What is cognitive science?
Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field devoted to exploring the nature of cognitive processes such as perception, reasoning, memory, attention, language, imagery, motor control, and problem-solving. The goal of cognitive science is to understand (1) the representations and processes in our minds that underwrite these capacities, (2) how they are acquired, and how they develop, and (3) how they are implemented in underlying hardware (biological or otherwise). Stated more simply, the goal of cognitive science is to understand how the mind works! Trying to understand our own minds is one of the most ambitious and exciting projects in all of science, and requires insights drawn from many different traditional academic disciplines. As a result, cognitive science is an inherently interdisciplinary endeavor, drawing on tools and ideas from fields including psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and neuroscience (among others).
Another description of this discipline can be found in the first few paragraphs of the bluebook description of the cognitive science major, and you can also check out the main Cognitive Science program website.
What do students study in the cognitive science major?
A full description of the nature of the major can be found in the bluebook description.
The major was initiated in part because existing majors in the contributing disciplines did not allow for a full interdisciplinary investigation of the mind. Students, for example, might be interested in studying the nature of visual experience or language, and find relevant courses distributed across many different disciplines. The cognitive science major allows such students to develop a program of study which is focused on underlying problems rather than on the methods used to address those problems.
There are only a few courses in Yale College which are primarily based in the cognitive science major -- including Introduction to Cognitive Science, Brain & Thought, the Junior Seminar, the Senior Colloquium, and various one-time or occasional seminars. For the 2014-2015 academic year, the CGSC roster of courses also includes Mental Lives of Babies and Animals, Music Cognition, Experimental Philosophy, Sign Languages and the Mind, Cognitive Science of Language, Social Perception, and Philosophy for Psychologists. A full list of these courses is available via the OCI website for the 2014-2015 year.
The bulk of courses that contribute to the cognitive science major are then drawn from the various contributing disciplines. The hardcopy bluebook (but not the online description) has a long list of "courses in other departments relevant to cognitive science." These include many different courses in Computer Science (e.g. Artificial Intelligence and Intelligent Robotics), Linguistics (e.g. Evolution of Language and Language Acquisition), MCDB (e.g. Neurobiology and Brain Development and Plasticity), Philosophy (e.g. Philosophy of Mind and Mathematical Logic), and Psychology (e.g. Developmental Psychology and Sex, Evolution, and Human Nature). (At the same time, however, there are of course many different courses in each of these core disciplines which do not count for the major.) Beyond these core disciplines, there is also a smaller collection of relevant courses drawn from other majors and departments, including Anthropology (e.g. Evolution and Human Behavior), Economics (e.g. Game Theory), EP&E (e.g. Philosophy of Social Science), the School of Management (e.g. Behavioral Decision Making), and even Music (e.g. Music Cognition) and Art (e.g. Visual Thinking).
There is no way, however, to create a master list of courses that count for the major, since these decisions are always made the in the context of particular students' interests, themes, and course plans. (For discussion, see the later question on Why can't there just be a fixed list of courses that do or do not count?.)
What can you do with a major in cognitive science?
Lots of things! For some students, studying cognitive science is an exercise in 'pure' science -- with the goal of understanding the nature of human nature. These students often continue their study of the nature of mind in graduate school -- either in a department of cognitive science, or in a traditional department of computer science, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, or neuroscience. Our majors have extremely good track records of being admitted into the top programs in such disciplines.
Other students use their training in cognitive science in the service of directly applied interests. In fact, for almost every cognitive process that some scientists study in a 'pure' way, others are attempting to capitalize on this newfound understanding by building artificial devices to either replicate these processes, or to aid their execution in humans. For example: (1) understanding object recognition may help to design satellites that can recognize what they're looking at; (2) understanding language processing may help to design computers that can interact efficiently with their users via verbal interfaces; or (3) understanding attention may help to design aircraft cockpits which minimize distractions while simultaneously capturing pilots' attention during emergencies. Students with such interests may thus head into industry research jobs after majoring in cognitive science.
Still other students may apply their training in cognitive science in a wide range of careers to other human activities which involve various cognitive processes, for example (1) using knowledge about how memory works to inform and reform practices in courtroom trials or witness lineups; (2) using knowledge about reasoning and problem solving to improve education and educational testing; or (3) using knowledge about attention and decision making to design more effective advertising and marketing.
