My title is pretty self-explanatory, but I was wondering how it looks to mention specific researchers to work with in graduate school via my personal statement/s. I'm applying to PhD programs in neurobiology (neurological disease/therapeutics research).

I know the general consensus is "yes, mention researchers you would want to work with," but I'm worried that this may pigeonhole my application or limit it in certain ways. For example, if a new PI is not listed on the page but does research I like, and I don't list him, I lose that opportunity. Similarly, I'm worried that if I list, say 4 PIs to work with, and none of them care to have me work in their labs, I may get denied all together from the school's program (when I could have gotten accepted if I listed other PIs that may have wanted me).

Also to note, at each graduate school I'm applying to, I have made sure that there are at least 4 labs I would want to work in throughout completing my PhD thesis.

This is a minor nuance in my application's personal statements, but I would appreciate any insight. Thank you very much!

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    If you do it, make sure you call them "principal investigators" not "principle investigators", or probably more correctly "supervisors". Furthermore, you could just add "I am open to other supervisors as well". Commented Aug 22, 2019 at 11:28
  • That's a good idea. I also just realized it was misspelled. The person who "edited" my title and nothing else spelled it that way, haha. Commented Sep 1, 2019 at 20:02

3 Answers 3


Listing PI's is almost always a good idea because it shows you've given some thought to what interests you. It also helps you point out how you fit in a program. You'd be amazed how many applicants don't do that kind of due diligence. So these "listers" tend to stand out in an applicant pool.

If they reject your application because they know that none of the labs you've targeted are "open", they are probably doing you a favor. Working on a PhD is hard enough. It can be harder when you're working on a project or in an area that isn't your first choice.

  • Very helpful comment and I agree. After spending the past 3 weeks... deeply analyzing and finalizing my list of 3-4 PIs at my schools, I have decided to definitely include it in my personal statements for the reasons you listed above. Thanks! Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 20:12

I believe in this situation you have to decide on a proper ordinal scale for schools, faculty and the program. Since you mention that you have done the legwork and identified 4 labs, it would make sense at this point to possibly write to them and ask if they might have openings in your projects of interest.

Additionally, I don't believe faculty will disregard you for listing their colleagues, unless they have a personal feud. Younger faculty especially, will consider students who might have listed more senior faculty, if they themselves have not made it clear that they are looking for students. i.e, if a new assistant professor has not set up a group website, but sees a student has applied to a senior colleague in the same field, he will most definitely consider you favorably.

The point to remember is that you are looking out to do research you find interesting and in a field where you feel you will be able to make a meaningful difference. It is not a good idea to be vague in hopes of acceptance if you are not sure of working with the PI in question anyway.

  • completely agreed and valid points. thank you - i'll keep this in mind and forgo my initial thought of listing the labs I want to work in (at least the ones that are listed). Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 1:11

Yes, you need to specifically state which faculty you want to work with, and why. It's true this does "pidgeon hole" you. But that is what graduate study is supposed to be; specialized. If you do not want to specialize, you might not be ready to start a PhD.

In the internet era, if a supervisor is not advertising for students online, you should consider if they will be able to mentor you in professional skills.

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    I think this depends on the location. And perhaps on the field. I know that it was completely unnecessary in my case: math in the US. In fact, for someone entering a doctoral program after an undergraduate degree this would be unusual in the US. They don't yet have the basis to choose a narrow specialty. However, in some other location-field combinations it is clearly necessary to choose since the PI actually hires the students and controls their admission.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 22, 2019 at 10:42
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    Agreed with Buffy, especially for US and the field OP is applying (neuroscience).
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Aug 22, 2019 at 13:59
  • Agreed with the above (for both Anon Physicist and Buffy). However, I do know, as listed in my original post, the main "realm" of neuro that I want to work in. I also know 4-5 PIs from each school that I would want to work with. This goes beyond what many would know now who are starting a PhD in my field. These applications/personal statements do not even explicitly state to list PIs (as mentioned by Bryan/Buffy). Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 6:50
  • Many times, especially for my major, individuals enter it not knowing the PIs that he/she would want to work with. Hence, rotations are done at almost all PhD programs now for science and each neuro graduate program I looked at will incorporate them. This brings me back to the original question...@Buffy and @Bryan Krause, do you think I should list the 4-5 PIs (that are listed on the website) in my PS to work with? I feel like it would be fine to not list anyone, but then again, Anon Physist's point is valid in that I should know who I want to work with and I think I do for the most part. Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 6:54
  • Also, I mention "that are listed" because some of these sites are so outdated. For instance, the UCSD neuro website has tons of PIs listed, and their publications only go up to 2010. When I dug very deep, I found 2 PIs that were not listed on the "main neuro page" (with the 80+ currently listed) that do take graduate students and are labs that I would want to work with. That's why I feel somewhat uneasy about just going what is on the page. I could send emails and try to track everyone down, but that's a pain. Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 6:56

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