Teaching & Education
January 9, 2015

Graduate Applicant FAQ

Thank you for considering the University of Wisconsin as the place to undertake your doctoral studies. I am very appreciative of your interest in the work that my students and I are doing in the area of affective neuroscience, early adversity/stress, emotion, and child development.

Here I provide information that may be useful to you in determining whether or not my lab is a good fit for you. I also provide some tips that will improve your application, should you decide to submit one.

Thank you again for your interest and best wishes to you as you pursue your professional goals.

Seth Pollak

Can you tell me what sorts of research projects are underway in the lab?

Broadly, the research my students and I are doing falls under the rubric of developmental affective neuroscience. I am interested in the bio-behavioral mechanisms the drive changes in emotions and emotional functioning early in development, from infancy through adolescence. To do so, I focus on the ways in which early social and emotional experiences influence emotional development, with a focus on children's health. Because it can be very difficult to unpack developmental processes when development is unfolding in a typical manner, my students and I study a variety of very interesting risk groups. These groups include children and adolescents who have experienced early caregiving adversity such as abuse, severe neglect, poverty, and parent psychopathology. Many of my students study typically developing children to help understand the relationship between emotion, cognition, and brain development.

One thing that I enjoy about my lab is that each of my students is pursuing his or her own line of research. Each of my students focuses on the particular population, risk factor, age group, or level of analysis that is best suited to address her or his particular interest. Some students use wet lab methods to examine molecular variables, others use psychophysiological or neuroimaging methods, and some use behavioral approaches. At the same time, we have a strong sense of community in that everyone in the lab shares a focus on developmental processes and a sincere interest in using science to promote children's well-being. We also have a fabulous Emotion Research training program for students interested in studying the biological aspects of emotion as related to psychopathology and child development. 

Please read a few of our recent empirical papers before applying. My lab web site also contains links to some review papers that give an overview of our research program.

What sort of educational background is most appropriate for your lab?

We have a very interdisciplinary group. I never took a psychology course as an undergraduate (I was a philosophy and anthropology major). I have certainly accepted some applicants who were traditional psychology majors, but an equal number of my graduate students majored in other fields such as economics, cell biology, anthropology, neuroscience, and English. My students and I also collaborate with faculty studying cognitive development, perceptual development, psychophysiology, endocrinology, communication disorders, neuroimaging, intervention research, genetics, kinesiology, immunology, and systems neuroscience. They key thing is to have hands-on research experience before applying and to ensure that you are well versed in some kind of biobehavioral method. In the past, successful applicants to my lab who were not psychology majors made sure to take a few classes in experimental psychology prior to applying.

What sort of experience is appropriate for your lab?

There is no one kind of experience that is necessary. Generally, successful applicants have had some direct involvement with children or adolescents in a laboratory setting or through work/volunteer experiences. I weigh letters of reference from individuals who have supervised applicants in a research setting very heavily. I once accepted an applicant who applied to graduate school while still an undergraduate. However, all of my current graduate students had a year or so of full-time experience working as a research assistant prior to starting graduate school. I worked in a research lab myself between undergraduate and graduate school and value the experience and increased maturity this affords to new graduate students. This full-time research experience is important because it gives you a chance to be sure it is really what you enjoy, and it gives me a way to assess whether you are good at it.

Is it appropriate to contact you directly before I apply?

Absolutely. In fact I am very unlikely to seriously consider your application unless I have been in touch with you directly BEFORE you apply. Please send me an email to express your interest and tell me a bit about what you wish to study. I can let you know if I am likely to accept new students the year you are applying and can give you a sense of whether our research interests are aligned. I welcome emails from potential applicants early in the process - sometimes a year or so before applying, but most often in the Spring or Summer before an application is submitted. It is not usually helpful to contact me for the first time between October and January in the year you are applying or to write after you have submitted your application. I am not usually able to correspond with applicants once to process has begun in late Fall. To be fair to all applicants I offer personal interviews and phone calls by invitation only. I invite applicants for in-person and/or skype interviews only after reviewing their materials and do my best to cover travel expenses to Madison.

Do you really care about traditional indices such as grades and GREs?

Yes, I do. I read an entire application and try to put each applicant in context. So no one piece of information overly determines my final decisions. I am looking for people with an excellent academic record, demonstrated academic abilities, and match in research interests. All parts of your application matter (grades, test-scores, essay, letters of recommendation from professors and research supervisors, previous research experience). In my own experience, undergraduate grades are the best harbinger of success as a graduate student because the students who are able to achieve consistently good grades seem to be the ones who work hard, are organized, keep their work flowing, and come through in the end. If your grades are not consistently strong (e.g., less than an "A" average), please do not ignore this in your application, but address it directly in your essay or in correspondence with me. Please tell me if you have taken honors or advanced level courses or attended one of the few institutions that tries to limit grade inflation. I have never observed much of a difference in graduate student performance within the high end of the GRE distribution (those with verbal plus quantitative scores between 1300 - 1600 all seem to perform similarly). If your grades or GRE scores are not stellar, please ask your letter writers to tell me why they believe these indices may not be an accurate reflection of your scholarly potential. And include your own assessment of this issue in your essay. In the section below I address issues regarding the application essay. The essay you write to accompany your application should convey to me whether your experience as an undergraduate student has involved any special challenges. If so, I will take this into account when reviewing your materials and place your scores and numbers in context.

