cognitive tools lab

reverse engineering the human cognitive toolkit

Information for Prospective Students

The Cognitive Tools Lab is always on the lookout for outstanding graduate (and advanced undergraduate) students. This document will give you a sense for what I am looking for in a student, and what the next steps to take are. Please read it in its entirety before contacting me to ask about doing research.

Skills That I Look For

In addition to strong motivation and scientific curiosity, the research I do requires a variety of both technical and non-technical skills, though the needs of each project vary. Prospective students should have experience with several of the skills listed below, along with a positive attitude about and willingness to quickly/independently learn about others:

  • Working with data and statistical reasoning: Generally speaking, this means writing code to “wrangle,” visualize, and analyze high-dimensional datasets from psychology and neuroscience experiments. In practice, you should be familiar with some combination of the major programming languages used for scientific computing: Python, R. Ideally, you will have exercised these skills in another research context, or have taken courses in statistics, data science, and/or machine learning.
  • Web programming for developing behavioral experiments: One of our primary tools for investigating human cognition and behavior is to conduct large-scale behavioral experiments, usually online and sometimes in field settings. In practice, you should be familiar with using JavaScript, HTML, CSS to build interactive web application frontends, and also with various backend server-side environments, such as Node.js.
  • Reproducible research workflows: Progress in science requires that we be able to reproduce our own and others’ research. In practice, you should be comfortable not only thoroughly documenting your own code, but adapting the code of others, writing READMEs when appropriate, and proactively anticipating how you will share your code and datasets so that other researchers can adapt and build on your work.
  • Communication and organization: Researchers must communicate the results of their work. Strong writing and oral presentation skills are critical. I’m also looking for students who are well organized, thoughtful, and proactive about their own research and training. Especially in collaborative projects, it is important to communicate with me and other collaborators throughout the research process: reporting progress, asking for help, etc. We will generally use Slack and Github issues to discuss results and keep track of todo’s.

It is important to emphasize that even if you don’t currently have the skills above, that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t work with me. If you are seriously interested in joining us, you are encouraged to invest time and energy acquiring some or more of these skills through coursework and/or independently, and then reach out to me to see if it is a good fit.

Prospective UCSD Students

If you are not currently a student at UCSD but are interested in joining the lab as a PhD student, please introduce yourself to Dr. Fan via email. While she cannot guarantee a reply, she will do her best to respond and discuss with you whether the lab might be a good fit. If following this discussion you continue to be interested in joining the lab, please submit an application to our PhD program in Psychology.

Current UCSD Students

I’m happy to work with current UCSD students who meet the above criteria. I expect this to be mostly PhD and Masters students. Unusually well prepared undergraduate students are welcome, but they will be held to the same high standards. A good way for me to figure out whether you’d be a good fit is for you to take my graduate course. This gives you a chance to see how I work with students, and it lets me see your working style. If this isn’t feasible due to timing, please send me an email so we can arrange for an alternative way to evaluate fit. Scientific research is unpredictable and can take up a lot of time. You should expect to spend at minimum 15 hours a week working on a research project — so don’t do it in during a quarter when you’re swamped with other commitments (classes, TA’ing, job interviews, etc.).

If you think you might be a good fit after reading all of the above, send me an email with a current resume/CV and with answers to the following questions:

  • Why do you want to do research? Both in general, and in this specific field.
  • Why do you want to do research with me? There are many great faculty here at UCSD. Why do you want to work with me, specifically? It’d be a good idea to look through my recent publications.
  • What skills can you offer? Tell me about the experience you have with the skills listed at the top of this page, and show me some specific evidence (e.g. links to Github repos for recent projects, papers or reports you’ve written).

Please contact me during the quarter before the one in which you want to do research — this gives us time to define a project for you in advance so you can hit the ground running.