Specializations in Cognitive Science: Perspectives from CogSci Students

CSSA at UCSD
11 min readJun 6, 2023

Cognitive Science students at UCSD have 6 choices of specializations that they can pick from. Here, we provide a more in-depth look at people from various specializations, and share the knowledge and thoughts they have about their choice.

Neuroscience

The first interviewee is Jen Hung, who is a second-year at ERC and a double-major in the Cognitive Science Neuroscience specialization and Data Science.

Why did you choose your specialization?

J: I took COGS 17 in the fall of my freshman year, and the information about the brain and everything cognition-wise really fascinated me.

How does this specialization differ from other ones in better preparing you for your future career goals?

J: I think that one main difference is that I’m thinking about going into academia, and I think that most ML or design specializations would probably go straight into industry.

Have you taken any classes within your specialization? If so, what are they and which is your favorite?

J: I would say COGS 17 because it covers everything, and Professor Johnson was amazing. I love the way that she taught the class.

Have you taken any classes outside of your specialization? If so, what are they and which is your favorite?

J: I really like my data science classes, because I think it gives me more of a depth to the coding side. Even though I want to do academia, I still feel like I want to know how to analyze data and the coding classes we get in COGS, I don’t think are sufficient enough. One class would be DSC 10, which was a broad overview of how to use Python to analyze things, and that was really fun.

Cognitive Behavioral Neuroscience

The next two interviewees are both Cognitive Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN) majors, with Ainsley also doing a Dance minor and Niha doing a Data Science minor.

Why did you choose your specialization?

A: I was actually admitted under the Psychology department when I first applied, but through my senior year of high school, I realized that I was looking for something that was a bit more of the nitty gritty in terms of the neuroscience behind it, but I also didn’t want to maybe delve into actual neurobiology, which is what we have here. So I found that this major was kind of the perfect mix of what I liked and appreciated about psychology, but also the more molecular and cellular cognitive science aspect of it. So it was a great meld between the two.

N: I chose it because it’s like an intersection of the CogSci and Psychology departments. So, I can take classes from both departments, which I really like, because I was originally a Psychology major, but I wanted to focus more on the CogSci side and neuroscience aspect of it. So this kind of allows me to get the best of both worlds.

How does this specialization differ from other ones in better preparing you for your future career goals?

A: I think it gives you a lot of freedom. I have a lot more opportunities to take classes for my major that I would maybe want to take but couldn’t in a different specialization. I think my current plan is to go into some form of research, whether it’d be more neuroscience-oriented or maybe more data analysis in terms of that type of research. Just inherently, by the nature of the classes I have to take, I’m introduced to so many different aspects of cognitive science and psychology.

N: I feel like the other CogSci majors have different requirements. So, CBN is kind of different because even our lower division requirements are different and it kind of allows for more flexibility. And I feel like this one allows me to explore those different paths also, because I was also looking at a machine learning/AI specialization, but I’m doing a Data Science minor. So, I still get to take some of those machine learning classes and learn about that specialization a little bit without having to do all of the requirements.

Have you taken any classes within your specialization? If so, what are they and which is your favorite?

A: I have taken COGS 107A and PSYC 108, which is behavioral neuroscience, and I really liked both of these classes. I’m currently in COGS 107A right now and I really like it. It is a bit of a challenge in classes, but it is very interesting and Professor Lara Rangel is amazing and she makes it really doable for everyone to understand. And PSYC 108, I believe it does complement one of the CogSci courses, and I probably had one of the best professors I’ve ever had here at UCSD as of now for that class, Professor Karen Dobkins. She’s really great, really amazing, and it was really cool to be able to take that class with her and still be in the CogSci department.

N: Actually, a lot of the classes I’ve taken so far for the major have been the psychology classes because in CBN, you can choose either one. So I’ve taken COGS 107A, and then a bunch of other upper division PSYC courses, too. I really liked them because they’re the core CBN courses, and I haven’t really had a chance to take my electives yet, but I really enjoy just the basics, like learning about neuroanatomy, memory, learning, etc.

