“How do Your Research Interests Align with Those of Our Faculty?” Identifying Research Interest Fit for Graduate School Applications

So, it’s time to prepare the personal statement for a research-heavy graduate school program (e.g., a Ph.D. or general/experimental Master’s) and you are faced with the daunting question: “How do your research interests align with those of our faculty?” Although some applicants may have their responses ready as if they have been preparing to put pen to paper all throughout their undergraduate studies, other applicants may have a harder time answering this question. Regardless of the ease with which one comes up with their response, the fit of the applicant’s research interests with the research agenda of their prospective mentor is key to getting accepted into—and succeeding in—graduate school. After all, mentors want to work with graduate students who are passionate about the field, at least in part because the collaboration will be more enjoyable, and the student will be more motivated and successful, when the topic is of inherent interest. For those who could use some guidance in figuring out their area of interest, below I review what constitutes a “research interest”, some reasons why the research interest fit is so important in graduate school applications, and some suggestions for how to identify research interest fit in the personal statement.

1)    What exactly is a “research interest”? Although graduate school applicants tend to know the general area of research in which they are interested, admissions committees and prospective mentors are often looking for more than a just a general idea when perusing personal statements. For example, it is not enough for an applicant to say that they are interested in doing research in the area of developmental psychology, or even “adolescent development”. Instead, the applicant should specify what about developmental psychology they want to study. Do their interests center around developmental psychopathology, and if so, what in particular? Are they seeking to study peer influences on adolescents’ educational outcomes? Are they interested in a specific area and domain of lifespan development, such as the development of relationships in young adulthood or maximizing wellbeing in old age? Knowing that one wants to study a broad area within psychology (e.g., developmental psychology or adolescent development) is a great first step, but it is often not specific enough to be deemed a compelling and well thought-out “research interest” by those reviewing graduate school applications.

2)    Why do admissions committees and prospective mentors care about research interest fit? Academic researchers tend to work within a niche—or a specialized area of research within their scientific field. For instance, developmental psychology researchers span the gamut of those studying cognitive processes in childhood, to those studying adolescent delinquency, to those studying social connectedness among older adults. To truly know the fit with one’s prospective mentor, prospective graduate students should be aware of the niche they will want to explore throughout their graduate training. That is not to say that applicants should know exactly what they, themselves, will carve out as their own niche during and after graduate school. On the contrary, the mentor’s specialization serves as a jumping off point for graduate students to build their own specialized areas of research. However, if a graduate student is not interested in the research their mentor is conducting, it is often hard for them to seek—and obtain—guidance on what related specializations they want to explore.

3)    How can a good research fit be identified? To help identify what one’s research interest might be and, subsequently, whether there is a good fit with one’s prospective mentors, it is helpful to start with the work of scholars that seems particularly fascinating to the applicant. The applicant might first think back to articles they found interesting and identify where the authors of those articles currently work. From there, the applicant can discern whether these scholars are planning to accept students for the coming academic term. Additionally, the applicant might wish to conduct a new search of literature, starting broad and narrowing down until a specific topic of interest has been identified. That is, if an applicant is interested in developmental psychology, they might wish to peruse Google scholar for recent articles on the age group they want to study; they might also wish to include in their search a general phenomenon that interests them. For example, if they are interested in adolescent substance use, they might search for recent review articles on this topic—such as Trucco’s 2020 review of psychosocial factors associated with substance use in adolescence. If the section on parent socialization in this article catches the applicant’s attention, they might benefit from considering how each of its subsections (e.g., parental monitoring, parental warmth) fit with their research interests. The next step would then be to search for topics related to the subsection of interest and find further reading as needed. That is, if the applicant was intrigued by the literature on parental monitoring as it relates to adolescent substance use, the next search terms to try might include “parental monitoring” and “adolescent substance use” to find more specific articles on this topic. With a grasp on the available literature, the research interest might just present itself. As an added bonus, reading current articles to help identify research interests can also help identify prospective mentors who are a perfect fit!

 Ultimately, though graduate school admissions committees and prospective mentors ask applicants to identify their research interests to evaluate the strength of the applicant’s fit with the mentor, knowing the research interest is also invaluable—actually, essential—to the applicant themselves. Graduate school involves doing a lot of research! Indeed, graduate school is much more enjoyable when the graduate student is interested in what they are studying, and, as anyone who has been through graduate training can attest, anything that helps make for a smoother graduate school experience is welcomed.

 Author Bio:

Anna D. Drozdova is a third-year doctoral student in the Legal Psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at El Paso. Her research interests center around social networks of justice-involved juveniles, and how such networks impact juvenile offenders’ engagement in problem behaviors (e.g., continued offending, substance use). Specifically, Anna is interested in exploring how the stability and structure of juvenile offenders’ peer networks affect their institutional misconduct during incarceration and their recidivism post-release



Trucco, E. M. (2020). A review of psychosocial factors linked to adolescent substance use. Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, 196, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbb.2020.172969


Share this post:

Comments on "“How do Your Research Interests Align with Those of Our Faculty?” Identifying Research Interest Fit for Graduate School Applications"

Comments 0-0 of 0

Please login to comment