Hello
Our lab embraces diversity. We seek to uncover the inner workings of human memory; this pursuit is best achieved by a team whose perspectives and backgrounds are representative. We are also acutely aware of how systemic biases and injustices have caused many groups to be underrepresented in science. We strongly encourage applications from all qualified candidates, and encourage our lab members’ differences in age, colour, disability, ethnicity, family or marital status, gender identity or expression, language, national origin, ability, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, veteran status, and other characteristics that make our lab members who they are.

Graduate Positions

Please note that Dr. Duncan is not recruiting new graduate students for Fall 2021

Is graduate school in Psychology right for me?

This is a big, personal question that requires extensive research and self-reflection. These are a few points to consider when making decisions about pursuing a research-based Ph.D.

Graduate school is less focused on classes and more on hands on research

In our program, you only take a total of 7 one-semester courses across five years. Instead of course work, graduate school primarily involves research. Students are directly admitted into a lab (or a pair of labs if co-supervised) and, in most cases, will conduct the bulk of their research in this lab throughout their Ph.D. Accordingly, you are more likely to find graduate students programming an experiment or analyzing data than studying for a test or working on a course assignment. So, you shouldn’t think of getting a Ph.D. as the “next step” after an undergraduate degree, rather it is a very specific path for those interested in conducting independent research.

Getting research experience before graduate school will help you determine whether you’ll like research and prepare to excel as a graduate student

Embarking on a Ph.D. is a massive commitment, so it is important to know what you are signing up for. I strongly recommend getting research experience in at least two labs to learn about different approaches and lab cultures. Ideally, you should also conduct a project from beginning to end to get first-hand experience in all the steps that go into a study – from conception, to programming, to data collection, to data analysis, to interpretation and communication. It’s a lot! And, graduate students are expected to take the lead at each stage. To be better prepared, many students work as lab managers or research assistants for one to three years after completing their undergraduate degree. While this may sound like a detour, taking these years often accelerates career trajectories because it provides so much invaluable experience.  

You don’t need to know exactly what you want to study, but it’s good to have a rough idea

Psychology is a diverse field, with many fascinating arms. Students are often paralyzed when trying to pick just one (or one combination) to specialize in. Rarely do successful scientists experience a transcendent moment when encountering the research area that they will devote years (if not decades) to. In reality, many scientists could be equally fulfilled studying one of a large set of topics. I recommend, instead, that students focus on what approaches most fulfill them. Do you find answers at neural, cognitive, or computational levels most satisfying?  What balance of ecological and experimental validity is best aligned with your priorities? And, do you find mechanistic discoveries satisfying in their own right, or are meaningful applications more important to you? Answering questions like these can help you identify research areas, and labs, that best align with your intellectual needs and goals. That being said, getting research experience in a specific area (e.g., episodic memory, low-level vision) before starting graduate school is an invaluable test of your interest and aptitude for that type of research. It will also prepare you to conduct independent research on that topic.

Consider your financial situation before applying to graduate school and plan accordingly

Good news first – good Ph.D. programs will fund you. They will fully cover your tuition and fees, and provide you with a stipend for your living costs. Personally, I started graduate school with around $700 to my name and made it through with no additional debt or outside support. The less great news is that you will not make much money as a graduate student, likely much less than you would make if you started working right out of school. In our program, all students receive a minimum stipend of $21,000/year (on top of their tuition and fees). Students are required to work as teaching assistants for a minimum of 180 hours per year to receive this funding; they are paid an additional ~$46/h for any teaching they do beyond the 180 hours. Students are also eligible to outside funding opportunities [https://www.sgs.utoronto.ca/awards/] to increase their stipend, and most of the stipend is not considered taxable income. On average, students in my lab made around $28,000 last year, on top of tuition and fees.

