The Psychology PhD Podcast

Welcome to the home of The Psychology PhD podcast.

As current PhD students, we created this podcast because we know that applying to graduate programs in psychology can be bewildering. We remember asking ourselves questions like:

  • Is a graduate degree in psychology right for me?
  • If so, what kind of program should I choose?
  • How do I develop competitive application materials?
  • Is there anyone else like me in these programs?

If you're wondering about the same things, you've landed in the right place! We're glad you're here. To receive notifications when new episodes launch each month, join our email list.

As you explore the podcast, please keep in mind that all content applies to U.S.-based programs in particular. Special thanks to the Columbia Psychology DEI Working Group for their valuable input on this series.

Season 1: Applying to Psychology PhD Programs

Introduction to the Psychology PhD

(Season 1, Episode 1)

Hi! And welcome to The Psychology PhD, a podcast developed by grad students here in the Columbia University psychology department where we discuss psych-focused graduate programs. I’m Monica Thieu, and I’m a rising 5th year student in Columbia’s psychology PhD program. This is the very first episode of our very first season, so let me take a minute to tell you a bit about this series. The purpose of The Psychology PhD podcast is to provide you with some insight into graduate studies in psychology, from applying to programs to learning about day-to-day life as a grad student. In this first season, we’ll focus on the application process. We’ll begin with an introduction to the psychology PhD, which will then be followed by more specific videos on all aspects of the application process, from getting organized through developing your application materials, and preparing for program interviews.

In today’s episode, we’ll discuss 3 main topics. First, what is a PhD in psychology? Second, what differentiates a psych PhD from other graduate degrees you could do in psychology? And, finally, what does a day in the life of a PhD student look like?

First, let’s discuss what a PhD actually is and what you do during a PhD. A PhD stands for a Doctorate in Philosophy. You can obtain a PhD in a multitude of subjects, and there are some similarities and some differences between the PhD process in different disciplines. Today, though, we’ll stick to talking about the norms of a psychology PhD here in this series. A PhD in experimental psychology is typically designed to be five years long. For people pursuing a clinical PhD, six years is more the norm, as these students have to do a clinical internship year after they finish the academic portion of their program. Remember that this is just an estimate and, in both cases, some people take longer to finish.

The focus of a PhD is on your independent research, as opposed to class work, which makes this degree distinct from a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. In general, there tend to be about four major components of a PhD: first, your independent research projects; then, class requirements or opportunities; third, teaching assistant requirements or opportunities; and finally, service requirements for the university.

The actual requirements of each program vary a lot from university to university and are something to pay a lot of attention to when looking into programs. Get clear on your priorities! For example, do you prefer more teaching or less? Taking more courses or fewer? You can find a program whose requirements line up with your own training goals.

A huge perk of obtaining a PhD is that a lot of programs fund you; that is, your tuition and classes are completely comped, and you are also given a living stipend. The stipend can range drastically. For example, some programs might give you $12–15k a year, whereas others may exceed $40k a year. However, be sure to keep in mind the local cost of living, as big cities like here in New York can be far more expensive than small towns! It is also the case that not all programs will fund you, so you’ll want to keep that in mind: whether you’re willing to pay for a PhD or not. And lastly, pay attention to whether a program offers 9- or 12-month funding. Some programs only offer funding during the “school year” and require that you obtain your own funding for the summer.

If you’re interested enough in psychology PhD programs to be listening to this podcast, you may also be considering other kinds of graduate programs in psychology. In this next segment, we’ll compare and contrast a few different kinds of psych-focused grad programs.

First, let’s talk briefly about the different kinds of PhDs within psychology. Generally, PhD programs in psychology will tend to fall in two camps: experimental and clinical or counseling. A quick note: although clinical and counseling programs are different, they are much more similar to each other than they are to experimental PhD programs, so we will discuss them together under the “clinical” label today.

The biggest distinction between experimental PhD programs and clinical or counseling PhD programs is the programs’ focus. Experimental programs tend to focus solely on research and don’t provide clinical training. As a result, these programs are best suited for people who want to become researchers or professors. In contrast, clinical and counseling programs focus on both research and either clinical or counseling practice, respectively. If you are interested in research but also are interested in working as a practicing psychologist with patients in the future, a clinical or counseling program will train you for such a career.

And given that clinical and counseling PhD programs include this additional focus on practice, they tend to take approximately a year longer than experimental PhD programs. This is primarily due to the year-long internship that we briefly mentioned earlier, but clinical and counseling PhD students are also required to spend time doing clinical training during the first five years of their program as well. As a result, whereas experimental PhD programs tend to take about five years, clinical and counseling PhD programs tend to take about six years.

Finally, let’s talk funding. Both experimental and clinical or counseling PhD programs are often funded, so in most programs, you should not need to pay tuition, and you should receive a stipend to help cover your cost of living. So, this is one dimension on which these degrees do not differ!

So now that we’ve covered the distinctions between experimental and clinical PhD programs, let’s turn our attention to the differences between the PhD in psychology versus another degree, the PsyD.

As you might have guessed by the Ds at the end of these degree abbreviations, both are doctorate degrees. As we mentioned earlier, a person who earns a psych PhD is a Doctor of Philosophy in psychology. In contrast, a person who earns a PsyD is a Doctor of Psychology. These tiny differences in naming aren’t very helpful in understanding how the degrees differ, though.

So now, let’s cover a few key distinctions between PhDs and PsyDs.

The first distinction is the primary focus of the program. As we mentioned earlier, regardless of whether it’s an experimental, clinical, or counseling PhD, PhD programs tend to focus heavily on research. And, on top of this, clinical and counseling PhD programs include practical training. In contrast, PsyDs tend to focus only on practice, without an emphasis on research. As a result, PsyD programs may be a good fit for people who know that they want to work with clients full-time, without also conducting research.

And because of this sole focus on practice as a PsyD, those programs are often a bit shorter than clinical or counseling PhD programs, and last 4-6 years on average.

Finally, an important distinction between PhD and PsyD programs is funding. So, whereas most PhD programs in psychology, whether experimental, clinical or counseling focused, tend to be fully funded, PsyD programs tend not to be funded at all. This relates to how the major components of a PhD differ from those of a PsyD. In a PhD, your research and teaching work is conducted on behalf of the university, so your funding compensates you for that work. A PsyD doesn’t tend to involve these responsibilities, so as a result most PsyD programs aren’t funded. This means that if you pursue a PsyD program, it is likely that you will need to pay your own tuition and you will not receive any kind of stipend to help you cover your cost of living. So, as you might imagine, this is a very important trade-off to keep in mind as you are considering programs.

Now that we’ve covered different kinds of doctoral programs in psychology, let’s quickly discuss how master’s programs in psychology differ from PhDs programs. Before we dive into these distinctions, keep in mind that we’re focusing on terminal master’s programs in psychology here—that is, master’s programs that aren’t on your way in another program like a PhD. There are other kinds of master’s programs that may be worth considering for anyone interested in practice (for example, a Master’s in Social Work) but we won’t be covering those in this episode.

First, let’s review the focus of each program. As I mentioned before, PhD programs tend to focus heavily on research, with an added focus on practice in clinical and counseling programs. In contrast, master’s programs in psychology tend to focus heavily on coursework, although you will get some exposure to research. As a result, while master’s programs will often provide people with a solid background in the discipline, this program alone is neither sufficient to become a university professor nor to become a practicing psychologist. Some people find a master’s in psychology to be a helpful stepping stone to more advanced degrees in the discipline; however, keep in mind that PhD programs also include coursework—and it’s often just as much as you would complete in a master’s program.

Furthermore, many PhD programs (like ours) will award one or more non-terminal master’s degrees to PhD students on their way toward achieving their doctorate. So, if you are certain that you want to pursue a PhD, you may find it to be more efficient and cost-effective to simply earn a master’s degree along the way, rather than pursuing a separate, terminal master’s program. With this said, some PhD students do say that pursuing a terminal master’s before starting their PhD was helpful for them given specific personal circumstances.

If you do decide to pursue a master’s program, you will find that it lasts 1-2 years, as compared to the 5-6 years spent in a PhD program. However, keep in mind that even if you already have a master’s degree when you enter a PhD program, you typically will not be able to apply the coursework from your master’s to your PhD to shorten your time spent in the program. So, if you do eventually pursue both, this time can be a bit redundant.

Finally, let’s talk about funding. While PhD programs in psychology, as I said before, tend to be fully funded, master’s programs tend not to be funded at all, again, because they often don’t involve the level of research and teaching required in a PhD. This means that if you pursue a master’s program, it’s likely that you will need to pay your own tuition and you won’t receive any kind of stipend to help you cover your cost of living, just like a PsyD.

Now that we’ve wrapped up our overview of the different types of graduate programs in psychology, let’s briefly talk about the factors you might consider when determining if pursuing a PhD in experimental psychology is a good fit for you. For the rest of this episode and series, when I say “psychology PhD” I’m specifically referring to an experimental psychology PhD, as this is the kind of PhD program that I am currently in and that I can speak to.

First, as a student in an experimental psych PhD program, you will spend a big portion of your days thinking deeply about research questions that fascinate you, and then designing and conducting studies to answer them. If you’re thinking, “I can’t imagine a better way to spend my time than that!” then a PhD program could be a great fit for you.

Second, although some people decide to pursue a PhD because they find it personally fascinating, others choose to do so because pursuing a PhD allows them to have a positive impact on their community—both by researching topics that could one day contribute to making their community a better place, and by mentoring others from their community (for example, by supervising an undergraduate’s independent research).

Third, PhD programs unlock certain career pathways that wouldn’t otherwise be available—particularly, tenure-track faculty positions at universities. However, full disclosure: these positions are highly competitive and can be extremely difficult to come by. For instance, between 2005 and 2009, there were only enough open professorships to employ 16% of the new PhDs produced by U.S. universities during those years. It’s a really unfortunate reality, but it is an important one to keep in mind!

It’s also important to remember that although certain career pathways are limited to people with PhDs, it’s not needed for many others—for example, if you wanted to be a therapist, or a marketing researcher, or a high school psychology teacher, you don’t need a PhD to do any of those jobs, although you can do them all with a PhD. So, we do recommend that you do some research to confirm if a PhD is needed for your desired career.

Next, succeeding as a PhD student does require a lot of self-motivation. And you’ll need to keep that motivation up for a long time—five years or more.

However, although this kind of independent self-motivation is important, this does not mean that PhD students only work alone! In most labs, there are a lot of opportunities for collaboration with cool, brilliant people who are interested in the same topics that you are.

Furthermore, PhD programs involve unique mentoring relationships that are different from those typically found in industry. Your advisor will mentor you throughout the years spent in your program, and you will also have the opportunity to mentor undergraduate students conducting their own research projects.

And, finally, unlike graduate programs like master’s and PsyDs, you get paid! Finances matter for many of us, including myself, and this is a huge benefit. I personally would not be able to do a PhD without being funded. However, it’s worth noting that this pay typically won’t be as much as you would be making if those same years were spent pursuing a career in business.

Now let’s take a look at what a day in the life of a PhD student typically looks like. As we mentioned earlier, there are normally four main components of a PhD, being your independent research, classes you take, classes you TA for or teach, and then any other departmental services or jobs that you may have. For an idea of what a student’s week-to-week schedule might look like when they’re doing all four of these things at once, in the video version of this podcast episode, I’ve shared a snapshot of the weekly calendar from a 2nd year student in our program last semester.

So in light blue you’ll see the classes that they were taking this semester as well as a four-part workshop series they were doing for a teaching development program, which took up about nine hours of their week.

In darker blue are the three weekly lab meetings they attended that semester, which in total took another four hours.

In green are some standing weekly meetings that the student had with their advisor and their research assistants, as well as a workshop series that they ran and a Diversity and Inclusion working group that they are a part of. That’s altogether about four to five hours each week.

In pink is the class for which they were working as a teaching assistant and the office hours that they held for that class: another five hours a week. Then, in orange are working meetings that they had for a science equity program that they are developing alongside other Columbia faculty, which took about three hours a week.

And, finally, you can’t see it on the calendar, but between all of these weekly commitments is when you'll make time to work on your research. But, keep in mind that this was a fairly busy semester for the student involving them having a job, taking classes, and TAing other classes. You might not be doing all of these things in any given semester, so your schedule can really fluctuate in how much flexible time you have for research.

And keep in mind that PhD students’ schedules may look quite different based on their institution, their lab, what year of the program they’re in, and their priorities in and out of the program. To get a broader sense of what daily life looks like for psych graduate students, we hope you’ll check out Season 2 of this podcast as soon as it launches! In the next season, we will sit down with PhD students from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences to hear more about their path to grad school, their day-to-day life as a grad student, and their future plans after they finish the program.

So, to wrap up, in today’s episode we covered three main topics. First, what is a PhD in psychology? Second, what differentiates an experimental psych PhD from other graduate degrees in psychology? And, finally, what does a day in the life of a PhD student look like?

In the remainder of Season 1, we’ll dive more deeply into the process of applying to psych PhD programs from start to finish. In Episode 2, we’ll talk about getting organized, from choosing programs to apply to, to figuring out your application timeline. In Episode 3, we’ll talk about developing CVs and resumes for program applications and anything else you might want to apply to. In Episode 4, we’ll talk about acquiring research experience and requesting letters of recommendation from your research supervisors. In Episode 5, we’ll talk about writing your statement of purpose for your applications, and in Episode 6, finally, we’ll talk about preparing for interviews with schools that you’re applying to.

