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Too specific research interests - having significant trouble finding POI's willing to take my research on


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I'm currently working on a second bachelors. I'm starting the application process this summer, and applying to doctoral programs for Fall 2014.

 

My research interests are extremely specific. I've been told by a professor at my current university that I should expect to find difficulty in finding professors to advise me. He suggested I go through research and literature related to my interests, and look their CV and faculty profiles up. I've looked at over 300 people so far, and found 3 that could possibly work. The only problem is that they haven't answered my emails!

 

Ultimately, I am looking to do research with victims of sexual assault that experience PTSD/rape trauma syndrome. Specifically, I am interested in researching self-perception as a rape victim versus a rape survivor, how those identities are often bounced between following sexual assault, and how those identities are constructed through the effects of stigmatization of rape victims in society. I would love to include the specificity of obesity into the research, since there seems to be a lack of work in that area, as was mentioned multiple times in theFat Studies Reader, edited by Rothblum and Solovay.

 

I'm looking at clinical psych as well as social psych programs, but I'm coming up very short. Does anyone have any knowledge of a program/POI that could handle this? I've come up with a list of 3 people so far, but I want to apply to at least 9-10 programs. Any help would be tremendously appreciated.

 

My list so far:

Dr. Peterson at U Michigan, Saint Louis

Dr. Muehlenhard at Kansas

Dr. Walker at Nova Southeastern University

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You might have to find co-pis.

Would they have to be in the same department? If not, I've found several schools where combining a psych POI and a sociology or women's studies POI would give me the necessary credentials.

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My specialization is in the treatment of sexual offenders, it's close but pretty apart but I can sympathize with trying to find POIs in this general area (I only applied to three schools myself because of this). Have you considered University of Nebraska-Lincoln? I applied there myself this year and David Hansen there does work with victims of sexual abuse and in my correspondence with him he was super nice.

 

Not to be discouraging though, but have you considered widening the focus of your research interest some? I am pretty permanently connected to my current research team in New England as I've co-authored two manuals up here and even though I'm going to Tennessee to return to school, and in my preparations I had questions about how my ongoing connections and wrapping up projects would be impacted by being at a given school and my current supervisor cautioned me that having so much focus on my own projects might actually hurt me to some extent. I've come to terms that I will have several decades to work on my own projects and for now, as long as I'm in the right metaphorical church I can tolerate sitting in a different metaphorical pew for a bit.

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My specialization is in the treatment of sexual offenders, it's close but pretty apart but I can sympathize with trying to find POIs in this general area (I only applied to three schools myself because of this). Have you considered University of Nebraska-Lincoln? I applied there myself this year and David Hansen there does work with victims of sexual abuse and in my correspondence with him he was super nice.

 

Not to be discouraging though, but have you considered widening the focus of your research interest some? I am pretty permanently connected to my current research team in New England as I've co-authored two manuals up here and even though I'm going to Tennessee to return to school, and in my preparations I had questions about how my ongoing connections and wrapping up projects would be impacted by being at a given school and my current supervisor cautioned me that having so much focus on my own projects might actually hurt me to some extent. I've come to terms that I will have several decades to work on my own projects and for now, as long as I'm in the right metaphorical church I can tolerate sitting in a different metaphorical pew for a bit.

 

 

That's interesting that you mention widening my interests. I've been told by several professors at my current institution that I may need to narrow my focus a bit. I have also been cautioned that adding in the specific of obesity might disqualify me from many because it takes considerably longer to parse out an even smaller subpopulation of individuals who have gone through something that is severely underreported as it is. 

 

I also had not heard of Dr. Hansen before. Looking at his publications and research, it seems that he only does research on children in relation to sexual abuse.

Any advice you can offer would be appreciated! You are the first person I've spoken with that is still obtaining their education in an area that is even remotely close to mine. It's so rare!

Edited by gatorgrad
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I don't see why it should have to be the perfect match 100%. For example, if worked with someone who generally does what you're interested in, you could propose a study looking at weight/BMI within that. Or if you worked with someone who did children, perhaps you could do a study expanding his research into adolescents or young adults. Not every study you do has to exactly map onto what your POI is doing... I'd say if you get to like, 75% match you're closely matched. Just have an idea of how you would take the POI's current research and stretch it into your own.

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You may have to look a little wider out than your field.  So maybe look for PIs that do research on women and trauma; or PIs that do research on PTSD and anxiety experienced after trauma; or PIs that do research on PTSD in general or sexual assalt victimization in general.  Then meet/talk to those PIs to find out about their flexibility and ability to support you in doing what you want.

