Collaborative and Proactive Solutions

A Teaching Aside!

So I have just finished reading a book that I bought over the course of the school year but never found the time to read until now. It brought up some good ideas that I would like to touch on. Mostly so you all go and read the book.

The book is Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them by Ross Greene, Ph.D. (Amazon Link – note, purchasing from this link results in Amazon giving a donation to the National Fragile X Society). This is the same author of The Explosive Child for anyone that has read that one (well worth it in my opinion). Also, give Dr. Greene’s website a visit, it is worth the trip just for the free resources (I am using his comics in this post, for example).

What struck me most was the Collaborative and Proactive Solution model (CPS) that Dr. Greene promotes is surprisingly similar to the method I came to a few years back when teaching autistic students (Previous Post). I will leave the nuts and bolts of how to do the steps associated with the CPS model to a reading of Greene’s book. I am going to focus on the assumptions the model is based on and why I find them both effective and optimistic, as well as why I am implementing them as soon as I have the opportunity.

The CPS model was designed for a general education environment. I, however, think it is better suited for a special education environment, not as a behavioral management tool, but rather as a teaching tool to teach social and adaptive skills to kids that are woefully lacking in that instruction.

Super fast how to do CPS

For this, I will quickly bullet-point how to do what Dr. Greene calls Plan B. Plan A is the teacher imposing their will on the student (this does not work, see below).  Plan B is the way we develop relationships with the student and collaboratively problem solve. Plan B is best done before everything hits the fan.

It can work in emergency situations, but it will have to be repeated when everyone calms down.

  • Teacher and student meet at mutually agreed upon time (read, not during the student’s recess)
    • Teacher asks student what is up (over and over and over again until they get a real answer)
    • Teacher honestly empathizes with student response
    • Teacher expresses their concerns
    • Student empathizes with teacher concerns
    • Student leads discussion for developing a mutually beneficial solution
  • Teacher and student work together to implement plan
  • Lather, Rinse, Repeat

I can attest. This works. Really well. It takes a lot of work. The teacher has to humble themselves. So does the student. But this works.

Why do I like this model?

It does not oversimplify behavior, or solutions

I like this model because it does not focus on the environmental cause of the behavior. As such, CPS does not depend on applying reinforcers or punishers to change the environment and thus change behaviors. It rather depends on seeking out the unsolved problem or difficulty the student is having. Even better, it suggests we do so collaboratively with the child having a hard time.

I will explain this below, but in brief it is better to ask the student what unsolved problems they have that are causing them to behave the way they are than to assume we already know the answer and unilaterally impose our overly simplistic solutions. If we, as adults impose our solutions, the kids will work against us and we will find ourselves engaged in a power struggle.

And, here is a hint to new teachers out there, as a teacher, you will always lose a power struggle against a child. Always! Kids do not fight fair and they have no reason to. They are scared. They are trying to survive something they do not understand. It is a lost cause, so give up on that right now.


Kids will never fight fair, and we do not get to demand that they do so

Furthermore, if you power struggle with a kid you deserve to lose. It is never okay to interpret a child’s behavior as an us vs. them situation. It is also never okay to assume the student is doing something intentionally to either bother or to get revenge on the teacher. There is a deeper reason than that. There always is.

It empowers kids to develop their own solutions

To oversimplify, the CPS model is a method whereby a teacher (or any adult for that matter) works collaboratively with a student or child to come up with a solution to the problem. This is in stark contrast to the majority of systems whereby adults impose their will on students and dictate behavior. This leads to power struggles (see above) and a generally negative vibe in the classroom.


This is not uncommon behavior among relatively high functioning kids in special education classrooms.

When an adult demands change from a student and unilaterally holds them to it, the student only succeeds in frustrating the teacher. This perpetuates a cycle wherein the student and the teacher escalate each other until bad things happen; often the student being suspended, expelled, or being highly controlled in the classroom. All of these endpoints violate the basic need for safety that all children have.

This cycle will, over time, transform a mildly challenging student into one that needs a behavioral unit in order to function since they have lost the ability to trust in a classroom setting.


At some point, fear and anger take over…Fear will always hide in the background, but Anger…not so much with the hiding.  Anger is an important and highly effective way kids protect themselves in times of perceived danger.

When a student volunteers an honest solution to their own problem and their teacher compassionately supports them, the student can achieve success. The teacher does have to keep up their end of the deal, but in general the student does all of the hard work. All they need is support and a little guidance.


