Still can’t decide what graduate program to apply to?

Here are some thoughts from Dr. Tracy Riggins:

The good news is that the research students conduct in my lab does not differ between any of the graduate programs (NACS vs Developmental Psychology vs Cognitive/Neural Systems Psychology). I also think that post-grad opportunities will be similar as many jobs are determined based off a students’ publication and grant history and these would also be similar because the research is similar.

I think the major differences between the programs are in:

  1. 1) course requirements

  2. 2) milestones

  3. 3) format of the qualifying/comprehensive exams.

Course Requirements

NACS is an interdisciplinary graduate training program, they have fewer requirements that are pretty broad. They can be found here: The focus of the required courses is more on the neuroscience aspects of the field as opposed to psychological phenomena. However, for electives courses, students in my lab are also required (by me) to take classes in developmental psychology, statistics, and fMRI/EEG methods because these are necessary for the type of research they want to conduct. Also, students are able to take more than the required number of courses to round out their education.

Another difference is that in NACS students basically craft their own curriculum, in comparison to a more traditional program like psychology in which the curriculum is comprehensive and is (largely) laid out for students (see OR


The differences in terms of milestones are relatively minor. For example, NACS has a required first year project, but does not require a Masters thesis. Psychology does not have a first year project but does have a Master Thesis requirement. Another example (related to what I said above), is that NACS does not require a class on developmental psychology, but one could take it. Psychology does not require a class on neuroscience, but one could take it.

Format of the Qualifying/Comprehensive Exams

Finally, in terms of qualifying/comprehensive exams, all programs would require knowledge related to one’s research in developmental cognitive neuroscience. However in terms of “breadth” in NACS one would focus more on areas such as basic neuroscience, cellular and molecular neuroscience, cognitive science, and computational neuroscience. In Developmental Psych “breadth” questions would cover topics like social development, development of emotion regulation, Nature vs. Nurture, the importance of timing in development, the active role of the child in development, etc. In CNS "breadth" questions would cover memory processes, theories of memory, cognition as a whole (e.g., executive function), etc.

I realize that comparing the programs can feel overwhelming, but perhaps the important thing to keep in mind is that the research and training in my lab is the same regardless of the program.

I am happy to answer more questions if they arise – don’t hesitate to ask.

- Dr. Tracy Riggins