cognitive tools lab

reverse engineering the human cognitive toolkit

information for prospective lab members

The Cognitive Tools Lab is always on the lookout for outstanding postdocs and graduate students. This document will give you a sense for what we are looking for in a prospective lab member, and what the next steps to take are. Please read it in its entirety before contacting Dr. Fan to ask about doing research.

Please note: Dr. Fan will not be recruiting new PhD students planning to start in Fall 2022. In rare circumstances, however, she will consider co-advising arrangements with other UCSD faculty.

What We Are Looking For

In addition to strong motivation and scientific curiosity, the research we do requires a variety of both technical and non-technical skills, though the needs of each project vary. Prospective lab members 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.

Values We Share

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 in the lab. If you are seriously interested in joining us, you are encouraged to invest time and energy independently acquiring some or more of these skills (e.g., through course projects), which will enable you to get more out of your research experience. If you are interested in gaining these skills but are not sure how, you can reach out to Dr. Fan for advice and pointers to resources.

Beyond these practical skills, our lab is genuinely committed to equality, diversity, and inclusion in achieving and sustaining excellence in our scientific research. We aim to provide an intellectual environment that is at once welcoming, nurturing and challenging, and that respects the full spectrum of human diversity in race, ethnicity, gender identity, age, socioeconomic status, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, and religion. Above all, we are looking for lab members who share our commitment to actively creating and maintaining a safe environment founded on mutual respect and support.

To learn more about the expectations we have of all members of the lab, including of Dr. Fan, please feel free to read our lab manual.

Prospective PhD Students and Postdocs

If you are not currently at UCSD but are interested in joining the lab as a PhD student or postdoc, 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 you are a prospective PhD student and following this discussion you continue to be interested in joining the lab, please submit an application to our PhD program in Psychology. Likewise, if you are a prospective postdoc and we agree that the lab would be a good fit, we will discuss potential sources of funding and go from there.

Current UCSD Graduate Students

Current UCSD graduate students are also welcome to work on projects in the lab, even if you are not affiliated with the Psychology department.

A good way to figure out whether the lab would be a good fit is for you to take one of Dr. Fan’s graduate courses, e.g., PSYC 230: Computational Approaches to Visual Abstraction. This gives you a chance to see how she works with students, and it lets her see your working style. If this isn’t feasible due to timing, please send Dr. Fan an email so we can arrange for an alternative way to evaluate fit. Another easy way to get in touch with Dr. Fan is to stop by her Zoom office hours. Please do not be shy about sending a quick email to introduce yourself and ask for the Zoom link.

Scientific research is unpredictable and can take up a lot of time. If this will be your first academic quarter working on a project in the lab, you should expect to spend at minimum 15 hours a week working on our research projects — so if you are swamped with other commitments, consider joining the lab another quarter.

If you think you might be a good fit after reading all of the above, send Dr. Fan an email with a current academic 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 labs here at UCSD. Why do you want to work in our lab, specifically? It’d be a good idea to look through our recent publications. If a particular publication was of interest to you, please share specific details about what aspects interested you and how these aspects connect to your own research interests/experience.
  • What relevant skills do you have?
    Also please describe experience you have with the particular skills listed at the top of this page, and provide some specific evidence (e.g. links to Github repos for recent projects, papers or reports you’ve written).

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

Current UCSD Undergraduate Students

If you are a current UCSD undergraduate student and interested in being considered for potential research opportunities in the lab, your first step should be to complete the Psychology Undergraduate Research Assistant Common Application (PSYURACA) during the quarter before the one in which you want to start working in the lab. In the meantime, a good way for you to figure out whether the lab is a good fit for you is to take PSYC 193: Perception & Computation. If you have an especially strong interest in working in the lab, in addition to completing the Common Application, please also feel free to reach out to Dr. Fan via email, with some brief responses to the same questions from the section above.


Special thanks to Daniel Ritchie at Brown University and Fernanda Ferreira at UC Davis for examples of how to organize the information on this page.