This is how we want our students to feel! Anger and fear are definitely still there, but the student gets to feel joyful about their successes!

Of these two options, which is preferable: A student spiraling out of control in a classroom and taking the teacher with them, or a student taking the reins of their own education and life and taking control?

I can tell you which one I like more as a teacher. It is the same one I prefer as a compassionate person.

It does not assume behavior is intentional

The basic premise of this model is that kids with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges lack important thinking skills. If a child is showing maladaptive behaviors, getting your goat, or generally being disruptive, it is because the student does not know how to be “good”. They have to be taught. Or, as Greene phrases it, When the demands being placed on a kid exceed [their] capacity to respond adaptively is when maladaptive behaviors are going to occur.

Dennis_The_Menace 3-24-10.gif

On that topic, what does “Act my Age” actually mean?

Put another way (and Chapter 2 of the book is dedicated to this description), kids do well if they can. It is not a matter of whether they want to be good. It is whether they have the ability. Greene’s philosophy that kids do well if they can suggest that if a kid could do well, they would do well. Even for a tough kid, being good is always preferable to not being good. It is less stressful, rewards and other desirable thing are more often available, and it is just plain easier.

So, the way we help a student with behavioral problems is to find out what skills they lack and what is getting in the way of the student being successful. In other words, find out why they can’t do something and work with them to develop a solution so they can do that something.

It eliminates adults designing narratives about “hard” students

The assumptions of this model provide a nice prohibition of certain labels we place on students to excuse ourselves as teachers from helping them:

  • They just want attention
  • They just want their own way
  • They are manipulating us
  • They are not motivated
  • They are making bad choices
  • Their parents are incompetent disciplinarians
  • They have a bad attitude
  • They have a mental illness
  • Their brother was the same way
  • They are just autistic

What do these explanations all have in common? They are stories we are imposing upon behavior to describe it. We are trying to make our lives easier, not the student’s. We are adding a narrative to justify our decisions, not to dispassionately describe a student’s behavior. We are tagging kids with a story that fits our narratives, but does not contribute anything helpful to an interaction with the kid. Also, these all are very negatively valenced statements that blame the child for something. When we make these types of statements we are very prone to slide into diagnostic language that stigmatizes the student.


As adults, we are really good at telling kids they are broken. Not something we should particularly be proud of…

These types of statements also serve primarily to justify the course of action we as the adults have already decided upon. If we are inclined to refer a student to the office than we are going to use terms like: difficult, disobedient, disrespectful, willful, etc. We use some of the same terms for referring students for special education, but we often include, they can’t help it, they are just never going to be able to get it, etc. Lots of, they can’t or other disabling terminology. This language makes us as adults feel better, but does nothing to help a child succeed, in fact it serves a better function as an anchor to progress rather than an engine.

It forces teachers to dig into the actual why of a behavior, not the stereotypical, restricted ABA explanations

Here is are options from the book of alternative things we can say instead. Specifically we can list the skills we see lagging in the child (I cherry-picked autism relevant options).

The student appears to show:

  • Difficulty handling transitions
  • Difficulty doing things in a logical sequence
  • Difficulty persisting in challenging tasks
  • Poor sense of time and time management
  • Difficulty maintaining focus
  • Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem
  • Difficulty expressing concerns, needs, or thoughts in words
  • Difficulty managing emotional response to frustration
  • Difficulty deviating from rules or routines
  • Difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty, novelty
  • Difficulty shifting from original idea, plan, or solution
  • Difficulty attending to and/or accurately interpreting social cues/poor perception of social nuances
  • Difficulty seeking attention in appropriate ways
  • Sensory-Motor difficulties

What do these all have in common? They are objective descriptions of behaviors. There is no positive or negative valence to these descriptions. They are just labels of behaviors we can address. Lastly, there are no diagnoses present when we dispassionately and objectively describe behavior.


I wonder which of these lenses is more precise…

I like this because I am trained in both behaviorism as well as cognition. In fact, we always joked by the end of my academic scientific career I was a rat/mouse neuropsychologist. In my experience, it is easy to attribute behavior to the environment and change the environment to change behavior, but that solves nothing. In fact, such an analysis barely scratches the surface of behavior.


We always need to keep digging when trying to help kids. If the solution seems easy, it is because it isn’t actually a solution. Don’t be lazy.