And we’ll be updating the show notes to include links to these different topics as soon as each new episode launches. And you can find it below this episode if you’re watching on YouTube or in the show notes section of whatever podcast app you’re listening to this on.

To receive notifications when new episodes are released, subscribe to our channel on YouTube or to our podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, wherever you’re listening! You’re also welcome to join our email list to receive an email each time we release an episode. And, finally, if you found this content helpful, please consider liking the episode on YouTube or rating or reviewing it in your preferred podcast app.

And, finally, I wish you the best of luck as you consider the right next step for your career. Talk to you next time!

Welcome to the very first episode of The Psychology PhD! As grad students in the Columbia University psychology department, we hope to provide you with some insight into graduate studies in psychology, from applying to programs to learning about day-to-day life as a PhD student. Season 1 focuses on the application process, and this first episode covers three main topics. First, what is a PhD in psychology? Second, what differentiates a psych PhD from other graduate degrees in psychology? And third, what does a day in the life of a PhD student look like?

General Links:
Watch on YouTube
Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Join our email list

Additional Episodes from This Season:
See below

Credits:
Hosted by Monica Thieu
Music by Paul A. Bloom
Written by Ana DiGiovanni and Emily Nakkawita
Edited and Produced by Emily Nakkawita

Getting Organized for PhD Program Applications

(Season 1, Episode 2)

Hi, and welcome back to The Psychology PhD, a podcast developed by grad students here in the Columbia University psychology department where we discuss psych-focused grad programs. Once again, I’m Monica Thieu, a rising 5th year student here in our PhD program.

This season we are discussing the process of applying to PhD programs in experimental psychology. In our previous episode, the first of the season, we provided an introduction to the different types of psychology graduate degrees, and what life in an experimental psych PhD program is like. If you’re just jumping in here, we recommend checking out the previous episode as well. We’ve linked it in the show notes for easy access.

OK, so let’s jump into the topic of today’s episode: getting organized to apply to PhD programs in experimental psychology.

Today, we’re going to cover four main topics:
1. How to know when you’re ready to apply,
2. How to choose programs to apply to,
3. High-level timing of the application process, and…
4. Finally, how to reach out to potential advisors.

And, as before, like all content on this podcast, please keep in mind that we’re discussing U.S.-based programs in particular. This information should apply to programs across the U.S., but it might not apply to programs in other countries.

So, if you’re thinking about applying to a PhD program, you might be asking yourself questions like “Am I ready?” and “How do I know when I have enough experience?” Although you’ll get different answers to these questions depending on who you ask, there are some general things to think about when assessing your own personal timeline.

But, before we dive into those details, it is worth noting that many people who are thinking about applying to grad school often experience “impostor syndrome.” While impostor syndrome isn’t specific to people pursuing graduate school, it can seriously influence your feelings about applying. You might feel particularly unsure about whether a PhD program is right for you, or feel like you’re not ready to apply, even when others tell you that you are. While it’s 100% normal to feel this way, these worries are often unfounded, I promise. For example, when I was applying to PhD programs a few years back, I was so nervous that all of my applications would be rejected—but luckily they weren’t, so, I’m here! And during the process, I met other applicants who seemed, to me, much more qualified than I was, but then when I got to know them, they all admitted to worrying about the same thing. It’s OK to feel this way, but if you are interested in getting a PhD, I’d urge you to trust yourself and to not let these common feelings convince you not to apply.

So with that out of the way, let’s shift our discussion toward the kinds of objective considerations people often think about when determining whether they’re ready to apply.


As far as coursework goes, most experimental psych programs don’t require that you majored in psychology during undergrad, so if you’re already close to or past graduation with a different major, don’t worry too much. However, if you’re choosing a major now, majoring in psychology can help for PhD programs in the sense that it does equip you with general psychology knowledge. If you didn’t major in psychology and you are thinking about getting in those course requirements, you could consider a post-bachelor’s certificate (often called a “postbac” for short) or a master’s program, although these kinds of programs can be costly and aren’t always necessary to apply. As an alternative, you might consider taking individual courses as a non-matriculated student at a local university or community college, or take a course online. All that being said, your overall research experience in the field that you’re interested in is more important than the specific courses that you have on your transcript.

As I mentioned, your actual academic research experience—that is, your experience working in a lab at a university or a research institute—is the most important aspect of your application to an experimental psych PhD program. There is a whole lot to say about acquiring research experience, and we’re planning to dedicate most of Episode 4 to this topic. However, right now, we’ll provide a bit of guidance in this episode as it pertains to determining whether or not you are ready to apply to a program.

Schools often look for a minimum of a year and a half of research experience, but a general rule of thumb is that more is better here. The amount of research experience that you need generally depends on the quality of that experience. If you have more independent research experience (for example, if you wrote a thesis or conducted your own research project), then a year and a half is probably enough.

Ideally, you want to be able to speak to what you personally did as part of the research project and what you have to show for it. This could include things like an independent research project that you did, a thesis that you wrote, a poster that you presented at a conference, a talk that you gave, or a publication that you helped write. You really want to be able to speak to specific skills that you have acquired as part of your research experience, such as experience running in-lab studies, working with online or in-person survey and task software, coding, doing data analysis, and so on.

So, if you’re sitting here now listening to this podcast thinking that you might still need more research experience and you’ve already graduated from college, in Episode 4, we’ll discuss a variety of ways that you might be able to acquire such experience, including taking a volunteer research position or attending a postbac, master’s, or “Bridge to PhD” program.

So, once you feel like you’ve acquired enough research experience and you’re ready to apply, how do you actually choose where to apply? What factors should you consider?

First, have a concrete area of interest that you are looking to study in grad school. This shouldn’t depend much on which specific schools you’re applying to, but it might differ slightly from school to school based on how your research interests line up with those of faculty at the programs you’re applying to. (And if you’re not yet certain what you want to study, we recommend getting an additional year or two of experience to figure this out!)

Second, think about where you are willing to live for the next five years (or more!). You will have a greater number of opportunities available if you’re open-minded about location, but remember that liking where you live significantly adds to your quality of life during school. Grad school is hard enough as it is, so you want to make sure you feel comfortable in the place you’re living. It’s totally OK to apply only in specific cities for personal reasons, as long as you’re comfortable with the trade-off between location preference and number of opportunities.

Third, to identify potential advisors, you can look at important papers in your field of interest, the authors of that paper, and the other papers and the researchers that they cite. This is called following a citation chain and it can help you get an idea of who does the specific kind of work that you’d like to do.

Additionally, explore the faculty members at universities within your location constraints and look at things such as:
• What type of research methods do they use?
• What topics are their recent publications on?
• Do they currently have graduate students in their lab? If so, how many?
• And what are their ongoing projects in the lab?

If possible, we would recommend trying to apply to programs where your research interests fit with at least two or three faculty members.

And finally, take advantage of your network! You can gain valuable insight from people like your former and current colleagues, professors you that had a good relationship with, and academic advisors in your undergraduate program. Share your research interests with them and ask for their guidance.

Next, pay close attention to funding! A lot of programs are fully funded, meaning they pay all of your tuition and provide some sort of living stipend, as we discussed in Episode 1. However, as we mentioned in that episode, funding can vary widely across universities, especially the living stipend. We recommend that you consider whether summer funding is provided, so that you’ll be paid to work through the whole year, and whether at least five years of funding is guaranteed. And don’t forget the cost of living, as any given stipend will go much further in certain locations than others.

Lastly, remember that big-name schools are not always the best programs for what you want to study. There is no list of the top 10 best psychology PhD programs as there is with law school and med school (or even undergrad!). What’s most important is finding a program and advisor that fit with your goals.

Once you know that you are ready to apply and have a list of schools that you have selected to apply to, you might ask yourself: what does the timing of the application process look like? Like a lot of what we’ve discussed in this episode, this is going to vary based on where specifically you’re applying, but the timeline is generally as follows:
• Applications are usually due between end of November and the end of December.
• Interview requests are sent out from late December to early January.
• Then, those interviews and prospective student visits happen at the end of January and continue through early March.
• And finally, admission offers can be sent from any time after the interview until about mid to late March.
• The official deadline to accept an offer of admission is April 15th (but you can accept early if you know where you want to go—there’s no need to wait!)

And to be crystal clear, at most psychology programs, only students who are invited to interview will be considered for admission offers. Other disciplines may do this differently, but this is how it usually works in our field.

So, knowing all of this, you might wonder whether and when you should reach out to potential advisors. It is normally a good idea to contact faculty you might be interested in working with to see if they are taking a grad student in the upcoming application cycle, as you don’t want to go through all of the work applying to a school if your potential advisor isn’t even accepting students. They might also include this information on their lab’s website, so we do recommend you check there first. However, if you do send an email, please be prepared to not always receive a response—faculty members can be busy! This does not mean that they aren’t interested in you or that they’re not accepting students.

And as far as when to reach out, any time around the end of summer or early fall is common. Sometimes people are slow to respond in the summer or they don’t yet know if they will have funding to take on a new graduate student, but for me when I applied, August was a good time to email.

It can be difficult to know what to actually say to the person you might be working with for five or more years in the future. While each email will be personalized to you and the faculty member that you’re emailing, inquiry emails usually follow a template like this:

Dear Dr. So-and-So,

My name is [your name here] and I am applying to psychology PhD programs this coming fall.

I have worked with Dr. X [your current supervisor] at Y University [where you’re currently working] for Z years [however long you’ve currently been there], studying [your broad research question here]. Specifically, I am interested in exploring [a greater description of your specific research question]. I currently work as a [your job title goes here], doing [a description of your relevant job duties].

I am interested in your lab’s work on [some relevant research that was recently published by the lab]. For example, I enjoyed your recent paper showing [a relevant key finding], and I’m curious about [a follow-up research question that you might be interested in researching in the lab].

Are you accepting PhD applicants for the coming fall semester? I have attached my CV for reference.

Sincerely,
[you]

And if you’d like to see specific examples, we’ve also linked to a collection of sample letters to potential advisors in the show notes.

As a summary, generally it’s good to include the following information in your email:
• A little bit of information about your experiences and interests,
• How your interests intersect with the faculty member’s (and here it’s important to show that you know what kind of work they do), and…
• Finally, an explicit question as to whether they’re accepting new students.

And it’s also a good idea to attach your CV for reference (and for more information on creating your CV, please be sure to check out Episode 3, which will cover CVs and Resumes).

All right, to wrap up, today we’ve covered how you might get organized to apply to PhD programs in experimental psychology. In particular, we touched on four topics:
1. How to know when you are ready to apply,
2. How to choose programs to apply to,
3. High-level timing of the application process, and…
4. How to reach out to potential advisors.

We hope that this has been helpful to you! In our next episode of The Psychology PhD, Episode 3, we’ll talk about developing CVs and resumes for program applications and anything else you might want to apply to. In Episode 4, we’ll talk about acquiring research experience and requesting letters of recommendation from your research supervisors. In Episode 5, we’ll talk about writing your statement of purpose for PhD applications, and in Episode 6, we’ll talk about preparing for interviews with schools that you’re applying to.

And we’ll be updating the show notes to include links to these different topics as soon as each new episode launches. You can find the show notes below this episode if you’re watching on YouTube or in the show notes section of whatever podcast app you’re listening on.

To receive notifications when new episodes are released, subscribe to our YouTube channel or to our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening! You’re also welcome to join our email list to receive an email each time we release a new episode. And, finally, if you found this content helpful, please consider liking the episode on YouTube or rating or reviewing the show in your preferred podcast app.

We’ll talk to you next time!

In this episode, we discuss the process of getting organized to apply to PhD programs in experimental psychology. We cover four main topics. First, how do you know when you’re ready to apply? Second, what factors might you take into consideration when choosing programs to apply to? Third, what does the timing of the application process look like at a high level? And fourth, how should you reach out to potential advisors to communicate your interest and confirm if they are accepting students in the coming application cycle?

General Links:
Watch on YouTube
Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Join our email list

As Mentioned in the Episode:
Sample letters to potential advisors

Additional Episodes from This Season:
See above and below

Credits:
Hosted by Monica Thieu
Music by Paul A. Bloom
Written by Ana DiGiovanni
Edited and Produced by Emily Nakkawita

CVs and Resumes

(Season 1, Episode 3)

Hi, and welcome back to The Psychology PhD, a podcast developed by grad students right here in the Columbia University psychology department where we discuss psych-focused graduate programs. Once again, I’m Monica Thieu, a 5th year student here in our program.

This season we are discussing the process of applying to PhD programs in experimental psychology. In our previous two episodes, we started with an introduction to the psychology PhD, which was followed up by a show on how to get organized at the beginning of the application process. If you’re just jumping in here, we recommend checking out those previous episodes as well, and we have linked them in the show notes for easy access.

All right, without further ado, let’s jump into the topic of today’s episode: CVs and resumes. If you’ve begun to review the application materials required by your programs of interest, you’ll likely have seen that you need to submit a CV as part of your application package. When I was an undergrad, I knew what a resume was supposed to look like, and I had a sense that a CV was something like a resume, but I did wonder:

What exactly is a CV?
How is it different from a resume?
And how should I design and structure mine?

So if you’ve been asking yourself similar questions, we’ve got you covered with this episode!

