Students celebrating graduation.

For Students

Undergraduate Research Opportunities

The Child Emotion Research Lab provides excellent opportunities for students considering careers in social neuroscience, child clinical, adult clinical, developmental, and school psychology; and for those considering medical training with an interest in child health and development.

Undergraduates interested in joining the Child Emotion Research Lab may apply by downloading and completing the form below (multiple formats are available). Coursework in Abnormal Psychology, Child Development and/or Behavioral Neuroscience is recommended. Undergraduate education is a major part of our lab’s research mission and many UW undergraduates have been collaborators in our studies.

You must also be available during after-school and weekend hours, times when most children are available to participate in research.  You are also required to attend our weekly lab meetings on Fridays 1:30pm-3:30pm.

Students interested in conducting a senior honors thesis in the lab must have completed at least one semester of work in the lab prior to undertaking their thesis. We are extremely proud of the accolades collected by many of our undergraduate collaborators (click here for a list).

Please email us at with any questions.

Undergraduate Student Application

Graduate Research Opportunities

Thank you for considering the University of Wisconsin as the place to undertake your doctoral studies. I am very appreciative of your interest in the work that my students and I are doing in the area of affective neuroscience, early adversity/stress, emotion, and child development.

Here I provide information that may be useful to you in determining whether or not my lab is a good fit for you. I also provide some tips that will improve your application, should you decide to submit one.

Thank you again for your interest and best wishes to you as you pursue your professional goals.

Seth Pollak

Photo of four undergraduate RA's.

FAQ for Graduate Applicants

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Can you tell me what sorts of research projects are underway in the lab?

Broadly, the research my students and I are doing falls under the rubric of developmental affective neuroscience. I am interested in the bio-behavioral mechanisms that drive changes in emotions and emotional functioning early in development, from infancy through adolescence. To do so, I focus on the ways in which early social and emotional experiences influence emotional development, with a focus on children’s health. Because it can be very difficult to unpack developmental processes when development is unfolding in a typical manner, my students and I study a variety of very interesting risk groups. These groups include children and adolescents who have experienced early caregiving adversity such as abuse, severe neglect, poverty, and parent psychopathology. Many of my students study typically developing children to help understand the relationship between emotion, cognition, and brain development.

One thing that I enjoy about my lab is that each of my students is pursuing his or her own line of research. Each of my students focuses on the particular population, risk factor, age group, or level of analysis that is best suited to address her or his particular interest. Some students use wet lab methods to examine molecular variables, others use psychophysiological or neuroimaging methods, and some use behavioral approaches. At the same time, we have a strong sense of community in that everyone in the lab shares a focus on developmental processes and a sincere interest in using science to promote children’s well-being. We also have a fabulous Emotion Research training program for students interested in studying the biological aspects of emotion as related to psychopathology and child development.

Please read a few of our recent empirical papers before applying. My lab web site also contains links to some review papers that give an overview of our research program.

What sort of educational background is most appropriate for your lab?

We have a very interdisciplinary group. I never took a psychology course as an undergraduate (I was a philosophy and anthropology major). I have certainly accepted some applicants who were traditional psychology majors, but an equal number of my graduate students majored in other fields such as economics, cell biology, anthropology, neuroscience, and English. My students and I also collaborate with faculty studying cognitive development, perceptual development, psychophysiology, endocrinology, communication disorders, neuroimaging, intervention research, genetics, kinesiology, immunology, and systems neuroscience. They key thing is to have hands-on research experience before applying and to ensure that you are well versed in some kind of biobehavioral method. In the past, successful applicants to my lab who were not psychology majors made sure to take a few classes in experimental psychology prior to applying.

What sort of experience is appropriate for your lab?

There is no one kind of experience that is necessary. Generally, successful applicants have had some direct involvement with children or adolescents in a laboratory setting or through work/volunteer experiences. I weigh letters of reference from individuals who have supervised applicants in a research setting very heavily. I once accepted an applicant who applied to graduate school while still an undergraduate. However, all of my current graduate students had a year or so of full-time experience working as a research assistant prior to starting graduate school. I worked in a research lab myself between undergraduate and graduate school and value the experience and increased maturity this affords to new graduate students. This full-time research experience is important because it gives you a chance to be sure it is really what you enjoy, and it gives me a way to assess whether you are good at it.

Is it appropriate to contact you directly before I apply?

Absolutely. In fact I am very unlikely to seriously consider your application unless I have been in touch with you directly BEFORE you apply. Please send me an email to express your interest and tell me a bit about what you wish to study. I can let you know if I am likely to accept new students the year you are applying and can give you a sense of whether our research interests are aligned. I welcome emails from potential applicants early in the process – sometimes a year or so before applying, but most often in the Spring or Summer before an application is submitted. I am not usually able to correspond with applicants once the process has begun in late Fall. To be fair to all applicants I offer personal interviews and phone calls by invitation only. I invite applicants for in-person and/or skype interviews only after reviewing their materials and do my best to cover travel expenses to Madison.

Do you really care about traditional indices such as grades and GREs?

I read an entire application and try to put each applicant in context. So, no one piece of information overly determines my final decisions. I am looking to create a diverse lab, where people bring a variety of experiences, interests, perspectives, and skills to our group. Letters of recommendation from professors and research supervisors and previous research experience are very helpful for me, as is the essay accompanying the application. The essay is most helpful if it really shows me your connection and interest in the work being done in my lab rather than feeling generic.