Many times, antecedent or environmental manipulation just kicks the problem down the road. The problem or difficulty the student is having has not been solved, just sidestepped. The CPS model and approach demands we engage with the cognition of a child, by which I mean we interact with what the kid is thinking and feeling, not just the behavioral output we see. Explaining behaviors in terms of what difficulties or challenges the student may face, which begs us to ask, “Why are they doing that? What do they need to not have to do that anymore”. These are the correct questions (See an earlier post of mine on this very topic).

It does not suggest difficult students be medicated or given diagnoses

Another reason I like this model is because it can be used either with or without medication. I have earlier stated that I believe medication is best used when it is a means to allowing an individual to access the behavioral support they need to overcome their challenges rather than as a means to alter behavior in itself (Post Here).

Greene goes into potential difficulties that arise when we as adults look at kids, tell a story about how we perceive their behavior (the first list above), and then medicate them. The challenging behaviors remain, so long as the basic skills the child lacks are not taught. The behaviors may just wax and wane a bit with each new intervention.


Labels…better for clothing than for kids I think


I always ask what happens to the diagnostic flavor of the week when the DSM changes…

To express my bias, I do see a value in a valid medical diagnosis to help inform knowledgable professionals on how to help an individual, but we far too often focus on pathologizing behavior and labelling kids rather than helping them in the educational setting (e.g., claiming “They are autistic so they just cannot do appropriate social behavior” when the student has never actually been taught “typical” from “atypical” social interactions). Dr. Greene and I share a very important assumption: Irrespective to diagnosis, we can help kids. We can engage them, and we can help them learn.

This book specifically addresses weaknesses of most classwide discipline systems


Quantity over quality is often the credo of behavioral management systems

A great behavioral aside in the book that struck me involved behavioral management systems in classrooms. Multiple stories are told about teachers that rely on the school-wide PBiS systems and assistant principals use to dole out discipline, referring students for harsh discipline because, “someone has to be tough on them or they will never learn”. This is not a helpful philosophy and long-term only serves to injure the child and irritate the assistant principal.


Has anyone asked the Vice Principal if they would rather not blindly dole out discipline on the teacher’s behalf?

Similar stories are told about ticket systems that are modified response cost paradigms. Students start the week with 10 tickets and lose tickets for misbehavior. The good kids that don’t need a class-wide behavioral system end the week with 10, the kids that need help reliably end up with 1-2 at the most…and we assume their consistent failure to thrive means our system is working (I wrote about this earlier).


I’ll have the Theraputty please…

What struck me was the statement (said over and over throughout the book) along the lines that students that behave well in class, do so because they have the skills to do so. Students that behave poorly in class, behave poorly because they lack the skills to behave well. And the disciplinary systems we as teachers set up using PBiS, Class Dojo, Classroom economy systems, etc. are not sufficient to meet these students’ needs. Many times even explicitly positive systems are manipulative at best until we teach our students much needed social and behavioral skills.


If only they looked at the doodle I was making, it was really good!

Greene states as follows in the book (In Chapter 7-emphasis mine):

But many [students] are placed in special education classrooms because no one in general education has the wherewithal to pinpoint and teach their lagging skills and work toward resolving their unsolved problems. Many special education classrooms rely heavily on consequence-based programs that, as you now know, don’t teach skills or solve problems, and may actually exacerbate the kids’ difficulties.

In many of the settings in which the CPS model has been implemented-general and special education schools, inpatient psychiatric units, and residential and juvenile detention facilities-adults came to the awareness that it was the application of the contingency management program that was setting kids off moat often and causing many serious challenging behavior. They recognized that both adults and kids were far more focused on rewards and punishments than on the problems that needed to be solved. They learned that providing structure and maintaining order in a classroom has a lot more to do with solving problems than rewards and punishments.

The CPS model is optimistic

The final reason I like this model is that it is truly optimistic. It is based on the premise that all students can succeed, we just have to work with them. We have to engage the students in a dialogue, be truly empathetic to their needs and desires, share our own, and work collaboratively to reach a mutually beneficial solution. Students with autism can engage with the CPS model (I have seen it). Students with Tourette’s can engage with this model (again, I have seen it). Students with emotional disturbances can succeed in this model (yet again…). Severely intellectually disabled students can be successful (you guessed it), if only we take the time to get off our high horse and help them.

Is this model realistic for special education?

