From the Science Student Council

Research and career guidance for graduate students featured at APA convention

Tips from Science Student Council sessions.

By Gina Fernandez

At this year’s convention of the American Psychological Association, the APA Science Student Council (SSC) organized three informative sessions designed specifically for science-oriented graduate students. Along with the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) and the APAGS Science Committee, the SSC also organized a poster session that highlighted research from stellar, up-and-coming psychological scientists. 

Funding Panel: We’re in the Money

During a session entitled “We’re in the Money: Helpful Hints from Psychological Scientists about Securing Research Funding,” Rachel Manes, then-chair of SSC and its developmental representative, led a panel that discussed tips for graduate students seeking funding from both federal and private organizations. Panel members Karen Bales, PhD (University of California, Davis) and Tracey Revenson, PhD (The Graduate Center — City University of New York) both shared advice on how to successfully draft a grant proposal.

Bales highlighted the difference between grants (including fellowships) from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). While NSF grants focus on the potential for “transformative” work, NIH grants often are geared toward translational research. Further, NSF and NIH score grant proposals on different criteria. While NSF review is centered on intellectual merit and broader impacts, NIH looks explicitly at the significance, innovation and approach of the research project as well as the capacity of the investigators and research environment to successfully complete the project. It is important to select the agency (and component within the agency) that fits best with your research project and environment and to address the review criteria clearly and directly. Bales and Revenson both emphasized the importance of starting work on your proposal early (with a very specific deadline calendar) and having several mentors and colleagues review your proposal.

It is important to have a good grasp of what the funding organization (whether federal agency or private foundation) is looking for, so make sure to ask your advisor and the program officer at the funding organization for clarifications. If you don’t have the opportunity to write your own grant proposal during graduate school, you can still learn this invaluable skill by volunteering to tackle a part of your advisor’s proposal.

To round out the session, Raja Parasuraman (George Mason University) discussed additional sources for funding that graduate students can seek out. He highlighted the Science, Mathematics & Research for Transformation (SMART) scholarship that is part of the National Defense Education Program as well as the Graduate Student Researchers Program of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Both offer generous stipends and tuition support. In addition, these scholarships are available to graduate students regardless of their current grant or training environment.

Interdisciplinary Research Panel: Succeeding in Horizontal Collaborations

Jason Fuchs, the SSC behavioral neuroscience representative, and Elizabeth Necka, the SSC social/personality representative, organized a panel on how graduate students can approach interdisciplinary work entitled “Succeeding in Horizontal Collaborations: Tips and Advice from Interdisciplinary Researchers in Psychological Science.” Lee Cohen, PhD, (Texas Tech University), Martin Iguchi, PhD, (Georgetown University) and Robert Proctor, PhD, (Purdue University) shared their experiences working in large, interdisciplinary teams.

Interdisciplinary research is important because it allows scientists to answer questions that could not be addressed with the approaches of just one field. Cohen shared some insights from an NIH “field guide" (PDF, 2.23MB) on building teams and collaborations. The panelists all highlighted the necessity of being flexible in interactions with colleagues in other disciplines and of becoming knowledgeable about theories and methods outside of one’s area of psychological expertise.

The importance of having an organized research team with clear lines of communication was also discussed. Although there are financial incentives (such as grant funding) for pursuing interdisciplinary collaborations, you should also maintain a unique line of research that will identify you as a successful scientist and help you ultimately obtain promotions and tenure. Pay attention to choosing collaborations wisely — you want to make sure you are working with the best-suited team of researchers for each project.

Finally, as a graduate student it is in your best interest to seize opportunities whenever possible to engage in interdisciplinary collaborations, particularly as they arise in your lab and institution. The best preparation for a successful career is to make oneself open to as many research experiences as is feasible.  

Non-Academic Careers Panel: Breaking the Academic Mold

During the SSC career panel, I led a lively discussion panel entitled “Breaking the Academic Mold- Nontraditional Career Options." Joel Grube (director and senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation), Robert Bray (senior research scientist at RTI International) and Barbara Wanchisen (director of the Board on Behavioral, Cognitive and Sensory Sciences and director of the Board on Human-Systems Integration at the National Academy of Sciences) discussed their career paths, as well as the skills necessary to maintain a career in non-profit research organizations outside of academia.

In order to be a successful non-academic researcher, one needs to have strong interpersonal and writing skills and the ability to be flexible while learning new things. When hiring, a strong publication record is looked upon very favorably. Your job may rely heavily on your ability to write and procure grants, and your freedom to pursue your research interests may be constrained by the requirements of those grants. However, non-academic organizations are often focused on the real-world applications of research, which is fulfilling for many scientists, and frequently involve innovative collaborations with scientists from many fields.

The decision to pursue a career in academic versus non-academic settings is not an easy one. Thankfully, all of the panelists agreed that beginning your career in one area will not hamper your chances to move into the other.

Science Alliance Graduate Student Poster Session

At this year’s convention, the Graduate Student Science Alliance (APAGS Science Committee and SSC)  jointly organized a poster session. During the program entitled “Cutting-Edge Research from Emerging Psychological Scientists,” more than 35 graduate students presented their current research projects. 

This poster session had a March 1 submission deadline, designed to give students who missed the call for abstracts in November a chance to share their work. Of the 132 poster abstracts submitted for consideration, 40 were selected for inclusion in the session and the 10 abstracts that received the highest reviews during the selection process participated in an additional judging contest. The judges included Jalie Tucker, Frank Worrell and Sheldon Zedeck (members of the APA Board of Scientific Affairs), Rachel Manes (SSC), and Ross MacLean and Megan Smith (APAGS Science Committee). 

David I. Miller, a graduate student at Northwestern University, won the contest for his poster “Women’s representation in science predicts national gender-science stereotypes: Evidence from 66 nations,” co-authored with Alice H. Eagly and Marcia C. Linn. He was awarded a free one-year APA membership renewal courtesy of the Science Directorate and a free APA book courtesy of APAGS. 

All of the sessions were well received, giving science-oriented students a chance to discuss their career and funding options, as well as research interests. On behalf of the SSC, I would like to thank everyone involved, and extend an early invitation to seek out our programming during the 2014 APA convention in Washington, D.C.  


Gina FernandezGina Fernandez is the biopsychology representative on the APA Science Student Council. She is a doctoral candidate in the Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience program at George Mason University.