Grad School as a Way to Solve Problems

Gregg Muragishi gives us an in-depth look into his thought process behind pursuing a PhD in Social Psychology and a taste of the research he is pursuing.

1. What is one sentence you would use to describe who you are and what you do?

I am a social psychology PhD candidate that is passionate about understanding the ways people make sense of the different types of social cues that we receive; and how to use that understanding to foster inclusive environments where people from all identities can belong and flourish — in particular I focus on making tech and STEM fields more welcoming and inclusive to underrepresented groups (women, minorities, and the intersection of gender and race/ethnicity). 

2. Did you take the GRE? If so, what was your experience studying for the GRE like?

I did! I actually took the GREs three times. The first two times were for my Masters program and the third time was for my PhD program. I feel like one of the biggest hurdles in the GREs is not necessarily the material per se, but more learning how to take the GREs. The first time I took the exam, I studied the same way I studied for any other exams (e.g., note cards, practice drills, memorization) and used mostly GRE books that I borrowed from others. But I was completely lost during the time of the exam and got < 35% percentile. I felt really frustrated and confused that all of my strategies that were successful in school were not successful at the GREs.

After that, I went back to the books and signed up for some tutoring. It was with the tutor’s help that I learned that the GRE is just a different type of test; that part of studying for the GREs was studying how to study for the GREs. For me, it was important to learn and hear that preparing for the GREs was a learning process. I had to (re)learn the actual material and then I had to learn how to take the test — which is something I didn’t hear enough about! With that different framing, the GREs felt a little bit more approachable (it was still a lot of work and frustrating though). I took the GRE a second time and did well enough for a masters program, and then I took it a 3rd time for my PhD but my score did not change that much from the second time. 

3. How did you decide on your program at Stanford?

Honestly, I first decided to apply to the program at Stanford mostly because my Master’s advisor suggested that I did. At the time, I didn’t really see “someone like me going to Stanford.” I was a community college transfer student and was just an average student during my undergrad. But he suggested that I try to apply anyways. I did have a couple of other offers from other schools but those were PhD in Educational Psychology rather than a PhD in Social Psychology. I felt like there would be a good research fit and that I would get good experience in whichever program I went to, but I ultimately decided Stanford because I thought that a PhD in Social Psychology would keep more career doors open to me in the future, and it allowed me to stay in California where my family is.

4. You finished an MA in Psychology. Why did you decide to continue your education with a PhD? How is a PhD different from an MA in your field?

I had a great Master advisor who showed me what doing research could be like and the real-world implications that it could have. I did a couple of research assistantships when I was in undergrad but I mostly just sat around inputting data, giving participants consent forms, and tested a heart-rate monitor for a different study. Everything felt pretty mundane and I could not see the bigger picture or why I was doing what I was doing.

In my Master’s program, however, I saw that I could use research and social psychology to address real-world issues that I cared about. For example, why is STEM still a White and Asian male dominated-field? What is that like for women, women of color, men of color, or non-binary individuals to walk into a classroom or job and be the only person with their identity in the room? I received the research training to serve as a strong foundation to begin answering those questions but I decided to continue with a PhD to more fully those develop those skills and learn how to develop psychological theory to create lasting social change. 

I would say the biggest difference between a PhD in social psychology versus a MA is the depth of training, learning, and research experience you obtain. The PhD is 5-6 years and the MA is ~2 years. This means that there is just more time to think about psychological processes, theories, and methodologies. You also have more time to go through the entire scientific process. For example, I spent 2 years in my MA creating and conducting a study and writing up my thesis. During my PhD, I have more time to conduct more studies, present at conferences, and publish in peer-reviewed journals. Finally, an important distinction, for me, between the PhD and the MA is the opportunity to mentor and advise undergraduates. Because the time in the MA is so short, you really do not get many opportunities to work with undergraduates and help them develop their ideas and skills. In the PhD though, I’ve been able to advise several students (some for their entire 4 years at Stanford), and that has been really rewarding. 

5. Do you have any advice for someone interested in pursuing a PhD in Psychology?

A couple of notes: (1) The advice below is entirely my own and do not reflect the Stanford Psychology PhD program — I haven’t actually sat on a full admission committee; (2) Psychology PhD admissions can vary between each university, each subfield of psychology, and even within each subfield within each university. I am also strong support of the belief that there is no one path to a Phd program. We all take different paths, at different speeds, at different times. And I believe that it is those different lived experiences and different paths taken is what makes research so rich.

With that being said, in general, my main piece of advice is to try to get hands on research experienceThe more research experience the better. Try to find a research lab who is doing work that interests you and see if they have space for you to help out on a project. You might start off on some of the smaller things (like I did when I was a research assistant) but if you stick with it, you might get more and more responsibilities that allow you to further develop your research skills/thinking. In my opinion, the best way to learn about psychological research is by doing it and it shows admissions committees that you are not applying to a Psychology PhD to become a researcher, but you are applying to a Psychology PhD to become a stronger researcher. 

To learn more about Gregg and his work, you can contact him at, visit or connect with him via Twitter @GreggMuragishi.

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