Finally, several majors each year also complete Yale's pre-med requirements, intending to complement their later training in medical school with the 'big picture' insights about human nature that they gain while studying cognitive science.
Getting to Know the Major
What are the requirements for the major?
The requirements for the major can be found in the bluebook description.
Which faculty are formally associated with the major?
See the list of associated faculty on the main CogSci program website.
I've read this page carefully, but still have questions. Who should I contact?
For general questions about cognitive science and the major, you can contact either the Chair (Paul Bloom) or the Director of Undergraduate Studies (Josh Knobe). For questions about the Senior Colloquium, you can contact the Instructor (Kathryn Davidson). For questions about the major requirements, courses that count for the major, changes to your course plan, etc., you can contact the DUS.
Applying to the Major
Why do students need to apply to the major?
Unlike most majors at Yale, Cognitive Science requires students to apply and be accepted to the major. There are several reasons for this:
- By encompassing so many disciplines, cognitive science presents fantastic opportunities for interdisciplinary studies, but also some dangers. In particular, with so much breadth comes the danger that students' study programs will lack cohesiveness, being a somewhat haphazard collection of unrelated courses. The application process ensures that this is not the case (see How are applications evaluated?).
- Similarly, the cognitive science major can appeal to students for the wrong reasons -- e.g. because students don't know what to major in, and cognitive science seems to afford more flexibility than usual. In contrast, we seek majors who have particular ideas about how to craft a focused interdisciplinary plan of study in this area that cannot be satisfied by one of the standard majors. The application essay is designed to assess such things.
- Though many courses may count for the major, these choices can only be evaluated in the context of an overall course plan, in order to avoid several pitfalls. These course plans are evaluated as part of the application (again, see How are applications evaluated?).
- Because cognitive science requires mastery of so many different approaches and disciplines, it fits best with students who are able to perform well in many different kinds of classes. The application process thus includes an evaluation of students' academic performance so far at Yale.
How do I apply? Where can I find the application form?
Students should apply to the major at the end of the fall semester of their sophomore year. Such students can apply by (1) reading this entire page carefully, and then (2) following the instructions in the official application form:
As explained on the application form, all application forms should be turned in via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Download the application form as a DOC file (to fill in electronically, using your favorite word processor)
When are applications due?
Applications are due (by email to email@example.com) by December 22nd, 2014, at midnight.
When do I find out if I was accepted into the major?
Applicants will be notified by mid-January.
How are applications evaluated?
There is no single answer to this question, since different members of the application committee may stress different things. However, the committee as a whole will surely be asking the following questions about you and your application materials, so it would be a good idea for you to consider these things when preparing them:
- Do your essay and course plan successfully articulate a focus that will bring cohesiveness to your experience in the major? Does your course plan suggest more than a random smattering of courses? Will your course plan allow you claim some mastery of a part of cognitive science, after you graduate?
- Does your course plan suggest that you've carefully studied the available options for courses that fit your theme in all of the relevant departments? (Depending on your focus, keep in mind that some relevant courses may come from outside of the traditional contributing disciplines -- e.g. Game Theory in the Economics department, or Music Cognition in the Music department.)
- Do your essay and course plan suggest that your interests could not be satisfied by a major in one of the traditional contributing disciplines? In particular, does your course plan involve a true breadth of different approaches? (Because many courses are cross-listed, some students end up with schedules that look like they have breadth, but don't really. For example, a student might list 4 psychology courses and 3 neuroscience courses, but those three might all be taught from within the psychology department -- e.g. Cognitive Neuroscience, Fundamentals of Neuroscience, etc. -- rather than incorporating courses from other departments such as Neurobiology. In such cases -- especially if the electives are also drawn from psychology -- the course plan as a whole might really involve only 3 courses outside of Psychology, suggesting that Psychology might be a better major.) So, when choosing your courses, look not only at the department(s) that a course is listed in, but also the approach of the professor teaching the course, the field(s) from which they hail, the field(s) from which most of the readings in the course are drawn, etc.
