Dr. Thakkar will be recruiting a graduate student to begin in Fall 2022. Below is a list of questions that students frequently have about joining our lab. Please see the following links for more information for prospective students regarding the MSU Clinical Science Doctoral Program, which is in the Department of Psychology. If there is any more information that would help you in your application process, please feel free to reach out to Dr. Thakkar at firstname.lastname@example.org and include your CV (see information on making an academic CV below).
Thank you to Dr. Jessica Schleider, PhD, for providing the inspiration for including this set of questions, which we hope will make the application process more transparent.
Can you tell me about your lab’s current and developing research?
Our main goal is to understand the alterations in cognition and perception that characterize schizophrenia and related conditions, as well as the brain mechanisms that underlie them. We believe that such an understanding is instrumental in guiding effective behavioral and pharmacological interventions.
Much of our work is focused on characterizing abnormalities in basic sensory and motor processes in schizophrenia. We believe this approach holds promise for understanding the mechanisms of schizophrenia for three major reasons. First, sensorimotor abnormalities emerge before formal diagnosis and, thus, may represent diagnostic biomarkers that can aid in early identification and intervention. Second, the neural circuits that underpin sensory and motor processing are clearly delineated, and data from clinical populations can be interpreted in the context of a rich body of animal neurophysiology work. This translational approach allows for clearly defined hypotheses about how abnormalities in specific neural circuits may contribute to sensory and motor abnormalities, thus paving the way for treatment development. Finally, impairments in action and perception stand to have important downstream consequences for higher cognitive and social abilities.
The bulk of our current research studies are unified in large part by their approach: using robust paradigms from experimental psychology with known physiological correlates to identify the basic sensory and motor mechanisms that underlie complex symptoms. The visual and oculomotor systems play a large role in our work. We argue that they provide ideal test beds for understanding mechanisms of schizophrenia symptoms because of the tremendous amount of existing knowledge of the computational principles and neurophysiology of these systems. That means that we can make very concrete hypotheses about specific abnormalities in specific brain circuits that could yield even subtle deficits in visual perception or eye movements. In addition, abnormalities in these systems may provide a model of impaired neural circuitry in schizophrenia more generally.
We are also beginning a new and slightly different line of research aimed at identifying modifiable factors that promote well-being in college students who are experiencing psychotic-like experiences and which may buffer against symptom-related distress.
What sort of methods does your lab use?
We use a range of techniques including self-report data, clinical symptom ratings, behavioral experiments, eye tracking, pupillometry, task-based functional magnetic resonance imaging, and diffusion tensor imaging.
How do I know if I am a good fit for the MSU Clinical Neuroscience Lab?
When reviewing prospective students’ applications, I am most interested in the fit between the student and our lab. Typically, I judge an applicant’s fit by considering how well their (1) current research interests; (2) previous research experience; and (3) future training and career goals align with the lab’s ongoing research program and my training approach.
Applicants who are good fits for our lab tend to be interested in what we are interested in! See description above and check out our recent publications to see what we have been working on.
I strongly value prior research experience and weight it heavily in admissions decisions. Prior research experience either in the field of psychosis research, vision science, or neuroimaging is particularly attractive. I also value prior experience with computer programming and/or working with adults diagnosed with schizophrenia or related conditions. Both of these things are typically part of being in our lab. As a note, however, none of these previous experiences are strictly necessary.
My mentoring style and training approach is best-suited for applicants who wish to pursue a research or academic career. Therefore, I am not the most effective mentor for applicants who are interested entirely in clinical practice careers.
I don’t have prior research experience. Can I still apply to your lab?
Given the heavy research focus of our lab and graduate program, prior research experience is essential. I recognize that many excellent students do not become involved in research during their undergraduate career for lots of reasons. If you did not gain strong research experience as an undergraduate, there are still opportunities to do so at the post-baccalaureate stage. I recommend seeking a paid or volunteer research assistant position in a lab or seeking out research opportunities within a clinical setting. You can find some useful tips for finding such a position here. We are most interested in students who have developed strong clinical research skills and who truly enjoy the research process.
What is your stance on diversity in science?
We strongly believe that science is a team effort and that diversity within this team is integral to creativity and discovery. Recognizing both that diversity is essential for good clinical science together with the historical inequalities in the field, we encourage applications from those individuals from underrepresented backgrounds that have been historically excluded, and we strive towards creating an inclusive lab climate.
How many trainees are typically in your lab?
Currently, there are two graduate students in our lab; one is currently on internship. We also have a post-doctoral fellow, 3 post-baccalaureate lab managers, and several undergraduate research assistants.
How do you recruit research volunteers for your studies?
Our lab has partnerships with clinicians and community mental health centers around the state of Michigan in order to support recruitment of adults who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia spectrum disorders and bipolar disorder. In addition, we are in the process of establishing a mental health research registry. We also have collaborators at the University of Michigan and at the College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids, and we also recruit individuals from those areas.
Do you have existing data that I can work with?
Yes, we have datasets from several completed and on-going projects that you can work with. Often students first project uses existing data. However, I think it is crucial for students to develop and complete their own research project, as well. In this way, students acquire skills in all the aspects of the research process.
I am interested in psychosis, but I want to focus on childhood or adolescence. Should I consider your lab?