But before we begin, let me provide a quick caveat that, similar to what we’ve discussed in previous episodes, the guidelines we’ll provide today are specific to the United States. In other parts of the world, what we call resumes here in the U.S. are called CVs, so things can get a bit confusing. So, if you are applying to programs outside of the U.S., I’d recommend doing some online research into the customs and norms for CVs in your location of interest.

So, with that caveat out of the way, let’s jump into a quick summary of the key differences between CVs and resumes. We’ll dive into each of these items in more detail as we work our way through the episode.

• A CV is a credential-based professional history, whereas a resume is a competency-based marketing document.
• CV stands for “curriculum vitae”, or “the course of your life”. Accordingly, a CV provides a more thorough career review than a resume and, as such, it can contain multiple pages (basically as many pages as the content requires). In contrast, a resume is a targeted summary of your achievements and skills, and should be no longer than a single page if you’re in the first 5–8 years of your career.
• A CV is static; although it will get longer as time progresses and you do more stuff, it generally does not need much if any customization for various job or program applications. In contrast, a resume should be carefully tailored for each submission.
• And finally, the formatting for a CV is extremely standardized, and we strongly recommend sticking with these conventions. In contrast, resume formatting is much more flexible—though the most unique and creative options should only be used for certain types of roles.

And next, we’ll dive more deeply into these distinctions between CVs and resumes. Let’s start with the purpose of each, as they are actually quite different! I’ll begin with resumes, as you may be more likely to have encountered them in the past (say, for an internship or a job in the corporate world).

A resume tends to be the standard document that’s requested when you’re applying for a position in business or industry. Imagine that a potential employer asked what you can do for them—and to prove it with concrete descriptions of your accomplishments. A good resume does just this! As I said before, a resume is a competency-based marketing document—that is, a document for marketing yourself to employers—that provides a targeted summary of your achievements and skills. They tend to consist of descriptive bullets, each highlighting a key accomplishment, skill, or responsibility that’s relevant to the position of interest.

In contrast, a CV is a credential-based professional history that provides a thorough review of your career as a scholar or scientist. CVs are often used in academia and other research institutions. They differ from resumes in that they review all of your qualifications, rather than summarizing your relevant practical skills. They include a comprehensive overview of your education, the honors you’ve received, publications you’ve authored, presentations you’ve given, and other relevant information. And they tend to consist of lists in reverse-chronological order, with limited descriptive or explanatory text.

So now that we’ve briefly covered how resumes and CVs differ in their purpose, let’s compare and contrast their typical structure. Here is a listing of the sections commonly included in a CV versus a resume. You’ll see that some of these sections are included in both—like the Education section—and others are different. In this episode, we will be walking through each of these sections in detail.

But before we do, let’s spend a moment looking at this typical structure for each type of document. In academia, CVs always begin with your Education, and this section is typically followed by any Honors or Awards that you’ve received at this stage in your career.

Next, for senior academics like postdoctoral researchers and professors, it is common to include any Publications on which they are an author, followed by any Presentations they have given—for example, at a conference or an invited talk at a university. And to avoid any discouragement, let me highlight that most people applying to grad school will not have content to fill these sections when they apply. (For what it’s worth, most grad students I know didn’t have any publications or presentations at the time they applied, and they still got in.) I’ll mention it again when we review these sections in detail, but if you don’t have any publications or presentations, simply omit these sections.

After Publications and Presentations on your CV, you’ll typically find your Research Experience, followed by your Teaching Experience. Finally comes Service, your Affiliations, and any other Professional Experience you might have that doesn’t quite fit into the sections above.

Briefly shifting gears from CVs to resumes—a resume will typically start with your Experience, followed by your Education and then your Skills. (The only time when I’d recommend changing this order is when you’re first graduating—if you’re applying for your first job after college, feel free to place Education before Experience because that’s what happened most recently.) There are also a couple of sections that you can include on a resume, but that you don’t need to include: the Objective and the Personal sections. And we’ll talk a bit more about these sections later.

So now that we’ve reviewed the high-level structure of each kind of document, let’s dive into specifics, section by section. And as a quick heads up, I’ll be featuring real-world examples from CVs and resumes of people from my program in the video version of this episode. So if you’re listening to the audio podcast, you can find a link to the YouTube video where you can find these examples in the show notes.

So let’s begin with the header at the top of your document.

In a CV, the header format is quite standardized and, honestly, kind of boring! (And you’ll see that this semi-boring, standardized format is true throughout the entire CV.) You’ll list your name, and optionally you can list the words “Curriculum Vitae”—though some people omit this line—and then your current department and contact information, including an email address, phone number, and mailing address. If you’ve already graduated and are no longer affiliated with a university, you can leave off the department line. And as you’ll see, in a CV, this should all be in plain, 12 point, Times New Roman font, with the exception of your name—which can be bolded and in a slightly larger size.

In contrast to a CV, you can have a little more fun with the formatting of a resume header, but keep in mind it should match the look and feel of the rest of your resume. And additionally, because space is at a premium in resumes (unlike CVs), it’s probably best to keep this to two or maybe three lines: one line with your name, followed by a line or two with contact details.

Next, let’s take a look at the Education section. This should be the very first section on your CV. It should begin with a basic, all-caps “EDUCATION” header, which should be bolded but still in 12 point Times New Roman font. Then, in unbolded Times New Roman 12 point font, you should list your university, degree, and graduation date. Next, since you’re applying to graduate programs, you’ll want to include your GPA—either cumulative or for your major (and particularly if that major is psychology, and if your major GPA is impressive!). Finally, if you have received any honors or are writing or have finished an honors thesis, mention it here. And keep in mind that all of this should be in plain text, with no special formatting or bullets.

In contrast, on a resume, you have much more flexibility, both in terms of the content and the formatting. Typically, you will include similar information to a CV, but you might use bullets and formatting that looks a bit more exciting—though, as always, keep in mind that this formatting should match the rest of your resume. And as mentioned briefly before, this section will likely come after Experience in your resume unless you’re just graduating.

Next, let’s review the Honors section, which tends to follow the Education section on a CV. This is where you’ll have the opportunity to highlight any fellowships, honors, awards, or funding that you might have received. On a CV, you will list each honor or award that you received, as well as the associated organization you received the award from and the year that you got it, each on its own line. And for awards that involved cash prizes or fellowship funding, some people will also include the dollar amount of each award in parentheses following the name of the awarding organization. You can do this if you like.

On a resume, such honors will typically be bundled as a bullet point under the associated Education or Experience section, rather than being placed in their own section. And like all sections of a CV or resume, if you don’t have anything to list here, that’s OK! Simply leave the section out.

Next, let’s talk Publications. I’ll begin by reiterating that many grad students I know didn’t have scholarly publications on their CVs when they applied to grad school. This is normal! If you fall into this group as well, then you can simply omit the Publications section—no need to include it at all. However, if you have had the rare opportunity to author a publication, you can add it here. To do so, you can list any publications in APA format. In the show notes, we’ve included a link to a website with more information on APA reference formatting so you can take a look. Thanks to APA formatting, you may notice that the formatting of this Publications CV section is a bit more exciting than the other sections. In addition to standard APA reference guidelines like italics for journal names and book titles, be sure to bold your own name in the author list. This helps readers see where you fit in!

Finally, in a resume used for business purposes, it’s pretty uncommon to include research publications. However, if you’re including your Research Assistant position in your Experience section, you could consider listing any publications as a relevant bullet point under that position.

Next, the Presentations section on your CV should be formatted just like a Publications section would be, with APA-style references for each presentation. Just like in the Publications section, be sure to bold your name in the reference. And for anyone who has been working outside of academia prior to applying to grad school, it may be helpful to know that this section is typically for presentations or posters presented at scientific conferences. I wouldn’t recommend including everyday business presentations here. And like the rest of the CV, if you haven’t given any scholarly presentations, no worries! Just omit the section.

And with regard to resumes, presentations typically won’t be worth the space that they would take up on your resume, unless it’s something very special that might excite your potential employer. If this is the case, I’d recommend bundling it as a bullet point under the relevant Experience item.

All right, so, moving on to Research Experience. As a grad school applicant, this section is very important! This is where you will list the positions that you have held working in a scientific research lab. As we covered in the earlier Grad Apps videos, research experience is probably the most important aspect of your qualifications for PhD programs. Although you’ll cover your research experience in the most detail within your Statement of Purpose, which we’ll be covering later in Episode 5, in your CV you will list the basics of your position, including the university and the lab you worked in, the dates of your tenure, your supervisor, and 1–2 lines briefly describing your responsibilities. And like the rest of the CV, keep the formatting basic.

If you’re working on a resume instead of a CV, you might find that you want to include your research experience as well if it’s relevant to the role you’re applying to. Great! So, to do so, include your research experience within your main Experience section with the lab listed as if it is a company. Then, include bullet points that highlight your specific accomplishments and translatable strengths or skills—things that you’ve learned to do or be in the lab that would also be valuable to an employer, like project management or data analysis skills.

Teaching Experience should be included in a similar manner to Research Experience in your CV. This is where you’ll likely include any teaching assistantships you’ve held (if you have had any). Include your instructor’s name, the university and the course, and the semester or quarter it was offered, and a couple brief lines describing your responsibilities. Some people also choose to highlight the average teaching review score that they received for each course in this section.

On your resume, teaching experience may be worth including in your Experience section if your accomplishments or skills are, again, directly translatable to the position for which you’re applying. If not, however, feel free to leave it off.

Next up: the Service section. If you’re new to academia, you may not have heard of this category before. Service encompasses work that you’ve done to support your department, university, or field, such as committee membership, volunteer work, or service on an editorial board (e.g., for an undergraduate research journal). On your CV, these listings will go in a simply-formatted Service section, with a single line for each role.

And on your resume, there aren’t any specific conventions regarding this kind of work. If it is a long-term commitment that’s relevant to your position of interest, you could include it as an Experience item. If not, it likely merits just a bullet in your Personal section (if anything).

Finally, Affiliations. Many people include an Affiliations section in their CV that lists the professional organizations to which they belong. Although this section is optional, it can help to fill out a light CV and highlight your ongoing involvement in the scientific community. Include one line per organization with your role and dates of membership. This information probably isn’t worth including on your resume at all, unless you need to fill up space! If this is the case, you could add the information as a line in your Personal section.

All right, so that concludes our review of the various sections in a CV and their analogous sections in a resume (where applicable). Next, let’s quickly run through some notes that are specific to resumes now.

First, let’s talk about two different ways that you might organize your Experience section in your resume: reverse-chronological versus functional. A reverse-chronological Experience section starts with your current (or most recent) professional experience at the top, and then works backwards through time as you make your way down the page. This reverse-chronological organization is, by far, the most common and straightforward way to list your experience. We would strongly recommend using this style of organization unless you have a good reason not to!

In contrast, a functionally-organized Experience section will consist of separate groupings of professional experiences based on the primary function you performed in each role. This kind of organization can be really useful if you’ve made a big professional change—say, from one industry to another—as it can help the reader to understand what took place before versus after the change. Functional resumes can also be especially effective when you are discussing this change in your cover letter as well. However, keep in mind that if this is for your first full-time position out of school, I would strongly recommend using a reverse-chronological approach.

Second, one optional section for resumes that I mentioned earlier is the Objective section. If you decide to include this section, this is where you’ll provide a targeted one- or two-sentence-long summary of your career goal (which should align with the job to which you’re applying) and, potentially, specific keywords, experiences, or skills that make you a great fit for that role. So, should you include this optional Objective section? It might be worth including if you’re making a big career change or if you have a resume that’s light on content. If you don’t fall into these groups, though, we’d typically recommend that you leave it out and dedicate that space in your resume to other sections.

Next, let’s turn our attention to a section that is common in resumes but not typically found in CVs: the Skills section. This is a section where people often highlight their technical and language skills. Given that the Experience section of a resume tends to focus on your accomplishments, rather than your credentials, the Skills section is where you can quickly identify to employers that you know how to use all the software that they reference in the job posting. In this section, each piece of software and/or language—a language you can speak or a language you can code in—receives its own bullet point.

Finally, another optional section for resumes is the Personal section. This is where you can include 1–3 bullet points on who you are as a person (ideally with some kind of connection to the field that you’re applying to work in). Why include this section? Hiring decisions often come down to personal fit, and this is a way you can highlight your human side. To be as effective as possible, we would recommend keeping these points brief and specific—vagaries like “Enjoys cooking and traveling” aren’t typically that useful.

Next, let’s talk about the language you’ll use throughout your resume. As we covered at the beginning of this episode, resumes are sales documents intended to market you as a brand. As such, the most effective resumes will use active verbs that demonstrate specifically what you have accomplished, rather than what your duties or responsibilities were. Furthermore, employers appreciate when you quantify these accomplishments. For example, how many client relationships did you manage in your time in this role? How large was the budget you oversaw? Specifics like these can help bring your experience to life for the reader. Although it may feel a little awkward, it is also a good idea to include some buzzwords from the job listing. Employers these days often use software that automatically scans your application files for keywords of interest, so including these words may help your resume to pass this initial screening.

Finally, we strongly recommend tailoring your resume for every single job opportunity. (This is likely different from your CV, as I mentioned before, which tends to be static and doesn’t need to be tailored in this way.) For your resume, this means revising and reordering your bullets for every single opportunity so that your most relevant experience for the position you’re applying for is featured as prominently as possible.