 

Another thing that you may want to remember is that it's difficult to do *exactly* what you want to do in grad school.  In most fields, the whole point that we arrive at an area of research is because research is needed in that area, which means there aren't a lot of people doing it already!  So what you need is to attend a program that will equip you with the knowledge and the tools to do what you want to do eventually.  Lots of people work on something in grad school and then move to something related, but not the same, in their postdoc or faculty positions.  My POI and I don't have a perfect match, but we're close enough that when I go on to pursue my own research agenda after leaving here, I know what I need to do.

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I also had not heard of Dr. Hansen before. Looking at his publications and research, it seems that he only does research on children in relation to sexual abuse.

 

 

Hmmm, admittedly he was not the POI I was in most contact with but he is the head of the dept there.

 

I don't know if you are familiar with ATSA (Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers), but it's one of the major sex offender related organizations in North America. It's definitely geared towards offenders more than victims but you might want to check the conference information as there's often victim-related presentations. I get fulltext access to a number of journals that are commonly used by sex offender researchers and since I woke up early today I took a look at some people who have published in these journals, maybe there are some you haven't seen yet.

 

Mary Koss, U of Arizona (a very good program to be in... this was my second choice school)

Libby Ruch, U of Hawaii

John Briere, U of Southern California

Carol Jordan, U of Kentucky

Joanne Muzak, U of Alberta

Rebecca Campbell, Michigan State Univ

Christina Hassija and Matt Gray, U of Wyoming

E.S. Byers and Shannon Glenn, U of New Brunswick

Sara Cottrill, Vanderbilt Univ

Audrey Miller, Sam Houston State Univ

Ian Handley, Montana State Univ

Keith Markman, Ohio Univ-Athens

 

Just a warning, most of these people/programs I'm not familiar with but they have all published within the last few years.

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Hmmm, admittedly he was not the POI I was in most contact with but he is the head of the dept there.

 

I don't know if you are familiar with ATSA (Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers), but it's one of the major sex offender related organizations in North America. It's definitely geared towards offenders more than victims but you might want to check the conference information as there's often victim-related presentations. I get fulltext access to a number of journals that are commonly used by sex offender researchers and since I woke up early today I took a look at some people who have published in these journals, maybe there are some you haven't seen yet.

 

Mary Koss, U of Arizona (a very good program to be in... this was my second choice school)

Libby Ruch, U of Hawaii

John Briere, U of Southern California

Carol Jordan, U of Kentucky

Joanne Muzak, U of Alberta

Rebecca Campbell, Michigan State Univ

Christina Hassija and Matt Gray, U of Wyoming

E.S. Byers and Shannon Glenn, U of New Brunswick

Sara Cottrill, Vanderbilt Univ

Audrey Miller, Sam Houston State Univ

Ian Handley, Montana State Univ

Keith Markman, Ohio Univ-Athens

 

Just a warning, most of these people/programs I'm not familiar with but they have all published within the last few years.

You are incredible. Thank you so much for taking the time to do that for me!

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I second PsychGirl's advice that your research interests don't have to 100% match those of your POIs. You may not find out until you email them, but those partial-match people may have had an idea bouncing around in their heads about expanding or starting a new line of research with which you might fit well. Professors' research interests often evolve. I also have very specific interests, and when I was emailing professors I briefly described what I wanted to research and then asked if they would be interested in supporting a project like that. Some said no, but some said yes! That helped me add a couple more schools to my list. 

 

Also in terms of contacting professors, you are very early, so I'm not surprised they haven't emailed you back yet. I started emailing the summer before application season, and I still needed to re-email several people in September. Don't write them off! This is a crazy time of year. I'd email again during the summer & mention that you had previously emailed, then quickly summarize what you said before. 

 

Regarding your interests, it is wonderful that you have specific interests and I wouldn't suggest letting go of those! As other people have said, your grad education may not precisely match those interests, but you can always keep them for after you finish, or as smaller projects, etc. You will probably be able to find ways to incorporate those interests along the way, even if your major projects aren't perfect matches for them. For me, I am sure that 5-6 years of grad school will affect my knowledge, interests and passions in ways I can't yet foresee. I am lucky to have found a PI who is excited about my research ideas, but he also wants me to work on a related project I had never before considered but am now quite excited about. So my advice is to hold on to those interests, but with a loose grip to allow for your own growth during grad school. :)

Edited by Linelei
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I'm glad I read this thread.  I have to thank PsychGirl and Linelei for their advice!  I have been wondering about how specific my research interests need to be as I gear up for this upcoming application season. 

