In application season, thousands of aspiring students will write a personal statement about the sources of their interests, preparatory experiences, and research goals. Simply put, they will explain how they have come to decide to pursue graduate study and where they hope to go. Some students who apply to the MSPS program have a well-formed idea of how psychological science can prepare them for their future career, but others seek to hone their interests. They don’t yet know where the road will lead. We aim to support students’ process of discovery through research experience, independent study, and coursework.
This fall I’ve attended most of the Fighting Illini Men’s Basketball games. During a time-out period, a local eatery called Portillo’s sponsors a challenge in which a blindfolded fan must find her way from the baseline to a giant Portillo’s sign held by another person at half court. The crowd guides the fan by clapping and cheering when she heads in the correct direction and booing when she goes the wrong way. If the fan reaches the sign, her row wins free sandwiches. It’s an exhilarating twenty seconds.
As I watch the fan strive to reach the sign with blind faith that the path will emerge, I think of graduate students who are honing their interests in psychological science—motivation, persistence, and interest drive them toward their goal, and we, the faculty, research teams, peers and colleagues cheer and steer them. We all celebrate their accomplishments (sandwiches for everyone!). The path to the goal rarely looks like a straight line. The jagged journey includes important and informative forays into sub- and side-interests. It involves learning that you hate something that you thought you’d love, or love something that you thought you’d hate. One of our students discovered that he enjoys quantitative psychology more than he expected. Another student dovetailed from cognitive psychology into cognitive neuroscience. Yet another has honed her interest in loss and bereavement to individual differences in coping. Even those students who started the program knowing exactly what they want and how to get it, experience new insights, informative failures, and a shift in focus.
Applying for graduate school with the conviction of an interest or goal is a great place to start, but expect that the path will twist and turn, leading to an unexpected destination. As an example, I invite you to read about Yadong Dai, a second-year MSPS student, whose path toward psychological science started in an unlikely place—the grounds of a disaster area—and changed course several times. His passion to understand how the mind works guided his course.