I believe this model is very realistic for a special education classroom. I think special education needs the CPS model as a vehicle for teaching valuable behavioral, social, and adaptive skills in a manner that will actually help the student learn them.

I have found in my last few years of teaching that the majority of problems I have encountered with students came down to a sensory overload and they just shut down or else came down to the student just not understanding what was going on and how to act accordingly. In my classroom a few years ago, I started having conversations with my more difficult students to help them understand how others were seeing their behaviors. What I learned was that they often knew what they were doing and that others did not like it, but they had a reason for doing it. And more often than not they thought it was a darn good reason. And it very often was a good reason when I took the time to empathize with their point of view.

When these students expressed their reasons, I could easily have interpreted them in terms of ABA definitions, that of behaviors fulfilling needs for escape/avoidance, attention, or sensory seeking. However, as I have written about before (Link), I chose to dig a little bit deeper and see how the students were interpreting their own behaviors. I often found an avoidance behavior was not avoiding the work, but rather they were avoiding being embarrassed by not knowing how to answer the questions and feeling like everyone knows that they are dumb and cannot do the assignment.

Often times, actually, attention seeking fulfilled this same actual need. They were trying to get adult attention so that they could get the adult to do the work for them, and thus avoid embarrassment.


Well, my example was avoiding embarrassment

Now, when I was going all of this, I had no idea what this CPS model was. It just seemed the logical move to take since the students I was working with were having significant problems existing in more traditional classroom management systems. I favored social and emotional development as a method with the end goal of having student engage in self refection and behavioral self-regulation so much as they were capable. As such, we had to have a lot of discussions about incremental progress and how we can work toward our own goals. Since I let the students make their own goals, they were very motivated to achieve them.

So now what

Now, I am going to pursue any training I do with general education and special education teachers differently. I no longer have to teach my own weird ways of doing things built over decades of dealing with my brother and his peers in the autism community. I can approach teachers with an evidence-based method and ask them to use it. Barring that, I can and will use it myself to help the more challenging and difficult students succeed. Perhaps even help them get out of special education and into the general education classroom.

Graduate School Applications: How to Fail Spectacularly

In Part 1 (see here), I describe my experiences as an undergraduate researcher. These early years set the foundation for my concept of, “what is it like to be a scientist!”. I don’t have an answer as to whether my undergraduate career with Ray Kesner was real or a dream. It was my best years in academics. Ray encouraged my enthusiasm for science, let me flourish as a researcher, and always made me feel like my hard work and determination was worthwhile. My undergraduate experiences with Ray were the ruler by which I measured the rest of my alternative academic reality. My time in graduate school and postdoc, was it a dream, or a nightmare? And when I awoke (left academics), was it time to get on with my real life as a Special Education teacher?

Beginning of the End

The more you read,
The more things you will know.
The more you learn,
The more places you’ll go.

I love reading. I taught myself how to read when I was 3. By the time I was 8, I was reading my father’s very extensive library of novels including Issac Asimov, Tom Clancy, etc. At some point during elementary school, I read the Great Books of the Western World, which included Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke, Sir Issac Newton, David Hume, and Sigmund Freud. Just to name a few. I read all these books because my father is a bookworm. To this day, he reads several novels a week. His physical library is now digital, but it is no less impressive. My twin autistic brother, Kyle and I grew up emulating my father, reading anything and everything we could. Not a bad environment in which to grew up. But that did sort of seal my fate…


Year 1 Interviews

I applied to several dozen programs, but many never even interviewed me. I am just sharing the interview experiences I had. I will refer to individuals as “they” in order to protect all identity.

Program 1

For this program, I was not given any say on what labs I interview with. The interview process was completely set up by the admission committees.

  • For my first interview, we talked about what their lab was up to and the different technology that they had in their lab. They talked about how much they respected Ray’s ability to think big and answer hard questions. We chatted also about place cell recording and other scientific ideas they were currently interested in. The conversation was easy, not strained. We shared a lot of great ideas.


  • The second person I interviewed with was a young faculty member not yet tenured. I mention this because all my interviews with mid- to -late career faculty members (particularly BSD faculty) went swimmingly. Young faculty members almost always gave me the runaround. This interview started late as they were still interviewing another student. When I finally sat down, a graduate student in their lab was allowed to interrupt. I sat there while they chatted. My interview was scheduled to last 15 minutes. Instead of being interviewed, I got to sit in their office while they casually chatted with their graduate student. When they returned from distraction and started the interview, we ended up talking a bit about epilepsy, but they were more interested in telling me how others labs studying epilepsy were absolutely foolish idiots. After my 6-8 minute long 15 minute interview, I left for my next interview. I didn’t want to be late.


