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The number one question you should ask yourself is, "Do I need to go to graduate school to live the life I wish?"

Be honest with yourself. Separate your ambitions from those you’ve gleaned from parents and even well-meaning professors. After all, you are the one who has to put in the time, energy, mental well-being, and money to accomplish this task. Here at IU you are lucky to have such a wide variety of graduate students to talk to. Find out what their life is really like. Talk to ones that are happy, talk to ones that are struggling - get perspective. Assess what your long term goals are. This includes not only your professional life, but your private as well. Is getting a Ph.D. compatible with what you desire? Do you wish to work as an applied cognitive scientist in industry, or are you more interested in academia? These talks and questions will aid you in deciding not only if graduate school is right for you, but also what type of degree you should seek.

Can I take time off before graduate school?

It’s generally okay to take a year or more to work before you attend graduate school. Some students put a lot of energy into their undergraduate studies and are exhausted and can’t contemplate starting an even more intensive program right away. Working before you go to graduate school may also help narrow your interests to provide you the focus you will need. Other benefits include developing greater confidence in your abilities, or simply provide motivation to actually get into the career you want. Once again, the graduate students currently here at IU are a great resource - discuss with them their experiences with taking time off before beginning graduate studies. If you can, study and take the GRE your senior year. Many report that it is "easier" to get a better score while you’re still in the midst of academia.

Students interested in pursuing graduate study should seriously consider the Cognitive Science departmental honors program.

Students participating in the departmental honors program gain research skills, in depth knowledge of a particular cognitive science area, and close contact with individual faculty members. Completion of an independent project and an honors thesis prepares students for study beyond the undergraduate level, allowing them to transform their research interests into focused investigation, original project development, and coherent presentation of research results. Successful participation in the departmental honors program also communicates student commitment and motivation to graduate admission representatives. A student must have a minimum cumulative grade point average of 3.3 to be eligible for consideration and must maintain this minimum average during their course of study to graduate with departmental honors. If a student wishes to combine honors projects in Cognitive Science and another department or program, every attempt will be made to accommodate such a plan, but the student must discuss this with the Director of Undergraduate Studies to gain approval. Please see the Academic Advisor to get a copy of the Thesis Guidelines.


Sophomore Year:
  • Decide to participate in the departmental honors program.

    Identify and apply to a lab in which you would like to work or volunteer now or during your Junior year. Let the Academic Advisor know that you are interested in the Honors Thesis and graduate school. You will receive the thesis guidelines to aid you in that process (and this handout if you haven’t already read it!).

Junior Year:
Summer Before Senior Year:
  • Continue taking GRE practice tests.

  • Decide which schools you will be applying to and obtain those applications.

    Read each application carefully and create a master checklist of materials you need to send in and deadlines for each. Verify your official transcript is complete and correct so that any errors may be corrected. Write a generalized statement of purpose (see How to write a Statement of Purpose section below) and prepare your resume. Save approximately $300 for application fees ($50 per school).

Early in the Fall of your Senior Year:
  • Visit potential schools.

    Meet with your selected advisor and their graduate students (see How to Choose Your Advisor section below).

  • Obtain and file financial aid applications.

    Research details of institutions like the National Science Foundation (due by early November).

  • Take the GRE.

  • Begin to fill out your applications.

    Begin at least 2 months prior to their due dates, and ask for recommendation letters at least this far in advance as well. When handing your recommendation forms to faculty, provide them with a postage paid envelope to send to each school, an unofficial transcript (you can print this off of OneStart), your resume, and a memo to the person giving examples and specifics he/she may be able to use. This may entail simply highlighting something on your resume or reminding him/her of a particular example of when you shined in the lab.

Late in the Fall of your Senior Year:
  • Photocopy your completed applications and mail them.

    Mail them at least one month prior to their due date. Call and confirm that your application (letters of recommendation, GRE score and transcripts) has been received at least one week prior to the due date.

Spring of your Senior Year:
  • Consider your options.

    You will be notified by mail and occasionally also by phone of your acceptance to a particular school as early as February or as late as May. If you have more than one offer, weigh the pros and cons of both, taking into consideration your advisor, any financial offers, the school’s reputation, and the location of the school. If your top choice offers you less than another choice, call the Director of Graduate Studies and ask if they can match it. Sometimes it will be possible and other times it won’t. You must accept in written form (email doesn’t count). If you decide to back out on an offer after you’ve accepted, please let them know as soon as possible. They may be able to offer your fellowship to another student.

  • Accept an offer!

    Once you’ve accepted, again talk to the advisor’s current graduate students and ask them for help in finding a place to live. They will have recommendations and probably several warnings about various landlords in town. Most students try to secure a place to live by mid-July and move in at least one week before classes. Remember that you will most likely not be the only new student to the department, and should be able to get in contact with others before classes start. Make new friends! Good luck and have fun!

HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR ADVISOR (and your school)

Your advisor and relationship with this person will decide a great deal of your success and happiness at graduate school. Therefore, it really should be your top consideration when deciding upon a school. If you can afford it, please go visit your top 2-3 choices of schools, and meet with a potential advisor and some of their graduate students. Also explore the town/city.

A great advisor will be a mentor in all senses of the word. He/she should regard you as a colleague in training and be willing to guide you intellectually and sometimes personally through graduate school and intensive research. This includes helping to find you funding, co-authoring research papers, and being an advocate in your dissertation research and write-up. A good advisor will pass on their intellectual tradition of how to successfully develop and conduct research, and how to fund that research as well. Look for an advisor who has reached tenure, as this will ensure that he/she will not leave in the middle of your research and generally means they are more established in terms of lab space, money, and respect. On the flip side, make sure the advisor will not retire during your studies.

Bad advisors are generally indifferent to you and your concerns. This usually adds years to the length of your study and may cause you to become frustrated and disillusioned. A horrible advisor may even take credit for your work and harm your reputation. You should not be afraid of or unduly uncomfortable around this person. Listen to your instincts, and if not your own, then those of the advisor’s current graduate students.

Questions you should ask a potential advisor:

How many students are you currently advising?
Is there adequate lab space?
What is the average time to completion?
What projects are you currently working on?

Questions for the Director of Graduate Studies:

Is there money for conference travel?
Is there money for fieldwork?
What financial support and in what form will they offer you, specifically?
Does this state offer residency for education?
   (In Indiana, you cannot get residency if your main reason for moving here is to take classes, however, in states like New Mexico, you can gain residency after one year, even if you are enrolled in classes)

Any other questions related to the general program that you have (What is the language requirement, if any), etc. Don’t ask questions that are answered on their website or handouts unless you are unclear about them. (Some are annoyed if you use up their time to answer simple questions).

Questions you should ask graduate students of a potential advisor:

Does his or her students get good jobs?
Does he/she give students enough time?
What is the average time to completion?
Does the advisor give credit for work?
Is he/she consistent in what he/she demands?
Is he/she reasonable about the amount of work that is expected?
Do you respect him/her intellectually and personally?
You should also ask general questions about how much rent usually is, what the social life is like, and anything else you may consider to be crucial to your well-being.

Pay attention to the attitude and "tone" of the students and advisor. Beware of a department full of unhappy students and ultra-competitive students.

You can avoid a bad advisor and find a good one before you attend graduate school! Contact potential advisors and their graduate students to get a feel for what your life may become. Not only will contacting a professor help you in admissions (if you make a favorable impression), but it will also help you decide which program is best for you.


Each school will have a different requirement for your statement of purpose. Some schools may actually give you a question to answer, while others will leave the topic up to you. However, almost every school will have a page length of 1-2 pages. If they don’t state this, they probably follow this guideline anyway. Remember that you are not the only one applying to their program, and although they consider the statement very important, they have other things to do with their time than read 100 six page statements. Many schools weigh the statement heavily because it shows not only your personality, but your writing and thinking skills, which are critical in graduate school.

Because the Statement is so important, you should begin writing it months in advance of its due date so that you may revise (about 10 times) and have others critique it. You may write a generalized version of your statement in the summer, and then a more specific statement for each school you apply to.

Before you begin writing the Statement, you can use a variety of questions and tools to focus. Brainstorming is a highly effective tool, and you should write your thoughts down. Start by asking, "Why do I wish to go to graduate school?" Then list examples of instances in your life that have directed you to this goal. Examine your resume and select a few (2-3) points that you can elaborate on and help back up your assertions, however you should avoid simply re-stating your resume. For example, you may state that you are interested in         aspect of Cognitive Science because of the nuances of         . Then you back this up by saying, "My experience in So-and-So’s lab has taught me        ." Or encouraged, etc. Perhaps you can give an example of when you excelled in the lab, or the first time you had that, "YES!" sensation when doing research. Remember, these suggestions are just that and your brainstorming will produce different results and a better fit for you.

Your Statement of Purpose should include:

Why you wish to attend graduate school
The area in which you wish to specialize
Career goals after graduate school
Academic background and extracurricular activities that have prepared you for graduate study in this specialization/general field
A positive explanation of poor scores or grades if needed
Why you wish to attend a particular school/work with a specific advisor

Do not use too much jargon. Write in an honest, intelligent and straightforward manner. Your writing should be clear and show continuity throughout the piece. Having others review your Statement of Purpose is critical to making sure you’re "putting your best forward." Remember that your preliminary reviewers are offering their opinions and you are free to do as you wish to keep the Statement true to you, but if several comment on the same thing, it would probably be best to revise that portion. Once again, start early and revise until perfection!