By the time I apply for a PhD, I will have almost a year of experience as a Research Assistant, but I doubt I will have a paper published till then. The project is still in the data analysis stage, and it will most probably be in the review stage when I apply. Other than this job, I have no other research experience/papers/projects that are much relevant. Though I have 1.5 years of corporate experience in IT. I think the above might be a common cause for concern, especially for people looking to switch fields, and thus hope the question is qualified enough for a general audience.

As for my particular case, I am looking for PhD programs at the intersection of Neuroscience and Computer Science (e.g. Cog Sci, Computational Neuroscience, Neural Engineering etc). I have a bachelors in Computer Science, but my grades are bad. My GRE score is quite good however, and I'm from a well-known college in my country.

  • 3
    Are you in a US-based system (applying with a bachelor's) or in a European system (applying with a master's)?
    – aeismail
    Jun 28, 2013 at 6:38
  • 11
    but my grades are bad — What you really need are glowing recommendation letters.
    – JeffE
    Jun 28, 2013 at 16:21
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    I think you are thinking about the problem in a wrong way. A PhD is more about working for your supervisor than studying in a program. If you know what you want to do, search for research groups doing that, speak with the professors there and see if any of them finds you useful and can pay you. Then there will be lots of bureaucracy, applications, lessons, courses, exams and whatnot. But the main point is in the research group, the supervisor and the funding, IMHO.
    – Trylks
    Jun 28, 2013 at 17:43
  • @Trylks - Thanks. I agree with your view, but I think this approach works best for applying to European Phd programs, where they hire on a per-project basis. So for people who already know the problem they want to work on, this is the best way. As for me, I have a very broad interest - I would like to explore the field first by taking a few courses and working on some small projects, before I decide on a narrow problem i want to work on. So how do I look for such programs that are open to applicants like me that are near newbies in the field?
    – warmzombie
    Jun 29, 2013 at 5:50
  • @aeismail - I did my undergrad in India, and have an integrated dual degree - B.E. Computer science and M.Sc. Bio Sciences
    – warmzombie
    Jun 30, 2013 at 1:45

3 Answers 3


This is a difficult question to answer and I know little about the intersection of CS and neuroscience. I do know a little bit about the intersection of CS and social sciences (i.e. HCI/information sciences) so I will write about that. In addition, I am the student representative on the admissions committee of our department so I have some limited experience with that process as well.

You do not need a publication to apply for PhD in the US. For other countries, it might be different and I do not have that information. Potentially, you will be more competitive if you have a publication. But remember, that all publications are not created equal. If you have a first author paper (or otherwise depending upon the publication standards in your field) in a top ranked journal/conference in your field, then you are competitive (assuming that other parts of your application pass muster).

If that publication is in a lesser known journal/conference, you still have displayed some knowledge about how to conduct and publish research - which in the end is better than nothing.

However, in my experience, I have seen that detailed letters of recommendation from authors known to members of the admissions committee are usually given way more weight than any published research.

Also, take my words with a pinch of salt. Everything varies from field to field and from year to year.

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    Thanks, this helps. I am working under someone who has a very good publication record, and I think his letter of recommendation would help a lot, going by what you say.
    – warmzombie
    Jun 28, 2013 at 6:00

I am a PhD student of neuroinformatics in UK and my background is computer science. I think I know a bit about the intersection of neuroscience and CS.

Theoretical/computational neuroscience is a growing field and as far as I am aware people with physics/CS background are very much needed. Experimentalists have a whole wealth of data but they usually don't have skills or time to analyse the data, create models, run simulations and obtain predictions.

You don't need publications to be accepted to a PhD programme. There are actually some PhD students who didn't publish a paper during their programme at all... Having good grades and recommendation letters helps but I would risk to say that primarily you need to show a genuine interest in the field, show that you want to find answers to certain questions etc. You already have an experience as a Research Assistant and definitely it is your strength. Focus on what skills you already have and not what you are lacking. If, for example, you are a brilliant programmer in a couple of languages and handle huge databases well, try to sell that. There must be some labs where your skills are on high demand.

Another thing is what university/lab you would like to aim at. If you want to work for top researchers in the field, it might get very competitive and not having good grades and publications works against you. But of course there is a number of less known labs that work on interesting projects and have various collaborators around the world.

Finally, as already mentioned in comments - get in touch with the professors, find out about their research, read their papers, raise some questions. And remember that some labs might be interested in working with you but cannot offer you any funding. In that case it still might work OK as there is various ways to obtain individual grants.


I can only answer from my experience as well, as I am in Australia and studying a physics PhD - my supervisor advised me that it is always good to have some publications under your belt before graduation - makes it a bit easier to defend the thesis/pass examination (we don't do thesis defence in Australia, or at least, at my university).

The reason why it is beneficial is because as you have had part(s) of your research published, it has already been reviewed and accepted in the scientific community.

However, having said that, I was not published at all in my MSc and I had very little difficulty. You do have experience in research with your job and significant IT experience, as well as a very strong letter of recommendation (what got me over the line). You may want to contact the admissions officers of where you are intending to apply to discuss these concerns.

  • I think the question is different, he is applying to enter a PhD program not to defend the thesis. But I'm not sure, though.
    – Trylks
    Jun 28, 2013 at 17:39
  • Hence my last 2 paragraphs, particularly the beginning of my 3rd paragraph
    – user7130
    Jun 28, 2013 at 17:49

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