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).

Undergraduate education is a major part of our lab’s research mission and many UW undergraduates have been collaborators in our studies. We do not require any specific minimum GPA or any specific coursework or skills or experiences. There is a lot that you can learn through participating in the lab. What we do look for is a genuine interest in children and how humans develop, a commitment to applying oneself to learn more and contribute to our lab group, and a high level of motivation to make an impact in the lab and in one’s community.

Please note that children are in school most of the day during the week. Therefore, if you would like to be able to participate in our lab, you must 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 two semesters 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 ChildEmotion@waisman.wisc.edu with any questions.

Undergraduate Student Application

Applications may be submitted at any time. In general, applications are reviewed three times per year:

  • Late March – April for Summer and Fall semester positions
  • August (if Fall positions are still available)
  • November – December for Spring semester positions

* All positions for Summer and Fall 2024 have been filled.

 

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 emotional learning and development. 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 life 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 in addition to typically developing children. These groups include children and adolescents who have experienced early caregiving adversity and other forms of stress. We are also engaged in studies of children developing within a context of family poverty. My students tend to be interested in understanding relationships between life events, emotion, cognition, and brain development.

One thing that I enjoy about my lab is that each of my students is pursuing their own line of research. Each of my students focuses on the particular population, risk factor, age group, methodological approach, or level of analysis that is best suited to address their particular interest. Our methods have ranged from wet lab methods to examine molecular and hormonal variables, to psychophysiological/neuroimaging methods, to behavioral and cognitive science 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. You can also read a bit more about what it is like to work in my lab from this article.

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 applicants who were traditional psychology or neuroscience majors, but an equal number of my graduate students majored in other fields such as economics, cell biology, anthropology, linguistics, political science, and English. The key thing is to have some hands-on research experience before applying. It will really strengthen your application of you have research experience working with infants, children, or adolescents. It is also helpful to be well versed in at least one 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 and/or research methods 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?

It is my policy not to have calls or meetings with prospective students prior to the application process. This is for reasons of fairness; it allows me to review all applications with an open mind and from the same initial starting point rather than privilege some applications over others. That said, if there are questions about my research or lab that you have that would be helpful to have answered as you prepare your application, I’m certainly happy to answer them. Just send me an email.

If you have questions about completing/submitting the UW Madison Psychology Department application itself, the best person to contact is our graduate coordinator, Kevin Belt. You can reach him at kbelt@psych.wisc.edu

You are welcome to 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. To be fair to all applicants I offer personal interviews and phone/video calls by invitation only after I have reviewed all applications. If you are invited for an interview, I will do my best to cover travel expenses to Madison so that your personal finances do not create a barrier to admission.

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

I will read your 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. I would say that letters of recommendation from professors and research supervisors and previous research experience are very helpful for me. I don’t care as much about the prestige of your undergraduate institution as I do about what you personally did to make the most of whatever opportunities were available to you. I read to see how motivated and intellectually curious an applicant is, and what they have done to show that genuine interest in studying human behavior.

The essay is also really helpful in reviewing applications. I have a separate FAQ below about the essay. 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. And that sometimes college has a rough start before people hit their stride. All of that is 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 and how they have seen you blossom and grow.

I see standardized tests such as the GREs as biased and not all that helpful. So I do not even look at them anymore and our department does not ask for them. I have never observed much of a difference in graduate student performance based upon GREs. Elbow grease and determination and creativity and positivity seem to be the best predictor of graduate school success.

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

Most of my students enter the Psychology department through the developmental psychology program, which offers tremendous individual 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). I will also consider applicants to the clinical program, though applicants who have a keen interest in applied clinical work may find that my lab is not the best fit. My primary interests are in the science of child development and socio-emotional learning.

I am happy to serve as the sole/primary mentor for graduate students, but I also enjoy co-advising students jointly with other faculty within developmental psychology and across other areas of the department as well. It is often really nice for graduate students to have more than one mentor in graduate school.

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 or childhood experience 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 scientific 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. Our society is not a level playing field and each of us has worked to overcome a variety of challenges in different ways. 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. If your undergraduate institution did not have much infrastructure for research or senior theses and you had to create or seek out an opportunity for yourself, please share that information. This information helps me to place your record in context. Help me to understand the effort you devoted to making the most of your prior educational experiences and the preparation you will bring to enhance our lab group. 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!

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.