Our work focuses almost exclusively on adults, so we would encourage applicants that know they are interested only in childhood and adolescents to consider other researchers doing this type of work, as they would likely be a much better fit!
I am interested in developing and testing interventions for individuals with schizophrenia and related conditions. Should I consider your lab?
Although I recognize the critical importance of intervention research in this field, the research in our lab is really aimed at identifying cognitive and brain mechanisms. I hope that this work will lead to more targeted and effective interventions, but I do not have experience or training in intervention research.
Are there any outreach opportunities in your lab?
Yes! We will soon be launching a new project called MSU Mental Health Research Connect. This project aims to bridge the gap between mental health researchers and those in the community that stand to be impacted by the work. Grad students would have the opportunity to be involved in educational outreach and in analyzing qualitative data regarding the research priorities of individuals living with mental health challenges. You can read more about us here.
What is Dr. Thakkar’s mentorship style?
First and foremost, everyone is different and I have worked to ensure that my mentorship style takes that into account. As a mentor, it is very important for me to develop a productive and supporting working relationship with each of my graduate students, taking into account each student’s skills, interests, and goals. In addition, I see the student-mentor relationship as inherently collaborative.
I strongly believe in training students to be independent thinkers. Thus, I encourage students in my lab to develop their own areas of research expertise, in addition to the shared expertise in lab. As part of this process, I support my students in developing independent projects as much as is possible for their developmental stage.
I believe strong communication and timely feedback are an important component of the learning process. I meet weekly with each graduate student to discuss their individual projects and training goals, and we have regular lab meetings to discuss larger, lab-wide projects and opportunities. Finally, I think writing is one of the most important skills you can develop during graduate school. Students and I work closely on manuscript preparation and other forms of scientific writing, and I provide detailed feedback on drafts.
Finally, I believe that a fit between graduate student and mentor is the key to a happy and productive graduate school experience. What makes a relationship a good fit for you is not necessarily what will make a good fit for someone else. That being said, you should think critically about what mentorship style and in what lab culture you feel like you work best and most happily in, given your own personality and circumstances. Then, feel free to ask me any and all questions. Here is a very useful article about how to pick a graduate advisor.
Can I contact your current graduate students?
Certainly! You can find their contact info here.
Does the program require the GRE? How important are my scores?
There has a serious discussion at the department level about eliminating this requirement for this application cycle. A final decision will be made by October 15.
Our program reviews applications holistically and uses GRE scores as just one of many pieces of information in determining an applicant’s potential for success in our program. We recognize that the GRE is largely unpredictive of many important indicators of graduate student success, and is even less predictive for applicants from underrepresented backgrounds. I weigh previous research experience, current research interests, and career goals most highly, although outstanding GRE scores can compensate for weaknesses in one or more of these areas.
Are there any “screening criteria” you use to review applications?
No. I do a full review of all applications in which the applicant has expressed interest in having me as a research mentor.
Should I email Dr. Thakkar to express my interest in applying to the MSU Clinical Neuroscience Lab?
You are more than welcome to do so, particularly if you are trying to figure out if our lab is a good fit for you, but it will not impact your odds of receiving an interview invitation or an offer of admission.
What should I include in my personal statement?
I find it helpful when applicants include the following in their personal statements:
· A clear statement of your general research interests and how they relate to the mission and work of our lab
· A clear statement of why you are interested in working in our lab
· A statement about your career goals (even if they are approximate/might change, it is helpful to see your thinking!)
· Discussions of your independent research experience(s) and what you learned from them. In these discussions, I suggest emphasizing (1) your research questions and what you found; (2) the skills you developed from working on each project (e.g., online survey data collection; coding/running analyses; interviewing children/families; writing certain sections of a paper; submitting/presenting a poster), and (3) what your “takeaways” were from the project (e.g., new research ideas or questions your work inspired).
You should also feel welcome to include information about your life experiences or personal relationship to mental health issues if they pertain to important aspects of your identity or relate to your experience overcoming obstacles to higher education, but you should not feel obligated to do so. In the strongest personal statements, these lived experiences are clearly connected to the rest of the statement.
Clinical psychology doctoral programs involve both research training and clinical training. Which is emphasized at MSU?
The Clinical Science program emphasizes rigorous training in both research and clinical practice. In our lab, clinical skills are essential for conducting good research. However, the program is a “clinical science” model with a strong emphasis on research, and students who are happiest in the program tend to be those whose career goals include research or dissemination of science more broadly.
Want to know more about “clinical science”? MSU’s program was recently accredited by PCSAS, and you can find out more on their website.
I’ve never made a CV before… What does it look like?
See the following resources:
· CVs from current grad students Beier Yao and Dom Roberts when they applied to graduate school
· Association for Psychological Science: How to write a strong
· University of Nebraska, Lincoln: Example CV
The application fees are going to create hardship for me. What can I do?
The MSU Graduate School offers fee waivers through the Big Ten Academic Alliance, McNair program, and some other programs as well.
How can I learn more about the application process in general?
See the following resources:
Mitch’s Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology, by Mitch Prinstein
Getting into Clinical Psych Grad School, guide by the Council of University Directors in Clinical Psychology
Open Access Tips/Materials for Clinical Psych PhD Applications, by Mallory Dobias
A Student’s Perspective on Applying to Graduate School in (Clinical) Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, by Sophie Choukas-Bradley2