  •  I interviewed with another young faculty member for my third interview. I walked in and the scientist had me sit down next to their desk. They turned a laptop over in my direction and showed me a powerpoint of work going on in their lab in collaboration with Ray. What they didn’t realize what that they were showing me work that I had actually done for them in Ray’s lab. I never pointed out their error and I just let them blather away about this awesome research they didn’t realize I did. Besides, I was never given time to speak anyways.


The next week Ray called me into his office and asked me what the heck went wrong with the interviews. Two of the people I interviewed hated me, because I had totally offended them during the interview. They flat said I should not be accepted into the program, because I was absolutely not graduate school material. These two interviewers labeled me as being antisocial and compared me to a previous student that had dropped out of the program because they too were antisocial.


To make matters more confusing, the first person I interviewed with (mentioned above), tried to do everything they could to get me accepted into the program. I know this because that interviewer told me so when I saw them next. Even upon pushing, no one on the admissions committee would give Ray and actual reason for why I was so anathema to them.

I emailed and thanked everyone I had interviewed with for the opportunity and asked if there was any feedback on my interviewing that could help me in the future. Most blew me off (i.e., no response, which was fine as I did not actually expect one). The second interviewer mentioned above, the one who disrespected my time during the interview, specifically emailed me back and said that they do not give feedback to anyone and it was inappropriate for me to have asked.


After this interview experience, Ray suggested I needed to soften my persona and perhaps work on some social interaction skills. He said that sometimes I could come off arrogant and a little bit autistic. I didn’t see this at all. My impression was that they just did not want me and were trying to hurt Ray by not accepting me. Interestingly enough, they did not hesitate to collaborate with Ray later on when they needed his help for their grants.

Program 2

Again, the admissions committee assigned us to people to interview with. Fortunately, I was able to make a new acquaintance and we later collaborated on some projects. We probably would have never done research together if it weren’t for my interview.

  • For my first interview, we had a great conversation about the concept of metric and topological processing and how the research I was doing could be used to inform research into how individuals with Alzheimer disease get lost and fail to appropriately navigate. We planned and later worked on a collaboration using virtual reality technologies.


  • For my second interview, we talked about how much fun operant conditioning with pigeons is. We walked the halls outside their lab and they walked me through the infant research they were doing on developing attention. There was no way we were going to work together, but it was a great conversation.


  • My third interviewer was the program chair. We talked about Ray a lot, because they brought it up. They asked me quite bluntly why I was interviewing at that school and in a psychology department: I told them I was applying there because of the research program they had in their department. Again quite bluntly, they told me that I was not going to be a very good fit for the psychology program. This interviewer recommended point blank I stay and work with Ray a few more years and apply in the future to their neuroscience program. They thought I was doing great work and felt that I still had some things to learn from Ray and I should take advantage while I had the chance. I appreciated their candor.

I accepted what the department chair had said, and, despite feeling good about the interviews, I knew I was not getting in. I did not get in, but I did not expect to, so it was no shock.


Program 3

I had an interview at this school after I emailed to ask if they had received my application as I had heard nothing. They had received it, but I had not been invited to interview because they had discounted my intention to interview there because my CV was disproportionally impressive. Why would I apply if I wasn’t serious about the program?


I had universally positive interviews and experiences with the researchers. Specifically, I spent the day with one scientist tinkering around in his lab and talking about science. We also talked about how much fun Ray is and how big his ideas are. This was an extremely positive experience. So much in fact that I went over to this researcher’s lab over spring break that year to pilot out some behavioral tasks for their lab.

This scientist told they he wanted me in their lab, but the school was not nearly “good enough” for me. I deserved better. I needed to go somewhere that deserves my research record and creativity. I say told, but it was really more of a command. I appreciate this scientist for telling me their opinion so clearly.

Over two-thirds of my applications that year were triaged. I decided to take the advice of the scientists I had met at interviews. I worked with Ray to improve my CV even more and I decided I would apply exclusively to neuroscience programs and not psychology programs from there forward.


