Cognitive Science is one of the most exciting and rapidly developing fields in modern science. The human mind is truly one of the great remaining frontiers of exploration. If you apply yourself, within a few months you could be making your own contributions to advancing the surrounding understanding of human thought and behavior.
The Cognitive Science Program at Northwestern offers a major as a part of the Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences. Cognitive Science is also an excellent minor for any student who wants study mental processing within a broad interdisciplinary perspective.
One of the first things you should do as you begin to plan your major is to contact your Cognitive Science Advisor (or the Program Assistant, if you are not sure who that is). You can discuss your interests and goals, and find aspects of the cognitive science program here at Northwestern that are particularly suited to you. The text below is intended to provide you with access to some frequently asked questions from students starting to consider work in Cog Sci. While you should read this material before contacting your advisor, the text below is not intended as a substitute for an actual meeting to discuss the major / minor.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who is my Cognitive Science Advisor?
The Cognitive Science Undergraduate Advisor is Emily Cibelli. As always, feel free to contact the Program Assistant or our Director of Undergraduate Studies, Ric Ashley, if you have any questions.
What to do with a major in Cognitive Science?
Many students choose a cognitive science major in preparation for further education at the graduate level. Training in cognitive science will provide the student with a solid foundation for graduate-level work in any area of cognitive studies: psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics or neuroscience. Other students choose a cognitive science major because its interdisciplinary scope leaves the student well-positioned for careers in areas such as medicine or business. Finally, some students choose cognitive science in order to pursue opportunities in education, computer-based design, interface technology, and so on.
Maggie Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Cognitive Science Career Advisor, and provides career exploration and job/internship search advising for students majoring in Cognitive Science from WCAS. Feel free to contact her for more information. The Northwestern Career Advancement (NCA) website is here: http://www.northwestern.edu/careers/.
Which classes should you take first?
Students are encouraged to work from top-to-bottom on the course requirements listed in the course catalog (see http://www.cogsci.northwestern.edu/major.php for a list of major and minor requirements), but you should feel free to skip around a little. In general, you should start with the introductory level courses (Cog Sci 207, 210, and 211). Please note that these classes do not need to be taken in numerical order. It's fine to start with CogSci 211, for example.
These classes will provide you with broad exposure to the field as a whole and give you a sense of the range of issues addressed. However, if you can't get into these courses or they don't fit in your schedule, don't worry - they do not serve as prerequisites for other courses in the major, and you can move on to the next courses on the list.
Students should complete the Methods courses (Psych 201, Psych 205, and EECS 110 or 111) as soon as possible, since these courses will provide important "mental tools" that will enable you to get more out of the other courses you take (and formal prerequisites for many later courses). For instance, in almost any Cog Sci course, you will encounter empirical studies in which data were collected, analyzed, and interpreted. Once you have taken statistics and research methods courses, you will be much better equipped to understand and appreciate the meaning of this work.
While you should endeavor to progress through the major/minor requirements from top to bottom, if you see a more advanced course that you are eager to take, you should not rule it out simply because you have a few Intro, Methods, or Core courses left to complete. Some advanced seminars are not offered every year, or even every other year. In some cases, a course may be offered once and then never again. Thus, if you see an occasional course that fits your interests very closely, you should feel free to jump ahead and take it.
Prerequisites are suggestions, but not always absolute requirements. They are typically set by instructors to indicate the level of knowledge that they will expect from students on the first day of their class. If there is a particular course in which you are especially interested, but you do not have room in your schedule to complete all of the listed prerequisites, you should consider talking with the instructor about the situation. Some faculty will indicate that it is a very bad idea to take their course without having completed the listed prerequisites. Others will suggest additional reading that might help you prepare for the course. Many will simply indicate that you should take their course with caution and that you may not be as likely to get a top grade. If the material presented in the reading and lecture ever begin to be unclear to you, you should contact the instructor immediately to figure out a way to do extra reading or other work to improve your understanding. (of course, that applies to the rest of your classes as well!)
EECS 110 or 111 is an important part of your major, even if you are not planning to pursue advanced computational work. An increasingly common trend in many fields, including cognitive science, is the use of "computational models." Rather than simply providing a verbal description of how one believes the brain accomplishes some task, a researcher writes a computer program to actually accomplish the task being studied. The performance of the program can then be tested and compared to actual human performance. For instance, when vision researchers first started hooking computers up to video cameras to test out their theories, they were shocked at how difficult some seemingly simple processes were. By refining their theories in the form of computer models over the past several decades, a much more complete and precise understanding of human vision has been obtained. Similar stories have emerged in a wide range of domains. Once you have obtained a little experience with programming and developed a sense of the sorts of things that are "easy" and "hard" for computers (i.e., once you have completed EECS 110 or 111), you will be much better equipped to understand and appreciate these computational models of cognition. Even if you don't ever produce one of these computational models yourself, it is important that you be able to understand the work of people who do. If you are new to programming (or just nervous about it), you may want to take 110, which is a bit less theoretical and more practical. If you wish to take additional EECS courses at NU, you should take 111 rather than 110 (in particular, note that EECS 111 is a prerequisite for the Core course EECS 348: Artificial Intelligence).
For Introductory, Methods, or Core courses, substitutions are rarely allowed. (exceptions for certain major-minor combinations are listed below.) All such requests must be submitted to your Cognitive Science Advisor in writing. Such requests should include significant reasons for wanting to substitute another course and written documentation providing detail about the alternative course(s), typically a copy of the syllabus. Even when complete, such requests are almost always denied. Much thought has gone into the design and selection of the program course requirements. It is unlikely that all of the required elements will be present in any other course.
