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Psychology PhD Personal Statement draft -- anyone willing to critique?

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Hi there,

I don't think this is very good, but I don't really know how to improve it. I feel very stuck. Would anyone be kind enough to provide feedback? Say it like you mean it -- I have a thick skin. Thank you!!!

University of xxxxx:

1500 word limit.

- Discuss your interests, ambitions, and experiences in psychology.

- What type of research would you do at xxx school?

- What faculty members might assist you?

In college, I was an ideas man. I loved the challenge of exploring the gray areas of intellectualism – how do the results of the “double-slit experiment” reconcile with the tenets of Newtonian physics? How does monism stack up against dualism as a philosophy of mind? Which statistical techniques can be used to reveal non-obvious correlations between variables? I understood knowledge to be a dynamic construct, its evolution driven by analysis, scrutiny, second-guessing, and innovation.

When I found psychology in my freshman year, I became immediately fascinated by the contribution it made to knowledge in a relatively short period of human history. By applying the principles of empiricism, those that had yielded a robust understanding of the physical world, psychologists broke down the human mind’s processes, practices, and perceptions in a way that revealed a humbling and significant lesson with an implication that I simply could not shake. In contrast to the idea that each man is uniquely his own, he seems programmed to respond to stimuli in repeatable, predictable ways. I was stunned. Are we all mere automata reacting reflexively to conditioning? The more I learned, the more I feared for our conception of personal individuality, one of the most entrenched and sacrosanct principles I had believed we could hold about ourselves. With such a powerful convention uprooted, I wondered what else psychological science could unearth. It had showed me that the world isn’t flat, so I wanted to find out how round it really is.

I delved deeply. I studied under fascinating professors who asked: is the relationship between cause and effect understood innately or learned through experience? Are mental shortcuts like stereotyping grounded in reality? How much of a role does classical conditioning play in the development of alcoholism? In my junior year, I found a home in a captivating social cognition lab that explored individual differences in moral intuitions and actions. Aided by Dr. xxx and his graduate assistant, xxx, I completed original work on Moral Foundations Theory, an idea positing that individuals consider up to five different factors when faced with a morally-charged behavioral dilemma. Together, we revealed evidence that suggests social affiliation (e.g. membership in a political party), and, in turn, moral conviction, may actually be consequences of underlying cognitive attributes (e.g. one’s “need for cognition” or “tolerance of ambiguity”). I fell in love with the research process and the idea that I was contributing to the discovery of knowledge. I was hooked, but I was also learning something more: my original interpretation of psychology’s chief tenet – that despite apparent capriciousness, much of our mental lives occur predictably – was incomplete. It is not that we are stripped of our individualities; it is that we need to reframe the concept of what it is to be distinctive. In fact, of course, we do all live separate lives. Our moral foundations vary from one person to the next and in one situation to the next. Our perceptions of even objective, physical properties are filtered through individual prisms (less affluent children generally perceive coins as physically larger than do more affluent children). Instead, there are themes and patterns that govern all of our psyches, but each individual is defined by an unrepeatable function of an incredible number of variables.

We are still exploring the area between that which unites us and that which produces individual deviations. And we are still exploring how our growing understanding of the functioning of the human mind can have fruitful real world applications. In the 1970s, Harvard University’s Ellen Langer discovered that we’re more willing to let someone pass us in line if they provide no reason for their request than if they provide a reason we find unmeritorious. This led to the theory of mindfulness, and, eventually, to the therapy of mindfulness meditation. It is my belief that the more we learn about social and cognitive variability, the keener we’ll become in manipulating those factors to the application of the greater good. My hope is that the examination of other ostensibly minor, psychological quirks will lead to consequences like motivating dispirited workers, increasing the positivity of emotions, or of facilitating effective communication.