- Does your course plan include a reasonable number of higher-level courses (e.g. the number that would characterize course plans in most other majors)? This can be a particular problem in cognitive science: whereas most traditional majors only have a few introductory-level courses, cognitive science encompasses Introduction to Linguistics, Introduction to Computer Science, Introduction to Psychology, etc. -- as well as many other relevant 100 level courses in the contributing departments. For this reason, the major can sometimes look attractive to students who want to get through Yale without taking many more challenging upper-level courses. So be sure that you plan includes the right breadth of course numbers (as a proxy for differing degrees of depth and challenge) in addition its breadth of fields and approaches.
- Do your grades so far at Yale suggest that you will perform well in the major?
Can Directed Research or Directed Reading courses count for the major?
Yes -- but only for one of the courses satisfying the depth requirement.
What are some sample themes that help to structure students' course plans?
- Visual neuroscience
- The self and moral cognition
- Cognition and the arts
- Human-Robot Interaction
- Connections between brain and behavior
- Automaticity in cognition
Can I talk about my plan with the DUS before I apply?
Certainly! Just stop by open office hours, or send an email to set up an appointment to chat at some other time.
I haven't taken Introduction to Cognitive Science yet. Can I still apply?
Depending on the size and character of the applicant pool in any given year, it may be possible to join the major without having first taken this key introductory course. When this is possible:
- Your course plan should indicate that you plan to take this course at your next available opportunity.
- Your acceptance into the major may be provisional on performing well in the course when you do take it.
- Ideally your transcript so far, along with your application essay, will demonstrate that you know what cognitive science is, and what it has to offer (knowledge that many students acquire from taking this course).
Is it possible to major in cognitive science and also complete pre-med requirements?
Completing the pre-med requirements is always a challenge, regardless of your major, since they require so many other classes -- including classes which are only offered during specific times, and several labs which will devour entire afternoons each week. That said, because cognitive science affords a considerable amount of flexibility (e.g. in that there are very few specific courses that are required, in contrast to many other majors), many students in the past have found that this combination works well. (Of course, students in this situation should also run their full course plan by Yale's Premedical Advising Office, which has considerable experience with such questions.)
Can I double-major in cognitive science and _________?
Yes, some students do end up double-majoring in cognitive science and other disciplines -- both related disciplines (e.g. Philosophy) and mostly-unrelated disciplines (e.g. Art). However:
- Keep in mind that double majors (of any variety) must always complete two distinct senior projects, except in exceptional circumstances (when a single project is truly interdisciplinary and is twice as involved as usual, which is vanishingly rare). This is a significant constraint, since I have never met a student who overestimated the amount of time and work that their senior project would require! As a result, many senior double-majors end up dropping one or the other at the last minute -- often with some regrets (e.g. having taken courses in the dropped major that they otherwise wouldn't have pursued).
- Also keep in mind that there are constraints built into the regulations of Yale College on how many courses can overlap between two majors. To quote these regulations:
Each major must be completed independently of the other, with no more than two term courses overlapping. Prerequisites in either major are not considered to be overlapping courses. Other than such prerequisites, all courses taken in a major -- including those taken in excess of the minimum requirements of the major -- are counted in the consideration of overlapping courses unless such courses are in excess of the minimum requirements for both majors.
- Ask yourself carefully why you want to double major. What advantages will that bring? Keep in mind that in most departments you're completely free to take as many courses as you wish without being a major. Also keep in mind that a double-major won't necessarily help you with your career after Yale: many jobs (or graduate schools) will care only about your degree as a whole, and what specific courses you've taken. (There are exceptions to this, though; if you have questions about this, come talk to the DUS!)
- Note that it will typically not be possible to add Cognitive Science as a second major later in your undergraduate career. As such, all interested students should be sure to apply toward the end of the fall semester of their sophomore year.
Information for Current Majors
Can I change my course plan? If so, how do I do that?
Yes, the course plan from your initial application is not set in stone, and can be changed. Indeed, it will almost certainly have to be changed, since new courses are always being added, old courses drop off the books, and interests change over time. (In particular, the seminars that are offered tend to closely track faculty interests and thus tend to change from year to year -- with some faculty never teaching the same seminar twice!) As such, the course plan that you submitted with your application is not a binding plan for the future, but rather an existence proof that you can devise a cohesive plan. Changes to your course plan can thus be made, but only with the permission of the DUS.
