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Good morning/afternoon/evening and good night

I am a psych major-undergraduate senior and have actively engaged in being part of and/or conducting research for past 2 years.

My past undergraduate projects are, in a good way, "interdisciplinary": developmental psychology, cultural psychology (immigrant's cultural identity development) quantitative (machine learning approaches in big data analytics) psychology, cognitive psychology (priming studies), educational psychology (academic performance), health psychology (drug addition)etc.

This may also means that I am just very-all-over-the-place, indecisive, impulsive, ADHD, and so forth.

I look forward to applying to graduate programs for cognitive psychology or developmental psychology (and if I can pursue developmental clinical psychology later on the way).

However, as you can see, my undergraduate research experience lacks "any kind of" focus in neither discipline.

I am concerned whether this counts as minus. I just enjoy doing research & running analyses, but perhaps I should have been certain with what kind of research I wanted to be part of in past years.

Thank you as always, I appreciate any comments!

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    What do your advisors and potential letter-writers say about this? – Nate Eldredge Jan 31 '17 at 7:16
  • I graduated with a life sciences degree with the intent of going to medical school. I currently have a Master's in computer science. Going from one branch of psych to another is not very much a large leap in the undergraduate to graduate world. – Compass Jan 31 '17 at 16:02
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I can't speak to psychology in particular, but I did a bunch of undergrad research that ended up being totally unrelated to my Master's and PhD work. Any research experience will help strengthen your application, and nobody expects you to have it all figured out during an undergrad degree. Some programs even allow for time to choose a topic in the first year of grad studies.

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I can’t speak to Psychology either, but in general terms I can say that no Master’s selection committee would expect you to have figured out what you wanted to do in your academic career since your junior year. The same as you, I did research in a menagerie of unrelated topics during my undergrad, then chose a master that was tangentially related to one of those topics and got accepted. Finally, my PhD is an offshoot of the research project I chose for my masters, but I wouldn’t say it’s exactly in the same line. There are some metamorphoses that are even more extreme - I have a friend who started as a mathematician, then did a master in bioinformatics and finally moved into a PhD in Philosophy of Science. In summary, reviewers will be looking first and foremost at your capacity and commitment to do research on whatever topic you have chosen in the past as a prove that you will commit to the master’s topic in the future. All that being said, here are some recommendations:

  • Talk to your Professors. Inform them about you master choice with details? Do they think you are suited for that specific master? They may consider your choice is not appropriate for your profile and be willing to support you for a different master (but not the one you chose in the first place.)
  • Draw attention to projects that relate the most to your current application. Are you applying to a master in cognitive psychology? Then talk about your project on that topic in you cover letter/CV/letter-of-intent.
  • Highlight those skills that may be useful in your masters even if you learned them in a research project whose topic was unrelated to the master thesis. This recommendation also applies for general skills that are useful in almost any masters, e.g., quantitative skills.
  • Related to the first bullet. Try to secure good letters of recommendation from Professors with whom you worked on topics related to your master application. If that is not possible, at least try to secure good letters of recommendation.
  • Finally but not less important, show that despite being spread during your bachelor, you are now committed and passionate about that specific masters topic. Indeed, you can say shopping all those topics gave you insight to make an informed decision.

Remember, an application is not simply a list of things you did in the past, but a statement to draw attention on the most relevant landmarks during studies and on how those events shaped your current choice.

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The question is about too much of a case-by-case thing. In general the more general/abstract thing you are studying the wider the scope of things you can do. Mathematicians are everywhere, business, physics, technology... Marine biologists are not. But marine biology has its own cases, like if they need a specialist on sharks, then a specialist on whales cannot get that position, both being still marine biologists and often being able to take the role of a generalist in marine biology.

Similarly it will work on psychology. You may or may not specialize in something, and without specialization you cannot get the position of a specialist. But you can still be a generalist and specialize relatively fast, so you can get some specialist positions.

Sorry for a messy answer, but that is life, in my applied math dept. one PhD is an ex-instructor of special forces. The life is dynamic as are the positions. Only the positions where something must be done fast require exact specialists that have the needed specialization on spot. The positions are filled by the best match, there seldom is a need to fill the position perfectly.

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I am a PhD student in a different field (computer science), but a striking number of people in my field have a publication record that looks like: very first publication (as an undergrad, masters student, or early PhD student) --> a bunch of very different work that makes up their dissertation.

This is not an ironclad rule, and demonstrated expertise (or at least experience) in an advisor's topic of interest is always a plus. But advisors are generally looking for research potential. A good way of demonstrating this is via work with a professor that culminates in a research publication, or at least convinces your supervising professor that you'll be a valuable researcher eventually. It's not common for an advisor to hire you to continue your undergrad research.

This is different when hiring for, say, tenure-track faculty positions, where you need a convincing story and coherent research direction to sell yourself.

At this level it is enough to demonstrate that you know what research in general is like and have some aptitude for it.

As a side note, I would also think carefully about the different projects you participated in. Why did they all interest you? There may be a common, coherent theme underlying all of them. Don't lie, but finding such a common thread will help your application make sense - and make it easier for you to write, too!

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