Alum Nick Ungson: How to Prepare for a PhD in Psychology

Nick Ungson is a current PhD student in social psychology at Lehigh University. He is a 2013 graduate of the the Master of Arts (MA) program in psychology at New York University, and completed undergraduate study in psychology at the University of Florida. SCPA asked him about the application process for a PhD in psychology as well as the things he did while at NYU which helped him prepare.

SCPA: What did you do at NYU which you felt best prepared you to be a PhD student?
​Enrolling in doctoral-level seminars was one of the most helpful things that I did while at NYU. Because I had an idea of what kind of research I wanted to do, I was able to seek these classes out (e.g., political psych with John Jost, moral psych with Jay Van Bavel). They provided me with the fantastic opportunity to a) read both classic and contemporary research articles in my area, b) discuss research topics and ideas with professors and PhD students, and c) formulate and write about my own research ideas. That last point is especially important, because I joined Jay Van Bavel’s lab shortly after taking a seminar with him — when it was time for me to ask him for a letter of recommendation, he was able to speak to my abilities as an all-around scholar: student, writer, and researcher.

Related to that final point, obviously joining a research lab was also immensely helpful for me. I had been an RA as an undergraduate at UF, but I was just that — an assistant. However, as an MA student, I felt more like a collaborator and less like an underling. I was invested in the research; as someone who was planning on making a career out of research, I found that experience to be so important in helping me visualize what a life in academia would be like. Luckily, I enjoy it a lot.

Being a teaching assistant was also very helpful. In addition to the surplus income, teaching is a part of my job as an academic. Getting involved early is the best way to go. And as with research, it helped me figure out that it’s something that I like doing.

SCPA: What advice do you have for someone starting the application process?
n addition to enrolling in doctoral-level courses and doing research in labs that interest you, I guess my biggest piece of advice ​would be to put yourself out there. As someone who finds it extremely stressful (sometimes) to present research or talk to professors one-on-one, I know how hard it is — but as I mentioned previously re: Jay Van Bavel and my letter of recommendation, getting to know professors is so important. Whether its speaking up in class or in lab meetings, or presenting data in lab meetings, I can’t stress how important it is to forge relationships with students and professors. Whether its business or academia, connections are invaluable. They’ll be your colleagues and friends one day. Plus, they’re rarely as intimidating as it seems. If you’re interested in their research, ask them about it — it’s their job, their passion, and they love to talk about it.

Also, the MA poster conference might seem like small potatoes, but potatoes are potatoes. It might not be SPSP, but any experience putting a poster together and talking about your research to random strangers and to judges who are evaluating you is good experience. Don’t pass up the opportunity to showcase your skills in a relatively low-pressure environment. Perhaps most importantly, engaging in these exercises will force you to think about your research in a focused, professional way — they’ll force you to think about what your research means, the big picture, and how your specific contribution fits into the broader literature. This will be an immense help when you’re writing your personal statement and you have to provide a compelling picture of what research interests you have, how you hope to add to the field, and what kind of scholar you are.

With regards to applications specifically, I think one of the biggest things that helped me was being organized. Utilize spreadsheets, lists, or whatever you have to do to keep all of your school’s due dates, application fees, GRE scores, letter of recommendation requirements, personal statement word counts, etc. etc. And if you’re just starting the application process, and you’re not sure exactly what programs to apply to, reach out to professors! Like I mentioned previously, professors love to talk about their research — they’re mentors by trade, so odds are they’ll be willing to help direct you regarding programs to apply to, etc.

SCPA: Any other advice for current students in the MA program?
The 2nd floor Christmas party is always awesome.

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