A PhD increases your employment prospects but doesn’t guarantee them

According to the United States Census Bureau, people with a Ph.D. in psychology earn 33% more over their lifetimes than those with a Master’s degree in the field, and 57% more than those with Bachelor’s degrees. Those with Ph.D.s also tend to express higher job satisfaction than those without. But over the past few decades the increases in Ph.D.s awarded have vastly outstepped increases in the hiring of professors. Today, the majority of students enter into a Ph.D. program wanting to pursue a career in academia, but many will not find the tenure-track position that they are aiming for. To provide some context, a little over 60% of people who have graduated from our program since 2000 have stayed in academia, and around half of them in tenure-track faculty positions. On a positive note, those who leave academia often do so to pursue equally fulfilling (and often more lucrative) careers in industry. Those with a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience are increasingly obtaining positions in data science, for example. In recognition of the many excellent career paths that my students may be interested in, I never assume that they are planning to stay in academia, and I am committed to supporting them as they pursue their unique goals. 

Tips for Applying to Graduate School

Here are a few tips on how to put your best foot forward when applying to a research-based Ph.D. program in psychology. Please note that some of these tips are personal opinions, and that it’s always good to seek advice from multiple perspectives. You can also find more details about applying to our program here: https://www.psych.utoronto.ca/prospective-graduate-students/about-our-tri-campus-graduate-program

Pick potential graduate schools based on labs, not just programs

The lab that you conduct your research in during graduate school is more important than the course work you complete or the details of your program. Your graduate experience will be more productive and rewarding if you can find a good fit in research interests, mentoring style, and lab culture. To find a good alignment in research interests, I recommend doing a lot of reading! Which papers get you most excited? Identify the paper’s senior author (the author whose lab the research was conducted in; usually list in the last position) and explore their lab website to determine how interested you are in their full research program. Lab websites also often list alumni. This section is important because it tells you where former graduate students end up. Many of them may now run their own labs, which also could fit for your research interests. Assessing mentoring style and lab culture is best done during interviews (discussed below). A common assumption, though, is that more junior faculty will be more “hands-on” because they have fewer trainees to manage and have more recently run experiments and analyzed data. More established faculty are generally assumed to provide more high-level support, which is (ideally) complemented by hands-on training from senior lab members. Like any stereotypes, there are many exceptions to this assumption! Lastly, I strongly recommend getting advice in determining your dream list. Reach out to the graduate students, postdocs, and professors whom you have conducted research with to get their thoughts.

Many (but not all) professors like you to email them in advance of submitting an application

Once you have a medium-sized list of potential labs that you would like to work in, it is generally a good idea to send emails to the professors who run these labs. I recommend sending emails a few months before applications are due (usually August or September). These emails should be brief but informative. You should introduce yourself, your research background, and include a sentence or two about how your interests align with work conducted in their lab. Very specific statements – tailored to that professor – rather than generic statements – like, being interested in memory – are best. Also include your CV (academic resume) and unofficial transcript (especially when applying to Canadian schools). Many professors appreciate this email; some will encourage you to apply; some will request a Zoom/Skype meeting; some politely let you know that they are not accepting new students next year. All of these responses can help you narrow your medium-sized list down to a short one! Additionally, professors often keep track of who emailed to help them sort through applications. Some professors, though, will not respond. This is usually just an indication that they are super busy, and your email slipped through the cracks. I recommend sending one polite follow-up email a few weeks later. If you still don’t receive a response, you shouldn’t over-interpret it. They may still just be busy, or they may have a policy against responding to these emails. Personally, I have seen students ultimately work with professors who did not respond to their initial email and others miss opportunities when they over-interpreted the lack of response.

Be sure to list potential supervisors in your application and explain why you are interested in working with them

There are as many styles of graduate school applications as there are students. Some focus on personal journeys, while others get straight to the research projects. And, there is no right approach because potential supervisors often look for different things. It is universally appreciated, though, to be very clear about who you want to work with. You can pick one lab in a program and go into detail about why you want to work in it and, perhaps, briefly outline some research questions that you would want to study in that lab. It’s a good idea to complement this type of application with a brief statement about at least two other labs that you could collaborate with. Alternatively, if you are similarly interested in multiple labs — which is common for students interested in studying memory at UofT – then you can list each of those labs along with more succinct descriptions of why they align with your interests.

We make exceptions for some admission requirements. 

