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Specificity of Research Background and Program "Fit"


St0chastic

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Hello all,

I am working on finishing up my applications to cognitive programs.  My understanding is that since the majority of applicants that are seriously considered all possess sterling credentials, the key factors that determine who ultimately is accepted are research experience and the nebulously defined program "fit."  My research interests are rather diffuse and span multiple areas of high-level cognition including attention, memory, reasoning and problem solving, and decision making.  I have worked in labs that investigated (1) visual attention, (2) the relationship between sleep and different facets of cognition (visual perception, memory, language), and (3) decisional capacity among an intellectually disabled subpopulation.  The one unifying strand across these different labs has been the use of EEG/ERPs as a primary physiological measure.  

I am struggling to present my research interests as being well defined in my statement of purpose.  The reality is that I am interested in all of these domains of cognition, and so I feel that I'm being disingenuous if I say that I exclusively want to investigate "insert super specific topic here."  How circumscribed do the research interests I write about in my SOP need to be?  Would being frank about my multifarious interests preclude my admission?  

Any feedback on how you approached this in your own statement of purpose would be appreciated! 

EDIT:  This website (https://sites.google.com/site/gradappadvice/downloads) has given me a sense of how to structure the SOP.  However, the sample SOP is pretty specific in stating what the author would like to study.  I'll quote her third paragraph: 

" While I enjoyed each of these projects in different areas of cognitive psychology, I discovered I am most interested in questions concerning the limits of human information processing. In particular, I am interested in blah, stuff, and other stuff. In graduate school, I would also like to explore response selection and cognitive control. By studying the limits of human information processing and taking note of when and how failures occur, we can learn how certain cognitive mechanisms function on a regular basis. I believe behavioral methods still provide us with the best way of examining cognitive processes, but I am also eager to use converging methods in my research, and I would like to further explore fMRI or learn TMS while in graduate school." 

Is it necessary to be this specific?

Edited by St0chastic
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I'm in the process of applying as well so I don't have an answer from the perspective of a grad student who already got accepted, but I have dealt with similar problems. I've come to the conclusion that because of the amount of SoP's that they are going to read, they are looking for students who really know that they want to study. I would find a specific area that you find interest in (even though you have many areas of interest) and write something similar to the given paragraph above. Then after you could write a sentence or two about other various interests in research areas that can be accomplished at the program and how your interest in these other areas can be beneficial for their program (or something along these lines) so that you can be useful for more than just one project or research study. That way they see that you know what you want to study and you're not just putting down all these different areas that you're interested in (that they may think you just are putting down but don't really know what you want to do), but that you're also open to studying multiple areas and you're passionate about "the big picture". At least that's how I've gone about writing mine. Hopefully this helps! 

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Your interests are likely to change with time and with experiments, so even if you were to choose a specific research interest you aren't legally bound to follow through with those particular interests. I think the reason why adcomms are keen on seeing such specific interests is not to determine if you're scatterbrained or not. Rather, can you come up with an argument, list some evidence for that argument, and does that argument have implications? They want you to talk about a topic in a way that makes sense and is concise. Also, while research "fit" is important, it shouldn't be a key-and-lock fit. Many labs are interdisciplinary, so different skill sets and research backgrounds are important. As long as you have a general area you want to get into, it should be fine.

I had extremely specific research interests, to the point where I was limited to who I could choose as my PI. Funnily enough, when I read more, my interests expanded and is in a different, but similar area. This is not uncommon in graduate school, and the adcomms realize this.

I hope this helps you a little further!

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1 hour ago, St0chastic said:

I am struggling to present my research interests as being well defined in my statement of purpose.  The reality is that I am interested in all of these domains of cognition, and so I feel that I'm being disingenuous if I say that I exclusively want to investigate "insert super specific topic here."  How circumscribed do the research interests I write about in my SOP need to be?  Would being frank about my multifarious interests preclude my admission?  

Any feedback on how you approached this in your own statement of purpose would be appreciated! 

 

A simple solution would be to not state that you want to exclusively work on that topic. Having a broad interest in many topics does not preclude you from showing specific interest in the professor's work or being able to talk about a topic with specificity. If anything, a broad interest means that you should be able to talk about multiple topics in-depth, as opposed to one. As an example, I had broad interests in intergroup processes that ranged from social neuroscience, social cognition, and applied psychology, however, I don't talk about all those interests in my SOP. Instead, I focus on the interests most relevant to the program/POI and talk about that.

The one thing I would look out for when you're applying (not necessarily for your SOP) is to see whether the labs you work at studies a diverse range of topics as well, because then you'll have a better "cultural fit" with the lab.

Edited by Oshawott
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2 minutes ago, Oshawott said:

Being broadly interested in a topic doesn't mean you are unable to talk about any topic without specificity. The one thing I would look out for when you're applying (not necessarily for your SOP) is to see whether the labs you work at studies a diverse range of topics as well, because then you'll have a better "cultural fit" with the lab.

Thanks for the responses everyone!  @OshawottI am definitely looking at labs with more of a cross-disciplinary focus for that very reason.  

A few follow-up questions: when naming POIs I would like to work with in my statement of purpose, is it considered bad form to list people with different focuses?  For instance, if there's a working memory laboratory and a decision making and judgment group in the same school, would I come across as being unfocused if I say that I would be happy to participate in either research group?  I'm afraid that if I limit myself too narrowly then there may only be one or two POIs at each school that I could work with, but if I go too broad then the admissions committee will write me off as being indecisive.    

Also, should I only consider labs that use methods I have experience with (EEG and ERP), or can I also apply to labs that use other methods which I would like to learn (fMRI, TMS, computational modeling, etc.)?  

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8 minutes ago, St0chastic said:

Thanks for the responses everyone!  @OshawottI am definitely looking at labs with more of a cross-disciplinary focus for that very reason.  

A few follow-up questions: when naming POIs I would like to work with in my statement of purpose, is it considered bad form to list people with different focuses?  For instance, if there's a working memory laboratory and a decision making and judgment group in the same school, would I come across as being unfocused if I say that I would be happy to participate in either research group?  I'm afraid that if I limit myself too narrowly then there may only be one or two POIs at each school that I could work with, but if I go too broad then the admissions committee will write me off as being indecisive.    

Also, should I only consider labs that use methods I have experience with (EEG and ERP), or can I also apply to labs that use other methods which I would like to learn (fMRI, TMS, computational modeling, etc.)?  

I'm afraid I don't have much to offer with regards to listing multiple POI's since most of the schools I applied to had a very strict word count on the SOP, meaning I could only develop my argument for one. What I can offer is advice that my undergrad supervisor gave me--people are looking for fit both in their labs and in the department. As long as your interests in each of these labs are well-defined, then I don't think it would be an issue. There's a difference between saying "I would be happy to participate in X, Y and Z's research group" and being able to show why you should be considered for all three.

With that said, if there's a strict limit in how long your SOP is, focus on the one you want the most, since you'll likely be able to work across research groups in grad school.

I also wouldn't limit myself to only applying to labs with methodologies that I have previously experienced--you were in undergrad before, it would be surprising if you had experience in all those methodologies (especially for ones requiring more advanced skill/more expensive technology). Frame your experience in EEG and ERP as an asset, showing that you are capable of picking up new skills, and express your interest in those other methods.

Edited by Oshawott
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Just to echo the importance of stating some specific research interests: this is an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you know what research entails, what a research question looks like, and have an idea of a few projects you could start with right away. Yes, your particular focus can change (and likely will), but it is more about getting someone's attention with a line of research that seems interesting and exciting to them. Good luck!

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