Next, let’s quickly talk about formatting. If you’ve searched for example resumes online, as I have many times, you’ve probably found many examples that look fairly traditional with black Times New Roman font. However, you may also have come across examples with more of a custom design. How do you decide which is right for you? We would recommend that you only consider a custom designed resume if you are applying for a creative role in a creative industry. If you’re applying for anything else—say, law, consulting, or a nonprofit job, stick with traditional formatting. And if you’re not sure, go traditional.

Finally, let’s talk about how to stretch or squeeze your resume, keeping in mind that resumes should really be a single page (at least until you’re at least 5–8 years into your career).

If your resume is light and you’re having trouble filling one full page, adjust your formatting so that you are using 12 point font, 1 inch margins, and are including ample white space—for example, a full line break before and after each heading and between each position. And additionally, if you have had more than one role at an organization—for example, if you’ve been promoted—list these roles as completely separate Experience items. And if you’re stretching, it could also be helpful to include that Objective section at the top and the Personal section at the bottom. If you still need to fill space after doing all of this, you might even include Experience and Education items from your time in high school—though we recommend doing this only if you absolutely need to!

Next, let’s talk about the opposite challenge: If your resume is content-heavy and you’re having trouble squeezing everything just one page. In this case, you might adjust your font, margins, and white space so that you can fit more on the page—so a smaller font (though no smaller than 10 point), smaller margins (though no smaller than ½ inch) and less white space (for example, only a blank line before your headers, but not after them). If you’ve had multiple roles at a single organization, you could condense them into a single experience item and simply list the roles and dates side by side. Finally, remove the Objective section as well as any information in Experience or Education that’s from high school. And consider combining your Skills section with your Personal section—perhaps only including one Personal bullet, if any.

So, to wrap up, let’s quickly review the key differences between a CV and a resume in the U.S. once more.
• A CV is a credential-based professional history, whereas a resume is a competency-based marketing document.
• A CV provides a more thorough career review and, as such, it can contain as many pages as necessary. In contrast, a resume is a targeted summary of your achievements and skills, and should be no longer than one page if you’re in the first 5–8 years of your career.
• A CV is static; although it’ll get longer as you get more experience, it doesn’t need to be customized for most applications, while in contrast, a resume should be tailored for every single application you use it for.
• And finally, the formatting for a CV is extremely standardized, and we strongly recommend sticking with those conventions. In contrast, as you heard, resume formatting is much more flexible—though again, the most creative options should only be used for creative roles.

That’s all for today. I really hope that this has been helpful. In our next episode of The Psychology PhD, Episode 4, we will talk about acquiring research experience and requesting letters of recommendation for graduate programs from your research supervisors. In Episode 5, we’ll talk about writing your statement of purpose for PhD applications, and in Episode 6, we’ll talk about preparing for interviews with schools that you’re applying to.

And just as before, we’ll be updating the show notes to include links to these different topics as soon as each new episode launches. You can find the show notes below this episode in the description if you’re watching on YouTube or in the show notes section of whatever podcast app you’re listening on.

To receive notifications when new episodes are released, subscribe to our YouTube channel or to our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening. You’re also welcome to join our email list to receive an email each time we release a new episode. And, finally, if you found this content helpful, once more, please consider liking the episode on YouTube or rating and reviewing the show in your preferred podcast app.

Talk to you next time!

In this episode, we discuss how to develop CVs and resumes for PhD programs in experimental psychology (or anything else you’re interested in applying to). We cover three main topics. First, what exactly is a CV? Second, how is a CV different from a resume? And third, how should you design and structure yours?

General Links:
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As Mentioned in the Episode:
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Additional Episodes from This Season:
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Credits:
Hosted by Monica Thieu
Music by Paul A. Bloom
Written by Ana DiGiovanni
Edited and Produced by Emily Nakkawita

Research Experience and Recommendation Letters

(Season 1, Episode 4)

Hi everyone, and welcome back to The Psychology PhD, a podcast developed by grad students right here in the Columbia University psychology department where we discuss psych-focused graduate programs. Once again, I’m Monica Thieu, a 5th year student here in our program.

This season we’re discussing the process of applying to PhD programs in experimental psychology. So far, over the course of the first three episodes, we’ve talked about what the psychology PhD entails, how to prepare for your PhD application and the purpose and structure of CVs and resumes. If you’re just jumping in here, we do recommend that you go and check out these previous episodes, and they are linked in the show notes for easy access.

Now, it’s time to jump into our topics for today’s episode: research experience and recommendation letters. As we mentioned several times in earlier episodes, academic research experience is crucial for admission to an experimental psychology PhD program. Depending on where you are right now in the application process, you might be curious about what qualifies as academic research experience and how you can obtain it. And naturally, you might also be wondering about how to acquire recommendation letters that are suitable for a psychology PhD application.

So, in this episode, we’ll discuss the following topics:
• What research experience looks like for the field of experimental psychology
• Undergraduate vs. Postbac vs. Master’s research
• How to obtain a research position
• How to request letters of recommendation

At first glance, the term “research experience” might be a little daunting if you don’t have any yet. Fortunately, there are many ways that you can help out in a lab and contribute to science – even if you have never stepped foot in a lab before! Typically, entry-level research opportunities allow you to do just that. In such a role, you will gain hands-on experience with conducting experiments, and after spending some time in the lab, you may even learn more advanced skills like analyzing data and conducting literature reviews. In addition, research experience is a great way—and I think one of the best ways—to discover and develop your own research interests in preparation for graduate school. In fact, the plethora of skills and knowledge that you can obtain during your time in a lab is precisely why it’s so important for a psychology PhD application. Professors want to know that you have a rough idea of what research in the field looks like and that you’ll have picked up important skills that will be essential to your own success as a graduate student.

In our field, an entry-level research position is often referred to as a “research assistant” job, or an “RA” job for short. Now, let’s talk a bit about what the typical RA experience looks like.

Before we do so, however, I think it’s important that we briefly go over the organizational structure of a lab. In our field, labs are led by usually one (sometimes more) “principal investigators” or “PIs.” A PI guides and oversees all the research that’s conducted in a lab, kind of like the founder of a startup or a CEO of a company. PIs are usually faculty members at a university and hold the academic title of Professor. In addition to the PI and, of course, graduate students, like in the programs you’re probably applying to, labs usually have postdoctoral researchers who have recently completed their PhD training. A helpful way to conceptualize a “postdoc” is through the lens of what happens in the medical field. Postdoctoral researchers can be thought of as the “medical residents” of our field—they are still qualified doctors, but they are completing post-grad training under the guidance of a PI. Most postdocs pursue such opportunities to become PIs of their own labs one day.

Finally, most labs in our field have research assistants who are primarily undergrads and people who have already acquired a bachelor’s degree. In this podcast, we’ll refer to this second group of people as “postbacs,” which is short for post-bachelor’s or post-baccalaureate. (Same thing!)

In the research assistant role, you will likely work alongside a grad student or a postdoc on a study. You may help out by carrying out experiments with human or non-human animal subjects, conducting literature reviews, managing communications with human participants, keeping track of important forms, coding written responses or participant behavior from videos or just by watching them, or completing data analysis using statistical computing (with code). One important note about this last point: it is perfectly fine if you have never typed a line of computer code in your life to this point! Many psychology grad students were first exposed to programming as research assistants or even later in their careers, as graduate students. I started learning R as an undergraduate research assistant and it was very hard when I started, but I am very glad I stuck with it! If you’re interested in learning to program in R or Python for scientific purposes, we’ve linked some basic programming resources for novice coders in the show notes.

As an RA, it is important to thoughtfully engage in the project to which you are assigned. That is, you will be expected to read scientific papers that your immediate supervisor deems central to the project’s hypotheses and aims, and maintain a clear understanding of the entire project. Finally, you may be expected to attend and actively participate in meetings in the lab.

The responsibilities we’ve covered so far are both central to a research position at the undergraduate and postbac levels. However, there are some additional duties that might come with a postbac research position. If you are hired as a “lab manager”, this role might also include administrative tasks like coordinating lab activities, maintaining research protocols, and monitoring undergraduate research assistants.

Now that we’ve gone through what a typical research experience looks like, we will chat a bit about the different types of research positions that exist.

Undergraduate research positions and many postbac research positions tend to be unpaid. However, some institutions may allow you to participate in research for course credit or as a part of completing an honors thesis. These unpaid research positions are usually part-time (that is, about 8-15 hours a week, depending on the position), and your schedule will be determined by you and your immediate research supervisor, be it a postdoc, a graduate student, or directly with the PI. The minimum length of a typical unpaid research position is one academic term. With that being said, graduate and postdoc researchers often prefer to work with undergraduates and postbacs who are interested in staying in the position for a year or more because of the length of training that’s required to be able to meaningfully assist in a project.

For undergraduate students who are interested in earning some money as research assistants, there are a number of paid summer research opportunities available. These opportunities are usually 8-10 weeks long, and often provide a stipend, housing, and sometimes even GRE prep or professional development courses. Some programs that facilitate such research experiences include the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program, the Leadership Alliance, and the Big Ten Academic Alliance, among others. Individual universities may also offer summer internship or fellowship opportunities, sometimes through a specific department and sometimes through the general undergraduate program. Finally, summer research is a great way to get some experience at a different institution, especially if you seek to learn specialized research techniques that your current institution may not have. In the show notes, we’ve linked a spreadsheet containing a sampling of different funding opportunities, with programs for undergraduates, postbacs, and more. Keep in mind, this sheet is far from comprehensive—there are many programs out there, and new opportunities arise all the time!

There are also full-time, paid postbac research positions. Most positions at this level involve a 1-3 year commitment, with an average length of 2 years. These kinds of paid postbac positions can be completely research-focused or include additional administrative tasks to help ensure that the lab is running smoothly. Given that this is a full-time role, you will most likely work with multiple graduate students and/or postdocs. And if a lab is particularly new, you may work one-on-one with the PI themselves. Regardless of the stage that the lab is in, postbac research assistants often have a unique opportunity to build a relationship with a faculty-level researcher. PIs are often quite invested in the research journey of their postbac assistants. As a result, many PIs will have multiple one-on-one meetings with their postbac RAs to review their progress and discuss the next steps in their careers.

Like we mentioned in Episode 1, many students do not complete a master’s before applying to PhD programs. However, for those with a reason to invest in a master’s program in psychology, they will most likely complete research as a part of their master’s thesis. And depending on the institution, most likely they will be expected to present their research in the form of a talk or an oral defense at the culmination of that thesis. Although this experience might be nerve-racking for some, this experience can only help to develop students’ ability to communicate their research effectively, which is a critical skill for a career in research.

Regardless of where you currently are in your academic career, a good first step towards securing a research role is to, well, do some research in advance! Research labs at an academic institution will often have websites that provide more information about the lab’s focus, along with a list of publications featuring the lab’s work. The best way to narrow down which research topics excite you the most is to read a paper or two from each lab. This will give you a better sense of the types of research questions that the lab is asking, the sorts of techniques that they use to answer those questions, and the subject population (that is, human or non-human animals) that they primarily work with. When determining which research papers you should read from that list of publications, we recommend that you stick to key theoretical or empirical papers from that lab (for example, papers where an important theory was first introduced) as well as recent papers that have published ideally within the last five years. Sometimes it can be hard to figure out which papers are the “key” papers. One helpful approach is to look at how many times a paper has been cited by other researchers in their work. This information should be listed for a paper if you do a search for the paper’s title on a website like Google Scholar. And while citation count is definitely not a perfect indicator of a paper’s quality or importance, a paper that’s been cited a lot has clearly been read by many other people in the field and has therefore contributed to how that topic is thought about by others.

Importantly, it is totally ok if you don’t understand everything that you read in a research paper. After all, you’re a scientist-in-training, and reading research papers effectively and quickly comes with lots of experience. For now, it’s important to try to get the big picture “takeaways” of the paper, understand the findings as best as you can, and keep track of questions you might have while reading. Don’t be afraid to summarize key points of the paper by taking down some quick notes if you need to. Reading through the abstract thoroughly, where the authors themselves have summarized the most important points of the paper, is a great starting point. Finally, remember to be flexible. There is a chance that you might not identify labs with research that falls perfectly in line with your interests. That’s totally normal! Your ultimate goal should be identifying experimental psychology labs that are doing research that you find interesting, even if it isn’t the exact topic that you might want to pursue years down the line. Remember, as long as you’re dedicated and motivated, you will always come out of a research assistantship with useful skills, additional knowledge, and a much better idea of what you want to do—or don’t want to do—in your own research moving forward.

Next, let’s talk about how to actually get one of these research positions. Depending on the research role that you’re interested in, your approach will differ slightly.

If you are an undergraduate student who’s interested in a volunteer research position, many lab websites have forms that you can fill out to indicate your interest. Other labs may require you to reach out via email to their lab manager or research assistant. If a lab website doesn’t provide any instructions regarding RA positions, you should reach out to the lab’s principal investigator directly to inquire via email about research opportunities. However, as a caveat, please keep in mind that faculty inboxes tend to be quite busy, and not all of these emails may receive a prompt response. Please do not let this discourage you! Unfortunately, it’s true that this kind of outreach is often a “numbers game”, so it’s a good idea to reach out to several positions.

