Answers to Common Questions for Potential Applicants to the PhD Program in Cognitive Science

Q. What is distinctive about the PhD program in cognitive science at JHU?

A. Our multidisciplinary approach to the study of language and spatial representation takes place in a fully autonomous academic department, which emphasizes intellectual cohesion across traditionally separate disciplines to a degree that is incompatible with the standard model of separate departments for separate disciplines.

The training of graduate students reflects our focus on the formal structure of cognition at all levels of analysis. The graduate program emphasizes formal training and the cross-fertilization of diverse research methodologies. In addition to multidisciplinary coursework, students complete two research projects using different methodologies prior to the dissertation. Details can be found under Requirements (link).

Q. How does the linguistics coursework differ from that of linguistics departments?

A. For concreteness, let’s consider an example: Kim, a student whose primary area of interest within linguistics is phonology. Through basic courses and many advanced seminars (often designed around students’ research interests), our program—like other top-rated linguistics departments—provides Kim with strong training in theoretical phonology, as well as solid theoretical training in syntax and semantics.

But Kim’s remaining coursework will differ substantially from that of a traditional linguistics program, in which Kim would take a number of more advanced courses in syntax and semantics, and courses in historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, and other areas spanning the traditional fields of linguistics.

In our department, Kim will take courses such as cognitive development, the cognitive neuroscience of written language, the foundations of cognitive science, and the philosophy of language; Kim will also get solid training in experimental methods, learning how to conduct serious studies of the cognitive processes that underlie, and that interact with, the language faculty. And, as addressed in the next question, Kim will receive serious formal training.

The net result is that Kim will be prepared to study phonology as a formal grammatical system, as a system of knowledge used in cognitive processes of perception and production, as a computational system with its own special properties, or as a neural system central to speech processing.

Q. How about training in formal/mathematical, computational, and statistical methods?

A. The only background presumed of incoming students is high school math. A trademark of our program is that our PhDs have considerable formal, computational and statistical sophistication—but this is largely the result of specially designed courses, unique to our program, that start at square one. Our students learn to program computers in our own courses; they take the same serious statistics courses as PhD students in psychology, and learn more advanced statistics within our own courses; and through a specially designed sequence of Formal Methods courses, they get solid training in a wide range of mathematical tools that fuel contemporary cognitive and linguistic theories. All this training is conducted within a highly supportive environment dedicated to the success of every student, regardless of background.

Students entering the Computational Cognitive Science Track are expected to have programming and math skills that allow them to take the basic computations courses (e.g. experience python or MATLAB, linear algebra, calculus, etc.).

Q. How does this department’s research differ from that of linguistics departments?

A. Like many traditional linguistics PhD programs, students in our program complete two research projects in their first three years. A traditional formula in linguistics programs is that these two projects must span, for example, both phonology/phonetics and syntax/semantics.

In our program, the two projects must span different basic methodologies: For example, theoretical linguistic analysis and experimental linguistics, or computational modeling and neuroimaging, or psycholinguistics and corpus analysis, or neuropsychology and development.

We encourage students to direct both projects at a common question, approaching the problem from complementary methodological perspectives. Often these two projects then form the basis of the student’s dissertation.

Throughout the process—from designing the research, to carrying it out, to writing it up—the student works closely with faculty from diverse backgrounds who assure that the work meets the high standards of theoretical, experimental, and computational work in their respective fields.

Q. How do this department’s graduates, who receive a PhD in cognitive science, do on the academic job market in linguistics departments?

A. In recent years, linguistics departments have been opening up to interdisciplinary approaches. Because our students receive both deep training within their area of linguistics and interdisciplinary training that includes at least one methodology outside of traditional linguistics, our graduates have found tenure-track positions in a number of linguistics departments; psycholinguists also have positions in psychology departments.

Three of our graduates have received the highly prestigious NSF CAREER Award, an honor which is especially exceptional for linguistics faculty, and which we believe is a testament to the value of interdisciplinary training.