Considering UVA for graduate school?

The Virginia Affective Neuroscience laboratory

If you find you are interested in graduate training at the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory (VAN lab), you’ll want to first ask yourself what kinds of training you are interested in, and what your ultimate career goals are. The lab is engaged a range of research on the neural bases of emotional behavior, regulation and experience, including a particular interest in the social regulation of neural processes underlying emotional responses. Additional interests include emotion/cognition interactions, research methodology (particularly with regard to laboratory emotion elicitation), behavior genetics, and even the interface between science and art.

These interests are necessarily multidisciplinary, requiring a diversity tools and methods, from observational behavior coding, to electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This diversity extends to the many individuals associated with the laboratory, members and affiliates of which can be found in numerous departments and universities.

My primary affiliation is with the Clinical Psychology program within the Department of Psychology, but I’ve worked with students in the Social, Sensory and Systems Neuroscience, Cognitive and Developmental areas as well. Moreover, my lab is affiliated with UVA’s Neuroscience Graduate Program (NGP), and we’ve had NGP students rotate through.

In general, if you’re interested in graduate school in the VAN lab, think about doing the following:

  • Get experience with psychophysiology. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a prerequisite for applying to the VAN lab, but it really helps. The work we do in the VAN lab is great–super interesting, really fun, and sometimes (I like to believe) even cutting edge. However, it can also be frustrating, slow, messy and an awful lot of work. The learning curve for EEG and fMRI can be pretty steep, and you’ve got all your classes and (possibly) clinical training, too. If you can get some real experience and training before you arrive, you’ll be doing yourself a favor. More to the point, several of the people who do apply to go to graduate school here actually do have such experience–it’s becoming more common all the time. More often than not, that gives them a real edge in the application process.
  • Work on or toward a publication. When I was applying to graduate school, having a publication put a candidate into something like the applicant pool stratosphere. It still does, although it is now more common. I’m not necessarily happy that these kinds of qualifications keep ratcheting up, but it’s hard to deny that they are. The publication doesn’t need to be in Science or anything. A published abstract resulting from a conference poster presentation helps. Show that you can and are getting your professional self out there.

Prospective Clinical Students

Prospective graduate students interested in pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology in the VAN lab should be primarily oriented toward research. Both the clinical psychology program and the VAN lab are devoted to providing the best training possible for individuals interested in conducting research and eventually establishing laboratories of their own. In addition to this research training, the clinical program provides excellent, in house clinical training for all its graduate students. We value clinical practice, but our training model definitely emphasizes research.

Other Prospective Students

It is certainly possible to conduct research in the VAN lab if you are not interested in pursuing a clinical degree. If you are already a graduate student in the department of psychology, I recommend discussing the possibility of conducting research in the VAN lab with your faculty advisor. If you are not yet admitted to any of the graduate programs within the department of psychology, and you’d like to enroll as a non-clinical student in the VAN lab under the supervision of James Coan, I strongly recommend contacting the head of whatever area you intend to apply to, and let that person know about your plans. This can all be worked out, but it’s best if everyone knows as soon as possible.

Undergraduate Students Seeking Research Experience

The VAN lab has had many undergraduate research assistants. It could be said that undergraduate RAs in large measure keep the lab running. We’ve had undergraduates propose studies of their own, some of which have evolved into Distinguished Major Projects (DMPs). In general, if you are interested in joining the VAN lab, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the work we are doing. My strong advice is to start out talking with other students who’ve worked in the lab, or to graduate students working on a project you find particularly interesting. Any time you can show me (lab director) or a graduate student that you know what’s going on in the lab, or that you’ve read one of the lab publications, you are giving yourself an enormous advantage. That is becoming a very good idea, as the VAN lab now regularly hears from many more interested undergrads than it can currently accommodate.

UVA, and the “vibe” in the Department of Psychology

UVA is just gorgeous. Crazy gorgeous. This is a beautiful university. And the history here… I mean, Thomas Jefferson founded the university, and even designed the oldest part of it (a design for which he still receives awards and accolades from architects all over the world). Even better, the faculty in the Department of Psychology are at once eminent, extremely productive researchers, and lovely, fun and supportive colleagues. This supportive “vibe” is characterized by high levels of mutual respect and admiration–and there is much to admire. Our department boasts some of the best known and most respected researchers in psychology. The fact that those same individuals are so consistently enjoyable makes this a pretty special place to spend your graduate training. And speaking of special places….

Charlottesville and Virginia

When I first decided to move here, I was pretty nervous about Charlottesville (or Cville, as it’s often called). It is the smallest city I’ve ever lived in, and I tend toward an affinity for downtown city life. I was concerned there would be nothing to do, no restaurants, no culture, perhaps boring scenery. I turned out to be wrong on all counts. The city is beautiful, full of great places to eat, blessed with good theater (not kidding) and a positively thriving arts community, and surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. It isn’t for nothing that Cville was recently rated the best place to live in the US in Frommers’ Cities Ranked and Rated.

As for the rest of Virginia, well, you’ve Got Washington D.C. to the north, Virginia Beach and the whole Virginia coastline to the east, the Blue Ridge mountains and hundreds of square miles of incredible woodsy scenery to the west and south. There’s hiking, backpacking, sailing, even skiing and spelunking! Life here could be a heck of a lot worse, and the most common dilemma I hear among graduate students, where Cville is concerned, is that they never want to leave.