If you are inquiring about research positions via email, you should remember to include the following:
• Introduce yourself and establish your academic background (like your major and your graduation year)
• State explicitly that you are interested in a volunteer RA position
• Establish your current research interests
• Describe the aspects of that lab’s ongoing research that specifically interest you
• Ask for a meeting for further discussion

You should also attach a copy of your latest transcript. This is because faculty members might want to confirm that you have already taken an introductory psychology course and, perhaps, a stats or research methods course. Likewise, you should also attach your resume or CV. You should not be worried at all if this document does not yet show any research experience on it—after all, this is what you are trying to get! Consequently, if that’s the case, your resume or CV should highlight experiences that demonstrate a solid work ethic, motivation, and independence. And as a friendly reminder, for more detailed information on developing your CV or your resume, be sure to check out Episode 3.

Finally, if you happen to be an undergraduate student who is currently taking a course taught by a psychology professor, you should also feel very free to attend their office hours to ask for guidance on what labs you should consider applying to based on your interests. If you have a strong relationship with this professor, you could even ask them to recommend you directly to the labs that they recommend considering.

If a PI or other member of the lab is interested in meeting with you to discuss a possible research role, it is extremely important that you treat this as a formal interview. You should be prepared to discuss your research interests and work experience in more detail. You should also be ready to ask questions about the responsibilities of the research role and the expected time commitment to make sure they match up with what you’re looking for. Finally, it’s always good to come equipped with any other thoughtful questions you might have about the lab’s recent work from your research.

For a better idea of what an inquiry email to a potential PI might look like, we have included sample emails linked in the show notes below!

Next, we’ll discuss how to obtain a research position as a postbac. As we highlighted before, a great number of these postbac research positions are unpaid. Although the skills and knowledge gained from such research experiences are hugely beneficial, we do recognize that unpaid positions are often an additional barrier to getting involved in research—especially for those who cannot afford to take an unpaid position. With this knowledge in mind, we’ll continue to highlight guidelines for securing a research position with the hope that access to research will continue over time to expand beyond those who can afford it.

If you are interested in a paid postbac position, the best time to start your search is around late February. It’s important to note that paid postbac research positions nearly always require some amount of research experience prior. (Usually undergrad research is plenty!) The majority of paid postbac research advertisements appear around March and April, and often have summer or beginning-of-fall start dates. The application materials for these positions are very similar to that of a typical job: you will likely have to provide a cover letter, a CV, and a list of 2-3 references.

Unfortunately, these paid positions are few and far between. If you are interested in working in a particular geographical area, it may be important to broaden your research focus a bit in order to ensure that you have as many options near you as possible. On the other hand, if you’d like to pursue a very specific line of research, then you might benefit from widening your geographic radius to include institutions that might require you to move to a new city or even further.

Additional challenges to securing a paid postbac research role are the variability in position titles and the lack of a well-known central listing. Although we have referred to these positions with the terms “research assistant” and “lab manager” in this episode, similar research experiences might be listed on job boards under the term “research coordinator” or “research specialist.”

There are a couple of ways to identify paid postbac research positions. One great way that you can find these opportunities is by joining the email list for a professional society. PIs will often announce job ads on these email lists because their lab’s research heavily overlaps with the primary research focus of people in that organization. For example, a PI who primarily studies emotion will most likely announce a research assistant position on the email list of an affective research society. A few societies that have email lists are the Society for Judgment and Decision Making, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, the Social & Affective Neuroscience Society, the Cognitive Science Society, and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, among others.

Another way to find out about research assistant positions is on the “predoc” section of a job posting website called psychjobsearch.wikidot.com. There are also psychology job lists maintained by institutions such as Duke, Miami University, and Georgetown. We’ve provided a list of job boards currently available at the time that this podcast is airing in the show notes below.

The next way to discover research positions might seem unbelievable at first, but it is true: you can find out about open positions, in real-time, through Twitter. Many PIs and lab Twitter accounts will tweet about open positions, which other investigators and academics will then retweet. As a result, figuring out which labs are hiring is pretty straightforward if you have a Twitter account—all you have to do is follow the accounts of investigators and labs whose research interests align with yours, and you might see a relevant job posting come down your timeline!

Finally, word-of-mouth never hurts. If you are actively seeking a paid research assistant position, you can ask your classmates or your lab mates to keep an eye out for you if they have they time. If you have a close faculty mentor from your time as an undergrad you can also tell them that you are interested in these kinds of positions and ask if they’d be willing to forward any job postings to you that they might receive. It is not uncommon for faculty to get personalized emails from colleagues at other institutions who are recruiting for one of these available positions. And while these jobs may also be posted in more formal channels, like the job boards or society newsletters that we mentioned before, it never hurts to leverage your network if you can.

If you have already graduated undergrad without research experience, it is completely fine! Many people begin their research after college and successfully matriculate to graduate school following their time as research assistants. Given that paid postbac research roles are often looking for those with undergraduate experience, a volunteer postbac role is an effective way to start your research experience if you’ve already graduated.

A number of institutions offer research programs that are aimed at postbacs who may not have extensive research experience, and these programs generally include coursework as well. Although it may vary across institutions, the length of such a program is usually 1-2 years.

Now that you know all about the different types of research experience and how to acquire them, we can dive right into a discussion about getting recommendation letters for graduate school applications.

Although research experience and skills are important, letters of recommendation are a unique opportunity for a prospective PhD advisor to learn more about you through the perspective of another investigator in the field. Similar to the system of peer-review, where other researchers in the field will ensure that a research article maintains validity and contains the potential to contribute positively to the field, letters of recommendation serve as an important “quality check” for a prospective graduate student.

The typical experimental psychology PhD application requires three letters of recommendation; other programs may only require just two, but this is pretty rare. As you compile your application materials, you should think carefully about who you should request a letter of recommendation from.

Before I touch on what the typical list of letter writers looks like, I want to note that it is most important to have professional references that can confidently write about how your character, skills, and experience make you an excellent candidate for a PhD program.

For our field, it is generally best to provide one or two letters of recommendation from principal investigators whose labs you have worked in. For your other letter (or letters, however many more you need), potential writers could be another senior-level researcher in the field, a psychology professor you’ve taken a class with, or your supervisor from a research position you’ve previously held at a company.

In summary, all three letter writers should be able to speak adequately on your work ethic and motivation for research. It is perfectly fine if you have not worked under the direct supervision of a PI during your research assistant experience. Often, a PI will write a letter of recommendation alongside your immediate research supervisor—that is, the graduate student or the postdoc with whom you actually worked closely.

Finally, it is very important to reach out to prospective letter writers as early as possible! A good rule of thumb is 6 weeks before any application deadline. However, I strongly recommend requesting those letters of rec the summer before your application is due. For example, if you are applying to graduate school in the fall cycle, it’s generally best to reach out to recommenders sometime between June and August.

You may be wondering to yourself, “Why so early?” This is because the fall semester is typically a very busy time for research supervisors. If they are a PI, they may be preparing to teach a course, supervising incoming graduate students in the lab, and answering other email inquiries from prospective graduate students who are applying that fall. Therefore, it is important to give them as much time as possible to write your letter. In addition, remember that you are probably one of dozens of people asking for one of these letters, and that they will need ample time to make sure each letter is personalized and speaks to the strengths of each individual.

When I was applying to graduate school, I remember feeling quite nervous at the thought of having to email someone to ask for a letter of recommendation. If you find yourself getting worried, you should know that if you’re asking the right person for a letter, they will be more than happy to write you one!

When you reach out to potential letter writers, it is important to ask if they can provide you with a strong letter of recommendation. Most of the time, people will be honest and let you know if they cannot do this. In the event that someone does decline your request, remember that this will benefit you down the line—it is better to have a strong letter than a weak letter that will negatively impact your application package.

If you request a letter of recommendation via email, it always helps to request a time to meet in person or virtually, especially if you haven’t spoken to your recommender recently (like if you’re asking a professor whose class you took some time ago). A one-on-one meeting is a great opportunity to expand on your motivations for applying to graduate school, your current research interests, and the research programs that you are currently considering. And if your letter writer is in the field, they can provide great insight about the labs that you might be interested in applying to, or highlight labs that you would not have known about otherwise.

Along with your request, you should provide a prospective letter writer with a few additional items:
1. A CV
2. The latest draft of your personal statement that you plan to submit with your applications
3. A list of institutions and specific programs to which you’ll be applying, and their deadlines (this list should also include the names of PIs that you’re interested in working with at those places)
4. A summary of the classes that you took and grades received for courses that you may have taken with your letter writer if they are a professor of yours

It’s also important to keep your email straightforward and concise! You want to make it as easy as possible for them to respond, especially if you are emailing a professor. And if you’d like to see specific examples of recommendation request emails, we have linked some below in the show notes.

Once you finalize who your letter writers are, make sure that you follow up with them as the deadline approaches. It’s a good idea to let your recommenders know when you have submitted your application. In this follow-up email, you should also re-attach your list of deadlines, and ask your letter writers to let you know if they don’t see any letter requests in their inbox. While you shouldn’t nag your letter writers, don’t be afraid to remind them a couple of days before the due date. Finally, it’s a nice touch to send thank-you emails to your letter writers once they’ve sent those letters.

Alright! That’s all for this episode, and once again, I truly hope that this has been helpful for you. In our next episode of The Psychology PhD, Episode 5, we will dive into writing your statement of purpose. And in the final episode of this season, Episode 6, we’ll talk about preparing for graduate school interviews.

And just as before, we’ll be updating the show notes to include links to these different topics as soon as each new episode launches. You can find the show notes below this episode in the description if you’re watching on YouTube or in the show notes section of whatever podcast app you’re listening on.

To receive notifications when new episodes are released, you can subscribe to our YouTube channel or to our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening. You’re also welcome to join our email list to receive an email each time we release a new episode. And, finally, if you found this content helpful, once again, please consider liking the episode on YouTube or rating and reviewing the show in your preferred podcast app.

And we’ll talk to you next time!

In this episode, we discuss research experience in experimental psychology and how to request letters of recommendation for PhD program applications from your research supervisors (or other potential letter writers). We cover four main topics. First, what does research experience look like in this field? Second, what are the similarities and differences between undergraduate, postbac, and master’s research? Third, how does one go about obtaining a research position? And fourth, how might you request letters of recommendation when applying to grad school?

General Links:
Watch on YouTube
Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Join our email list

As Mentioned in the Episode:
Learning to code in R (introductory tutorials)
Basic programming resources for novice coders
A brief list of some research funding opportunities
Sample inquiry emails for research assistant positions
psychjobsearch.wikidot.com
Duke University psychology job list
Miami University psychology job list
Georgetown University psychology job list
Sample recommendation request emails

Additional Episodes from This Season:
See above and below

Credits:
Hosted by Monica Thieu
Music by Paul A. Bloom
Written by Arlene Lormestoire
Edited and Produced by Emily Nakkawita

Writing Your Statement of Purpose

(Season 1, Episode 5)

Hi everyone, and welcome back to The Psychology PhD, a podcast developed by grad students here in the Columbia University psychology department, where we discuss psych-focused graduate programs. Once again, I’m Monica Thieu, a 5th year student here in our program.

This season we’re discussing the process of applying to PhD programs in experimental psychology. So far, over the course of the first four episodes, we’ve provided an introduction to graduate programs in psychology, discussed how to get organized for PhD program applications, covered the purpose and structure of CVs and resumes, and provided an overview of research experience in our field, including how to request letters of recommendation from your research supervisors. If you’re just jumping in here, we do recommend that you check out those previous episodes! They are linked in the show notes for easy access.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the focus of today’s episode: how to develop your statement of purpose for applications to PhD programs in experimental psychology. We’ve mentioned this statement of purpose—also sometimes called a “personal statement”—a few times in prior episodes. For instance, in Episode 3, we noted that although your research experience will be listed on your CV, that you’ll cover this experience in much greater detail within your statement of purpose. And additionally, in Episode 4, we highlighted that you might want to attach a draft of your statement of purpose when you’re requesting recommendation letters. But you might be wondering: What exactly is a statement of purpose, and how should I develop mine? If you’ve been asking yourself these kinds of questions, we’ve got you covered here!

In this episode, we’ll discuss the following topics:
The purpose of a statement of purpose (I know, no pun intended!)
The typical structure of such a statement
How to develop a cohesive narrative that ties together all of the content in your statement
And finally, some important notes and common misconceptions about your statement.

And as always, before we dive in, it’s worth noting that this content applies specifically to statements that you’re developing for applying to PhD programs here in the United States, as customs may differ in other countries.

So, without further ado, let’s begin with the purpose of your statement of purpose. More than anywhere else within your application, this statement will allow you to tell your unique professional story to readers who will consider you for admission to their doctoral programs. While your CV will provide programs with a “bare bones” outline of your academic and professional experience, the purpose of your statement of purpose is to fill in these gaps, and communicate your objectives for pursuing graduate studies and offer a rich illustration of the experiences that have prepared you for such a program. Your statement should showcase the “big idea” that you are most interested in studying in your PhD, your background and motivation, and your future goals as a PhD student and beyond.

So, how might you fit all of this content into a single statement? Next, we’ll turn our attention to the structure of a typical statement of purpose. In this section, we’ll first talk about the length of your statement—that is, how much space you’ll have to write within—and then we’ll cover how applicants tend to divide up that space to cover different topics.