To change your course plan, just drop by the DUS's office hours to discuss your proposed changes. When doing so, be certain to bring:
In addition, if you're hoping to add any courses which are not in the bluebook's list of relevant courses, please see the entry on this page for Can I count this particular course for the major?, and include the items listed there. Note that we cannot approve individual course changes without also looking at your full plan, for the reasons explained above in the entry on How are applications evaluated?.
- ... the full initial course plan from your application, annotated with the classes you've already taken and are currently taking
- ... your complete new proposed course plan, annotated with the classes you've already taken and are currently taking
- ... a brief description (in only 1-2 paragraphs) of the changes, why you want to make them, and how they will affect your overall theme
Before you stop by, it would also be helpful if you could email this information to the DUS. When doing so, please just paste the information into the body of an email message, rather than sending along an attachment. (Around the time that schedules are due each semester, the DUS tends to get a dozen attachments per day that are all named "Revised Course Plan", etc.)
Finally, you should be sure to get approval for all changes in writing. The easiest way to do this is just to have the DUS reply to your email noting the accepted revisions. (Be sure then to save that email!)
Why can't there just be a fixed list of courses that do or do not count?
For several reasons:
- As noted above (see the entry on How are applications evaluated?), we are interested in ensuring that your overall course plan has a central theme, a good mix of breadth and depth, an acceptable number of higher-level challenging courses, etc. This means that individual courses can only ever be considered in the context of your overall schedule.
- Also in this vein, some borderline courses may count for some students but not others, depending on their overall course themes, and perhaps also their pre-arranged commitment to write their final paper on a topic related to cognitive science.
- Some courses may only count for the major when they are taught in certain ways, or with certain curricula -- since their content can differ considerable from year to year or from professor to professor.
How do you decide what courses count for the major?
Assuming that the course does fit well into your overall plan (see the previous entries on How are applications evaluated? and Why can't there just be a fixed list of courses that do or do not count?), we will be interested in whether the course is taught with a cognitive science approach, and whether it covers material from the cognitive science literatures. These factors are more important than the name of the course, the department that it's listed in, or whether it covers a topic related to understanding the mind in a broad sense. Indeed, some courses sound on their surface like they'd be good fits, but they don't actually include any readings from the cognitive science literatures, or directly utilize any of the relevant approaches. (After all, nearly all courses at Yale are about understanding the nature of the mind in some sense -- including courses on poetry, ancient civilization, religion, etc.!) At the same time, some particular courses taught in departments that are not traditionally associated with cognitive science (e.g. Economics, or courses taught through the School of Management) may turn out to utilize the relvant approaches, and include relevant readings.
Can I count this particular course for the major?
To find out if a particular course will count for the major, follow these four steps:
- Check to see if it is included in the list of relevant courses that is printed in the hardcopy bluebook. If so, then skip to step #4.
- Send a short note to the DUS with the name of the course, asking to see whether it counts. If you get a positive reply, then skip to step #4. Otherwise, go on to step #3.
- To find out if this course will be counted in principle (assuming that it fits into your overall course plan), send all of the following to the DUS by email:
- The name, number, and department of the course, as well as the semester during which it will be taught, and the name of the instructor
- The course syllabus and reading list
- A separate list of readings from the course that are drawn from the cognitive science literatures, broadly construed. (This is something you'll have to construct by examining and annotating the syllabus. This will ensure that when looking through the syllabus, the DUS doesn't miss one of the readings that you thought was important and relevant.)
- A 1-paragraph statement on why you think the course should count for the major, including a discussion of how the material will be approached in a manner consistent with cognitive science, and taking into account the points noted in the preceding entry on How do you decide what courses count for the major?
- After you've found out that the course can count in principle, follow the instructions in the entry above on Can I change my course plan? If so, how do I do that?
Can I use Cr/D/F credits for the major?
Courses taken on a Credit/D/Fail basis may not be counted toward the requirements of the major, except with permission of the DUS.
How can I set up a Directed Reading course?
