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Personal Statement Research Interests In Psychology

Ten Tips for Writing a Compelling Research Statement (A non-exhaustive list)

1. Focus on your intellectual interests and professional goals.

  • Although many programs ask for ‘personal statements’, these are not really meant to be biographies or life stories.  What we hope to find out is how well your abilities, interests, experiences and goals would fit within our program. 

2. Describe your relevant experience (e.g., honors thesis, research assistantship) in specific detail.

  • If you have worked on a research project, what was the research question, what were the hypotheses, how were they tested, and what did you find?
  • Being specific shows us that you really were a key part of the project and that you understand what you did!

3. Whenever possible, demonstrate rather than simply state your knowledge.

  • Not very convincing: “In this project, I learned a great deal about the psychology of persuasion”
  • More convincing: “In this project, I learned about the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion (Petty & Caccippo, 1986), and came to understand the importance of distinguishing between central and peripheral information processing when examining why different types of messages influence people."

4. Honestly identify concrete skills you would bring to graduate school, and also describe the skills you hope to acquire.

  • For example: “I am familiar with conducting t-tests and ANOVAs in SPSS, but am eager to advance my statistical knowledge.  In particular, structural equation modelling will be an important technique to learn given the types of research questions I intend to pursue.”

5. Articulate why you want to pursue a graduate degree. 

  • What are your career goals and how will pursuing a graduate degree advance them?

6. Articulate why you want to pursue a graduate degree at this specific institution!

  • How can we help you achieve your goals?

7. Outline your core research interests and explain why you think they are scientifically and/or practically important.  Again, be specific.

  • Not very convincing: “I am interested in investigating why people discriminate against others because discrimination is a very important social problem."
  • More convincing: “I am interested in investigating why people discriminate against others.  In particular, I want to examine the role that implicit attitudes and stereotypes play in causing people to make biased decisions. Biased decisions – in hiring, promotion, law enforcement, and so on – can result in widespread societal disparities.  Research by Correll, Park, Judd and Wittenbrink (2007), for example, suggests that racial disparities in shootings of suspects may be partially due to automatically activated stereotypes…”

8. Link your research interests to the expertise and research programs of faculty here. 

  • Identify at least one faculty member with whom you would like to work.
  • Read some of their papers, and describe how you think the research could be extended in one or more novel directions.  Again, specificity is a good idea.
  • This is where you really have the opportunity to demonstrate your fit to a program and your ability to think critically, creatively and generatively about research.

9. Ask at least one professor at your current (or prior) institution to give you feedback on your statement.

10. Proofread!  Or better yet, have a spelling and grammar-obsessed friend proofread your statement.

1. Start early

PhD-level study is very different from undergraduate study in that you focus on a more narrow set of interests and work more closely with a faculty advisor. Successful graduate school applicants need to identify (1) specific interests, (2) a program that will support those interests, and (3) a potential advisor(s) within the program. This process can take several months.

2. Naming an area of study

The faculty of the Psychology Department of The University of Arizona focus on basic research in three areas of psychology: (1) clinical psychology, (2) cognition and neural systems, (3) social psychology. When prospective graduate student applications arrive at the Department, they are sorted by area, and each area makes a decision about the students it will interview. Therefore, it is very important that you indicate which of the three areas you want your application to be reviewed by. Occasionally, an applicant feels that s/he would like to pursue graduate study that crosses two areas. If you are such an applicant, you should name one area of study on the application, but indicate in your personal statement (see more advice below) how your specific research goals would benefit from intensive work in the second area. Within all three programs an additional emphasis area is offered in psychology, policy and law. 

3. Naming possible advisors

Graduate study in psychology typically involves a close mentoring relation between a graduate student and an advisor. One of the criteria that our Department uses when evaluating a graduate applicant is the degree to which s/he ‘fits’ with potential advisors. Applicants who identify a specific advisor and who have already been in contact with that faculty member are often given priority. Therefore, we advise you to become familiar with the research of faculty members in the Department whose interests appear to match your own (Faculty Research Interests). If you continue to find a faculty member’s work interesting after your initial reading, email that person, provide some information about yourself and your interests, and ask if the faculty member is taking new students in the upcoming year. 

4. Your personal statement

Purpose and parameters of the personal statement
Your personal statement is an opportunity to sell yourself in terms of your research interests, previous research experience, and research goals. Unless you have extensive research experience, most personal statements should be about two pages long (single-spaced). Your writing should be clear, concise, grammatically correct, and professional in tone. You may wish to convey some personal experiences that have led to your current interests or that make you a particularly promising candidate. 

Components of the statement:

You will want to describe the following: 1) Relevant personal experience; 2) previous research experience; 3) current research interests; and 4) career goals.

  • Relevant personal experience:

A good way to start your statement is by describing experiences that have sparked your interest in a career in psychology. Perhaps a particular class, internship, or volunteer experience led to your interest, or perhaps it was a series of experiences. In some cases students start out interested in one area of psychology to discover in the end they interested in an altogether different area. Other students obtain a degree in a different discipline (like physics), spend time in the work force, and then decide a career in psychology is what they really want to pursue. In describing your personal experiences, be sure to convey how these have prepared you for graduate school. Also be sure to include information unique to you that will enhance our program having to do with culture, race, ethnicity, gender, social class, or religion.

  • Previous research experience:

Describe research you have worked on in sufficient detail to convey your understanding of the scientific goals of the project. Note the advisor, your role on the project, any class papers you may have written, and publications or conference presentations that list you as an author. Be sure to describe the skills you have acquired in your research.

  • Current research interests:

Describe the topics you find most interesting and why. Although you may not know the exact problem you want to address within a particular area, you should be able to narrow things down to the expertise represented in a particular graduate program. For instance, as an applicant to the CNS program at the University of Arizona you may be interested in the sub-area of language acquisition, visual perception, or memory (as opposed to all of cognition and neural systems). As an applicant to the clinical program you may be interested in family psychology or sleep. As a candidate in social psychology your interests may extend to prejudice and stereotyping or cultural psychology. Be sure to let us know if you are interested in more than one sub-area or topic within an area so we can determine all of the ways you may fit into our program. Use our website to identify potential advisors and explain how your interests overlap with theirs.

Ending by describing the type of career you would like to have. Do you want to conduct research in an academic setting where you will also teach or in a private or government institution where you will only conduct research? Do you see yourself in a more applied setting? This information will help us determine your fit to our program. 

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