenure-track (faculty position) ratio yourself. it doesn’t look so good. they say with a phD there are also non-academic career opportunities. that’s correct. but many people also have doubts about whether the years of training are really worth it. again, it is on people like myself to make sure we equip trainees with more transferable skills. but one thing to consider is the sheer opportunity cost of being in grad school for a good half a decade. it can be fun, but it can also be stressful. but above all, you will not be getting the industry training and wages during those years. you get to have your phD, but in sense, you’ll also be missing a head start, if industry is ultimately your destiny. a few years’ head start during the prime of your years is a lot.

the issue is complicated and i don’t draw any firm conclusions here. you have to figure it out yourself. i’m only suggesting you think this through carefully. ask people for advice, but understand too that there may be a bias: if they are already successful in academia there may be a sampling bias re: how good their experiences have been. or even if they aren’t having such a good time, there’s a psychological factor that people tend to avoid being too discouraging and negative. especially if they feel it is their jobs to defend and to promote their discipline, rather than to badmouth it. this kind of sense of loyalty to one’s discipline is understandably common. so, one needs to give it some thoughts re: how to get the hard facts. ask the questions more directly, if you’re unsure. that tends to help.

despite these caveats, i think there is at least one very good reason to apply to grad school: if this is your calling, perhaps you just have to. sometimes in life we choose to do things knowing full well it is hard. maybe the odds are stacked against us. we know we may not be compensated generously, or even fairly. but we just can’t see ourselves doing anything else. or better still - we thought through the other options, and even if they pay better, are more secure, etc, they just aren’t nearly as appealing. that, to me, is one good reason to go ahead and take the plunge. of course, you may or may not agree with this. the above is more like life advice rather than professional advice.

what i said here will probably be misunderstood by some. perhaps it can’t be helped, but let me re-emphasize: i am not trying to normalize the situation, to say that people should be prepared to sacrifice. i totally believe that the system should be kinder to them. just like jazz musicians shouldn’t be expected to starve in order to play great music. i agree, and i am fully aware it is on people like myself to fix this problem for academia. but i also feel that, meanwhile, it’s my responsibility to tell people the truth re: what to expect for now.

how to choose a suitable school & PI?

the first thing is: start thinking about this early. like, ideally, a year or months before your application. ask your academic mentors for advice. multiple of them. cold call people if necessary - many people are actually willing to give free advice to people in your position. they understand this can be a confusing stage to be at. they’ve been there.

the reason why you really need to absolutely think this through, re: whom to work with, is that it will matter a lot for your grad school experience and also your career prospects after. often this factor (PI, i.e. your primary advisor / head of the lab) is much more important than the general prestige of the school / program. unfortunately, some PIs aren’t as on top of things as others. some may be better at placing their students in desirable jobs than others. some may give you more freedom. some may give you so much freedom that there isn’t enough guidance for you - so it sometimes is a matter of style and match too. however, very unfortunately, unprofessional, exploitative PIs do exist, even in the best phD programs. the tenure system means it is not so easy to get rid of them….

... which leads to the interesting consideration of the trade-off between working with someone junior or senior. senior people have a proven track record, and sometimes can offer you better career and research opportunities. junior (i.e. pre-tenured) PIs may lack such experience. but they may be ‘hungrier’. they need to succeed themselves, and thereby they also need you to succeed somewhat. if things don’t go well, it hurts their careers too.

but if the above analysis is right, of course the worst scenario would be a senior PI who isn’t so great to work with. they have tenure, and little to lose. they may have decades of experience dishing out not-so-great experiences to students. and if they made it this far, they gotta be good at (hiding) it. you probably wouldn’t stand a chance against them. (sorry to have to put it in such a scary way!)

