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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Clinical or Experimental Psychology PhD?

I thought I was the only one who applied to both clinical and experimental psychology PhD programs. I know it seems like an indecisive move on my part — by now, I should know whether I want to be able to practice as a clinician or not. I will admit it is indecisive to apply to both (and makes your work that much more cut out for you in terms of researching and narrowing schools of interest and tailoring statements to specific programs). I actually had a situation where I was interested in both the clinical and experimental programs at one school and only after emailing potential mentors and writing both statements did I realize that the portal would not allow for applications to multiple programs.

This makes sense since by the time you are ready to pursue a PhD, you should know what your ultimate career trajectory will look like. And I did: I wanted to do research that satisfied my intellectual curiosity and had a direct positive impact on patients’ lives. For the longest time, I had come to terms with that meaning I must pursue a clinical degree. But when it came time to look into clinical programs that had faculty conducting the kind of research I saw myself doing, the pickings became very very slim. Most clinical psychology programs have faculty that are researching traditional psychopathology, which makes sense since most clinical training revolves around treating mental illness. When you think of a psychologist, depression and schizophrenia come to mind, not cancer and chronic disease.

This is where you need to make a choice: what do I prioritize, research fit or program fit? I struggled with this for some time, I didn’t want to give up the prospect of clinical training but at the same time I didn’t want to pretend to be passionate about research that frankly does not interest me. Allowing research fit to dictate which programs I ultimately applied to helped me in two respects:

1. It naturally narrowed my program selection down to 5 schools (which is an absurdly low number of programs to apply to).

2. Revealed to me that choosing an experimental program over clinical would not be a deal-breaker: I was going to graduate school to do research and I viewed clinical training as an added bonus, but it wasn’t my primary purpose.

Ultimately, I applied to 4 clinical programs and 1 experimental. These 5 programs were very different from one another in various respects: some had dedicated behavioral medicine/health psychology tracks, some included biological training, one was within a developmental program (pediatrics), and they were spread out all over the country. Applying to only 5 schools was definitely a statistical risk — these programs have around a 2-5% acceptance rate and limiting myself to only 5 programs made my chances that much slimmer. But I think strategically it made sense for me given my niche research interests. Only having 5 applications allowed me to take my time learning about each program in detail and tailor my statements in depth.

To my surprise I received 4 interview invites out of the 5 programs I applied to. Focusing my efforts on a few great fits worked to my advantage. It also helped me prepare for interviews in a focused and targeted manner. I was secretly hoping that I would only get one or two interviews so that I wouldn’t have to choose between clinical or experimental but this was not how my situation turned out and I think it was for the best. Going into interviews having to identify which would position me the best in terms of my career goals helped me formulate my questions and evaluate the programs in a personally critical way.

I actually asked students and professors their opinions on the clinical vs. experimental dilemma and believe it or not, a couple of the current students had been in my predicament! Hearing that I was not the only one entertaining both paths was reassuring — I wasn’t indecisive or ignorant on the manner, I was just trying to determine which existing program would fit best with my niche and alternative career trajectory. In the end, I felt most at home within the experimental program that I applied to: my interviews with all of the faculty and students felt like conversations rather than interrogations. I also realized that clinical training would take a significant amount of time away from my research productivity and I decided that this was not the best setup for me.

In the end, I felt that choosing an experimental program dedicated to Health Psychology was the perfect fit for me: I would be able to do the research that interests me while having direct clinical application to patient populations that I am passionate about helping. While I won’t be the one delivering the clinical interventions, I will be designing them and that is what I want to do. If I hadn’t given myself the opportunity to explore all options, both clinical and experimental, during my application process I wouldn’t be as clear about this as I am now.

So apply to both. If you have any question at all, apply to both.

Interview Invites: The Waiting Game

I thought that applying for graduate school was the most stressful couple of months of my life… I was wrong. Yes, it was a lot of work over a period of about 10 months: researching programs that seemed like great fits, cold-emailing potential mentors to gauge whether they would be entertaining new students during my application season, applying for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, and then actually getting around to writing statements for the actual applications. I won’t get into everything that went into what seemed like a 5 year process of applying to graduate school here — that definitely warrants its own post.

My point is that while applying to graduate school was an insane process requiring a ton of work and research while juggling a full-time job and a consulting gig, I had control over every step of the process. Once I learned which programs I was interested in had faculty members conducting research that I wanted to work on AND were accepting new students into their lab, I ended up applying to only 5 programs. I have heard that the average prospective student applies to ~15 programs, so my approach was anything but typical. Applying to a small set of programs allowed me to really focus on every single component of each application and tailor every statement to that program and the faculty members I was interested in. For someone who is just now realizing how type A of a personality I have, the ability to be meticulous and focused was oddly comforting.

I thought I would feel intense relief once I pressed submit. It felt like my entire life was leading up to submitting these applications and I thought that once they were out, my stress would be lifted and I would be able to operate like a real person again (actually hang out with my friends and enjoy New York City without my mind being partially occupied by the thought of what to write next in my statements).

I was surprised that once my applications were out, I was more stressed. The anxiety really set in: what if I don’t get an interview? I started to second guess myself in ways that I never did during the application process. I wondered if all of the work I had done was for nothing. How embarrassed I would be if after everything I did and all of the work my mentors and friends did reviewing my statements, writing me recommendation letters, providing support and encouragement, if I didn’t even get an interview. I would crawl into a hole and never come out.

I started obsessively checking thegradcafe.com (which YOU SHOULD NOT DO!). For those of you who do not know about it, this is a website where applicants can post interview invites and admissions decisions. It seems really helpful since this kind of information is not made publicly available by most programs. Essentially, if you do not get an interview invite, you will not be accepted into the program. Therefore, it seems like a good idea to know when others are getting invitations so that if you do not get one you can move on. Sometimes I would refresh the psychology search results at an hourly rate. Just slightly obsessive. For the first couple of weeks in December no one had posted regarding interview invites from the programs I had applied to. I was in the clear, it was still too early. This was a blissful couple of weeks, but it didn’t last long.

It was Monday evening, December 26th, 2016. I will never forget. I was home in Florida to spend time with my family during the holidays prior to moving to Israel. My grandparents came over to our house to celebrate Hanukkah and I was still incapable of enjoying my freedom from the application process. Instead of focusing on my time with my family, I was refreshing thegradcafe.com, when someone posted an interview invite from one of my programs. My heart dropped. I had convinced myself in the span of 30 seconds that my life was over, I would not be getting into graduate school, and that I was moving to Israel to do research in a lab that would not contribute in any way to my professional development anymore. I started coming up with plans B, C, and D. My academic career was over before it started, and it was time to move on.

I knew that this reaction was completely out of control. I had put years into this process, and a single post from a stranger on a website convinced me that it was all for nothing. That was when I decided to block myself from thegradcafe.com and really enjoy my time at home with my family. I had been away from them for nearly 8 years, and was about to move across the world for at least 5 months. It was time to get some perspective and grow up.

Three days later, on December 29th, I received my first interview invite. And no, I did not post it to thegradcafe!