One exception is substitutions for Psych 201 (Statistical Methods in Psychology), where certain kinds of AP credit or courses from the Statistics department may fulfill this requirement. See this page: http://www.wcas.northwestern.edu/psych/undergraduate_studies/requirements_and_procedures/psych201_substitutions.html for details.
For Advanced Electives, substitutions are frequently requested and granted. The list of Advanced Elective courses given in the catalog should be considered as a list of starting suggestions, not as an exhaustive list of possible courses. New relevant courses are always coming up. The rule of thumb for asking might be "If you can, with a straight face, make a case for why a particular 300 or 400 level course is related enough to Cog Sci and your interests in the field" You should feel tremendous freedom in perusing the course catalog for classes that you think will enhance your progress in the major. IMPORTANT: REGARDLESS OF HOW CLEAR IT IS TO YOU THAT SOME COURSE SHOULD COUNT AS AN ADVANCED ELECTIVE, IT MUST STILL BE APPROVED IN WRITING BY YOUR COGNITIVE SCIENCE ADVISOR (an email is fine). He will also approve what 'area of major emphasis' the course could be allowed to count as (see below)
Advanced electives must have some structure to them. The Cog Sci program prides itself on the flexibility it enables students to exercise in pursuing their interests as advanced undergraduates. However, we do want students to have some structure to their Advanced Electives. Specifically, at least three of these electives must fall under one of the "areas of major emphasis" listed in the Advanced Elective section. In order to assure some breadth, in addition to this depth, you must complete at least 2 of your 6 Advanced Electives outside this area of major emphasis.
Double counting rules are complex, so please discuss any questions with your Advisor. But here's an introduction (see also http://www.weinberg.northwestern.edu/advising/rules/doublecounting.html).
- For a Cog Sci major with a minor in another area, there is no double counting of courses.
- For a Cog Sci minor with a major in another area, there is no double-counting of courses, except for courses that are 'related' for the major. So if you are a Cog Sci minor with a Psych major, EECS 110 counts as 'related' for the Psych major, and you could therefore double-count it toward your Cog Sci minor.
- For a Cog Sci major with a second major: You can double-count up to 5 courses with your second major. For example, a double major with Psychology might double-count Psych 228, 201, and 205.
Finally, additional rules apply to some students in schools outside Weinberg College. For example, Medill students can double-count Psych 201 toward both their Medill program and a Cog Sci major, but not toward a Cog Sci minor. For more information on cross-school double-counting, see http://www.registrar.northwestern.edu/graduation/double_counting_non-WCAS.pdf.
Get involved in research! Northwestern is one of the top universities in the world for research, and it's easier than you think to become a part of a lab. Keep in mind that working closely with a lab can lead to independent study credit, a senior thesis, and letters of recommendation from faculty members. Many undergraduate students even publish papers in professional journals based on their work. It's never too early to start. While some labs require that you've taken statistics or research methods, many labs would be happy to accept enthusiastic students in their first year at Northwestern. Labs sometimes advertise research positions (see this link , http://undergradresearch.northwestern.edu/), and most wait for students to approach the lab. So be proactive. Go to the Cog Sci faculty page, and click on a few dozen faculty pages. Read their research descriptions, poke around their lab pages, and pick a few that seem most interesting to you. Read some of their papers to confirm your interest. Write to the professor that directs the lab, and ask for a meeting to discuss research opportunities. When you meet, show that you've done your homework, and ask if you could begin volunteering in the lab. If it turns out that the particular lab is not for you, no one will be upset if you switch to another one. Feel free to ask your Advisor if you have questions about research experiences. And the Cognitive Science Club is a great place to hear about the research experiences of your peers.
The Cog Sci Club (www.nucogsci.com) is a fantastic way to learn about research opportunities at Northwestern, as well as what courses people liked, undergrad conferences that are available, etc. This is a highly recommended resource - please check out!
Another way in which many students become involved in research is the senior honors program. Each spring, we invite junior majors with high GPAs and/sor a recommendation from a Cog Sci faculty member to participate in the senior honors program (contact your Advisor with questions about this process). Honors thesis projects typically last three full terms, enabling students to work with a faculty member on an in depth research project and become expert in a particular area. The second (winter) term counts as one advanced elective. Students in the program attend the weekly honors thesis seminar and ultimately produce a paper that resembles a journal article. Students also present their work at the annual Cog Sci Fest talk symposium and are evaluated for Honors in Cognitive Science.
Petition to Graduate.
By the end of the junior year, the registrar requires you to file a petition to graduate, in which you spell out the major(s) and minor(s) that you expect to complete and the date by which you plan to graduate. This form should be filled out in consultation with your Cognitive Science Advisor. You should prepare for this meeting by assembling a list of (a) the courses you've taken toward cog sci, (b) the courses you are currently taking toward cog sci, and (c) a sample set of courses that you could take in your remaining quarters that would satisfy the major requirements, assembling the best information you can about when they would be offered (e.g. "Spring of next year") based on department schedules (e.g. this page for Psychology) or past offerings. Neither we or the registrar will hold you to taking those particular courses you suggest in (c), the purpose is to ensure that there is at least one path to graduation for you, and you can alter this path as you progress.