My experience as a professor is that undergraduate grades are the best harbinger of success as a graduate student. This is because students who are able to achieve consistently good grades seem to be the ones who are organized and come through in the end. Those are key components of success in graduate school. But I also know that people have all sorts of things that happen in their lives, and many have additional responsibilities they had to attend to while they were undergraduates, and that people’s maturity can peak at different times. That is all ok and I am open to hearing your story. If your grades are not consistently strong, please just address it directly in your essay or in correspondence with me. Please also ask your letter writers to tell me why they believe your grades are or are not an accurate reflection of your scholarly potential.

I used to attend a lot to the GREs to screen applicants, but now see them as biased and worthless. I have never observed much of a difference in graduate student performance based upon GREs and now do not look at them at all.

In the section below I address issues regarding the application essay. The essay you write to accompany your application should convey to me whether your experience as an undergraduate student has involved any special challenges. If so, I will take this into account when reviewing your materials.

Does it matter which program I apply to (clinical, developmental, biology of brain and behavior, etc)?

I am particularly excited about the Wisconsin Psychology department’s new Individualized Graduate Major (IGM), which allows students to combine sub-fields of psychology into a uniquely tailored program of study. Through this program, students can combine courses from any of our existing programs (Biology of Brain and Behavior, Clinical, Cognitive and Cognitive Neurosciences, Developmental, Perception, Social and Personality) with course work from any other department across the University to create a cutting-edge program of study. Most of my students enter the Psychology department through the developmental psychology program, which offers tremendous flexibility. My graduate students have combined areas such as psychopathology, child development, neuroscience, neuroimaging, endocrinology, and cognitive science. I can also accept students through the anthropology department (Biological Anthropology) and the La Follette School of Public Affairs (Public Policy and Neuroscience Program).

What are you looking for in the essay that accompanies the application?

I read the essay part of the application very carefully. Most applicants write one generic essay and edit the last paragraph to include reference to a different professor at each university. This cutting and pasting is fine, unless it comes across as superficial. I read to try and determine how sincerely the work we are doing in my lab really fits with the kinds of questions and issues an applicant claims to want to study.

I especially value an essay that describes your aptitude and motivation for graduate study, including your preparation for this field of study, your academic plans, research interests, and your career goals. I am interested in reading about what your burning scientific questions are and what skills and experiences you have acquired thus far that leave you well-poised to address them. Please do highlight your academic achievements—this is not the time to be modest! I am also interested in hearing specifically why you have applied to Wisconsin and how you see our program and my lab as providing the educational environment that is consonant with your own career goals. Please tell me directly about your general research interests and explain why my lab is a good intellectual fit for you. I do not expect applicants to have specific research interests or study plans: developing those ideas is something that you work on in the early years of graduate training. But you should have a clear area of general interest.

For applicants interested in my lab, essays should not be overly intimate, self-revealing, or personal. To be bluntly honest, I am not especially compelled by essays about the pivotal moment or relationship when an applicant decided to help humanity by studying psychology. I do not view the essay as a personal narrative, but rather as a professional document that is an extension of your CV or resume. I really want to know about what questions interest you, what evidence supports your contention that you have the skills to be a successful scholar, and why my lab is the right match for you. There is one set of exceptions to this advice: it is important for me to know if you have had to overcome special barriers or hardships, or if you have taken a leadership role in helping disadvantaged groups or individuals that have been historically underrepresented in higher education. If there are issues that you faced as an undergraduate such as being a first generation college student, coming from an economically disadvantaged family, having responsibility for caring for siblings or children, needing to work while going to school, or if the study of psychology is not common for people in your cultural background, please let me know. This information helps me to place your record in context. In sum, your goal in constructing the essay should be to make a case for why I really would be making a mistake by not interviewing you.

Should I try to make myself look attractive to multiple professors in your department?

Many applicants may not realize that it is not an advantage to list many faculty members on the Psychology Department application. The Wisconsin Psychology Department follows a mentorship model of graduate student training. That means you are not pitching yourself to a general admissions committee, but to one or two faculty who will then advocate for your admission. Each faculty member here selects the applicants they most want to work with, and that faculty mentor looks after the applicant from admission to graduation. For this reason, most professors in our department focus their efforts on the application files where we have each been flagged as the first choice as the potential mentor. Many students here have multiple mentors in our program and work jointly with two professors.  I really enjoy jointly mentoring students with other faculty. If this is your intent, please email me and the other professor(s) that you are interested in working with early in the process to be sure everyone is on board before submitting your application. Once enrolled in the graduate program, our students select two other faculty members who serve as their First Year Project committee, overseeing the initial research project. Students in the Individualized Graduate Major (IGM) program may select five faculty mentors—three from Psychology and two from any other department across the University—to serve as mentors. But this is all done during the first year of graduate study with your mentor’s help and advice, not during the application process.

Are you taking new students this year?

I like to keep my lab group relatively small so that I can focus adequate attention on each of my graduate students. However, I certainly will read and consider all applications from students who express interest in working with me. I’m also happy to correspond more with you if you have further questions.