In terms of length, most programs will provide you with some kind of a limit. This might be a word limit (for example, a maximum of 1,000 or 2,000 words) or a page limit (for example, one or two single-spaced pages in a particular typeface and font size, like 12 point Times New Roman). If your program of interest provides you with these kinds of guidelines, it is very important that you stick to them. (This is not a good time to run over by a word, or a sentence, and hope that no one is going to notice!) And furthermore, if a program does not provide you with a limit, I’d still recommend keeping your statement of purpose to no more than two single-spaced pages, as this is a customary maximum length for such a statement here in the U.S.

Within these space limitations, here’s what the typical structure looks like.

The first paragraph tends to be a brief introduction consisting of a few items. First, your introduction paragraph should establish the “big idea” or core research question that you are interested in studying as a PhD student, often through a brief quote or anecdote. (We’ll discuss the specifics of this “big idea” in a few minutes when we turn our attention to your narrative!) Second, this first paragraph might highlight in one or two sentences how you have begun to investigate this “big idea” through your past or current research experiences. And third, the paragraph should conclude with a single sentence outlining that you hope to pursue graduate studies under the supervision of the PI at the program to which you’re applying, in order to further investigate some intersection of your own “big idea” with your PI’s research interests.

After this introductory paragraph, the next two-thirds (or so!) of your statement should cover your past and current research experiences, with the goal of communicating how these experiences have prepared you for graduate study. In this section, applicants typically dedicate one paragraph to each research experience. This might mean one paragraph per lab if you have worked in 2-3 labs, or one paragraph per research project if you have participated in multiple projects within the same lab. In each of these paragraphs, you’ll introduce the experience, clearly define your specific contribution, highlight the results (or the expected results if you haven’t finished data collection yet), and finally, you’ll describe what you learned. (We’ll discuss how to craft these “past experience” paragraphs in more detail again in just a few minutes when we cover your narrative!)

The final third(-ish) of your statement should cover your future goals as a PhD student and scholar, typically within a one or two paragraphs. In this section, applicants often mention their long-term career aspirations and note how a research-focused program like the one they’re applying to will prepare them for such a career. Then, most students reiterate specifically what they hope to study as a PhD student under the supervision of the PI that they are applying to work with. Sometimes, you might write a line or two about how the program is a great fit for you in particular, especially if there’s something very unique about this program’s faculty or resources that makes it a great fit for your research interests (say, if they have special facilities or equipment that are needed to investigate your particular research question, or if a certain faculty member has special expertise in the method or statistical approach that you hope to use).

Finally, most statements of purpose end with a very brief one or two sentence conclusion paragraph reiterating your enthusiasm for the program and its fit given your interests, as well as your confidence in your level of preparation to embark upon such a program of study. This paragraph often ends with a sentence thanking the department for their consideration.

So, to summarize the overall structure of your statement of purpose once more: between your introductory paragraph and your short concluding paragraph, about two-thirds of your content will focus on your past and current research experiences, and about one-third of your content will feature your future goals as a PhD student and scholar.

Nailing down the general structure of your statement is only half the battle. Although the admissions committee wants to hear about your research experiences and qualifications, they also want to hear your authentic voice. The best way to achieve this is by framing your statement with a narrative.

It’s important that your statement of purpose has a narrative, or a common thread going through it, because a narrative will provide the reader with a clearer, more cohesive picture of your research journey. Said another way, a narrative for your statement of purpose can be thought of like the chassis for a car, or its body. A vehicle has many, many parts and then only the wheels touch the ground, so it needs the chassis to serve as a strong foundation for all the car parts to rest on so that the car can run. Likewise, the foundation of your statement of purpose will be your narrative!

Like most narrative essays, your statement of purpose will most likely be chronological and reflect a single theme or general idea. Of course, a statement does not have to be organized chronologically; we do recommend this because it will make your statement easier to follow.

What’s even more important is to establish an overall idea that conveys the big question that you are interested in. Essentially, this “big question” or overarching theme is the core idea that drives your specific research question. One way to come up with this “big idea” is to think about the why behind your current research interests. For example, if I am interested in psychology in general, it’s worth asking myself what about psychology research, in particular, might be driving my interest. Or, instead of just saying that I, for example, am interested in the behavior of people in social situations, I can develop that “big idea” one step further and ask: How do people understand other people? Or, how do people reason about the emotions and thoughts of others and themselves?

In this quick example, we’ve successfully identified a candidate, general, core research question that might drive an interest in psychology. In this case, not only have I clarified what I am interested in (for example, the psychology of behavior in social situations), but also the why behind those interests (how humans understand other people). A core question like that can then be transformed into a narrative that you can then build upon through the statement of purpose. Also note that the “big idea” should be broad enough to expand upon through your research experiences over the course of your statement, but also specific enough to convey that you are interested in a particular psychological research question, not just psychology in general.

For most statements of purpose, this “big idea” is first established in the introductory paragraph to convey how you became interested in your current specific research question. People often present this “big idea” using specific, vivid imagery of a moment in their life that inspired the idea. There are a few ways that you can accomplish this. You could talk about a particular class you took that gave rise to your “big idea”, relate your general interests to media (like a book or a movie), bring up a known quote that you deem relevant to your research interests, or even describe a recent personal experience that sparked your interest in psychological research. I should emphasize that sometimes, here, it is the small things that are important—you don’t have to compose a deep, heart-wrenching anecdote for the beginning of your statement. Even if you don’t consider a particular experience a big deal, if it does relate to your research interests, you can consider using it as a springboard to introduce your “big idea.”

Once you’ve established your core research idea, it’s time to start framing your research experiences with that idea. In other words, it’s time to start building the narrative.

For the body section of your statement of purpose, it’s a good idea to use the “big idea” that you introduced at the beginning of your statement as a launch point for each research experience that you describe. For example, the beginning of your first body paragraph can briefly describe how your “big idea” led you to seek out a research experience in a particular lab, or influenced how you thought about a particular study that you were involved in. For instance, I might open my first body paragraph by saying, “In order to investigate how people draw conclusions about the mental states of others, I applied to XYZ Lab to work as a research assistant.”

After describing each research experience, you should reflect upon how it has informed your current research interests. Specifically, there should be a clear transition between what you did in the past research experience and what you wanted to do next, in the next step of your research journey. Make sure each transition feels purposeful and motivated by your own curiosity. And by the end of the statement, you should transition from the last research experience that you share to the research direction that you’d like to pursue in graduate school.

Now that we’ve laid out some general guidelines for establishing your “big idea”, we’ll go over some important points that will help you maintain a cohesive narrative for your statement of purpose.

In addition to establishing your “voice”, building a narrative for your research statement allows you to accomplish what might be the most important part of your application package: showing the admissions committee how you think about science. Prospective PhD advisors, and admission committees at large, are primarily concerned with whether you can demonstrate critical thinking and creativity. Even if you have tons of research experience, it’s more important that you show your reader how you’ve engaged intellectually with those experiences. You shouldn’t just describe a study that you participated in, but also what you did and what you found. In addition to those things, you should strive to touch on the following:

First, be sure to touch on the psychological theories that underlie the study you’re describing. Next, touch on the gap in research that the study aims to address (in other words, why the research question is important). Next, describe why you did what you did to contribute to the study. And finally, mention the implications of your research findings. If there was a problem that came up in the study that you solved, you can talk about troubleshooting you did, what you learned while solving the problem, or what you would change for a future study.

And likewise, you should leave space at the end of describing each research experience to reflect on how the study you worked on has further informed your understanding of the research topic. You can do this by proposing some lingering research questions that might have come up because of your experience. You can also discuss the conclusions that you reached based on the findings that you acquired, or you can also communicate how the study’s findings have further molded the “big idea” that you first introduced at the beginning of your statement of purpose. It’s great if these lingering questions that you pose can segue nicely to the questions you pursued in the next step of your research journey! If you choose to include some lingering questions, it’s ok if they’re not super closely related to what you would specifically like to explore in graduate school; this is simply another way to illustrate how you are thinking about science to your reader. Above all, you should demonstrate some sort of intellectual grappling with the questions that you’ve come across over the course of your research experiences. After all, your reader wants to see you think like a scientist!

If you’re describing a study that is currently in progress, you should clearly describe the hypotheses for the study in lieu of presenting results. This is a two-step process. First, you’ll need to describe the behavior and/or results that you currently expect for the study, and second, you should describe what such a possible finding would suggest. And the second point should complement your previous description of why the research question is important.

So now, a word about when you describe the skills that you’ve gained from your research experiences. You should avoid, under all circumstances, merely rephrasing what can already be found on your CV. Any and all skills that you’ve gained from your experiences should always be placed in the context of the study itself. For example, instead of stating that you have experience completing fMRI pattern analyses, you might say that you conducted fMRI pattern analyses in order to examine whether memory retrieval causes greater differentiation among highly similar neural representations. You should be sure to explain how each skill that you mention acquiring contributed to the research study in question. A failure to place such a research skill in context might cause your reader to wonder whether you’ve adequately understood the study’s purpose. Or worse, it might cause your reader to wonder if you have actively engaged with the study, or if you merely completed tasks that your immediate supervisor assigned to you. The takeaway here, then, is to show, not tell.

So, one last big piece of advice as you’re drafting your statement of purpose: as a prospective PhD student and trainee, your first inclination may be to frame what you would like to do in graduate school through the lens of what you specifically are interested in. That makes total sense. However, research necessitates a transformation of your own interests into larger problems that people in your field also want to solve. Put differently, research is an activity that is all about shedding light on a particular academic enigma that isn’t quite clear yet, and attempting to explain it through systematic investigation. That’s why it’s particularly important, as you go through your statement of purpose, to extract and highlight the broader academic enigma that underlies your core research question.

For example, what is an observation, whether from a previous study or from your daily life, that doesn’t seem to be understood by the field? What are some observations that already exist that can be explained by multiple, conflicting hypotheses? These are questions that might help you think critically about the research enigma that you’d like to solve in graduate school. So, I do want to give some credit that the idea of research as an enigma or a puzzle comes from Sam Gershman’s lab at Harvard University. If you’re interested in learning more about how to identify the sorts of academic puzzles you’d like to pursue in graduate school, we’ve linked their original set of slides in the show notes below.

Now that we’ve gone over how to build your very own narrative for a statement of purpose, we’ll share some important notes about the process of drafting your statement, and then dive right into some key misconceptions and pitfalls you should avoid.

First, it tends to take quite some time to develop a strong statement of purpose—in most cases, weeks or even months! For this reason, I recommend that you start really early, ideally in the spring or early summer before the fall in which you plan to apply. As a reminder, as I mentioned in Episode 4 on Research Experience and Recommendation Letters, it’s best to provide a full draft of your statement of purpose to your recommenders when you ask them for letters—and given that you’ll be sending these letter requests no less than six weeks before the application deadline, you’ll want to create a timeline for yourself to make sure that you have a draft ready by then.

Further, it can be daunting to feel like you need to produce a perfect statement in the first draft all by yourself. In reality, though, a strong statement is developed and refined over time with the assistance of your colleagues. When first beginning, rather than attempting to write a full draft all at once, you can jot down ideas as they come to you. At this stage of the process, it can be helpful to “free write”—getting thoughts down onto the page is much more important at this stage than worrying about finding the perfect word or turn of phrase. Once you have enough of these thoughts written, you can then organize and revise them into a more cohesive statement.

And finally, you’re not on your own while you’re writing your statement. Reach out to people you might want feedback from and ask if they’ll be able to review your statement of purpose. You can get feedback from your recommenders, or from other colleagues—if possible, people who are working in academia. Once you’ve finished a rough draft, send your statement to your reviewers for feedback, ideally no less than six weeks before the application deadline, as I mentioned before, to give your reviewers time to return feedback and to give you time to edit. Overall, give yourself time, don't be too harsh on your ideas during the writing process, and incorporate others' feedback!

It might seem good to start your statement with an eye-catching hook that will grab your reader’s attention. On the surface, this advice seems well-intentioned and, I mean, it makes a lot of sense—why wouldn’t you want to grab the reader’s attention? Well, faculty members go through tons of statements every application cycle, which means that they are looking for some key components of your statement as quickly as possible. In other words, faculty members are not looking for introductions that state how passionate you are about the field; they are looking for introductions that display curiosity and a commitment to the field. That’s why you should stay away from hooks about your passion and focus on the “spark” that led you to your current research interests. A “spark” works well because it is a subtle and sophisticated way of conveying your interests to a faculty member.

For a “spark”, many statements will use a short anecdote to do this. The best statements will keep their anecdote no more than three sentences in length. Those who have recently graduated might use a brief time from their experience in university, while those who have been out of school for a couple of years or more might describe a recent situation that prompted them to apply to graduate school and pursue academic research.

If you are part of the latter category—say, if you’ve spent a couple of years in a non-academic field like industry or business—you should also clearly communicate why you would like to return to school and get a graduate degree. Reasons may vary from person to person: some applicants may realize that their current field does not allow them to sufficiently investigate the questions that they are interested in using scientific methods, while others may desire to move forward from solely application to contribute to a greater body of knowledge. Whatever your reason may be, be sure to communicate it to your reader.

And, with that being said, you should avoid starting your statement with overly sentimental stories, cliches, inspirational quotes and epiphanies. You should also avoid including any childhood experiences, or more generally, any experience that you had before college.

Another misconception is that you should only include research experiences from psychology labs, or experiences that perfectly match the research area that you’d like to explore in graduate school. While it’s strongly recommended that all your experiences reflect academic research, it’s completely fine if your past research has investigated scientific topics that are not in line with your current research interests. This was the case for me, and if it’s the case for you, it’s imperative that you include a sentence or two about how your experiences led you to pursue the questions that you are currently interested in.