Year 2 Interviews

Program 4

For this program, I got to select the people I wanted to interview with, so I could get to know more about their labs. In hindsight, this might have done me in, because the people I choose to interview with were later forced to leave the school. It amazes me how politics in a school can affect potential applicants! This wasn’t the first time politics among the current faculty prevented me from getting into a program.


I remember sitting outside prior to my first interview with the admissions committee, which consisted of three professors and a graduate student, and chatting with them. It was a very friendly and casual conversation, so when I was to later interview with the committee, I wasn’t worried.

  • For my first interview, we were talking about hippocampus circuit dynamics and how I thought the hippocampus worked. When I started talking about time in the hippocampus, this scientist laughed and told me (about Ray), “There are some people in this world that are 10 or 20 years ahead of everyone else. They just lack the ability to describe it in a way that others can understand. The rest eventually catch up.” They meant this as a criticism/critique, but when I told Ray he thought it was a high compliment. It wasn’t meant as one, though.


  • For my second interview, when I actually interviewed with this scientist it was a nuts and bolts interview. They showed me the lab, the apparatus, and we talked about the technical requirements of the acquisition system, how long data analysis takes, and the approach to writing papers in the lab. We talked funding (as this researcher knew Ray shared such info with me). We ran some behavioral ideas past each other as potentially interesting single unit recording experiments and troubleshot why they were likely bad ideas. We also talked about theta and gamma rhythmicity in the hippocampus and what the implications of this researcher’s new theories were on place cell recording as a field. Interesting, this particular BSD research is widely considered one of the bigger jerks in the field, and yet I was able to get along with them effortlessly.


  • For my third interview, instead of interviewing with the head PI like planned, I was interviewed by two students. The lab PI was on an SFN conference call. We talked about theta rhythms and how to interpret certain data if we increased or decreased the frequency of theta. I continue to have productive scientific conversations with these two students.


  • For my next interview, we talked about the VTA and behavior, particularly the importance of reward in spatial learning and memory. This was a generic, good experience. At this time, we set up the potential for a research rotation if I got into the program.
  • This was the most fun interview of them all, even though it started off rather awkward. This scientist did not know how to talk to an animal behavioral person given they were purely a computational neuroscientist. To get things moving, I asked them how specifically their modeling software worked and then we had a good conversation after that. We talked about the importance of theoretical neuroscience and how I could develop tasks to test their models specifically before moving the model forward to testing in humans.
  • For my 6th interview, the interviewer and I talked about bug navigation and what we can learn in mammals from insect navigation. It was fascinating. I only put this scientist on my list because they studied navigation and collaborated on some papers I enjoyed reading. It was a good chat, we both had a good time.


  • My final interview was with the admissions committee, which consisted of three faculty members and a graduate student. This was decidedly _not_ a good experience. From the moment I walked in I was attacked. Their tone of voice was negative and accusatory. They asked why I had chosen to interview with my last interviewer as they worked with bugs and I worked with rats. I told them why and they scoffed at me. For the next question, which was more like a statement of fact, they wanted to know if I was only going to test Ray’s theories no matter what lab I worked in. I told them no, I was champing at the bit to learn new theories, methods, and technologies to better understand brain function. Then they said I didn’t deserve any of my first author publications and further claimed that Ray just put me as the first author even though I had done none of the work. I think I was just in shock and instead of losing control of my emotions over such an offensive statement, I sidestepped the offense and talked about the process in Ray’s lab by which I was successful. Again, the committee jeered. In hindsight, I really wish I had lost my cool over the inappropriate questions, but at the time, I assumed they were being jerks to everyone to see how people responded to pressure.


Besides the positive interviews I had with everyone BUT the admissions committee, I knew I wasn’t ever going to be accepted by my peers because social time meant drinking lots and lots of alcohol. The school purchased a keg for the student gathering on the first night. When we went out to restaurants the following nights, drinks were ordered on our behalf and the grad students were trying to keep our glasses full to the brim. The graduate students also commented how great it was for the program to buy their alcohol for this weekend. We met for dinner one night at the program chair’s house, I lost count of the wine bottles and students staggering around. That next night was a final party. It was awkward. It was inappropriate. Between Jack Daniel’s and beer, there was too much alcohol being consumed for any professional gathering. I nursed a bottle of beer so it looked like I was drinking even though I really wasn’t. In the end, I was offended and I’m sure everyone could tell, but I’m not sorry for being offended at people drinking too much (Link).


