January 22, 2012

Religious Studies Project

Hello again, Internets! Twice in the past week, someone has mentioned my blog to me, which, of course has made me feel terrible at its state of abandonment. So let’s get back into it.

A new resource for those interested in the study of religion has just launched: The Religious Studies Project. It’s a fantastic website, with content relevant to both academics and non-academics alike. David G. Robertson and Christopher R. Cotter have been posting conference announcements and resources to the site. They’ve also launched a pretty exciting new podcast featuring interviews with major scholars. The first episode, on phenomenological approaches to religion, went up last week and is a great introduction to an influential approach to understanding religion. They’re also posting a response article to each episode that will comment or expand on what is discussed in the interview. Of course, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or via RSS to automatically catch each episode.

If you have even a casual interest in the study of religion, this is a fantastic website, and I strongly encourage you to check it out.

August 24, 2011

Getting into Graduate School

This is the first week of my first semester as a teaching assistant at Illinois. I held office hours this week, even before leading a discussion session, and was surprised to have a student use them. This student wanted advice on what steps he could take to make himself a strong applicant for a psychology PhD program. Even though I’ve only been here for a year, I’ve compiled a fairly large number of resources I pass onto undergraduates as well as a stock set of advice I give. However, I’m curious about what advice or resources others would pass on. I want to do the best for my students and research assistants and provide them with sound advice.

Here’s an outline of the advice I typically give:

  • Gain as much research experience possible. Both because it is exactly the kind of training they need and because it is the best source of letters of reference.
  • Read literature in the field that interests you. This will help you narrow down your interests, make you sound more intelligent and informed, and help you identify potential advisors of interest.
  • Speak to a professor in your intended field about what his or her job is like and what graduate school in that field is like. Similarly, speak a graduate student in your intended field about his or her experiences. Consult with professors and grad students about the schools/advisors you are considering applying to; ask them about who has good placement and whose students never graduate.
  • Email professors you are interested in working with. Tell them you’ve read some of their papers and share some interests. Ask whether they will be taking on new students and what they look for in a graduate student. Your match to an advisor is one of the most important components of your application and of your experience in graduate school.
  • Join professional societies and honor societies and take an active role in them. Subscribe to their listservs. This will keep you up to date on the field, provide you with opportunities for extra experience/CV lines (e.g., reviewing for student competitions, competing in those competitions, departmental service, etc.), and make you look engaged. You might also find opportunities for summer research positions or post-graduation jobs advertised on the email lists.
  • Read a bunch of academic/science blogs or message boards. These will help you understand and navigate academic culture and give you better insight into the variety of experiences of academics.
  • Take the GRE very seriously. Study for a long time. Take lots of practice tests.
  • Seriously consider if graduate school and an academic career is a good option for you. Graduate school is intense. The academic job market is really tough, and the pressure does not end even if you land a great job at the end. You might be a post-doc or Visiting Assistant Professor before landing a more permanent position, and even once you are on the tenure track, you still have years of fighting for tenure ahead.
  • Apply for jobs, too. You might not get in.
  • These are just the things that you can (more or less) control. There’s a lot that you cannot control, such as departmental funding, grants won by faculty members that might support students, the number of other truly awesome applicants who happen to apply in the same year to the same advisor, the number of students graduating from the program that year. You will likely be rejected; it’s not personal, and it doesn’t mean you are not smart enough or capable enough to complete the program.

What would you advise differently from or in addition to the above? Are there any special resources you usually pass on to  undergraduates considering applying to grad school?

Edit 1: A friend pointed out that I had neglected to mention the importance of the statement of purpose/personal statement (the admissions essay in a grad school application). This is a critical component of the application. The best advice I can give is, first, to tailor your essay to the specific program you are sending it to. Mention the names of potential faculty advisors and what research questions you might pursue with them or which research of theirs you would like to work on. (And sound like you’ve actually read their papers.) Second, start early and have as many people as you can convince read your drafts–especially faculty members or graduate students.

Edit 2: Another friend points out the wisdom of working in multiple research labs to gain a diversity of experiences and training. I would add that this is also a good way to get more than one letter of reference from a research supervisor.

The comments below also add great advice and perspectives.

