Admissions from top neuroscience PhD programs..where to go?

I was offered admissions from several top neuroscience PhD programs: Caltech, U Chicago, Johns Hopkins (School of Medicine) and UC San Diego. I’ve since narrowed down my decision to attending either Caltech or JHU, but it has been really difficult for me to rank one above the other and reach a final decision.

JHU is no doubt one of the greatest places to study neuroscience. The program is consistently highly ranked and there are more faculty members I’m interested in working with than I find in Caltech. At JHU interviews I found most of my POIs are very nice and got an impression that they will be very supportive of me.

Caltech seems to have strength in other criteria. They have much smaller neuroscience faculty members but all of them are top of the line in their respective fields which gives me a good confidence that I should be able to learn great deal from any of their labs. Since I’m interested in studying neuroscience at systems level and also learning about quantitative analysis and mathematical modeling, Caltech seems to be as good as JHU program-wise (perhaps better) and the overall program ranking becomes much less relevant. I also really liked its proximity to downtown LA and the monastery-like atmosphere of the campus.

I think I’m gravitating towards choosing Caltech, but would very like to know if there is something I’m missing or something I should consider before making the big decision. It would be also interesting to hear where would you go if you were in my situation and why. What are the most important criteria for you to consider when selecting PhD program and why?

Congrats man! I’m an undergrad at Hopkins and hope to have the awesome decision you have one day but here’s my opinion :)!

You should probably go to where you feel you’ll fit in the best. Firstly, you said there are more faculty members at JHU you’re interested in working with and since you’ll most likely be working with these individuals for the next 3 to 5 years of your life you should consider this heavily. Each program has their own caveats and like you said you may prefer the more quantitative analysis and mathematical modeling at Caltech over the more bio-focused projects at JHU. It only makes sense to go where you’re going to be learning what interests you the most decreasing your chance of attrition and perhaps speeding up your program completion.

I’m from the LA area and personally Pasadena is one of my favorite places on earth. Baltimore has some nice things going on from what I’ve experienced but I would rather spend my young adult years in SoCal over Bmore. Feel free to PM me any specific questions that I may be able to answer. Best of luck deciding!

Johns Hopkins and Caltech seem similarly ranked in neuroscience - very highly, so congratulations on getting accepted to two wonderful programs.

In the sciences, some of the most important considerations are the reputation of your advisor and your lab, your program’s placement rate, and your research fit with the department. You need to work with an advisor who has a network that will facilitate post-graduation options, and you need to be able to do your work inside the department. Fit personality-wise is also important, as you want to be able to get along with others in your department professionally and benefit from the resources in the department. But location and your non-academic life are also important - you will be living here for 5+ years, and you need to make sure that you can make it for the long haul.

Ask about placement, too. Ask where the graduates of the most recent cohorts have gone. Do they do things that you want to do? Even if the program doesn’t have overall statistics on this, you can ask individual PIs about the placement of their students. If they don’t know where their students have ended up at least for the first couple years out of the program, watch out. That’s a sign of a disconnected PI. (The PI-student relationship is such a close and intense one that it’s unfathomable that a PI shouldn’t have at least a vague idea of where a student has gone within the first 3-5 years of graduation.) Look, too, at the recent assistant professor hires in neuroscience in departments in which you might like to work. Do JHU and Caltech show up? (If you want a non-academic job it’s harder to find where those people went to school, but you can ask about it in the department.)

You seem to have similar opinions of both schools but I notice differences in your rhetoric: at JHU you say that the POIs are “nice” and you feel like they will be “supportive” whereas you describe the Caltech PIs primarily as top of their field and able to teach you a lot. I’m sure the latter is true of both universities, but do you feel that the Caltech PIs will be supportive mentors? That is SO important. In the sciences (all fields, really) there are some PIs and advisors who are not great at mentoring and helping their own students achieve in science. Where do you think you would get better support to become a scientist? Is there evidence of that, in the form of successful early career scientists who are doing what you want to do from both departments?

You also mention that you prefer Caltech’s location - both the proximity to LA and the campus. Location is actually pretty important in a PhD program. My position on this has evolved considerably (particularly after doing a postdoc in a small college town, which I liked but wasn’t ideal). 5-7+ years of your life is a long time, and you want to be happy. Living near LA on a campus that is beautiful and that you love can be a great thing.

What about the current students? Did you like them better at either school? What’s the environment like - competitive or collaborative? What about library resources and physical spaces like study, computer labs with the software you need, fMRI scanners? I’m sure that both Caltech and JHU have excellent facilities in both, but it’s worth thinking about. Are there any special programs or certificates that interest you that you could do, like a concurrent MS in statistics or a certificate in diversity science or whatever? Would you prefer a smaller department or a larger one? (Personally, I would prefer a smaller one. It’s nice to know all the faculty members and most of the students in your department, and you’re less likely to get lost in the shuffle.)

Thanks for your thoughts, Jsteez! Are you currently neuroscience major at JHU? Feel free to contact me if you have any questions regarding admission process!

Juillet: Thank you so much for spending time to share your valuable suggestions! Caltech’s program was founded just 2-3 years ago and there are only 10+ or so current students! So there aren’t any track records department-wise, but the PIs I’m interested in working with have great reputation as both scientists and advisors.

The reason I used different rhetoric for JHU and Caltech comes from the fact that the ways I interacted with the POIs in two schools were very different, partly because of the way the interviews were structured. There were a lot more casual occasions and happy hours at JHU and I noticed some of my POIs wanted to make sure that I’m having a good time and getting as much information as I need about the program.

My stay at Caltech for the interview was much shorter and I didn’t have a great chance to accumulate as much evidence that the POIs will be very supportive. But my brief in-person casual conversations with the POIs on random stuffs and post-interview email exchanges with them gave me an impression they take great care of each graduate student and want to make sure they do well in the program.

It seemed to me that all the schools strategically recruit happy graduate students to host the interviewees (or only happy graduate students tend to volunteer to host), and it wasn’t so easy to make a good judgment about the current students. But I liked the extremely small student body at Caltech which seemed a lot more manageable for me than the much larger student community at JHU.

My DS is in a PhD program at Caltech, and he did mention that grad students there do tend to hang out with others in the same program.
He chose CT because it was the highest ranked grad program.
I suggest you contact some of the current grad students to get direct input from them- a word of caution, CT is on break this week so you may not get immediate responses.
Congratulations on great acceptances!

Hi! I’m currently in a very very similar spot to where you are currently @Madlee ! I just heard back from JHU and Caltech for their neuroscience programs. I was wondering if I could reach out to talk to you about what you ended up doing/ your decision making process in general? Thank you so much for all your help!

@lisolarin - This thread is nearly 5 years old, so I will close it. However, if you want to follow up, you can feel free to reach out to the OP directly via PM!