Have you taken any classes outside of your specialization? If so, what are they and which is your favorite?

A: I haven’t gotten the time and my schedule yet to fully stretch out and take classes that aren’t necessarily in my specialization, just because I am in ERC and there’s a lot of things (GEs) going on. But one class that I did have to take that I wouldn’t have taken necessarily otherwise, is COGS 18, which is an introduction to Python and I’ve never done coding before. I may have dabbled in a coding class if it wasn’t required of me, but I probably would have prioritized other things. And I really enjoyed the class. I actually have a coding-based internship this summer as a result of this class, just because it opened me up to stuff that I’ve never done before.

N: I started doing Data Science as a minor, so I’ve done DSC 10 and I’m doing 20 and 40A right now. So those are pretty outside of the Cognitive Science department. I’ve also taken some ECON courses but honestly, I really enjoyed the Data Science courses like DSC 10.

Design and Interaction

The next interviewee, Heiyya Kapoor, is a Cognitive Science major with the Design and Interaction Specialization, double majoring in Business Psychology.

Why did you choose your specialization?

H: I thought it was a good combination of technology with some creativity. I also thought there were good career prospects for the major, but it was also not limiting since it is interdisciplinary.

Did you come in with this specialization, or was there something that pushed you to make that decision once you arrived at UCSD?

H: I wasn’t a Cognitive Science major initially, but I changed into the Design and Interaction Specialization. I made the switch since Psychology was interesting to me, but I thought there were some more career choices involved in Cognitive Science. I thought that marketing, psychology, and design skills would be helpful for job searches. I think the Design and Interaction specialization is like the Venn diagram intersection between psychology and technology, without too much coding.

How do you think your specialization differs from other ones, or best prepares you for your future career goal?

H: My career goal is UI/UX design, so this is the perfect course for me. The Design and Interaction based courses, along with coding classes, startup studio, and similar things result in great classes for the major. I think the Machine Learning specialization is way more technical with more physics and math, and doesn’t really involve design or UI/UX. None of the other specializations relate closely to these fields either, and the Design and Interaction major is structured differently such that the upper division classes help with UI/UX design.

Have you taken any classes within your specialization? If so, what are they and which is your favorite?

H: I have not taken any class exclusive to my specialization yet since they are all elective classes. COGS 10 was related to design, and I found the content fun but didn’t have the best experience with my professor. I thought the UI/UX lecture from COGS 1 was interesting and it seemed like a fun career path.

Have you taken any classes outside your specialization? If so, what are they and which is your favorite?

H: Within Cognitive Science, COGS 1 was probably my favorite since it was such a good overview of everything that comes into a Cognitive Science major. Although it was the last lower division COGS class I took, and I already had an idea about what the major looks like, I think the class was a perfect, accurate representation of the classes you take as a Cognitive Science major. Besides Cognitive Science, I’ve enjoyed the management, marketing, and social entrepreneurship classes I’ve taken, which have been pretty different.

Machine Learning

The next interviewee is Akhil Vasanth. He is a Cognitive Science major with the Machine Learning and Neural Computation Specialization.

Why did you choose your specialization?

A: I think Machine Learning sounds pretty cool, and since I’m into coding and technology, integrating it with other disciplines like psychology and neuroscience sounded really cool to me.

Did you come in with this specialization, or was there something that pushed you to make that decision once you arrived at UCSD?

A: I didn’t come in with this specialization, since I wanted to take some classes and see what specialization I’d like to go into. As I looked at the courses in Cognitive Science and learned more coding, I decided to do Machine Learning. I also learned some basic conceptual things in Machine Learning. Joining clubs such as Triton NeuroTech, which has some ML, as well as ACM, which is big on Computer Science and similar fields, and going to their events, made me think about how the ML specialization would be interesting, so I chose it based on all these factors.