August 3, 2011

New Journal: Secularism and Nonreligion

A new interdisciplinary journal in the area of scientific study of religion (broadly defined) has begin accepting submissions. The journal Secularism and Nonreligion defines its scope as follows:

Secularism and Nonreligion is an interdisciplinary journal published with the aim of advancing research on various aspects of ‘the secular.’ The journal is interested in contributions from primarily social scientific disciplines, including: psychology, sociology, political science, women’s studies, economics, geography, demography, anthropology, public health, and religious studies. Contributions from history, neuroscience, computer science, biology, philosophy, and medicine will also be considered. Articles published in the journal focus on the secular at one of three levels: the micro or individual level, the meso or institutional level, or the macro or national and international levels. Articles explore all aspects of what it means to be secular at any of the above levels, what the lives of nonreligious indivduals are like, and the interactions between secularity and other aspects of the world. Articles also explore the ideology and philosophy of the secular or secularism.

The journal’s contents will be open access, meaning that the articles are available to anyone; you do not need to belong to a university or other institution that subscribes to the journal. The journal is sponsored by the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network and The Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture.

July 29, 2011

Psychological Scales of Yesteryear

Example Item from the Imaginary Audience Scale

Example Item from the Imaginary Audience Scale

When psychologists create scales (such as the many personality tests you may be familiar with), they try to use language and examples that would be relevant and accessible to their participants. Although this helps in reducing the possibility that participants will be alienated or confused by the items in a scale, it also means that some scales don’t age quite as well as others. The above example is from Elkind & Bowen’s 1979 scale to measure a component of egocentrism called imaginary audience. This scale was used in a study of K-12 and college students in 1990 (Jahnke & Blanchard-Fields), and I wonder whether the language already seemed outdated at time. Reading it 21 years later, I got a little chuckle.

Updates will continue to be sporadic (ok, they’e been non-existent) while I finish up my summer travel/deadlines. Unfortunately, no dress-up parties are planned—at least none that I am invited to—but there are still adventures to be had and data to be analyzed before I am back to a more normal schedule.


Elkind, D., & Bowen, R. (1979). Imaginary audience behavior in children and adolescents Developmental Psychology, 15(1), 38–44.

Jahnke, H. C., & Blanchard-Fields, F. (1993). A test of two models of adolescent egocentrism. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 22(3), 313–326.

June 27, 2011

Update Schedule

Contrary to evidence, this blog is not abandoned! I will be traveling quite a bit for the rest of the summer, so updates will likely be few until things stabilize. But I will try to do better than last week from here on out.

In the meantime, please enjoy this photo of my cat:

June 25, 2011

Things Worth Reading

This week’s things worth reading cover neuroscience and the justice system, belief in supernatural punishment, and how humans acquire and pass on knowledge:

  • The Brain on Trial — This article in The Atlantic by David Eagleman reviews the implications of neuroscience for criminal justice. It is long but more than worth it to read in its entirety.
  • Post-Hoc Supernatural Punishers — Cris Campbell of Genealogy of Religion wrote a post this week about an influential theory on the origin of religion: the idea that belief in a punishing supernatural agent was evolutionarily favored because it promoted cooperation.
  • We stand on the shoulders of cultural giants — Razib Khan wrote a wonderful post on Gene Expression about the accumulation of knowledge through culture and imitation.


June 18, 2011

Things Worth Reading

This week’s Things Worth Reading includes popular media coverage of science, female ejaculation, and modern ideas of mental illness:


June 16, 2011

New Conference: Daniel Dennett and the Scientific Study of Religion

The Center for Inquiry has announced a conference, in honor of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell, for December 2-3 this year on the theme of the scientific study of religion. The invited speakers list includes some prominent figures from the field, such as Dennett himself, Pascal Boyer, and Azim Shariff.

CFI has released a call for papers for the conference, with a deadline of September 1.

June 15, 2011

Affect Week, Part 2: Silvan Tomkins’s Affects

Yesterday, I wrote about how Silvan Tomkins conceptualized affect as a biological response to a stimulus. Tomkins argued that there were nine such affects, each the result of natural selection. He divided these affects according to whether they were positive or negative, their physiological characteristics, and the stimulus conditions that create them. Tomkins’s nine affects are interest, enjoyment-joy, surprise, fear-terror, distress-anguish, anger-rage, disgust, dissmell, and shame. Continue reading

June 15, 2011

Affect Week, Part 1: Silvan Tomkins

Angry kitty by Tambako the Jaguar on FlickrThe cat above is something I imagine most readers would see only in a zoo or animal sanctuary, but even still, you might find its threatening face quite scary. Your attention would be drawn to the tiger, temporarily losing focus on everything else in your environment. You’d even be able to feel the fear before could actually name what caused it.

Such reactions are great examples of the power of affect — it draws our attention to important stimuli in our environments and gives us information about them (like, “hey, there’s something here that might try eat me!”) faster than our conscious cognitive processes could allow.

This kind of reaction is also a good demonstration of Silvan Tomkins‘s theory of affect. Continue reading