Each year, we accept students into our graduate program who don’t meet some of our requirements. For example, we routinely consider applicants who fall a little short of our GPA requirement (3.7/4.0 in final two years) or who did not complete the required number of psychology courses in their degree. The key is to compensate for these requirements in other aspects of your application, particularly research experience. It can also be helpful to address unmet requirements head-on in your statement, rather than hoping that we won’t notice. For example, if your undergraduate degree was in computer science, but you’ve since applied your stellar coding skills to psychology research, you can highlight the benefits of this non-traditional path. You can also ask your letter writers if they are comfortable providing context in their letters of recommendation. For example, they could explain how a poor statistics grade doesn’t reflect the skills you’ve demonstrated in the lab. Reaching out to potential supervisors, though, is particularly important if you do not meet admissions requirements so that they can track down your application if it is filtered out of the pool.  

Statements should not be modest but should be concrete

Even though it is hard, you should try your best to break from ingrained modesty in your statement. One good trick is to be concrete. Brainstorm a list of ways that you have demonstrated your potential as a graduate student. Writing about these concrete actions and accomplishments is more comfortable than making abstract statements about your potential. Importantly, it will make a much better impression on a potential supervisor. It can also be helpful to ask lab mates for their perspectives; they may have identified ways that you have demonstrated relevant skills that you take for granted!

Situate your research in terms of questions and conclusions, not just implementation

New researchers often focus on the mechanics of their contributions when talking about their research – testing x number of participants, or the session procedures. But potential supervisors are more concerned about you having a deep understanding of what the study means, and how it fits in with related research. Be sure that your statement and conversations reflect that understanding.

But also highlight technical skills that you’ve gained through research

Cognitive neuroscience research requires a lot of technical skills, particularly good computer programming skills. Often the pace of new graduate students’ research is limited while they acquire these skills or, worse yet, they may realize that they hate coding. For this reason, potential supervisors often prioritize applicants with strong technical backgrounds. These can either be demonstrated through formal/online course work or, ideally, through your research projects. Be sure to include a skills section on your CV to showcase your proficiency in programming languages, specialized data analysis and experiment building software. You can also mention these skills in your statement, as long as their discussion does not detract from the big research questions.

Your statement is a writing sample

Writing skills are also highly prized qualities in a new graduate student. For this reason, your statement does double duty; it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. The most important trick of good writing is to start early, revise, revise, and revise. Getting feedback from others (friends, lab mates, research advisors) is a critical part of the revision process. I recommend finishing your first draft in the summer to allow plenty of time for feedback. I also recommend using good scientific writing practices in your statements. Specifically, avoid overly formal language (even if you think it makes you seem smart). Instead, focus on being clear and succinct so that your logic shines through. Adding some personality usually doesn’t hurt, though.

Interviews are a two-way street

Interested potential supervisors may reach out for a Zoom/Skype interview to narrow down their list of top applicants. You should be prepared to answer questions about your research (both big picture and methods) and your interests. It never hurts to practice talking about these topics with friends and lab mates so that you’re prepared. But you should also prepare questions for your potential supervisor. Not only does this give you crucial insights into their mentoring style, open projects, and lab practices, it also shows that you are taking this opportunity very seriously. Likewise, if you are invited for an in-person interview, you should be prepared to both answer and ask questions. During these interviews, you will have a chance to meet with the trainees in potential labs. Be sure to make the most of this opportunity. Current graduate students are best positioned to answer questions about an advisor’s real mentoring style (not just the style they aspire to) and lab culture. Don’t be afraid to ask very specific questions, like, how long does it take to get edits on a manuscript, how often do you meet with your advisor, and what support did you receive while starting your first project? The answer to specific questions will be more informative than open ended ones, like, is the advisor supportive?

Undergraduate Research Positions

Please note that the Duncan Lab is not currently recruiting new research assistants

If you are interested in applying for a research assistant position, please send this completed research assistant application along with your CV/resume and unofficial transcript to our manager at duncanlabmanager@gmail.com

Undergraduate student researchers are instrumental in our discoveries. They often are the ones recruiting participants, and who collect the high-quality data used to answer questions about memory. They have also contributed to the development of new software, experiments, and analytical tools in the lab. Students who have demonstrated an abundance of commitment and aptitude have led their own research projects.