Some students find that they have specific (often interdisciplinary) interests that can't be satisfied by Yale College courses, and that there would be a significant benefit from regular professorial guidance as they explore these interests. In certain cases, it may be appropriate to seek out a Directed Reading course to complement their more formal courses. (Some students try to do these with a few other students, to make the experience more interactive.) The procedure for doing this is the same as in most majors. First, you'll need to find a specific faculty member who is willing to sponsor your individualized reading course. The DUS can often help by suggesting faculty members whose expertise might be especially well-suited to your intended topic, but finding a sponsor will take some initiative on your part. Remember that Yale faculty have a wide range of professional duties, both inside and outside of the classroom, and that if you are asking them to meet regularly with you, you need to have a compelling reason to take up their time in this way. Directed Reading courses should not be set up unless there is no other option. That said, the earlier you ask a potential sponsor about this possibility, the more likely they will be be to agree -- though some faculty may simply have too many other obligations to take on this sort of commitment. (Once the start of a new semester is near, many faculty have already 'maxed out' their available opportunities along these lines.) Next, you and the sponsor will have to draft up a syllabus for the semester -- including specific readings, requirements (often just one or two papers), details about how often you will meet with the sponsor, and a specific schedule for the semester.
More information can be found on the Directed Reading Form, which must submitted (with signatures from your Directed Reading advisor and from the DUS) before you will be able to register for these coures.
Bring these completed materials to the DUS for review, and if your plan is approved then you're all set!
Will my favorite course be offered next year?
Often there is no way to determine this before the bluebook comes out during the summer. However, if you're hoping to take a specific course, it would be a very good idea to contact the professor that usually teaches that course ASAP, to find out if they intend to teach it again, or whether they will be on sabbatical, etc. (They may have a firm sense of what they'll teach next year long before the official list appears.) Also, note that many seminars closely track faculty interests from year to year, and that many professors teach a particular seminar only once! So, if you have specific seminars on your plan for depth courses, it would be a good idea to check each year with your favorite professors to see what they're planning to teach.
I really want to get in to a particular seminar. Is there a way the program can help?
If you are a Senior and you need to get into a specific course in order to complete your CogSci study plan, please send a note to both the DUS and the Chair no later than one week before the relevant semester's shopping period begins. Seminar instructors often give enrollment preference to senior majors in their home disciplines, on the grounds that such students need to complete these courses in order to graduate. If a course is required for your cognitive science study plan, we will contact the instructor on your behalf and try to help you gain admission on analogous grounds -- and if it is not possible for you to be admitted, we will help you find an appropriate alternative. (In exceptional circumstances, we may be in a position to make such petitions on behalf of juniors -- for example, when a seminar is central to a student's study plan, and there is reason to expect that no similar seminar will be offered during the student's senior year.) Just remember: in order for us to help you in this way we need to have your requests as early as possible, and certainly at least one week before the shopping period that semester begins.
Can courses I take while studying abroad count for the major?
The answer to this question will always depend on the details. We'll need detailed information on the courses you'll be taking -- including readings, assignments, methods of assessment, etc. These will be reviewed by relevant Yale faculty, to determine whether they meet the standards of the analogous courses taught on campus. If they do, then the DUS will determine whether the courses can count for the major based on their fit and overlap with your course plan as a whole. (Note that it sometimes requires some initiative in order to gather this information, since not all study-abroad programs make past syllabi available -- and some courses do not even have syllabi. In these cases, you'll have to try to get the information from past years or past students, and we may be able to approve the course provisionally, as long as it does not deviate significantly from the past syllabi.) In any case, if you're planning to study abroad and would like to receive course credit for some of the courses, you should always talk to the DUS ahead of time, and you should never assume that a course will count until it has been reviewed.
Are there any sample past senior theses I could look at?
Copies of previous senior essays are posted on the Classes v2 server for CGSC 490. Students who are not enrolled in that course who wish to take a look at the essays should contact the Senior Colloquium instructor, who will arrange for them to be given access.
What is covered in Introduction to Cognitive Science?
Check out the online syllabus for this course.
This course is currently being taught (by Brian Scholl) in the Fall 2014 semester, on Mondays and Wednesdays from 2:30 - 3:45 pm.
What is covered in Brain & Thought?
Check out the 2011 online syllabus for this course.
What discipline does Brain & Thought count for?
Brain and Thought is cross-listed as a Cognitive Science course and also a Psychology course. However, because its focus is on neuroscience, and because it is taught by a neurobiologist from the School of Medicine (Dr. Amy Arnsten), it can count as a Neuroscience course for the purpose of your 4/3/2/1 plan.