If the field of research you choose to include is outside of psychology, be sure to avoid scientific jargon that your readers might not know, and clearly describe your research question and associated hypotheses. Likewise, it may be useful to briefly explain why you would like to pursue graduate research in psychology in particular. And like any other research experience you mention in your statement of purpose, you should highlight the skills that you’ve gained that ultimately make you a suitable candidate for the program you’re applying to. For more information about what to emphasize in your statement of purpose, we’ve provided links to some great resources in the show notes.

To make sure that you have the strongest statement possible, we’ll now discuss some things that you should absolutely avoid including in your statement. In 2006, an article titled “Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process” outlined key actions that would significantly decrease one’s chances of admission—or “kisses of death”. For today’s podcast, we will highlight a few kisses of death as they relate to statements of purpose with additional tips on how to steer clear of them. If you’d like to learn more about the other kisses of death, we’ve linked the original article in the show notes.

The first kiss of death we’d like to highlight is discussing your personal mental health or the mental health of those close to you. If you’re interested in pursuing clinical research questions during your PhD, you might be tempted to describe your own mental health experiences or the experiences of those close to you in order to introduce the “spark” for your research interests. In an ideal world, mentioning any mental health challenges you might have faced (or overcome) would not be met with any skepticism or disapproval. Unfortunately, in academia the stigma tied to such personal topics remains. So it’s best to avoid making any reference—good or bad—to your emotional or psychological health in your statement, even if it has led you to pursue your current research interests.

Another related kiss of death is revealing large amounts of personal information, especially if the topic is sensitive. Your statement of purpose should only include information that reflects your intellectual readiness and professionalism. Having said that, I do want to make a small note about discussing hardships in your statement. While there are certain aspects of your application that you may feel driven to address in your statement (such as personal obstacles that may have led to a low GPA or any disciplinary action you might have received), you might first consider asking one of your recommenders if they could briefly mention this in their letter. That way, it’s clear that other qualified members of the field have already determined that you are a strong candidate for graduate school despite any questionable occurrences on your record that might raise a red flag otherwise. And if you must discuss these in your statement yourself, you should keep it as brief and dispassionate as possible, with the primary goal of illustrating what you learned from the situation.

Many institutions might expect you to write a few lines about your career aspirations in your statement of purpose. Above all else, when doing this, you should avoid coming off as too idealistic or naive in your statement. If you want to acquire a graduate degree with plans of becoming a tenure-track professor, for example, it’s best to express this in a strategic manner. This is because, quite frankly, tenure-track positions are few and far in between, and the academic job market is bleak. In order to get around this, you should frame academia as a potential career path by saying something along the lines of: “graduate school will provide me with the skills and knowledge necessary for a career in academia.” Alternatively, you can focus on using ambition-oriented phrases such as “I hope to” and “I aim to” when expressing your tenure-track aspirations. For those who are not sure whether they’ll pursue a career in academia, you should avoid framing the graduate degree as a form of career advancement, and certainly steer clear of conveying that graduate school is merely a check box in a form that you need to fill out.

Finally, you should ensure that your statement of purpose showcases strong writing skills. This means your statement should be cohesive and clear, and you should avoid any spelling or grammatical errors. Such errors in your statement of purpose, even if by mistake, may cause your reader to question your ability to produce quality work. Likewise, poorly organized statements that feature run-on sentences, choppy transitions, and unnecessary big words might cause a faculty member to question whether you can communicate your science effectively—which is necessary in order to make it in graduate school and in academia at large.

Whew, OK! That’s all for this episode, and once again, I truly hope that this has been helpful for you. In our next episode and final episode of The Psychology PhD for this season, we’ll talk about preparing for graduate school interviews.

And just as before, we will be updating the show notes to include links to these different topics as soon as each new episode launches. You can find the show notes below this episode in the description if you’re watching on YouTube or in the show notes section of whatever podcast app you’re listening on.

To receive notifications when new episodes are released, you can subscribe to our YouTube channel or to our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening. You’re also welcome to join our email list to receive an email each time we release a new episode. And, finally, if you found this content helpful, once again, please consider liking the episode on YouTube or rating and reviewing the show in your preferred podcast app.

We’ll talk to you next time!

In this episode, we discuss what exactly a statement of purpose is and how you should develop yours for PhD program applications. We cover four main topics. First, what is the purpose of a statement of purpose (no pun intended)? Second, what is the typical structure of such a statement? Third, how can you develop a cohesive narrative that ties together all of the content in your statement? And fourth, what are some important notes and common misconceptions you should keep in mind?

General Links:
Watch on YouTube
Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Join our email list

As Mentioned in the Episode:
Gershman Lab slides on academic puzzles (what we call “enigmas”)
“Mastering Your Statement of Purpose” resource
“Kisses of Death” article (Appleby & Appleby, 2006)

Additional Episodes from This Season:
See above

Credits:
Hosted by Monica Thieu
Music by Paul A. Bloom
Written by Arlene Lormestoire and Emily Nakkawita
Edited and Produced by Emily Nakkawita

Preparing for Interviews

(Season 1, Episode 6)

Hi everyone, and welcome back to The Psychology PhD, a podcast developed by grad students here in the Columbia University psychology department, where we discuss psych-focused graduate programs. Once again, I’m Monica Thieu, a 5th year student here in our program.

In this first season, we’re discussing the process of applying to PhD programs in experimental psychology. This show will be the final episode of the season, and it will focus on how to prepare for interviews for PhD programs in psych.

So, again, before we dive in, it’s worth noting that interviews for most graduate programs are similar in some ways to interviews for “regular” jobs, in that they comprise the final step of the application or hiring process. The admissions committee will only invite a small group of applicants for interviews, and they will choose who to invite for these interviews based on a careful review of application materials. For this reason, if you haven’t checked out the prior five episodes of this season, we would strongly recommend that you start there! In these previous episodes, we’ve provided an introduction to graduate programs in psychology, discussed how to get organized for PhD program applications, and covered how to develop some of the most common application materials. We’ve provided links to these prior episodes in the show notes for easy access.

So, once you reach the interview stage, it is OK to let out a sigh of relief: at this point, you’ll have sent in your statement of purpose, wrangled all of your letters of recommendation and refined your CV. And if it’s been a couple of weeks after the application deadline, you might begin to receive emails letting you know that your application has been reviewed and that you have been invited for an interview or “recruitment weekend.” While this is exciting, it’s also understandable if you find yourself wondering: what should I expect from a grad school interview, and how do I prepare for it?

So, in this episode, we’ll discuss the following topics:
• The purpose of program interviews
• General tips for interviews
• How to prep for meetings with specific faculty interviewers
• How to be ready for impromptu conversations with faculty and other department members
• How to engage in other interview day activities
• And finally, how to handle “pre-interviews” if your program of interest has them.

And, as always, it’s worth noting that this content applies specifically to interview prep for PhD programs here in the United States, as customs may differ in other countries. Additionally, the interview process may look a little bit different for students who are applying to U.S. programs from abroad, because those students might not be able to attend interviews in person. So, despite those caveats, today we’ll be focusing on the typical in-person interview process here in the U.S.

So, without further ado, let’s begin with exploring the purpose of interviews within the grad program application process.

PhD interviews have two purposes: it’s an opportunity for a potential advisor to further assess whether your research interests and skills align with those of the lab, and determine whether their conversations with you reflect a healthy exchange of ideas and mutual interest. Additionally, PhD interviews give a potential advisor a better sense of how you interact with other people in the lab and the department at large.

And for you, the prospective PhD student, PhD interviews give you the opportunity to learn more about the direction your prospective advisor’s lab is going, including their grants and current projects. These interviews also allow you to get a better understanding of how you specifically would “fit” into the department and into the lab if you decided to enroll in the program. Remember that your success as a PhD student is not just about your academic environment, but also about your physical and social environment. So, for this reason, in-person interviews are a great way to learn more about the city or town that the university is located in, along with housing and funding.

Before we dive into some general tips and things to remember for your PhD interview, it’s important that we first go over what you can expect to see during your interview.

In our field, most interviews are conducted over the course of one to three days, often over the course of a long weekend. It’s important to remember that these interview sessions, or “recruitment weekends,” will take up a large portion of your time. You can expect to have a one-on-one interview with your primary advisor of interest, usually lasting about 30 to 45 minutes. While, during this meeting, you’ll most likely be asked to expand on your past experiences and your current research interests, most principal investigators or “PIs” approach this particular interview as a trial run of a conversation with a potential graduate student in their lab. In other words, the content of this conversation is usually different from what you might discuss in interviews outside of academia. For example, most PIs will not ask you to discuss your strengths and weaknesses. Instead, a PI might discuss potential project ideas on the spot or offer their input on a potential line of research you might want to explore in their lab.

In addition to an interview with a prospective advisor, you’ll most likely have about three to four one-on-one interviews with other faculty in the department whose research interests overlap with yours—although at some schools, you might meet with ten faculty members or more. Of course, you will also have a chance to meet with other trainees like graduate students, postdocs, or lab managers in the lab you are currently interested in. If the lab does not yet have graduate students, then you’ll most likely meet with graduate students in the department more broadly. And beyond these interviews, you’ll likely engage in additional research-centered activities, such as research seminars or even the lab meeting of a potential advisor. In both instances, members of the department like grad students or postdocs will give short oral presentations about their current projects. And finally, you might also be invited to participate in program-specific events like overviews of program requirements and tours of facilities, as well as more informal social events, like lunches, dinners, or “happy hours”.

All right! So, now that we’ve given you a quick overview of typical interview structure, it’s time to discuss a few important points about the PhD interview experience.

It’s very easy to approach program interviews with the idea in mind that it is a competitive process. However, this is not that helpful or productive a perspective to have. As we mentioned earlier in this episode, the interview process is mainly an opportunity to gauge your level of fit for a department, an advisor, and a lab. You should also be aware that many of the prospective students with whom you’re interviewing with will be your colleagues one day. For example, I met one of my now closest academic friends when we shared a room during interviews here at Columbia, and now I love hearing about her work whenever I talk with her and catching up with her at conferences. So, it’s important to treat your fellow interviewees with kindness and respect. At the end of the day, they are like-minded researchers who share the same enthusiasm for science that you do—and that’s exciting!

Another way to maintain a positive mindset during your interview is to remember that you have been invited for a reason. While it is nerve-racking, you don’t have to be so nervous: after all, an admissions committee would not have invited you to interview if they were not already interested in the possibility of you joining the program. You deserve to be there!

So now, a word about professionalism during interviews. A rule of thumb from media training is helpful here—that “the microphone is always on and the camera is always rolling.” In other words, this means that you should assume that in every event, at every minute, you are actively interviewing until you are in the privacy of your own room. All the interactions you’ll have, whether with a research assistant or a faculty member, should be professional. Don’t get too comfortable, especially in settings where alcohol is present. And the reverse is also true—don’t feel like you need to drink alcohol if it’s offered at an event. Although it will likely be a long day, whenever possible, try your best to engage with curiosity and interest. During time between events, you can start conversations with fellow interviewees, grad students, and other researchers if you can, as opposed to spending time on your phone or computer. But, it is important to make sure to take breaks as you need, whenever you need, to use the restroom or for any other personal reason.

It’s important to demonstrate at interviews that you are excited to be there and eager to hear about others’ research. While the quality of interpersonal interactions isn’t one of the main factors considered for grad admission, it might make or break your chances if a prospective advisor is on the fence about you.

Finally, I strongly encourage you to take notes throughout the interview experience. Bring a physical notepad or a notebook if you can. This will allow you to jot down some quick questions you might be planning to ask during presentations and seminars, and make note of useful information after conversations and interviews. These notes will come in handy when you send thank you emails after your interviews. In addition to notes about research, it’s also a good idea to take notes about your general impressions of the program, department, and students at the end of each interview session. Since you’ll likely have a ton of things on your mind during the interview itself, it’s a good idea to take notes about your observations so you don’t forget them once you’re making your decision later.

Now that we’ve covered some general tips for navigating your interview day, let’s dive into how to prepare for your meetings with specific faculty interviewers, including your advisor of interest.

Although programs often notify applicants that they have been invited to interview in late December through early January, these invitations are often quite general and don’t typically specify who exactly you will meet with on the day of the interview itself. In many programs, you won’t even receive a specific schedule of meetings until a week or so before the interview date (or sooner!). So, it’s best not to wait to receive this specific schedule before beginning to prep for interviews, or else you could be caught in a bit of a time crunch, especially if you have the good fortune of being invited to interview at multiple programs. It can be helpful to begin your prep for these interviews with faculty well in advance, even if that means you need to make some educated guesses about who exactly those interviewers might end up being.

As soon as you learn that you’ve been invited to interview for a particular program, I recommend that you visit that department’s website and review the people listed on the Faculty page. In the first pass, read through each faculty member’s bio with an eye toward whether—and how—their research interests might intersect with yours, even tangentially. As you do so, make a “shortlist” of the faculty members whose interests are closest to your own. In my own case, this shortlist ended up being about three to five faculty members in each department in which I was asked to interview.

For each person on your faculty shortlist, a good next step will be to perform a deeper dive into their work, which will allow you to develop some thoughtful questions you can ask during your interview, and perhaps even high-level proposals for projects you could conduct with them. There are a few useful places to start this deep dive.

