Jump to content

Physics grad student (hopefully) entering Psychology Ph.D. program


JasonW

Recommended Posts

Hi everyone,

I'm a mathematical physics Ph.D. student studying String Theory at a large Canadian University (though I'm a U.S. citizen). I've had a sort of obsession with reading the evolutionary psychology literature for awhile, and just last semester I met several professors of the subject, and learned that I apparently knew much more about the topic than I had assumed I did. They both suggested I should apply to Ph.D. programs, and that my non-psychological background may, in fact, help me more than if I had spent 4 years earning a Bachelor's degree in psychology. Throughout last semester, I founded an Evolutionary Psychology Research Literature Discussion Group at my university, I became a private tutor for the students in Psyco 302: Evolutionary Psychology (a course taught by one of the aforementioned professors), I began to work on two research projects in psychology, and I gave an 80 minute lecture to the 70 students in the course I mentioned earlier, content from which was to serve as potential material for a question on their final exams. I did all this in addition to my standard duties as a mathematical physics Ph.D. student, and I also spent the semester contacting potential supervisors and applying to 5 schools: UCSB, Harvard, UPenn, UT Austin, UCLA (though I applied to the UCLA anthropology department, as this is where one of my desired supervisors works, although his focus is evolutionary psychology). I'll also be submitting an application to U Lethbridge, but their due date is not until March. UCLA and Lethbridge are included on the list because professors there specifically suggested that I should apply to work with them.

As far as my other credentials, I have a 3.98 undergrad GPA (4.00 in major [math] & minors [physics and philosophy], I only got an A- in a dance class and a B+ in a French class), a 4.00 graduate school GPA, and a 1330 combined GRE. In addition, I've got various scholarships and awards, I've been a graduate representative to the math department, and I was the department's single nominee (of the 100+ math grad students) to apply for the $150,000 Vanier scholarship. I also have tons of extremely positive teaching evaluations from the students in my calculus labs, which I included on the applications that had a slot for supplemental material. I got letters of recommendation from 2 math profs, and 2 evolutionary psychology profs. One of the latter two said in his letter that he had taught over 8,000 students, and around 700 at the senior level, and that I was by far the one who most needed to be somewhere like Harvard or UCSB, and the other EP prof said to me, within about an hour of meeting her, that I probably know the field better than she does (I think she was just being nice); though I'm unaware of the content of her letter, I have reason to believe it's pretty good. The other two letters are (I've been told) similarly good.

Now, in a sense I feel like I've got fairly good credentials, but I'm still pretty scared for several reasons: I haven't gotten invites to any interviews yet, the schools I applied to are all really competitive, and I've never officially taken a single psychology course. As such, I'm not quite sure how my credentials will stack up next to a psychology major who has published a bunch of papers and has similar GPA, etc. Also, the two psych profs who wrote my letters are plenty intelligent, but not "big shots" in the field, and I'm not sure how much that matters in applying to big schools.

I'm sure most of you are much more qualified to guess what psych Ph.D. programs look for, and how I might look to them. I honestly have no idea whether I'll be accepted to all or none of the programs, and any outcome in between seems equally likely.

Any idea of how I might do, and when (if ever) I should expect to hear back?

Thanks,

-Jason

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think you have a high likelihood of getting in somewhere. Psychology is a very strange mixture of people with extremely varied amounts of math/programming/hard science backgrounds from practically nothing to the kind of background you have. I think your average psych undergrad takes one or two stats courses and thats it. You will stand out in that regard and I think that it is likely that someone will be very much interested in you for your interests and the skills you will bring with you. While you haven't taken psychology courses, you can clearly demonstrate that you have some background via your reading group and the EP LoRs and that it isn't just a passing fancy. Psych grad programs are very competitive so nothing is guaranteed, but I think you have a good shot!

As for hearing back, I needed to make travel arrangements for an interview in February. I was debating whether to fly out for the whole weekend or to leave the non-interview time open for other potential interviews. This morning, I called around to some of my schools asking when their interviews would be. Most haven't decided when the visiting weekends will be! This included UT-Austin (which apparently only interviews for cognitive and social). Since the programs haven't made the date decision yet, there is no way that they can have started sending out invitations. So don't worry! Its early days yet for Psychology programs.

Edited by LJK
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I agree with much of what LJK said. Your should be a very competitive applicant. However, if you only applied to the very top programs, it might be hard to be accepted due to no psych courses. If you took the psych GRE, I think that would help a lot for your case. It all depends on what the adcom thinks about that. They may feel your other psychology exposure is enough. Your background is essential to psychology and I hope someone gives you a shot! Good luck!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

You seem like a great person with strong credentials in your area. So please don't take this post personally.

I have a comparable CV in psychology. I've read a reasonable amount of popular physics, even string theory (e.g., Brian Greene's work). Yet is there ANY physics PhD program that would give my application a second look?

What is it about psychology that makes people think they can apply to a PhD program--a place for advanced study--without a single course in that area? I'm sorry if this sounds dismissive but it rips me that people think my field is something that can be picked up in one's spare time.