so write to the PI. meet and talk with them if they are willing. talk to others about the PI’s reputation. how is their work received by their peers (who will in turn evaluate your own work in the future)? talk to their alumni. what was it like to work with the PI? sometimes people are more willing to tell you things truthfully on the phone rather than through emails. this may sound surprising if not utterly messed up: but people are often worried about retaliation for whistleblowing. of coz, don’t take any one-sided gossips at face value - but when you talk to enough people you should get the overall picture. this can take some work. so do all this well before the interview. i mean, well before you even apply. start now!! just email some people already.

i cannot stress enough how important this is. getting into the wrong lab can be a really, really nasty experience. you can usually get out of the lab (with some considerable hassle), coz the program should protect you. this is one way where it matters who else is on the faculty in the program. so you aren’t choosing just the lab, unless you can be 100% sure you will stay with that lab. (but mind you, great PIs sometimes get job offers and move to different institutions too. sometimes it can happen during your phD. moving along with them can be a slightly tricky business.) but in most cases, if you join a suitable lab in the first instance, you’d be fine. it tends to work out that way.

how to choose a good lab for consciousness?

this is the insanely tricky part. the first thing to realize is, in the US, consciousness remains a ‘taboo’ topic - in a very specific sense: mainstream federal funding for this kind of research is generally lacking. this means you will see a lot of promotion of this type of work in popular books, mass media, internet, etc., maybe even some high profile journals, some theoretical review papers. probably way too much. but actually, there are not really that many well-funded labs doing empirical work on the topic that is respected or taken so seriously by other scientists (see e.g. this, this, or this). and when you do a phD in cog neuro, typically it’s the empirical work that matters. for some solid 'good' labs, even if their research looks somewhat relevant, when you tell them you want to do a phD on consciousness with them, they may think you're being silly

private funding ensures that some of this work continues to be done somehow, but from the top-tier research universities’ administrative perspective, this kind of money is not nearly as good as federal funding (e.g. via NIH / NSF). there’s the prestige factor, but there are also economic reasons. accordingly, there are fewer jobs created in these places for consciousness.

there are two consequences. the first is that you should know what you’re getting into. in terms of intellectual stimulation and challenge, this may be the most fun topic out there. but in terms of career prospects, this may mean there are extra hurdles still. the long and short is, it can be done. many people including myself work on this and manage to not get fired somehow~ if you get in, we’ll share with you our experiences and help you out. but i feel i need to warn you about the reality early on.

another issue is how to choose a lab to start with. lack of mainstream federal funds for this kind of work also means the work becomes relatively unconstrained by the conventional peer review mechanisms. with private funding, sometimes anything goes. together with various socio-historical factors, things can go pretty wild, and at times unhealthily sectarian. so, in addition to all the caveats mentioned in the last section, there is an additional factor for consciousness: if you inadvertently joined a lab where the work is not considered so favorably by other academic colleagues… it may be a situation rather difficult to get out of. depending on the PIs’ style, it may not be in your interest to aggressively challenge their views too much. good PIs should value critics, but, unfortunately some are better than others at this. and if you don’t confront them as much, you may end up doing what they want you to do - then others may see you as being hopelessly indoctrinated into something rather unscientific, due to your own lack of critical thinking, etc. and these people could include your potential future employers too. so this can truly be a career disaster...

so, all i can say is, when it comes to consciousness, handle it with care, seriously. doing a phD, even if it isn’t a sacrifice, is a major life decision. the advice in the last section applies. but for consciousness, don’t just read pop sci / news articles and go with what they say. this is true for most fields, but for our field specifically, the correlation between media prominence and actual scientific quality is often strangely negative. so by all means, do your own research early on. ask as many active researchers in the field as you can. get a diverse set of opinions. we are here to help.

hope you don’t get too discouraged by what i say. if done right, doing a phD in consciousness can be the most wonderful experience too. i say this from my own experience, with all my heart. best of luck!

Hakwan Lau

June 24, 2020


ps - since writing this my lab has decided to do something to help prospective grad applicants to find a suitable lab to work on consciousness in the US. follow me on twitter @hakwanlau. we’ll have something to announce in a few weeks.

1 comment: