Training and Mentorship

This section of the guide is a first-person perspective from Dr. Poldrack.

Graduate study

What graduate programs are you affiliated with?

How do I choose a program?

In choosing a program, there are several important differences:

  1. Research: While most of these programs are fairly flexible, there are generally some expectations regarding the kind of research you will do, depending on the specific program. For example, if you are joining the BMI program then your work is expected to have at least some focus on novel data analysis or informatics methods, whereas if you are joining Psychology your work is expected to make some contact with psychological function. Having said that, most of what we do in our lab could be done by a student in any of these programs.

  2. Coursework: Perhaps the biggest difference between programs is the kind of courses you are required to take. Each program has a set of core requirements. In psychology, you will take a number of core courses in different areas of psychology (cognitive, neuroscience, social, affective, developmental). In the neuroscience program you will take a set of core modules spanning different areas of neuroscience (including one on cognitive neuroscience that Justin Gardner and I teach), whereas in BMI you take core courses around informatics-related topics. In each program you will also take elective courses (often outside the department) that establish complementary core knowledge that is important for your particular research; for example, you can take courses in our world-class statistics department regardless of which program you enroll in. One way to think about this is: What do you want to learn about that is outside of your specific content area? Take a look at the core courses in each program and see which ones interest you the most.

  3. First-year experience: In Psychology, students generally jump straight into a specific lab (or a collaboration between labs), and spend their first year doing a first-year project that they present to their area meeting at the end of the year. In Neuroscience and BMI, students do rotations in multiple labs in their first year, and are expected to pick a lab by the end of their first year.

  4. Admissions: All of these programs are highly selective, but each differs in the nature of its admissions process. At one end of the spectrum is the Psychology admissions process, where initial decisions for who to interview are made by the combined faculty within each area of the department. At the other end is the Neuroscience program, where initial decisions are made by an admissions committee. As a generalization, I would say that the Psychology process is better for candidates whose interests and experience fit very closely with a specific PI or set of PIs, whereas the committee process caters towards candidates who may not have settled on a specific topic or PI.

  5. Career positioning: I think that the specific department that one graduates from matters a lot less than people think it does. For example, I have been in psychology departments that have hired faculty with PhDs in physics, applied mathematics, and computer science. I think that the work that you do and the skills that you acquire ultimately matter a lot more than the name of the program that is listed on your diploma. Having said that, you ultimately do need to position yourself so that a particular department will feel that you “fit” with them; this is often a challenge for people working on interdisciplinary topics, where sometimes it can be difficult to find a department who feels that the person fits well.

What does it take to get accepted?

There are always more qualified applicants than there are spots in our graduate programs, and there is no way to guarantee admission to any particular program. On the flipside, there are also no absolute requirements: we look at the whole picture, and other factors can sometimes outweigh a weaker academic record. There are a few factors that are particularly important for admission to my lab:

  1. Research experience: It is very rare for someone to be accepted into any of the programs I am affiliated with at Stanford without significant research experience. Sometimes this can be obtained as an undergraduate, but more often successful applicants to our program have spent at least a year working as a research assistant in an active research laboratory. There are a couple of important reasons for this. First, we want you to understand what you are getting into; many people have rosy ideas of what it’s like to be a scientist, which can fall away pretty quickly in light of the actual experience of doing science. Spending some time in a lab helps you make sure that this is how you want to spend your life. In addition, it provides you with someone who can write a recommendation letter that speaks very directly to your potential as a researcher. Letters are a very important part of the admissions process, and the most effective letters are those that go into specific detail about your abilities, aptitude, and motivation.

  2. Technical skills: The research that we do in our lab is highly technical, requiring knowledge of computing systems, programming, and math/statistics. I would say that decent programming ability is a pretty firm prerequisite for entering my lab; once you enter the lab I want you to be able to jump directly into doing science, and this just can’t happen if you have to spend a year teaching yourself how to program from scratch. More generally, we expect you to be able to pick up new technical topics easily; I don’t expect students to necessarily show up knowing how a reinforcement learning model works, but I expect them to be able to go and figure it out on their own by reading the relevant papers and then implement it on their own. The best way to demonstrate programming ability is to show a specific project that you have worked on. This could be an open source project that you have contributed to, or a project that you did on the side for fun (for example, mine your own social media feed, or program a cognitive task and measure how your own behavior changes from day to day). If you don’t currently know how to program, see my post on learning to program from scratch, and get going!

  3. c. Risk taking and resilience: If we are doing interesting science then things are going to fail, and we have to learn from those failures and move on.  I want to know that you are someone who is willing to go out on a limb to try something risky, and can handle the inevitable failures gracefully.  Rather than seeing a statement of purpose that only lists all of your successes, I find it very useful to also know about risks you have taken (be they physical, social, or emotional), challenges you have faced, failures you have experienced, and most importantly what you learned from all of these experiences.

What kind of advisor are you?

Different advisers have different philosophies, and it’s important to be sure that you pick an advisor whose style is right for you. I would say that the most important characteristic of my style is that I foster independent thinking in my trainees. Publishing papers is important, but not as important as developing one’s ability to conceive novel and interesting questions and ask them in a rigorous way. This means that beyond the first year project, I don’t generally hand my students problems to work on; rather, I expect them to come up with their own questions, and then we work together to devise the right experiments to test them. Another important thing to know is that I try to motivate by example, rather than by command. I rarely breathe down my trainees necks about getting their work done, because I work on the assumption that they will be self-motivated. On the other hand, I’m fairly hands-on in the sense that I still love to get deep in the weeds of experimental design and data analysis; for example, I will regularly code alongside lab members. I would also add that I am highly amenable to joint mentorship with other faculty.

Can I meet with you to discuss my interests in your research?

I have instituted a policy that I will no longer meet one-on-one with potential graduate students prior to the application process to discuss potential admission into my lab, as this has the potential to exacerbate existing disparities in graduate school admissions. I am willing to meet with individuals (particularly those from underrepresented groups) to discuss the graduate admissions process and other academic issues more generally, as time permits.

Postdoctoral training in the lab

How can I get a postdoc position in your lab?

  • We do not generally advertise postdoctoral positions, so if you are interested in a position in the lab, contact Dr. Poldrack directly. Be sure to send your CV, and explain in brief your research interests and why you think you would be a good fit for the lab.

  • We are particularly interested in hiring postdocs who bring diversity to the lab, either through their personal identity, research interests, or experience.

Mentoring practices

Weekly report

Graduate students in the lab are expected to keep a running document (preferably a Google Doc) in which they report their progress every week along with any problems encountered.

Scheduling meetings with me

Dr. Poldrack provides all lab members with access to a scheduling system with which they can schedule meetings during any open times on his calendar.

  • Upon request, lab members can schedule a regular standing meeting.

“Lifetime guarantee”

I view mentorship as a life-long relationship, and you can view working with me as having a “Lifetime Guarantee” in the sense that I will always be there to help you, even long after you have left the lab – from letters of recommendation to career mentorship to personal advice.