First, I’d recommend that you visit each faculty member’s lab website. Often these websites will be linked on the department’s own site, although I often find myself, as well, just Googling for “Firstname Lastname psychology lab”. Lab websites will often include a description of current areas of research and, in particular, links to the lab’s most recent publications.

Second, it can be helpful to search for the faculty member’s profile on Google Scholar, which we’ve linked in the show notes below. Google Scholar profiles contain a list of individuals’ academic publications and come with some useful sorting tools that can help you determine which papers you might benefit from focusing on to prep for your interviews. One way of sorting is by “Year”, which arranges papers based on publication date. This allows you to find the most recent topics that this faculty member and their lab have been researching. Recent publications are useful because the focus of an academic’s research can often shift over time—so focusing on work that has been published in the last few years will ensure that you’re up-to-date on whatever topics this person likely find interesting at your interview. Another way of sorting is by the number of citations each publication has received. In Google Scholar you can sort along the “Cited By” column. Even if some of the most cited publications are from several years back or more, it can be really helpful to be familiar with these “classic” papers as they often comprise the work for which the faculty member is best known in their subfield.

Once you’ve identified a few papers from the faculty member’s lab website or Google Scholar profile—maybe one or two recent papers and one or two highly cited papers—read through those papers carefully and make a list of questions that you have about them.

For instance, you might ask about the psychological theories underlying the research. This kind of conversation can be fitting when different theories would make different predictions about phenomena of interest to the PI. For example, if another theory would lead to a different hypothesis than what the PI predicts—in particular, for studies that haven’t been run yet, such as those that are mentioned in the Future Directions section of the article—you can bring up this insight and the competing hypothesis when you talk to the PI. These kinds of questions can highlight to your potential advisor that you are familiar with the literature and show them how you could make novel contributions to the lab’s thinking as a potential graduate student. These kinds of questions can also lead to more specific discussions around future studies that you could work on in the lab.

Along similar lines, you could also speculate about how the results of the PI’s work might relate to some other mechanism or phenomenon that you personally hope to study as a grad student. Often, this line of questioning may prompt you to consider a research project that you’d be interested in conducting with another faculty member, even if they aren’t the primary advisor whom you applied to work with. That’s good for multiple reasons. Not only would these project proposals open up doors for possible collaborations; they also can be important because your admission to a grad program often requires approval by other faculty members as well as just the one you are applying to. As a result, I suggest that you make a note of these high-level project ideas, as proposing them in interviews can be a good way to showcase (a) that you share interests with the faculty member you’re speaking to and (b) that you are a thoughtful and creative researcher, as people generally value these qualities in a potential colleague.

And beyond theoretical questions, if you are knowledgeable about common research methods in this area, you can also ask about how they chose the particular manipulations or measures that they used, as opposed to some alternative that you might consider. If you’re curious about stats, you might even ask the faculty member about why they chose the analytic approach they used if their method is particularly unique.

Finally, after developing these lists of questions and project ideas for each of the faculty members on your shortlist, I recommend that you place all of this information into a Word document, Google doc, or something else, with about one page per faculty member. These faculty “one pagers” will then be incredibly helpful if you print them out for reference before your interviews. That way you can review them in the hallway or the bathroom in between meetings.

It’s worth noting that in order to have enough time to work through your faculty deep dive in preparation for interviews, you’ll likely finish compiling your notes before you receive your final interview schedule, so it’s likely that you might prepare notes for some faculty members that you don’t end up meeting with. However, I’d strongly encourage you to not let this deter you! Even if you don’t end up with a formal meeting with each of your shortlisted faculty members on your interview schedule, PhD program interview days often include events beyond the interviews themselves. Some of these events are more formal, like seminars or lab meetings, and others are less formal social events, like happy hours or dinners. Preparing these faculty one-pagers will help you to ensure that you are prepared for unplanned conversations with these faculty members at events like these throughout your interview session.

Speaking of unplanned conversations, let’s briefly turn our attention next to how you might prepare for unexpected, “impromptu” conversations with faculty members and other trainees throughout your program visit.

There are two sets of materials that I’d recommend putting together in preparation for these kinds of interactions.

First, it’s helpful to keep in mind that throughout the interview days, you will frequently be meeting new members of the department, and many (if not all!) of these people will ask you about yourself. These questions tend to focus on two related topics: your background and your research interests. For this reason, it’s helpful to prepare an “elevator pitch” in advance that covers these topics, as it’s easy to accidentally ramble on for too long during these kinds of introductions Your elevator pitch should be no more than a few sentences, and it should include your name, your general area of interest, a specific research question you’d like to study as a graduate student, and a brief note about how (or where, or with whom) you’re currently conducting research.

Here is a brief example elevator pitch for reference that’s from one of our own PhD students’ interview prep notes:
“Hi, I’m [Firstname Lastname]. I’m interested in understanding the factors that lead to successful goal pursuit, both in terms of achievement and well-being. Specifically, I hope to study how motivation and self-regulation in the pursuit of personal goals are affected by our beliefs—particularly those that we share with others. I’m currently working with Prof. [So and So] at [X University].”

Beyond your elevator pitch, the second set of materials that are helpful for impromptu conversations are lists of questions you can ask for the different kinds of people you’ll meet during your interview days—particularly during Q&A sessions, social activities, or moments of “downtime” when the full group is heading from one event to another.

To prepare for these conversations, I recommend that you create some lists of more general questions that you can ask for different audiences like faculty, trainees in your lab of interest, and other trainees in the program. That way, you’ll never be caught off-guard when someone asks you, “So, do you have any questions for me?”

So while we’ve included extended lists of possible questions in the show notes, I’ll highlight a few examples here.

In impromptu conversations with faculty, you might ask them:
• What lines of research do you envision working on for the next 5 years?
• What do you think sets this program apart from others?
• What qualities or experiences help students to be especially successful in this program?

In conversations with other trainees in your lab of interest, you might ask questions about their research, such as:
• What have you been focusing on in your current research?
• How does your research fit into the lab’s broader research program?
• Would you say that the research direction of the lab has changed since you’ve been a part of it? If so, how?

You might also ask trainees about what it’s like to work with your prospective advisor. For instance, you could ask:
• How much interaction do you typically get with the PI? Is it usually one-on-one? Via email? Or in lab meetings?
• How would you describe the PI’s mentorship style?
• How frequently do the PI’s grad students typically publish?
• How does your PI help support you when you’re having a difficult time, whether for research or personal reasons?

Finally, in conversations with any trainees in the program (including those not in the lab that you’re applying to), you might ask more general questions like:
• What is the culture of the department like?
• What do you consider to be the best and worst aspects of this program?
• Do you find this program’s course-load to be manageable in conjunction with your research and teaching duties?
• How feasible is it to get by on this program’s stipend given the local cost of living?

In addition to one-on-one interviews with faculty and social events hosted by the department, a large chunk of your interview day will likely involve research presentations. These presentations might take the form of a 30–45 minute scientific talk in which a researcher presents a project they’re currently working on or a five minute “data blitz” in which faculty members from the department share a few words on the research that is currently being conducted in their labs.

Regardless of the type of oral presentation given, we encourage you to ask questions about anything you’re curious about after hearing a presentation. Although it’s understandable that you may be nervous about asking questions (especially in the presence of a faculty member that you are applying to work with), people in the department are looking forward to hearing your thoughts! It shows that you are enthusiastic about psychology research, even if the topic at hand does not have much overlap with your own specific interests.

When I was navigating the interview circuit myself, I remember feeling very anxious about whether a question I was considering asking was “good” enough or “astute” enough. You might find yourself in the same situation. Although you are in the interview stage, you should remember that asking questions about someone’s research is primarily for your own learning. Put differently, you should approach questions as an opportunity to learn, rather than an opportunity to showcase how much you already know. It’s perfectly fine to ask “high level” or general questions about someone’s work as long as it’s coming from genuine interest and curiosity. For more information on how to ask questions during a research presentation, we’ve linked a helpful resource in the show notes below.

Now that we’ve gone over the typical structure of a graduate program interview session, and how to best prepare for research-oriented conversations and presentations, I’d like to take a bit of time to discuss the “pre-interview.”

In this podcast, a pre-interview refers to a one-on-one chat with a faculty member of interest that occurs before the formal interview session held by a graduate program. Often, these pre-interviews occur after a prospective student has reached out to a faculty member to express interest in joining the lab. If a faculty member is interested in learning more about your research interests and experience, they might offer you an opportunity to chat with them. Consequently, these conversations will usually occur during the early fall months, and are typically held over video chat.

The purpose of this pre-interview is quite similar to the formal interviews that we’ve already discussed: it’s a chance for a faculty member to determine whether your research interests and skills align with that of their lab. Since these conversations usually take place before the application deadline, it also serves as a wonderful opportunity for a prospective student to determine whether they are indeed still interested in applying to a particular lab. However, there is an additional purpose that sets the pre-interview apart from the formal interview conducted in the winter—and it usually has to do with the admissions structure of a program (and thus nothing to do with you!). In short, many psychology programs have a set number of admissions offers they can make every spring. Because of this, some faculty members make an effort to gauge a student’s level of interest in joining their lab before interview offers are sent out later that year. Put another way, pre-interviews offer faculty members an additional chance to “weed out” prospective students who may not have a strong interest in enrolling in a program, if they were to be admitted later on.

It’s also important to note that faculty members may frame this interview as a “chat” or an informal conversation. Regardless, you should approach every pre-interview as a formal interview. Similar to the in-person interview sessions we discussed earlier, you should be prepared to discuss your past research and current research interests, along with what you would like to gain out of graduate school. Likewise, you should also prepare questions about the lab’s current work using some of the strategies we talked about earlier.

Alright, that’s all for this episode—and for Season 1 of our podcast on the PhD program application process! As always, I truly and deeply hope that this content has been helpful for you.

In Season 2 of The Psychology PhD, we’ll turn our attention to the wide range of backgrounds and experiences that students in our PhD program at Columbia had before they decided to pursue graduate studies in psychology. Given this focus on people’s own individual stories, in Season 2, we’ll also be shifting to an interview-based format featuring conversations with different people.

As always, we’ll be updating the show notes to include links to this content as soon as each new episode launches. You can find the show notes below this episode in the description if you’re watching on YouTube or in the show notes section of whatever podcast app you’re listening on.

To receive notifications when new episodes are released, you can subscribe to our YouTube channel or to our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening. You’re also welcome to join our email list to receive an email each time we release a new episode. And, finally, if you found this content helpful, once again, please consider liking our episode on YouTube or rating and reviewing the show in your preferred podcast app.

And we’ll see you next season!

This is the final episode of Season 1, which covers the process of applying to PhD programs in experimental psychology. In this particular episode, we discuss what you can expect from PhD program interviews and how you can prepare for them. We cover six main topics. First, what is the purpose of program interviews? Second, what are some general tips for interviews? Third, how can you most effectively prepare for meetings with specific faculty interviewers? Fourth, how can you be ready for impromptu conversations with faculty and other department members at recruitment events? Fifth, how can you engage most effectively in other interview day activities? And sixth, how should you handle “pre-interviews” if your program of interest has them?

General Links:
Watch on YouTube
Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Join our email list

As Mentioned in the Episode:
Google Scholar
Sample questions for impromptu conversations on interview day
Resource on how to ask questions during a research presentation

Additional Episodes from This Season:
See above

Credits:
Hosted by Monica Thieu
Music by Paul A. Bloom
Written by Arlene Lormestoire and Emily Nakkawita
Edited and Produced by Emily Nakkawita

Season 2: Meeting Students in Psychology PhD Programs

Interview with Anna Vannucci

(Season 2, Episode 1)

Coming soon!

Welcome to Season 2 of The Psychology PhD! As grad students in the Columbia University psychology department, we hope to provide you with some insight into graduate studies in psychology, from applying to programs to learning about day-to-day life as a PhD student. Season 2 features conversations with students in our program that provide a glimpse into their unique backgrounds and experiences prior to pursuing a PhD. In this episode, we meet Anna Vannucci, a third-year PhD student advised by Dr. Nim Tottenham.

General Links:
Watch on YouTube
Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Join our email list

Credits:
Hosted by Monica Thieu
Music by Paul A. Bloom
Transcribed by Arlene Lormestoire
Edited by John Thorp
Produced by Emily Nakkawita

Interview with Manasi Jayakumar

(Season 2, Episode 2)

Coming soon!

In this episode, we meet Manasi Jayakumar, a fourth-year PhD student advised by Dr. Mariam Aly.

General Links:
Watch on YouTube
Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Join our email list

Credits:
Hosted by Monica Thieu
Music by Paul A. Bloom
Transcribed by Arlene Lormestoire
Edited by John Thorp
Produced by Emily Nakkawita

Interview with Emily Nakkawita

(Season 2, Episode 3)

Coming soon!

In this episode, we meet Emily Nakkawita, a fourth-year PhD student advised by Dr. Tory Higgins.

General Links:
Watch on YouTube
Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Join our email list

Credits:
Hosted by Monica Thieu
Music by Paul A. Bloom
Transcribed by Arlene Lormestoire
Edited by John Thorp
Produced by Emily Nakkawita

Season 3: Research as a Psychology PhD Student

Season 3 will feature conversations that showcase some of our PhD students’ research to highlight the broad range of topics that one can study by pursuing a graduate degree in psychology.

To be released August 2022 – January 2023