 

Is it better to have a specific project/research question in mind when emailing POIs or is it better to just state a general area of interest?  I don't have a specific line of inquiry; my interests are definite but still pretty general.  Motivation, workplace climate, organizational support, personality. 

 

I don't mean to hi-jack gatorgrad's thread, but I have a related question:  How specific should I get??

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Thank you so much for taking the time to do that for me!

 

Don't mention it. It's been my experience that our neck of the field is wonderfully social and supportive (granted, I'm biased), probably because the issue we deal with are incredibly complicated and involve professional manipulators. I'm sorry I don't have more specific information but if there's anything I can do to help feel free to pm me.

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To add my 2 cents:

 

I found myself belatedly in the exact same problem as the OP...except he/she has the foresight to ask about it beforehand, whereas I didn't. Even my PI (employer, not mentor), who knew how narrow my field and focus is didn't bother to tell me until AFTER I submitted my applications, but that's another story. Anyways, my biggest recommendation is broaden your focus. Yes, it's good to have a  focus, but not one where you are struggling to find people who are doing the same thing (again, the problem I had). Even if you follow that list that another member so kindly gave you, you cannot guarantee that you'll be able to apply to every single PI. 1) Some of them may not be taking students 2) Some of their research focus and/or future focus may have changed 3) Some may not be affiliated with the program you want to apply to. See, after taking all these things into consideration, I ended up with one, yes, ONE PI who researched what I wanted to study, using the methodology I want to use. And to add salt to the injury, that PI also happens to be at one of the most competitive institutions for that field. Great. Even with several years of research experience, near perfect GRE, average GPA from highly regarded private institution, I got rejected flat out from half the schools I applied to, and none of the other schools but one did the type of research I wanted to do. Several PIs directly asked how can my interest align with their research, and one flat out said they don't have the opportunities I'm looking for.

 

The happy ending to my story is that I happened to get into that one school and feel like I narrowly missed total rejection by an inch. But do yourself a favor and avoid going through what I did and just broaden your scope. In research, you will most likely not get to research what you are truly interested in any ways. Those things depend on grant availability, what's "hot" in the field, and other practical issues.

 

On the other hand, if you are passionate enough about what you want to research that you want to take that risk, go ahead. Your passion for that topic will show (as mine did at the interview) and who knows, you just may end up being accepted to a PI that does exactly the type of research you want to do. While my advice is to tell you to broaden your scope, I wouldn't have taken that advice 2 months prior, simply because I refuse to compromise my interests for the sake of getting in. I'd rather not get in than to research something I find dull. However, I took a huge risk that could have very easily gone wrong. 

 

Also to answer Bren's question: almost every PI I emailed got back to me, and my initial email was short (less than 10 sentences), stated who I am, who I work with, where I went to school, and a sentence and a half about my research interest that is very general (i.e. I want to study XYZ in __ population ___ by [insert general methodology] ...). I did not propose my thesis question, but basically said the 2-3 things about my interest that I refuse to compromise. If the PI doesn't happen to do that type of research, I was willing to move on. 

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I don't know if you're open to Canadian schools, but I interviewed recently with Dr. Paula Barata at the University of Guelph in Ontario. She does a lot of work with battered women in the community and the challenges they face. When I spoke to her she said she was basically open to any research on women and improving their lives/social standing/etc. so she could be a good fit for you.

 

She's really nice, too, and I think she only has 2 students currently, so would probably be open to taking another on next year :)

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I don't know if you're open to Canadian schools, but I interviewed recently with Dr. Paula Barata at the University of Guelph in Ontario. She does a lot of work with battered women in the community and the challenges they face. When I spoke to her she said she was basically open to any research on women and improving their lives/social standing/etc. so she could be a good fit for you.

 

She's really nice, too, and I think she only has 2 students currently, so would probably be open to taking another on next year :)

Thanks! I'll check out her work :)

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  • 5 weeks later...

Being too specific may hurt you in application process. It is better to have general interests but show through your essay on your promising ideas. That perspective may be more forgiving. Also, although you may be set in your interests now- they may change in grad school. Many if not all PhD students I know went in to a program with one idea of what they will research only to change it once they were in depth in to the program....

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