Applying to the Neurobiology & Behavior PhD Program


The exact path for gaining admission into a graduate program varies from program to program and even student to student. Here we provide some insight into common elements of the application process that may lead to success. We created this guide to make the process of applying more transparent in the hope that it may mitigate inequity among applicants and thus contribute to the diversity of our program.

Qualities of Strong Candidates. Throughout the application process, your potential advisors and future colleagues are looking for evidence that you have the potential to succeed in our PhD program. PhD programs provide opportunities to grow and learn, but starting off on sure footing will greatly increase the likelihood for successful completion. Strong candidates demonstrate: curiosity, internal motivation, perseverance, creativity, and a strong work ethic. Evidence of these qualities can be communicated at different stages of applying and through various application materials including essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, and a C.V.

Before Formally Applying

Gain experience in science research. Gaining research experience is very valuable in helping you determine if you want to pursue a PhD. Research experience can take many forms, such as working for a professional scientist at your college or university, or at an institution close to your off-campus home. There are also opportunities to apply to summer programs at places other than your home institution. Your advisor can help you with these applications.

This research experience does not need to closely resemble what you might study as a graduate student, but having conducted scientific research in some form is a prerequisite for our program. This will demonstrate that you are able to conduct scientific research and that this experience has helped shape your motivation and enthusiasm to pursue a PhD. At several points in the application process you will be asked to explain and discuss your research.

Identify potential advisors. Once you have decided that earning a PhD is right for you, the next step is to look for potential advisors for your PhD program. Advisors provide mentorship throughout the program. The main advisor, called a “committee chair,” is a professor who leads a lab that you would eventually join to do your research in. This advisor would be your research mentor and the chairperson of your dissertation committee, a group of faculty members (chosen after admission) that guides you through the milestones of the PhD program. Other potential advisors may become members of your committee or may ultimately become your main advisor, for example, if your research interests change early in the program. It is to an applicant’s benefit to identify more than one faculty member who might serve as advisors.

Learn about our faculty by reading through the websites of faculty profiles, individual lab websites, and primary research journal articles they have published. This will help you determine if the research questions they are investigating are close to your own research interests. For example, if a prospective student is interested in studying Alzheimer’s disease, a faculty member who studies spinal cord injury would not be an appropriate advisor.

Please note that many faculty members with interests in neurobiology and behavior are members of different PhD programs on campus, such as Ecology and Evolutionary Biology or Psychology. These faculty may serve on your committee as minor members, or you may wish to apply to one of their PhD programs.

Contact Potential Advisors. Once you have identified faculty members whose research interests align with your own, send them each an email expressing interest in applying to our PhD program and interest in their possible mentorship as an advisor. We suggest doing this in the summer before the fall admission cycle, but the earlier, the better. Keep in mind that the main purpose of this email is to start a conversation with a potential advisor -it is not a full application. Introduce yourself briefly (e.g., “I am a senior at Ithaca University studying Biology”) and ask the faculty early on if they are looking to recruit new PhD students to advise following the next application cycle. Describe your research interests and perhaps how you came to develop them. For example, maybe you are interested in a specific research area because of a course you took, something you read, or research experience. Indicate why you believe this faculty member would be an appropriate advisor for you (e.g., “I read your paper about...and this is aligned with my interests because...”). It would also be good to briefly state your career goals and why you want to earn a PhD. If you have a C.V. prepared and are eager to share it, feel free to attach it to this email, but this is not required. Several faculty members might be appropriate advisors and it is absolutely okay for you to reach out to more than one in the same department. In fact, it is highly encouraged. However, it is in your best interest to really spend time investigating potential advisors rather than sending out emails to every member of the faculty just to see who has openings for new students.

Communicate with your potential advisors. If a faculty member replies to your initial email indicating that they are looking to recruit a new PhD student, carry on the dialogue. This communication will help you determine if a potential advisor is a good match for you and vice versa. At this stage, you may be asked for a C.V. or for more information about your interests or potential research in their lab. You are also encouraged to inquire about available funding to support your potential research projects, what fellowships you may be eligible for, and about the amount of teaching you may be expected to do versus being funded with graduate research assistantships that enable you to focus more time on conducting research (see more information on funding below). If you already have projects in mind that might involve collaborations between labs, you can also begin to discuss what might be possible. At some point, the faculty member may encourage you to formally apply to the program or advise you to look elsewhere. If after several email exchanges the faculty has not done so, do not be afraid to explicitly ask.