What will be covered in the Junior Seminar in Cognitive Science?
By popular demand, we are excited to be offering the Junior Seminar in Cognitive Science again in spring 2015! This year the seminar will be taught by Kathryn Davidson. We strongly encourage all Junior majors to take this seminar. It will be an excellent opportunity to study the foundations of your field, and also to gain experience interacting with each other in a close-knit seminar setting. (And for once, you will have first priority in terms of getting into the seminar!) The contents of the seminar will be set largely by your interests. A sample syllabus from the Fall 2013 course can be found here.
What's this course on Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature?
This is a course designed to explore the ways in which contemporary cognitive science can bear on the traditional questions of philosophy. So, for example, the course might look at Nietzsche's account of morality in light of contemporary work in moral cognition, or it might look Plato's discussion of parts of the soul in light of recent research on "dual processing". There will be a lot of serious cognitive science, but there will also be a fair amount of serious philosophical rumination.
[An earlier version of this course was piloted as a Freshman seminar in Spring 2008 under the name "Life Lessons: What Philosophers Got Right about the Human Condition"]
How much overlap is there between Introduction to Cognitive Science and Brain & Thought?
Not much. Though the topics of the course overlap considerably (e.g. with both covering visual perception, language, and consciousness), the specific approaches and material discussed hardly overlap at all. Brain & Thought is devoted almost entirely to neuroscientific perspectives on these topics, whereas Introduction to Cognitive Science covers many higher-level perspectives in addition to neuroscience -- and even the bits of this course that do explicitly focus on neuroscience do so with a different perspective. Introduction to Cognitive Science also includes lectures on several topics that are not discussed in Brain & Thought (e.g. modularity, innateness, computation, reasoning and decision-making, infant cognition, and the cognitive science of love/sex/attraction), and the reverse is also true (e.g. motor behavior, olfaction, taste, and Alzheimer's Disease). In addition, Introduction to Cognitive Science includes material drawn from several different fields beyond neuroscience, including Linguistics, Computer Science, and Psychology. Both courses are thus strongly recommended for all majors.
How much overlap is there between Intro to Cognitive Science and Intro to Psychology?
This can depend on who is teaching Introduction to Psychology, since it is offered every semester, and is taught by many different faculty. Depending on who is teaching the course, the overlap can vary between roughly 5% and 20%. However, even those topics that are covered in both courses are typically treated with very different perspectives and specific material. More generally, the 80+% of non-overlapping material in these courses reflects differences in their respective fields. On one hand, cognitive science incorporates perspectives drawn from only some areas of psychology, and also includes tools and ideas drawn from computer science, linguistics, neuroscience, and beyond. In contrast, psychology incorporates perspectives drawn from only a small part of cognitive science, but also includes material related to clinical psychology, social and personality psychology, health psychology, etc. Many majors end up taking both of these courses, however, since Introduction to Cognitive Science is required for the major, while Introduction to Psychology is required in principle as a pre-requisite for many other psychology courses.
How much overlap is there between Brain & Thought and Neurobiology?
Not much: Brain and Thought was designed to be the mirror image of Neurobiology. Whereas Neurobiology has great emphasis on the ionic basis of the resting potential and action potential, Brain and Thought deals with this subject only briefly. Conversely, Brain and Thought spends much of the course on higher cortical mechanisms underlying perception and executive functions, topics which receive much less emphasis in Neurobiology. Brain and Thought also has a strong emphasis on human patients (including many readings and videos) and in this way is especially relevant for students wanting to pursue a medical career in neurology or psychiatry.
I'm interested in getting research experience in cognitive science. Where do I start?
Many cognitive science majors are interested in finding positions as research assistants -- either during the academic year here at Yale, or over the summer break at Yale or near home.
For those students wishing to go on to graduate school in the cognitive sciences, several factors will be important -- grades, breadth and depth of coursework, test scores, recommendations, etc. -- but for many programs the most important factors may be: research, research, and research. One reason for this is simply that doing research is what being a graduate student in many disciplines of cognitive science is all about. Whereas other factors such as grades and test scores are only indirect clues to research abilities, demonstrated past success at research is a direct indication. Another way to put this is that grades and test scores -- and, indeed, most aspects of undergraduate education -- are about being a consumer of knowledge, while being a good graduate student has a lot to do with being a good producer of knowledge. Because these two classes of abilities don't always correlate, high grades and test scores can't be taken as a sure indication of research ability, whereas demonstrated research ability can be taken as a sure indication of research ability.
