frequently asked questions and other guidance
Questions I love
What should I be asking that I wouldn’t know to ask?
What should I be doing to get ahead that I’m probably not doing?
I want to study psychedelics.
Start by reading MAPS resources for students.
There are many paths into psychedelic research.
Research in graduate school is one option (e.g. me). Medical school is another (our team had 4 psychiatrists). Clinical psychology is another (2 on our team). Other options include other sciences: biology, chemistry, pharmacology, neuroscience. Additionally, there’s the policy and business side, administration, and public relations.
Learn good science. Be skeptical. Read about replicability and open science.
Join your local psychedelic society (or create one).
How I got where I am:
A friend and colleague of mine, Rotem Petranker, invited me to a new journal club of psychiatrists and academics interested in psychedelics. He realized we were on the rising edge of something and his ambition was the spark that lit the flame. We held a meeting for people explicitly interested in doing psychedelic research, then my work ethic fanned that flame into a fire. We didn’t ask if we could: we did.
Granted, we had to get research ethics approval, and I was already a PhD student doing my own research so that was something I knew how to do, but there are ways. Learn good science and find your way.
I want to study psychology.
They don’t tell you that academia is an apprenticeship model.
Volunteer in a psychology lab at your university. Start yesterday.
Start working in a lab as soon as you can, then go the extra mile. Most people do enough to avoid getting noticed for being bad at what they do; your goal should be to get noticed for being excellent. When volunteering you should demonstrate engagement and do great work. Stand out. It is a fact of life that I forget most research assistants, even though I actively cultivate and mentor RAs that show initiative. Mentoring an RA is an investment and I’m only going to invest if you demonstrate that it will be worthwhile. Get to know the people in your lab. Once you’ve shown some good work, ask if you can join their meetings (listen, even if you don’t understand).
Do good work and get noticed. People become connections. There’s nothing magic about it, you just have to do.
Volunteering and talking with graduate students will also give you an idea of whether you hate doing research and want to plan a different path. Be ready to reconsider your options as academia is not for everyone.
Learn statistics, R or Python programming, and experimental design. Understand methods.
Most psychology people don’t really understand statistics. You can stand out by making sure you understand. I give all my RAs these two courses to do: Improving Your Statistical Inferences and Improving Your Statistical Questions.
Take an online course to learn the basics of statistical analysis using R. There are a lot of good courses on Data Science that will teach you introductory R using RStudio. Ideally, use an elective or two for genuine introductory programming courses at your university. They will teach you the basics of using an Integrated Development Environment (IDE), if…then statements, for loops, and making functions. Maybe you’ll discover you enjoy it!
Read papers and get skeptical. Think about how you could design a study better. Think about what flaws there are and what questions you can really answer with different designs. Try to design experiments, then think about how things could go wrong. Once you’ve made an impression in your lab, ask for more responsibility and ask if you can design an experiment. Work with a grad student or the PI to run your own study. Learn about preregistration and preregister your study. Write it up as if you’re writing an article, and ideally, publish it.
Learn to write well and present confidently. Communication is your most transferable skill.
Every career involves communication. Here’s a good video about writing.
Do not expect to become a great writer by practice alone. To become a great writer, you need to learn about writing and care about getting better. Use every opportunity to write better: write better emails, write clearer notes, and so on.
Do not expect to present well by default. Strive for excellence. Learn about presentation skills and take every presentation as an opportunity to improve. Don’t present as if you’re talking to an irrelevant class of students; build a TED talk and deliver it to your audience. You’ll start out nervous, but pick one thing to improve each time you present and improve that one thing: put less text on slides, make better transitions between slides, use more audience engagement, walk around the stage area, go ‘off script’ more. As you present more and more, the nerves will calm themselves.
Content courses are probably the least valuable part of your education. Do more.
The best they can do is inspire you because the information is going to be obsolete by the time you’re done. You need to do them so get the grades, but the real education comes from volunteering, statistics and methods courses, and going out of your way to run research and make connections.