Maybe this is something specific to evolutionary psychology. As a subfield, compared to other areas, it can be a bit quirky.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I live with a group of Physics PhD students and am currently in a Cognitive Psych MS program. In Physics, the first years here are not even assigned to labs yet. They have so much coursework and basic knowledge to acquire (beyond what they have already learned as physics majors in undergrad) that they don't start doing research right away. As a first year psych student, I took 2 courses, a stats class and a readings course each semester and did a substantial research project. My MS, and I think most psychology Masters theses, is research based. In Physics, the Masters is coursework based. I think the big difference is that Physics as a 'mature science' has a huge amount of information that needs to get synthesized before the academic literature can be understood by the students. As a less mature science, psychology is easier to get into and start picking up the academic literature to read and understand it. I think psychologists assume less comprehensive background when writing since there are people with social psychology PhDs who have never had to take a developmental course or a cognitive course or an evolutionary psych course (we just had some ABDs come through our department to interview for a job opening and they were amazed that we were all required to take a social, developmental and cognitive course). The model psych uses of not requiring training across sub-disciplines but putting them all in the same department where being able to convey clearly what is interesting and exciting about your work to a group of non-specialists is essential (job-talks, tenure, etc.) makes it much, much more accessible to be picked up on the side.

Also, is sounds like the OP is reading journal articles, not reading Pinker's pop science books and calling that expertise in psychology. However, on the other hand, one of my grad classes started out with a couple of chapters of one of Pinker's books because the group consisted of Social, Developmental and Cognitive 1st and 2nd years, many of whom had little to no Cognitive background. I'm glad I was in the class nay-saying some of what Pinker puts forth as factual so everyone realized that there were debates and complexities that the book was smoothing over (probably more than I knew enough about to argue with). This is the level of background that the prof though was acceptable in a cognitive survey course. I can't imagine a physics course starting with Greene's synopsis of string theory.

I love psychology. I plan on getting a PhD in psychology or in a psych heavy cognitive science program. I actually think that one thing that is really cool about psychology is that it isn't too hard to get into intellectually. It means that people with different backgrounds and different skills sets can come together and work on the same problems. I would actually put forth that most people starting PhD programs in psych have some sort of serious deficiency. Your average undergraduate psychology major has probably taken one or two advanced courses in their graduate sub-field. They have probably done research in their sub-field but then so must non-psych majors who wish to apply successfully (as the OP has, indicating a higher level of dedication than just doing some reading). Psych undergrads generally don't have much of a background in using statistics software, programming experiments, etc. The technical aspects are not highlighted (at least as far as I have seen) and are only acquired through research experience - where it depends on what is being used at that particular time in that particular lab what gets taught. Perhaps someone with a non-psych background will take a longer time to intellectually wrap their mind around psychological research and experiment design than someone who majored in it, but they will have all the spare time the majors are using to gain basic technical skills to develop their understanding.

Also, since I'm on a role here:

For me, one of the hardest things I have done as a grad student was to wrap my mind around cognitive neuroscience research. At my university, there is no one doing high-tech cogneuro on site and there is only one lower-level undergraduate course on the brain. Yet in all the grad courses, at some point the relevant cogneuro research is assigned and is almost impossible to wrap one's unprepared mind around. There is a lot more knowledge assumed in a neuroscience paper, knowledge that I have never been systematically been taught. The professors view the cogneuro lit as part of the same literature, not something completely separate. I think that this view is good, the different experimental techniques are attempting to answer the same questions. But! I think that cogneuro is much harder to get into and deserves a grad-level (and undergrad-level also) introduction where the assumed knowledge about the brain is taught systematically. Maybe that happens at other universities, but at mine, there is a readings course that is only taught every once in a blue moon which I think is a disservice to the students.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

...Also, is sounds like the OP is reading journal articles, not reading Pinker's pop science books and calling that expertise in psychology. ...the OP has, indicating a higher level of dedication than just doing some reading)...

I only have a minute to post here but you're right, I was somewhat uncharitable on those points. You make some great points in the rest of your post too, and I'll try to reply later.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

You seem like a great person with strong credentials in your area. So please don't take this post personally.

I have a comparable CV in psychology. I've read a reasonable amount of popular physics, even string theory (e.g., Brian Greene's work). Yet is there ANY physics PhD program that would give my application a second look?

What is it about psychology that makes people think they can apply to a PhD program--a place for advanced study--without a single course in that area? I'm sorry if this sounds dismissive but it rips me that people think my field is something that can be picked up in one's spare time.

Maybe this is something specific to evolutionary psychology. As a subfield, compared to other areas, it can be a bit quirky.

you seem a bit defensive about this. if you read his post you would see he has done a lot more in psychology than read pop-psych books, and has a comparable level of experience in psychology to most senior psychology majors

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks for the replies everyone!

LJK:

Thank you for the encouragement! Less than 24 hours after I posted this topic, I got an email from my (tied for) first choice supervisor (one of the co-inventors of evolutionary psychology, and my absolute hero) saying that she really enjoyed my application, and she would like to talk on the phone in the next few days. I'm awaiting a call right now. Nothing is final, of course, but hooray!

