What is your “Program of Research?”

Program of research is a phrase you are going to hear a lot when you first start graduate school. People will ask you about your program of research and you will think to yourself… wait what? I just got here. I have maybe one or two publications. How the hell am I supposed to know what my program of research is when I have barely done any research at all?

The answer is you shouldn’t know — and if you say you know, you’re lying. Dr. George Slavich, a researcher at UCLA within the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology presented his work on the inflammatory basis of depression in my class on the biology of chronic disease last week. Before diving into his very exciting program of research, he brought up this very term and how frustrating it can be when you are early in your career to be asked about yours. This was beyond validating for me, as I have been struggling to come up with my program of research the past 2 months since starting graduate school.

Dr. Slavich brought up two intriguing points on this matter. The first is that instead of thinking about your program of research, you should reframe your way of thinking in terms of what you are passionate about. What questions keep you up at night? What do you genuinely want to study and why? What gets you going? By letting your passions be your guiding force, you will naturally hone in on a program of research without fretting about defining one up front. The second is that if you think you know your program of research now, you are wrong. Your body of work is going to naturally evolve over time through a series of unforeseeable happenstance events. Your advisor might leave your university for another, your partner might get a job in a different city, your field might incorporate a new technology. These are all factors that will inevitably shape your interests, introduce you to new people, and present opportunities that you just cannot have anyway of knowing about now.

From Dr. Slavich’s advice and sharing of his own career trajectory, I took away a key message: don’t force it. Be open and fluid with the way you are defining your program of research. When an opportunity arrises to learn a new technique, or analyze your data from a different perspective, or work with someone outside of your field, be open to it. And be true to your passions — I am obsessed with the microbiome, and even though that isn’t something in many health psychologists’ programs of research, I am passionate about incorporating it into mine.

So instead of making tables and schematic diagrams about your program of research as a first year PhD student (that’s what I had been forcing myself to do…), take a step back and allow yourself to follow your interests. Organically, you will end up with a strong, yet malleable, program of research.

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