 Getting involved in research as an undergraduate student is a fantastic decision! You meet people with similar interests to you, often forging long-lasting connections and friendships. You learn first-hand that science is a process—requiring large doses of creativity and critical thinking—not a collection of facts to memorize. For example, you will be encouraged to attend weekly lab meetings, where ongoing research projects, relevant research articles, and methods are discussed. You will aslo receive the type of direct mentorship that isn’t possible in the classroom, and getting to know a professor well can help you obtain the letters of recommendation that are often required down the road. Importantly, you can also acquire the skills involved in the process of science, which will make you more competitive for graduate programs and jobs outside of academia. Accordingly, our undergraduate students have done quite well after leaving the lab, landing positions in highly competitive graduate programs (both research and clinical), medical school, and industry (e.g., Google, Bloomberg).

Types of Undergraduate Positions

Volunteer Positions

Check here for more information about our Volunteer Positions

This is the most common way for students to get their first research experience in the lab and in the department. They require a commitment of at least 8h/week for at least one semester, but we prefer that students be involved in the lab for longer to make the most of the opportunity. Individuals outside of the University of Toronto are also welcome to apply, especially during the summer.
Volunteer researchers usually work with a senior lab member (graduate students, postdocs, a lab manager, or senior undergraduate student). Initial responsibilities generally include helping with literature reviews, participant recruitment and testing, experimental stimulus development, and data entry/organization. We also welcome volunteers with computer science/statistics/engineering backgrounds. They usually work on projects that involve coding (e.g., experiment building, data analysis, tool development) rather than data collection. Direct supervisors will provide relevant reading material and meet with volunteers to help them understand the ins and outs of the research question, the background which motivated it, and how the methods are designed to answer the question. 
As volunteers demonstrate their commitment and aptitude, they may be given the option to gain more independence and diverse experience. For example, while volunteers usually start by testing healthy young adults on computerized tasks or recording eye movements, as they gain experience they may become involved in the collection of neuroimaging data, or the testing of older adults or children. They also may get involved in data analysis (which involves learning to code in R), experiment building (which usually involves learning Python-based tools, Eyelink, or Inquisit), and experiment design (which involves a deep understanding of psychology theories and research methods).
We receive more applications for these positions than we can accommodate so it is a competitive process.  
Here’s what we look for in an applicant:
    •   Students with no prior research experience will be considered, but prior experience is an asset because it lets us know that you know what you’re signing up. It also suggests that you have good organizational, time-management, communication, and interpersonal skills. If you do not have any prior research experience, you should explain you have demonstrated these skills in your prior work/volunteer experience.
    •   Interest and aptitude can be demonstrated through achieving strong grades in prior relevant coursework. Relevant coursework includes not just psychology classes, but other areas in the cognitive sciences, particularly computer science and neuroscience. Although grades are not a perfect predictor of research aptitude, achieving a minimum of a 3.5 cGPA generally reflects a commitment to and solid comprehension of relevant material along with good organizational skills. Undergraduate students in the lab tend to have GPAs above 3.7, but there are exceptions! We understand that there may be reasons for lower grades, and we will take explanations into account during the application process. In particular, we look favorably on transcripts that show an upward trajectory.
    •   Interest and aptitude can also be demonstrated through a thoughtful application. Students who have read papers from the lab and have interesting things to say about them stand out. Students who have a deeply thought out interest in cognitive psychology and memory (i.e., don’t just state that they are interested in these topics but can clearly articulate why they are so interested) are also given priority.
    •   Your commitment can be indicated by describing what you have to gain from the position – how will what you do in the lab help you to achieve your long-term goals? 
    •   Communication skills can be demonstrated through the quality of application writing (e.g., demonstrating clear thinking, not overly formal) and through the quality of discussion, if selected for an in-person interview.
    •   Technical skills (e.g., computer programming) can be demonstrated through relevant coursework, work/volunteer experience, and the completion of online courses/training (e.g., Coursera, Code Academy)
    • Availability can be demonstrated by having a relatively flexible schedule. While not required for all projects, some experiments in the lab involve collecting data for complex, multi-session designs, so researcher availability is prioritized in these cases.
Work-Study Positions