Different opinions exist for how to determine who might be a good advisor and we encourage that you seek out such opinions (For example: Barres, B.A., 2013.   How to pick a graduate advisor. Neuroview, 80(2), 275-279).

Formally Applying

Applicants are far more likely to be invited to interview and to be accepted if they have gone through the steps outlined above. Faculty members are less likely to advocate for inviting a prospective student to interview if there has been no communication before an application was submitted.

Strong supportive letters of recommendation are a key component to a successful application. Talk with your academic advisors to determine who would be appropriate letter writers. Strong letters come from individuals who know you well, so it is never too early during your undergraduate career to think about who might be a potential letter writer when you apply. Another critical component of a successful application is a clear and thoughtful statement of research and career interests. We recommend seeking feedback for earlier drafts from your current advisors or other resources. GRE exam scores are no longer required nor even permitted for an application to our program. Check with the Graduate School for other formal application requirements.  Visit the Cornell Graduate School Application Home page.


Interviewing and Next Steps

After formally applying, you may be invited to a recruitment weekend. Typically, this takes place in early February. The purpose of this weekend is for you and your potential advisors and their lab members to meet each other “face-to-face” and help both you and your potential advisors determine if joining this program would be mutually beneficial. In other words, not only that you would be a valuable member of a research lab, but that the research lab would be a valuable group for you to join. Think of this weekend as a two-way interview: you are interviewing us as much as we are interviewing you.

Deciding if our program is a good match goes beyond scientific compatibility. The recruitment weekend is an opportunity for you to ask many questions about what it is like to be a graduate student in your potential advisors’ labs, in our PhD program, and at the university. What you learn will help you to decide if you want to enroll in our program should you be admitted.

During this weekend you will have one-on-one and group meetings with multiple faculty and current graduate students in the field. You will also take tours of the lab facilities and the wider campus. There may also be opportunities to see what the larger town is like since that is where you will be living for years. We try to host you with current graduate students so you have plenty of time to pick their brains.

The faculty decide whom to admit. After recruitment weekend, faculty meet to discuss which candidates are to be accepted to the program. This meeting is beyond your control; you may be granted or denied admittance. Many factors come into play that may prevent your admission that have little to do with your qualifications as a candidate. For example, the program is only able to admit a finite number of applicants due to resource and funding limitations, and faculty with fewer graduate advisees may be given priority to recruit over faculty who have nearly full labs. A particular faculty member may not be accepting any new students for that year.

You decide whether to accept admittance. If you have been admitted and invited to join the program, you will have to make a very significant life decision as to whether or not you will accept the offer. If there is enough time before the decision deadline, you may still communicate with your potential advisors along with other faculty members and students in our program to address any lingering questions to help you make the right decision.

Funding and the First Year of Our Program

Unlike other professional schools, PhD programs typically pay all of your graduate school tuition and provide health insurance, as well as a modest stipend for living expenses.  Thus, it is possible for you to complete the PhD without going into debt. Selected applicants are guaranteed financial support for at least 7 years, and often until graduation. This support comes from a university fellowship in the first or second semester or if funding permits the first full academic year, and then for the remaining period from a combination of graduate research assistantships (supported by faculty grants), teaching assistantships, and additional fellowships for which you would apply. The amount of funding available in the lab that you eventually join will influence how many semesters you might be supported on graduate research assistantships versus teaching assistantships. Applicants can also apply for outside sources of funding (e.g., NSF GRFP, NIH NRSA). If funding from fellowships and graduate research assistantships is not available after a student’s first year, teaching assistantships will be offered and students may thus gain several semesters of teaching experience. All students are expected to gain at least one semester of teaching experience (usually as a teaching assistant) before the completion of the program. This is an important part of your training, as many graduates of our program have gone on to take positions that require at least some teaching and science communication.

Please visit the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior Graduate Program Website for more information.