Does it matter which program I apply to (clinical, developmental, biology of brain and behavior, etc)?

I am particularly excited about the Wisconsin Psychology department's new Individualized Graduate Major (IGM), which allows students to combine sub-fields of psychology into a uniquely tailored program of study. Through this program, students can combine courses from any of our existing programs (Biology of Brain and Behavior, Clinical, Cognitive and Cognitive Neurosciences, Developmental, Perception, Social and Personality) with course work from any other department across the University to create a cutting-edge program of study. In the past, most of my students entered the Psychology department through the clinical program. But more recently, my students are more drawn to this individualized program because so much of the exciting advances in psychological science are occurring at the nexus between sub-disciplines. Some of my students have combined areas such as psychopathology, child development, neuroscience, neuroimaging, endocrinology, and cognitive science. I encourage applicants to consider this option. I can also accept students through the anthropology department (Biological Anthropology) and the La Follette School of Public Affairs (Public Policy and Neuroscience Program).

What are you looking for in the essay that accompanies the application?

I read the essay part of the application very carefully. Most applicants write one generic essay and edit the last paragraph to include reference to a different professor at each university. This cutting and pasting is fine, unless it comes across as superficial. I read to try and determine how sincerely the work we are doing in my lab really fits with the kinds of questions and issues an applicant claims to want to study.

I especially value an essay that describes your aptitude and motivation for graduate study, including your preparation for this field of study, your academic plans, research interests, and your career goals. I am interested in reading about what your burning scientific questions are and what skills and experiences you have acquired thus far that leave you well-poised to address them. Please do highlight your academic achievements—this is not the time to be modest! I am also interested in hearing specifically why you have applied to Wisconsin and how you see our program and my lab as providing the educational environment that is consonant with your own career goals. Please tell me directly about your general research interests and explain why my lab is a good intellectual fit for you. I do not expect applicants to have specific research interests or study plans: developing those ideas is something that you work on in the early years of graduate training. But you should have a clear area of general interest.

For applicants interested in my lab, essays should not be overly intimate, self-revealing, or personal. To be bluntly honest, I am not especially compelled by essays about the pivotal moment or relationship when an applicant decided to help humanity by studying psychology. I do not view the essay as a personal narrative, but rather as a professional document that is an extension of your CV or resume. I really want to know about what questions interest you, what evidence supports your contention that you have the skills to be a successful scholar, and why my lab is the right match for you. There is one set of exceptions to this advice: it is important for me to know if you have had to overcome special barriers or hardships, or if you have taken a leadership role in helping disadvantaged groups or individuals that have been historically underrepresented in higher education. If there are issues that you faced as an undergraduate such as being a first generation college student, coming from an economically disadvantaged family, having responsibility for caring for siblings or children, needing to work while going to school, or if the study of psychology is not common for people in your cultural background, please let me know. This information helps me to place your record in context. In sum, your goal in constructing the essay should be to make a case for why I really would be making a mistake by not interviewing you.

Should I try to make myself look attractive to multiple professors in your department?

Because of the volume of applications I receive, I read only those applications where I am listed as the first faculty member of interest on the Psychology Department application. This form allows applicants to list one to three faculty members with whom they would like to work. Many applicants may not realize that it is not necessarily an advantage to list many faculty members on this form. The Wisconsin Psychology Department follows a mentorship model of graduate student training. That means we do not have an admissions committee and are not especially drawn to applicants who convey that they might be good matches for multiple professors. (We are actually a highly collaborative, engaged community of scholars; it is just that at admissions time, you are not selling yourself to a broad or general admissions committee but to one faculty member who will then advocate for your admission). Each faculty member here selects the applicants that he or she most wants to work with, and that faculty mentor looks after the applicant from admission to graduation. For this reason, most professors in our department focus their efforts on the application files where we have each been flagged as the first choice as the potential mentor. Many students here have multiple mentors in our program and I enjoy jointly mentoring students with other faculty. If this is your intent, please email me and the other professor(s) that you are interested in working with early in the process to be sure everyone is on board before submitting your application. Once enrolled in the graduate program, our students select two other faculty members who serve as their First Year Project committee, overseeing the initial research project. Students in the Individualized Graduate Major (IGM) program may select five faculty mentors—three from Psychology and two from any other department across the University—to serve as mentors. But this is all done during the first year of graduate study with your mentor's help and advice, not during the application process.

Are you taking new students this year?

I like to keep my lab group relatively small so that I can focus adequate attention on each of my graduate students. However, I certainly will read and consider all applications from students who express interest in working with me. I'm also happy to correspond more with you if you have further questions.