Check here for more information about our Work-Study Positions

We usually offer eight work-study positions per year, four with applications due in September and four with applications due in May. All full-time students are eligible for these positions and they are a fantastic way to get research experience while financing your education. Research Assistant positions involve many of the duties performed by volunteers (see above), but also include assisting the lab manager with more administrative duties. Lab Programmer positions involve working with lab members to program experiments, run analyses, or develop new tools. They also assist in website maintenance and other IT needs. As these positions are more competitive, we prioritize candidates with the most relevant prior experience, but they have been offered to applicants with no research experience in the past when they have demonstrated outstanding interest in and aptitude for our research along with relevant organizational and interpersonal skills.
Research Courses

There are several research courses that undergraduate students can complete in the lab. This is an excellent way to gain research experience while fulfilling your program requirements.

Check here for more information about ROP (Research Opportunity Program) courses

These are courses for 2nd year and 3rd year students to assist a senior lab member on a research project. These full-year courses run either in the Summer or Fall/Winter terms. 2nd year ROP courses (applied for at the end of your first year of studies) provide many students with their first research experience. We evaluate candidates using the same criteria as we use for volunteer applicants, but the process is a little more competitive. Successful applicants to 3rd year ROP courses generally have relevant research experience, but it is not required. Students taking ROP courses are usually directly supervised by a senior lab member, but they will have meetings at the beginning of their projects with Prof. Duncan. For more information on Research Opportunity Program courses, please click here.

Check here for more information about Individual Projects

Many departments offer Individual Project courses. These also can run in the Summer or Fall/Winter terms, and often can be either half or full year courses. We have supervised students through psychology, HMB, and the cognitive science programs. Students conduct these projects from beginning to end, which often involves programming an experiment, collecting data, analyzing data in R, and writing a paper about the findings. We only consider students with extensive research experience for these projects, and generally take students who have already demonstrated excellent commitment and aptitude within the lab as a volunteer, work-study student, or ROP student for at least two semesters. The projects are either directly supervised by Prof. Duncan or by Prof. Duncan and a senior lab member. Students interested in completing an individual project should contact Prof. Duncan at least 2 months in advance of the proposal deadline. For more information on individual project courses, please click here.

Check here for more information about Mini-Thesis and Thesis Projects

 The Research Specialist program in the Psychology Department is an excellent opportunity for students who are interested in psychology research. Students generally apply for this program in the spring before their 3rd year. Students in this program receive fantastic training in research methods and career development in their courses and complete a one-semester mini-thesis project in their 3rd year, along with a two-semester thesis project in their 4th year. Admission into the program requires strong demonstrations of research interest and aptitude (including prior research experience). Students in this program are then paired with labs based on common interests. We have also supervised thesis projects for students in Engineering and Computational Biology programs. For more information on the Psychology Research Specialist, please click here.

Tips for gaining research experience as an undergraduate student

Do your research

You can find a list of professors and their labs in the Psychology Department here. Use this list to identify labs that fit your interests and keep an eye out for openings posted on the labs’ website, Facebook page, Twitter page, or look for ROP opportunities or work-study positions on CLNx. Once you find a few labs that are conducting research that you are interested in, follow the application instructions in their postings. If there are no application instructions, you can email the professor or their lab manager of each lab to ask if they are looking for a research assistant in their lab. You could also ask your professors and/or teaching assistants about available positions in their labs.

Be flexible

Labs affiliated with the Psychology Department but housed off campus (e.g. research institutes and hospitals) tend to receive fewer undergraduate applications. If you are having trouble securing your first research position, they could be a great option. Relatedly, getting experience in a lab that studies topics more tangentially related to your interests is a great way to build your CV and explore your interests.

Timing is everything

Labs usually take on new students in August/September, December/January, and April/May. These are great times to apply for positions. But often labs have “off-cycle” openings so it never hurts to apply in the middle of term. Even if they don’t have openings, they may put your application on file for consideration when they do.  

Be politely persistent

Emails, especially to professors, can slip through the cracks during busy times. If you don’t receive a response to an inquiry, it never hurts to send a polite follow-up email. This demonstrates your commitment and organizational skills!

Note that it is never too late or too early to apply for a research position, and do not give up if you are not able to find a position quickly as the positions are competitive and depend on the needs of the lab