How do you think your specialization differs from other ones, or best prepares you for your future career goal?

A: I think my specialization is different because it’s more math and computer science oriented since ML and neural computation contains a lot of math, statistics, and probability. I think the Computer Science and Machine Learning Skills are helpful for tech and software positions, since they prepare you to enter the industry. I think the other specializations are more uncertain in terms of job opportunities, or would require you to stay in school longer such as Biology or Neuroscience related specializations.

Have you taken any classes within your specialization? If so, what are they and which is your favorite?

A: I’ve taken COGS 118A, which is the Introduction to Machine Learning class. I liked it since it gave me a formal introduction to how ML works, covering basic concepts and theory as well as giving me experience with a project at the end of the class. I’m currently in COGS 185, which covers advanced machine learning methods as a sort of continuation of COGS 118A. It discusses some more advanced ML concepts that can be used in technology like ChatGPT and DALL-E, which is really cool and expands the range of what you can do. COGS 109 was a data analysis and modeling class, and it taught me a lot about data and learning how to analyze, interpret, and better understand work with data you have.

Have you taken any classes outside your specialization? If so, what are they and which is your favorite?

A: I’ve taken all the lower division Cognitive Science classes, and COGS 101B and COGS 107A, which are the core breadth requirements. They were cool, and although they were not in my specialization, they showed me what other types of research and work you can do with Cognitive Science. I also had good teachers, so it was interesting to see how these fields mixed with my specialization. For example, COGS 107A, which is a neuroanatomy and physiology class, helped me learn about how you can use ML and Neural Signal Processing, like in COGS 118C, to do work in neuroscience or to make technology and devices that use what we know about neuroscience to help people with prosthetics and similar things.

Language and Culture

The final interviewees are Cognitive Science majors with the Language and Culture Specialization. Michael is a third year, and Lexi is a second year.

Why did you choose your specialization?

M: I chose this specialization because I personally felt like I could relate to it as a half Japanese, half White individual.

L: It’s the most relevant to Linguistics (my first major). I decided to double major in Ling & CogSci to keep my options open in the future.

Did you come in with this specialization, or was there something that pushed you to make that decision once you arrived at UCSD?

M: I was originally undeclared. I was pushed towards this major by another CogSci student and my mom mentioning it to me.

L: I took a psycholinguistics class and really enjoyed it. I figured that it opens up my options, so I decided to do that.

How do you think your specialization differs from other ones, or best prepares you for your future career goal?

M: I feel that it differs in that it is more broad and not so grounded in a specific field (like Machine Learning).

L: The language and culture specialization really calls CogSci back to its interdisciplinary roots. COGS 101C, which I think is a very good summary of this specialization, incorporated cognitive linguistics and a touch of cognitive anthropology, with an overall cross-cultural lens that I think is very important in any field that relates to humans. Cultural diversity is something that’s missing in a lot of fields, especially ML and NLP, and it’s important to remember that our amazing progress with LLMs isn’t any sort of success for the whole world; it’s just for English, and other European languages.

Have you taken any classes within your specialization? If so, what are they and which is your favorite?

M: I’m going to be starting specialization electives (specific courses which are applicable only to my major/specialization) next quarter. So, I haven’t started them quite yet.

L: Yes, I’ve taken COGS 101C and linguistics classes which count for the electives, like syntax and semantics and psycholinguistics of signed languages. I liked psycholinguistics and COGS 101C the most out of those.

Have you taken any classes outside your specialization? If so, what are they and which is your favorite?

M: I took many classes outside my major but part of my Revelle college requirements. My favorite class to take outside of my specialization was ANTH 23: Debate on Multiculturalism with Professor Stewart.

L: Yeah, the core CogSci ones. I don’t think I enjoyed any of them very much, my interests in CogSci are where it overlaps with linguistics.

We hope you enjoyed hearing about the perspectives and experiences of Cognitive Science students here at UCSD, and that they gave you ideas about classes, specializations, and career options to explore!

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