“COGS 402 – Research in Cognitive Systems” is one of the weirdest courses I took in university. Instead of learning from lectures, you learn from apprenticeship. In other words, it’s a glimpse of real life disguised as a course.
Here’s the official description of what COGS 402 is: Students in this course must pursue a supervised, collaborative research project in a laboratory or research environment relevant to your interests. Students are expected to independently seek out a laboratory in which to volunteer, and contribute to the ongoing research or to instigate a project that integrates with the research goals of the supervisor/laboratory.
From the outline, you’ll see that you get assessed on:
After doing COGS 402 myself and supervising students on their COGS 402’s, I might be able to give a bit more guidance…
Officially, the only prerequisite is COGS 300. COGS 401 is recommended because it prepares you to form research ideas and create projects. I also recommend doing COGS 303 before you do your 402 because 303 prepares you to evaluate and critique your own methodology as well as established methodologies.
1. Don't limit yourself when selecting projects
This is one of the things you don’t want to wait till the last minute. At least start thinking about it in your 3rd year. I was looking for potential places I might want to do my 402 in back in 3rd year, and joined two labs when I entered 4th year (I ended up doing my 402 in one of them).
Some people did their 402 project portion (the actual working-for-12-weeks part) a term or two before they officially took 402. (I mention this because COGS 402 class sizes are growing rapidly and sometimes not everyone fits in a section).
What kind of place would you like to volunteer in? Explore your own interests – what would you want to fully nerd out on for three (or more) months? Figure out what kind of people who you like to work with. Different labs have very different personalities, management styles, and working environments. For example, some labs have established projects, and might be prescriptive in the way they assign you tasks (run and analyze conditions X Y Z). Other labs might have projects that are just starting up and you might get involved in creating a larger-scale plan. And finally, there are some labs that can help make your own project idea become a reality (I went down that path). Established projects are tempting to do because you don’t have to do the work of coming up with a project from scratch – but you might find the final presentation & deliverable more difficult. This will be addressed in my fourth point. In any case, make sure you work in an environment you feel comfortable in because you’re staying there for a while!
Lastly, note that the research doesn’t have to be at UBC (although it can be riskier - if your supervisor has no idea how a 402 runs, there will be a higher likelihood of your project not being scoped properly). I know some people who did projects with industry and that worked out well. The main point of 402 is to get experience doing research on something (the domain isn’t as critical as the activity itself).
2. Document your journey so you can refer to it later
Try to document everything that’s relevant, which may include (and are definitely not limited to):
3. During your stay... clarify, clarify, clarify
Don’t hesitate to ask questions – especially methodology and analysis-related questions. Even if this endeavor is for a course and even if you’re volunteering, you’re still involved in research, and it is your duty as a researcher to make sure that things are done right. You are responsible for the work you put into the world.
If you suspect that you might’ve found a bug in the code or errors in the analysis (e.g. a good friend of mine was working as a lab technician at a microbiology lab and stomped a bunch of Excel bugs), clarify with your supervisor or research assistant.
4. Evaluate your own work in the final deliverable
In addition to:
*If your project doesn’t reach a result or closure at the end (mine didn’t!), don’t worry about it because it’s how your journey unfolds that’s important.
Now after all this rambling, here’s a disclaimer – I took 402 back in the Spring of 2011, so some of the things I’m saying might be obsolete. Get a second opinion from someone who took it more recently!
I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a B.A. in Cognitive Systems (COGS), Cognition and Brain stream in 2011. Here are some questions that people ask me often:
Q. What is Cognitive Systems (COGS)?
A. I’m taking this from the COGS website because I can’t articulate it better:
“The Cognitive Systems Program (COGS) is a multi-disciplinary undergraduate program involving four departments: Computer Science, Linguistics, Philosophy, and Psychology … Through our study of computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology, we aim to gain a comprehensive understanding of human cognition, and to apply this knowledge to create intelligent artificial systems.”
Q. What got you into COGS?
A. During my first year in university (I was in Boston University as a biology major at the time), I watched Ghost in the Shell for the first time. I was mind-blown. I grew fascinated by philosophy and the relationship between the human and the machine. At the end of my first year, I had to return to my home town (Tokyo, Japan) and stay there for two years because of a family emergency. The situation forced me into thinking about what I wanted to pursue if there ever was a chance for me to go back to university. So one day I was browsing schools and courses online and I just happened to stumble upon UBC’s COGS program. I fell in love at first sight.