Another reason why you might want to pursue research opportunities as an undergraduate is simply to discover how much you like it. The process of coming up with research ideas and then implementing them (and analyzing and reporting the results) is a fresh experience for many students, and one that differs from other undergraduate experiences (taking classes, writing essays, etc.). As such, it can seem a bit silly for students to pursue graduate work -- a major commitment of time and effort! -- without first checking to be sure they enjoy doing research.
Finally, assisting with research will provide a completely new dimension on which your recommenders for post-Yale positions may comment.
Happily, many cognitive science laboratories at most schools have opportunities for undergraduates to get involved. Some labs take on undergraduates during the academic year either for academic credit, work-study $, or on a volunteer basis. In addition, some labs will hire undergraduate research assistants (RAs) full-time over the summer break, typically paying several thousand dollars. Most RAs begin with relatively simple tasks, to help get their feet wet: for example, in a psychology laboratory you might be put on an existing project, perhaps helping a graduate student or postdoc run subjects for an experiment which has already been designed. Other common tasks include helping to create stimuli, program experiments, analyze data, or even help design new studies. RAs will also often get the opportunity to attend weekly lab meetings, and to participate in discussions of the lab's work. The best RA positions offer room for advancement. For example, RAs in some labs typically begin by running subjects for existing experiments, but are eventually encouraged to develop their own projects (often as seeds for eventual senior projects). A final type of opportunity is a full-time paid RA position for recent graduates during the year: many labs have such an employee who runs the day-to-day operation of the lab, and such positions can be perfect for recent college graduates who want to go to graduate school but want to get more research experience first.
Unlike classes and other typical academic experiences, research positions will not fall into your lap: you have to seek them out. Regardless of what type of position you're looking for (part-time, summer, paid, volunteer, etc.), the process is basically the same. Your first step should be to contact the professors whose research projects you find especially interesting. To help start this search at Yale, check out the lists of professors, departments, and laboratories. The easiest way to do this is to scour webpages for work that sounds interesting, and then to email the professors, asking if they have any RA opportunities available. If you're looking for positions at other schools (e.g. over the summer), you may want to ask your professors here for advice on who might be exciting to work with.
You'll find rather a lot of variability in the availability of RA opportunities. Here at Yale, there always seems to be at least one or two labs looking for RAs. On the other hand, if you're keen to work in a specific lab, you might need to wait a semester (or even two), if the lab is already 'full'. For this reason, it can help to ask early. Some lab even have a waiting list of interested students. Some professors pay RAs with work-study funds; others expect a volunteer commitment at first, with pay for more advanced RAs. Other labs offer academic credit via 'directed research' for lab experience. Given this variability -- and also variability in the degree of responsibility that RAs are given -- you might find it useful to find out the names of other students currently working in the lab, and ask them what it's like to work there.
Paid RA positions over the summer are typically harder -- but not impossible -- to find. At Yale many labs prefer to hire summer RAs from the pool of those students already working in the lab during the academic semester, since they require less training, etc. The same is true, alas, of other schools: most professors prefer to hire RAs from their own school, who are more likely to continue to work in the lab after the summer. On the other hand, volunteer positions are often easier to come by. (One good strategy is to say in your note that you're hoping for a paid position, but may also consider a volunteer position, given your immense interest in the work.) Again, your best bet is just to contact people by email, and to do so early. Younger professors who may have just started may be more likely to have positions for students coming from elsewhere, since they may not already have a pool of students working in their lab.
In all of these cases, you'll have better luck finding an RA position if you can demonstrate that you are truly interested in (and informed about) the work being done in the lab. Before contacting people out of the blue, take some time to find out what they're working on, and read several of their recent papers. Then when you contact them you can mention some details of their work, and perhaps bring up some ideas that you find especially exciting -- or even some of your own ideas for how the work might be extended. By taking the time and effort to find out about some of the details of the work, you'll demonstrate that you have some shared interests, that you're committed to the relevant area of study, and that you're not simply mass-emailing professors, etc.