Professor xxx’s [at the University I am applying to] research provides a terrific example of this type of work. His discovery that manipulating the grammatical construction of behavioral requests motivates positive action resonates with me precisely because it is applicable to the social good (i.e. it increases voter turnout). I wonder: could we accentuate positive feelings by asking people if they “are happy” rather than if they “feel happy?” Could we evoke an ethos of philanthropic contribution after natural disasters or engender social responsibility among financial executives in times of moral indecision? Professor Bryan has conceded that the effects found so far in his experiments are ephemeral, so what can we do to make them more enduring? The possibilities for further research are vast and exciting, and I would be delighted to work under his tutelage.

For the same reason, Professor xxx would make for a compatible advisor. His lab recently discovered that facial expressions exhibited in the work place depend on employee perceptions of relative social statuses, an important revelation in the social dynamics of employee relations. As a corollary investigation, I would ask how office acoustics affect worker interactions. Take the open-floor work space: do employees converse differently if they feel they are likely to be overheard by their superiors? What if only their peers can hear them? At what decibel level of interference do people feel safe to converse intimately? And how are professional and personal relationships among coworkers affected by this environment? These answers could have tremendous value to business organizations when tasked with designing a socially and operationally optimal work setting.

Theme: discuss compatibilities between me and particular program.

Aside from compatible research interests, xxx University is an excellent match for me for other reasons. First, the emphasis on a first year research project is a draw; the expectation of scholarly contribution seems more immediate than in other comparable programs, which I fully embrace. Simultaneously, the program maintains a flexible initial structure. Because students aren’t admitted within particular sub-disciplines or assigned to advisors, it gives both students and faculty some time to find optimal pairings – this sounds like a smart long-term practice. Thirdly, xxx is a city I’ve long adored, and an offer to study in that local would make me especially happy.

After attaining a PhD, my end-goal will be to become an academic researcher. The opportunity to live a life devoted to investigating, instructing, and contributing to humanity’s body of knowledge towards a socially constructive end is the most fulfilling prospective life I can imagine. I am not naïve to the highly saturated academic job market, and I know there’s a chance that my best efforts will fall short, but I am two years rich with industry experience and I have become privy to wonderful positions that exist in government and business for advanced social science researchers. With two viable avenues to pursue, I am confident that I will find a position that allows me to do what I love – think, inquire, challenge, and create – and undergoing rigorous, academic training in experimental psychology will stand me in excellent stead as I pursue opportunities to live that life.

If more than six months have elapsed since the date of your last university enrollment, please describe what you have been doing. Recommended length: 1 page or approximately 2500 characters.

After completing my B.A., I had a strong belief that I wanted to pursue an academic career, but I followed advice from those who encouraged me to find professional experience first. And I’m glad I did. As a market research analyst at xxx company, I’ve been able to view social science through a different lens. Essentially, my job is to utilize the same survey research and statistical analysis processes that I learned in xxx' psychology labs to answer business-oriented questions. "Do viewers of channel X who have below average income necessarily have below average purchasing power?" "Would web surfers be OK with third parties tracking their online behavior if they understood that that's what enables most Internet content to remain free?" In two years’ time, I’ve learned that industries are interested in application of theory. They ask: what can laboratory knowledge do to increase productivity, to make interactions more efficient, and to advance further research? Now, as I strive to return to academia, I do so with a sharper focus. What will I seek to accomplish with my work within the broader context? How will my research be put to use? What end do I wish to achieve?

Prior to joining xxx company, I held another survey research post when I served as a Crew Leader for the U.S. Census Bureau during their 2010 campaign. I trained and mobilized a team of 25 Enumerators to collect census data from local residents who had failed to return their forms in the mail earlier in the year. Respondent recruitment proved challenging and variability in survey conduction was difficult to minimize, so this position taught me that great rigor is required to collect reliable and standardized data in non-laboratory settings.

Immediately before and after working for the Census, I took a scheduled break from study and work to travel the world. I visited Ecuador in South America, much of Northern Europe, and many locations in the U.S. I had not been much of a traveler before my late teens, and I was determined to change that while I was still young and free.

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