That school rejected my application. I emailed the professors I had good interviews with and thanked them. The first and third interviewers I spoke with replied quickly and said that they were shocked at my rejection. The first interviewer was actively planning on accepting me into their lab. Funnily enough, I remember during my awful interview with the admissions committee that they outlandishly claimed was how I was a horrible fit for this particular lab. I remember this because I had no idea how to respond to such a statement.


Program 5

I was flown out a day early to speak with 2 of Ray’s and my collaborators before the interviews. We discussed the nuts and bolts of how both of these labs worked and I spent extra time with the postdoctoral scholars and graduate students. It should have been a sign, but each and every one of the students asked me how many papers I had, but did not seem particularly excited about the answer being 11. In hindsight, I should have lied and said 2.


The interviews at this school went really well. I had long conversations about theoretical modeling and how it informs scientific inquiry. I got to meet a few computational modelers that were (and still are) heroes of mine.


  • My first interviewer (one I had visited the previous day) showed me around and told me how their lab worked, and specifically asked if I was willing to learn C++. I said I was and meant it. They thought it would be great if I could continue the neuromodulator story that I had tested in Ray’s lab by using slice physiology, place cell recording, and behavioral manipulations. So we started planning experiments until the next student showed up and I had to leave.
  • With my second interviewer (the other one I had visited the previous day) we troubleshot temporal processing in the hippocampus. We talked about recording coordinates and the nitty gritty of how to get results of well-designed behavioral experiments. We planned what I would do in their lab moving forward.
  • My last interview was great, I had the chance to ask a computational modeler about their models and how space and time were interwoven at the level of the hippocampus. We debated if it was space that led to time or vice versa. They convinced me it was space leading to time. We talked about how important it is for people in my position to read computational work to inform our research, otherwise we were shooting in the dark. I agreed wholeheartedly.

My interactions with faculty were AMAZING, and these were all big deal researchers at a big deal university. We were able to share big ideas. They all wanted me to come into the program and take my experiences and ideas and add it to their own to see what came out of the interaction.


The students, however, did not seem to share that enthusiasm and once again, my peers, prevented me from getting accepted into the graduate program.


What did happen was that I was rejected. I thanked the researchers I interviewed with and they told me they were disappointed. The first person I interviewed with later came up to me at the next SFN, pulled me aside where no one was around, and specifically apologized. A BSD researcher apologized to me, an undergrad! Their students did not want me in lab. This researcher did not know specifics but they surmised it was because the students did not want to compete with me in the lab given my publication record. This interviewer felt bad that they did not fight for me. At that point, what they did was to offer me a postdoc when I finished graduate work. The second interviewer specifically told me to keep in touch because they wanted me to postdoc with them after graduate school.

To this day, I consider both of those scientists colleagues and friends. Any time I see them we have long conversations about science and how we can all work together to make the next big discovery.


Program 6

This school felt like they were working to get me. I was assigned three student handlers that were instructed to speak science and keep me interested, and sell the program to me as hard as they could. They knew how many papers I had and asked about ones in preparation. It was comforting.


  • With my first interviewer, we talked about TBI and how they model it in rodents. We talked about behavior and how to better model what we see in humans with TBI in a rodent model. We also talked about science in general and what my general approach to the scientific method was.
  • My second interview went similarly well, I spoke with them about the dentate gyrus, extensively. This researcher was a collaborator of Ray’s and was interested in what was going on in Ray’s lab.
  • My third interviewer and I had previously contacted by email and we had set up a way to do a clandestine interview. This researcher does not do interviews with individual students because so many students want to interview with them. My interview took place in the car while they drove me back to the hotel after a presentation of theirs I attended. We talked about the weaknesses of my research using rats and I agreed that there are a number of better models. We also talked about my autistic brother and how that informs my scientific approach. If I got into the program, we agreed I could do a research rotation in their lab.


I did not specifically interview with my fourth interviewer. They had a cool poster at a data blitz about a genetically altered mouse without a hippocampus. We talked for a few minutes and they asked, to challenge my abilities as they were skeptical of my CV, what behaviors I could run on that mouse. I told them I would run hippocampus and non-hippocampus dependent tasks to show impact of lack of hippocampus but intact everything else. This scientist was so excited to continue our conversation that at a banquet that night we talked for 3.5 hours nonstop about what they were researching in the lab and what I could do for him. If I got into the program, we agreed I could do a research rotation in their lab.