Q. What did you do after graduation?
A. While I was still in school, I started volunteering at the UBC Visual Cognition Lab (VCL). I became a research assistant and lab manager there, and realized: hey, this “management” business is actually quite fun. After working at the VCL for a few years, I joined the Vancouver Institute for Visual Analytics (VIVA) in the fall of 2013 and taught, developed courses, managed programs and built communities. In 2017 I joined the Regional Animal Protection Society (RAPS) originally as a data / social media person, and then my role rapidly expanded into event coordination, fundraising, marketing, and veterinary practice management. And now, I'm back in COGS as Program Coordinator :D
Q. Did COGS help you in your career?
A. Not only my career, but also for personal development. Why? COGS boosted my critical thinking and communication (both oral and written) skills. These skills are useful everywhere.
Q. What do COGS grads typically do?
A. Off the top of my head, I know alumni who went into the following fields: academic research, accounting, analytics, artificial intelligence, banking, entrepreneurship, farming, fundraising, journalism, law, marketing, management, medicine, music, outdoor education, software development, teaching, and UX design. Some people wear many hats (e.g. AI/patent law startup founder, accounting professor/startup founder/researcher/magician).
Q. I don’t know whether or not I’m fit for COGS.
A. Let me start with a metaphor: Imagine there’s a road; a highway or something that goes somewhere. You know where the destination is. Off the highway, you see a little trail that looks like it was made by wildlife. If you follow that trail, you'll end up in a dense forest. You don’t know where the destination is. You might end up at someone’s cabin. It might lead to a rocky beach. There might be a lake you can swim in. You might end up on top of a hill and find a marvelous view. Or… the trail might end in the middle of nowhere. What would you do: taking the highway to your destination or the trail that you have no idea where it will take you?
I know some people who were in the program who weren't actually fit for it because their expectations didn't match up with reality. COGS is not a program that automatically grants you success in life (although there are many successful COGS grads out there). It's about putting all the pieces together in a way that makes sense for YOU, and it's not easy because you need to do all the work!
One thing to try out to see if you might like the content discussed in COGS: check out "They're Made Out of Meat" by Terry Bisson. To me, this is the spirit of COGS. What is a cognitive system? (Turns out meat can be! ;D) If you're fascinated by this idea, you might feel like COGS is your home.
Q. What’s the difference between B.A. Cognition and Brain stream and B.Sc. Cognition and Brain stream?
A. Let me start off with similarities first: you will take all the COGS core courses (200, 300, 303, 401, 402). You will also have some degree of freedom with your module courses (off the top of my head I think it was 2 PSYC courses, 2 non-PSYC courses, and 2 any as long as it's in the module list). The difference is in the FACULTY requirements. It's actually quite different so I recommend you compare (BA brain stream vs. BSc brain stream) and see for yourself. Satisfying the program requirements is important, but so is satisfying the faculty requirements. If you forget to satisfy the faculty requirements that will stop you from graduating.
Q. What was your favorite course?
A. COGS303: Research Methods in Cognitive Systems. It was terrifying when I took it but the value I got from it triumphs the terror. I can ramble on forever, but to keep it short, COGS303 gave me two vitally important things: 1) the bullshit detector and 2) argument etiquette.
Q. What is COGS for you?
A. I’m in concordance with Eric Vatikiotis-Bateson (founding COGS Director)’s definition: “It’s what you want it to be.” Since COGS isn’t straightforward in terms of what career paths are available afterwards (because people go all over the place afterwards), it forces you to take ownership of your degree and spin it your way, instead of the other way around (imagine your degree dictating the way you live your life – that would be really sad). Tuum est.
Q. What advice would you give to someone who just joined COGS?
A. Get to know your people. Befriend them. Nerd out with them. One of the many things I love about COGS is the people: students, TAs, profs, alumni… they’re awesome. Most importantly, have fun. If you're not having tons of fun, COGS is probably not the right place for you. And that's okay because you need to find what's the best for you.
Q. What advice would you give to someone who is about to graduate from COGS?
A. If you still feel murky about where this COGS-coaster is going to take you…
I'm Candice and I doodle with the intensity of the doomguy.