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Guest Blog Post: Narrowing Your Research Interests for a PhD Study

Updated: Feb 8

Hi there! I’m Arcadia, a second-year Ph.D. student studying developmental psychology. Specifically, I’m interested in the impacts of early adversity and stress on neurocognitive development. I’ve spent years narrowing and finalizing my research interests to guide my work as a graduate student better. In the future, I hope to further pursue these questions by working as a tenure-track professional in an R1 institution.

Ask any graduate student the number one factor in admissions decisions, and they will all agree: research fit. Knowing your research interests and applying to potential advisors who have similar interests and who can help specialize your pursuits, even more is essential to moving forward in your career as a researcher. However, for the young academic, picking one area you want to study for the rest of your career can appear to be quite a daunting task.

How does one find the one research interest that sets their heart on fire?

There are various ways to get experiences that will help enlighten your path. Below I’ve detailed some of the methods I used as I was preparing for my graduate studies.

Volunteer Work

As an undergraduate student, I had the unique opportunity to volunteer weekly within a domestic violence shelter. There I was able to work hands-on with the women and children. As you can imagine, we encountered a wide range of developmental delays, behavioral problems, and emotional outbursts. While there, I often found myself questioning aspects of development. How exactly were these children impacted by the violence they had experienced? This line of questioning was the first clue that my research interests involved trauma.


Another fantastic way to explore your interests is just by reading. To this day, I swear “The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog” by Dr. Bruce Perry changed my life. This book details case studies of children who have experienced adversity and Dr. Perry’s chosen treatments. It was the definition of a page-turner for me. Additionally, once you have a general outline of what you might want to research, you can seek out peer-reviewed journal articles on the topic. These will give you an idea of what questions are currently being asked in the field. Ask yourself what research is needed and/or what methods or techniques might you be interested in utilizing.

Research Assistantships

Any time you can spend in a lab is valuable! As an undergrad, I worked in a psychotherapy clinic and a neurocognitive development lab. At the time, these two labs seemed pretty removed from my general research interests. However, they still gave me meaningful experiences with quantitative and qualitative data and different technologies and testing protocols. After deciding the population I wanted to work with (children who have experienced adversity), I used these experiences to narrow the kind of research I wanted to do (neuroscience.)

All in all, it’s essential to start thinking like a scientist. So, as you're volunteering, reading, and conducting research, begin asking questions. What are the limitations of the current research in the field? What kind of studies would you like to run? What kind of questions do you want to ask?

Then, once you feel like you’ve got it down, practice summarizing your new interest.

I’m interested in the impacts of early adversity and stress on neurocognitive development, namely memory, and executive function development.

And BOOM! Just like that, you have a well-defined research interest. Congratulations. Now it’s time to update that LinkedIn bio and start looking for potential advisors/collaborators who share your interests and further your goals. I wish you all the best in your journey!

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