I have covered the partying and nonpartying aspect of this school in a previous post. Aside from the drinking, which was way less out of control that Program #5, I generally had a great time.

Despite every conversation going well and my three rotations already set up, I almost did not get in. The head of the program called Ray and Ray flat told them how foolish they would be to not accept me. Despite my record of scientific success, in the end, Ray still had to beg this school to accept me as a graduate student even though they really didn’t want to.


Why getting into graduate school was hard


People define me by my intelligence. There’s no stopping them. Much of the feedback I got was that I’m antisocial or arrogant. Here’s the thing. When it comes to social interactions, it is a lose-lose situation for me no matter how I try to act. If I’m silent? I’m called aloof, pompous, and antisocial. People will then try to force me to talk. If I talk? I’m often seen as pretentious and labeled a “know-it-all” and not in a fun/good/endearing way. I can’t downplay my intelligence either because then I’m being pretentious. There’s no winning. If you haven’t gathered yet, I love learning new things and it isn’t hard for me to be genuinely enthusiastic about new ideas, new challenges, and new problems to solve. I get overly animated when I get to learn something new or have figured something out for the first time (i.e., that’s why my blog is all about celebrating discoveries whenever possible). Admittedly, I probably tend to over share with others. Buy hey, knowledge is power, right? I get very animated and lively when talking with others and being tall (6’6″) that just makes my liveliness all that more awkward.


My quirks and tendencies likely cause people to think I’m weird. I’m sure therefore people think I’m a braggart, flaunting my knowledge and showing off, but I’m just enthusiastic about learning something new and I want to share. More than once, my quirky intelligence has resulted in people angrily calling me “autistic”. At first, I didn’t think much about what people were saying, but then more and more people used autism as a derogatory slander against me and I noted that it had become inescapable.


To be frank, I don’t know why getting into graduate school was so difficult. The ACTUAL reasons given to me directly from the schools and people who interviewed me ranged from the ridiculous and to the offensive: I was too good / I was a poor fit; I would have been too much competition for the other students in the program; I had too many publications; I was too knowledgeable and not tabula rasa; I was too much like Ray Kesner; I wasn’t likely going to be able to complete graduate school and would drop out at some point; I was anti-social; I didn’t get along well with others; I was autistic. Because so many people just willfully misunderstood me and said these awful things about me, I felt like my failure to get into graduate school was 100% my fault, because I was unable to express myself appropriately. Unfortunately, everyone around me also thought it was my fault. Ray advised me to “soften my image”, so I grew my hair out long to look more laid-back. Others commented that I was “autistic”, so I doubled my efforts to try and be as outgoing as possible. Only now do I realize, I was never going to win…

In terms of interactions with current graduate students during all the social gathering, I was keenly aware that I was the odd duck. For starters, I was the only one among the interviewing students and current graduate students that were married. Students interviewing were interested in the night-life / dating scene, whether or not they could easily get medical marijuana cards, how lenient were the programs about extended vacations, etc. I just sat their silent (not aloof), because there was no way for me to include myself in their discussions. In retrospect, I wonder how much of this contributed to my not getting into programs. But if being married hurt my chances or contributed to my being called autistic, then draw whatever conclusions you want. It hurt a lot at the time to know I was being rejected by my peers.

I should probably mention at this point, that I KNOW that I am not on the autism spectrum. I have the testing to prove it. I was part of the UCLA-University of Utah Epidemiological studies in the 1980s characterizing autistic children and their nonautistic twin probands. I was one of those nonautistic probands. Multiple ADOS and ADI-R say so.



All in all, most of my interviews were fun. I was able to have great, lively conversations. When it came to interviewing with my peers (graduate students and young faculty), they were the ones that didn’t like me. My interviews with well-established and BSD researchers were all fantastic.

What strikes me as the most peculiar in all of this, is that schools and programs that actively triaged my application have also probably triaged a lot of other qualified applications. Programs do this and not think about the reputation they are developing. By treating potential graduate students so abominably, you are guaranteeing these individuals will make sure everyone they know should not apply to this school and even avoid collaborations with faculty. In the future, they won’t even consider the school for postdoc or faculty positions. By gaining a bad reputation, universities are limiting their overall pool of potential candidates for all positions (graduate students to faculty). Just something to think about…

What are some of your graduate school interview experiences? Please share in the comments section!!