How can I go about getting Directed Research credit for my work?
If you're working in a laboratory and would like to get Directed Research credit for your work, you will first need to obtain the permission of your research supervisor, and of the DUS. More information can be found on the Directed Research Form, which must submitted (with signatures from your Directed Reading advisor and from the DUS) before you will be able to register for these coures. This form asks you to include:
The course itself will then be managed by your research supervisor -- though the DUS may contact them halfway through the semester, to ensure that you are making regular and significant progress.
- The name and contact information of your research supervisor
- A 1-paragraph description of the research project itself
- A 1-paragraph description of the role(s) you will play in this project
- A description of how your activities will be assessed, including some form of midterm evaluation
Many -- but not all -- research activities will be appropriate candidates for academic credit. Those that aren't appropriate typically involve little intellectual engagement with the research -- e.g. just running subjects for a professor on a 'pre-packaged' project. The most common assessment tool at the end of a semester will be a final writeup of the research, to be assessed by the research supervisor; if you're opting for this manner of assessment, be sure to state how long the paper will be, etc. Finally, remember that Directed Research courses (like Directed Reading courses) can be used to satisfy course requirements for the major, but only for the electives -- i.e. not for the 4/3/2/1 'core' courses.
How many Directed Research (and/or Directed Reading) courses can I take?
The only constraint imposed by the Cognitive Science major itself is the one noted above: Directed Research courses (like Directed Reading courses) can only be used to satisfy the 'depth' course requirements for the major, and at a maximum of 1 such course for the major.
If you'd like to take additional courses of this type beyond the major requirements, however, you may be able to do so (and in fact many students do!). Note, however, that Yale College imposes some additional limits in this respect: You are limited to a maximum of 3 Directed Research and/or Directed Reading courses during your first 6 terms of enrollment. After that -- i.e. in your Senior year -- you are limited to a maximum of 2 such courses per semester. These limits may be exceeded in individual cases only be petitioning the relevant Yale College committee. If you are interested in pursuing such a petition, please talk to the DUS first.
How can I find funding to support my research?
We are currently attempting to develop funding sources from within the cognitive science program itself. For now, though, many students obtain funding from several other sources in the university and beyond to support their research (e.g. to purchase materials or pay experimental subjects). Among these opportunities:
- Perhaps the most common source of research funding is your research supervisor herself/himself. Many (but not all) faculty members have grants and/or discretionary funding that can be used to support such projects -- especially if those projects fall within their own primary research goals, and/or if you have already been assisting in their laboratory.
- Many students find that they can support their research through various funding sources that are managed by their residential colleges.
- Yale College itself also has a number of funding opportunities, many of which are summarized here and here. Of these various funding sources, two are especially popular. First, the Yale College Dean's Research Fellowship in the Sciences and the Yale College Dean's Research Fellowship in the Humanities and Social Sciences each often fund cognitive science students to conduct research (often with Yale faculty) over the summers. Second, the YSER Research Presentation Travel Prize program has often funded cognitive science students' travel to present their original research at scientific meetings.
What summer programs are available for undergraduates in cognitive science?
For the summer of 2014, you could check out the following:
Another good resource is the 'Research Experience for Undergraduates' program that is funded by the National Science Foundation. To find the relevant summer programs, go the NSF REU search page, and click on 'Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences'. Note that many of these programs prioritize participants from underrepresented groups, and/or students from institutions that do not typically provide extensive research opportunities. You can also check out the links suggested by Rochester University.
(This list will be updated for the summer of 2015 in spring.)
Where can I find information on the departments at Yale that participate in cognitive science?
The core departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that contribute to the cognitive science major at Yale are those of:
In addition, enterprising students can find research opportunities in several other departments that have specific faculty studying the mind from a cognitive science perspective, including:
What cognitive science laboratories does Yale have?
Keep in mind that (1) not all faculty in cognitive science run laboratories; (2) not all laboratories have websites; and (3) cognitive science majors often do research with faculty beyond the core cognitive science faculty. As such, you may also want to check out the list of formally affiliated faculty, and also browse faculty interests from the list of contributing departments.) With those caveats in mind, check out the list of laboratories at Yale that relate to cognitive science from the main CogSci program website.