You're absolutely right about physics as it compares to psychology. I can't even convey how large the pool of prerequisite knowledge is in physics, and while that is of course true of psychology too, physics is much more hierarchically structured, e.g. you're NOT going to be able to understand String Theory until you understand Quantum Field Theory, which you're not going to be able to understand until you understand Quantum Mechanics, which you're not going to be able to understand ever, at least intuitively... and Quantum Mechanics is generally a 400/500 level course (depending on the content). The same ladder-structure is true for basically any sub-discipline of physics. Now, there is also a ton of information required to understand certain areas of the psychology literature, but in my experience it's much less hierarchical, which makes diving in easier for an outsider. I've yet to come across a psychology article that's as difficult to understand as even the easier mathematical physics articles, and I'm actually trained in the latter (this is largely the fault of the authors of the mathphys articles, who could do a much better job at making their ideas clear). Now, this may sound like an insult to psychology, but it's not at all. One of the things that makes the field so fun (for me, at least) is that so little is known, and there's so much room for improvement. As the evolutionary psychologist John Tooby has said "We don't know what aspects of physical arrangements in the brain constitute 'a thought'... it's like 100 years ago when people knew there was heredity, but had no idea what its physical basis was." Like myself, John Tooby started out as a physics major, but came to realize that so much is already known in physics, that there's often an insufficient amount of meat on the academic bone to really provide the excitement needed to fuel students through a whole career in physics. One of my lucky, accidental advantages is that most of the time I spent learning about psychology/neuroscience was in isolation -- I didn't have any psychology professors or students to talk to, and so I assumed a) that I knew next to nothing about the fields, and that B) if something (e.g. certain neuroscience papers) didn't make complete sense at first, then I assumed it was my fault for not having been trained in the subject, that any psychology major would understand it, and that I should learn the prerequisites. As such, I read papers and textbooks with no idea of whether the material was taught in 1st year of undergrad or in grad school.

lewin00: I understand your frustration. Just some quick points: First of all, you said "Yet is there ANY physics PhD program that would give my application a second look?" -- This question was phrased rhetorically, but it's actually worth consideration. The answer is: just like in psychology, it depends on what you know! Ed Witten, probably the leading String Theorist in the world, and widely considered the smartest physicist alive today, was an undergraduate History major. One of the best Ph.D. students in math here at my school wasn't a math major, and I don't think he ever took a math class, but he managed to teach himself enough during his spare time that he rivaled or surpassed most people who had spent four years working day and night on homework and projects in a university, and he went on to receive a $150,000 merit-based scholarship that's given to only a very small number of people in Canada -- the graduate students here tend to feel intimidated by him, rather than the reverse. For an even better example, google "Margie Profet". As such, this isn't specific to evolutionary psychology, or even to psychology. In a sense that's encouraging and uplifting; in another sense it's a huge disappointment.

As more evidence of the same fact, here are some snippits of conversations I've had with evolutionary psychologists who I'm applying to work with:

"Just to reiterate, I think you're overestimating how much your undergrad major will count. For many programs (including ours and UCSB), what matters more are your general academic abilities and your self-statement describing your interests." --From Clark Barrett at UCLA

"I had no background in either psych or anthro when I started with Tooby and Cosmides -- I was a bio student. As sad as it is to say, most undergrad training doesn't amount to much -- most of what you need to know you learn in grad school anyway." --Also Clark Barrett

"[T]he people who advised you that the lack of an undergraduate degree is not a handicap are correct. It's not at all uncommon for psychology grad students to have been trained in different disciplines, including physics." --From Steven Pinker

Now, you're right to be frustrated about the fact that the system is this way, but the sad reality is that in many (if not most) subjects, motivated self-directed study is far more valuable, and is a much better way to learn than taking courses even at an elite university. In the age of the internet, there's sufficiently easy access to enough free information that universities are beginning to have the scales of efficiency tipped against them. A fact I've learned over and over, and which hit me tenfold when I began teaching calculus, is that the university system is so broken, and so inefficient, that even if it were free to attend, it would not justify itself by being a more direct and easy path to learning than the internet, a textbook, and a cup of coffee, or an iPod full of academic lectures coupled with a 10 mile walk spent listening to them (they're free all over the internet!). I frequently encounter people who disagree with me on this, and maybe this approach doesn't work for everyone, but it's a curious fact that nearly everyone I've encountered who disagrees with this notion doesn't seem to be sufficiently interested in their field of study to reach the point where studying it becomes play rather than work. If this is the case, I would suggest that these people find something that they enjoy to that extent, and work toward getting a job doing it. In today's world of niche-explosion, one can make a living doing virtually anything.

You mentioned in your last post that you'd try to reply later. If you have time, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Anyways, off to class. Thanks for the reassurance everyone. Even though I've gotten an interview, I'm still pretty nervous about the possibility of not getting accepted anywhere. Wish me luck!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. See our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use