Research Ruminations

Vivian Byeon: How Persistence Opened the Door for Grad School

In this article, we interview Vivian Byeon. As a second-year Ph.D. student in Clinical Psychology at UCLA, Byeon talks about her experiences in research and gives words of wisdom to students pursuing graduate school.

What is your area of research?

I’m interested in organizational factors that impact the adoption and sustainment of evidence-based therapeutic strategies in community mental health settings.

 How did you become interested in this topic?

As an undergrad, I became involved in research during my senior year of college. I worked at a substance use lab here at UCLA, and that made me really interested in community mental health work. I saw how input from focus groups and interviews with people who were testing new interventions really impacted how their services were designed and adapted to fit the needs of real people. Through my time in two other labs, I learned about a lot of therapies backed by scientific research, like cognitive behavioral therapy, and realized they are not being used in mental healthcare. The more I learned about that, the more I wondered why that isn’t happening. 

One of the things that struck me was how therapists need support in learning these evidence-based therapies that they don’t necessarily learn in grad school, so I became interested in how their organizations and their supervisors can help them in doing that important work.

How did you get your first research experience?

The first research experience I had was at the Integrated Substance Abuse Programs. Through my psychology classmates at UCLA, I heard that the class Psych 196A helped fulfill my graduation requirements while also providing an opportunity to be a research assistant at a psychology lab. I looked at the postings and emailed a lot of labs until someone emailed me back and I was able to interview for the position. I collected urine samples from folks who were HIV positive and cannabis and alcohol users. We were looking at interventions that could help them cope with their alcohol and cannabis cravings.

What happened after you finished your undergraduate studies?

After working at the substance abuse lab for about a year, I realized I was interested in treatments for anxiety and depression so I volunteered at another research lab called the UCLA Anxiety and Depression Research Center (https://anxiety.psych.ucla.edu) after I graduated in June. Eventually, they hired me as a part-time research coordinator, which later led to a full-time position. 

In 2017, I applied to grad school for the first time. I didn’t get in anywhere, so I started looking for a different research position that would further align with my interests. My efforts eventually led me to a job at the Penn Center for Mental Health (https://hosting.med.upenn.edu/cmh/). I worked there for about two years, and then I applied to grad school again – this time I was successful. 

What were some of the struggles of your research journey?

I’m an Asian American woman from an immigrant family, so I didn’t see many researchers that looked like me. Growing up, I didn’t think that science was something  I could do;  I’ve always been a creative person, so I shut that door on the STEM field early on. I thought research wasn’t for someone who’s not good at math. I actually had a pretty low GPA at UCLA so I didn’t think that I could obtain a Ph.D. 

But I spent five years out of college learning what research entails. I think it’s more about hard work,  creativity, and how we can solve these really complex problems the world has. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a straight-A student. It means you need to think critically. That’s my big success: I continued to persevere and found a path that aligned with my career goals and how I wanted to contribute to the world.

Do you have tips for students who start research late in their undergrad careers?

Talk to a lot of different people in different research areas. Talk to graduate students, professors, and postdoctoral fellows—anyone who will sit down and guide you through their journey. That, to me, was so helpful and inspirational, and it helped me realize there’s no one way to do research. 

The more I talked to people, the more I realized that everyone’s path is different and that each experience can shape you in ways you may not expect. I’m really thankful for all of my experiences after graduating. I took five years to get to grad school, and some people might look at that and say that’s wasted time, but I really don’t think so. I learned a lot about who I am as a person, my values, and my interests. That makes me a really strong candidate now that I have such a clear research path.

What is your recommendation for students who want to go down the Ph.D. route? 

My number one recommendation is to make sure your field is something you want and not something you think society, your family, or your friends expect of you. The Ph.D. journey is very long—you’re going to spend a lot of time and money. My program lasts for six years and there are a lot of ups and downs during that time. I really encourage others to consider whether the Ph.D. is a necessary stepping stone toward your future goals. If it is, then definitely go for it. If there are other paths, really consider them.

How can students make themselves stand out when they are applying to grad school?

First, you should have a clear area of research you’re passionate about and have a series of questions you are excited to examine and explore. It’s important the professor you’re applying to knows your vision for the Ph.D. program. You should also let your passion shine through! It’s important to show you’re enthusiastic about the things you want to do, and showing that in your application is a way to stand out. Lastly, look at the professors you’re applying to, and write about how you could extend their research in an innovative way and why you are the person to bring that into their lab. I think a lot of professors look for someone who not only matches their lab work but also someone who brings a unique angle and has really thought through how they can contribute to the lab. Making that clear in your application will make you a stellar applicant.

You mentioned how being Asian American and an immigrant has affected your path. Is there anything students or faculty could do to bring more diversity to research?

I think representation really matters. Now, talking to the many diverse faculty members at UCLA about their trajectory is a good way to get inspired and to see for yourself—whether you’re Asian American or another minority—that obtaining a Ph.D. is accomplishable. Relatedly, I think it is really important for graduate students and faculty of color to openly share their personal journey to research, help inspire students, and inform them of the steps one takes to have a career in research. 

Any final words of advice for students who are considering a path in research?

I like sharing my story because I hope it inspires others to know there is no one path to research. You don’t have to be stellar at science and you don’t have to be stellar at math. Those were a lot of the perceptions I had coming in. There’s room for all sorts of people to do research and we need all sorts of people who think differently. I hope this encourages others to consider the path of research and to learn more about what it entails.