Class of 2016: Undergrad Researcher Returns for Curry Ph.D.


It all comes down to fit.

This is the advice Shannon Varga, a 2016 graduate of the Educational Psychology-Applied Developmental Science (EP-ADS) doctoral program, gives to any undergraduates thinking about graduate school.

Shannon Varga“Your research interest matters—of course it does,” said Varga. “But your working style fit with faculty mentors, that requires a lot of introspection and understanding of who you are and what you need early on.”

Fortunately, Varga had a number of key research experiences as an undergraduate that helped her discover this fit at the Curry School of Education. Varga is an alumna of the Summer Undergraduate Research Program or SURP.

While a psychology major and sociology minor at Montclair State University, Varga participated in research through an NIH-funded scholarship program but wanted to learn more about research in applied settings.

“The research at the Curry School of Education was very interesting to me,” said Varga. “They were using a wider range of methods with more diverse populations and different age groups outside of laboratories.”

She was an undergraduate intern in the 2011 SURP program and worked with faculty at Youth-Nex, the University of Virginia research center focusing on positive youth development. Like many SURP alumni, Varga found the most rewarding part was the supportive research environment.

“Being in a program that allowed undergraduates to meet one on one with different professors that were really big names but were all humble, was very unique,” said Varga. 

This supportive environment made her want to continue research at the University of Virginia and apply for graduate studies here.

“SURP exposed me to many different types of research, and much of it in applied educational psychology settings,” explained Varga. “It definitely solidified that I wanted to go straight into a Ph.D. program.”

Varga found that the Curry School of Education’s EP-ADS program stood out because of its interdisciplinary nature, research methodology heavy curriculum, hands-on faculty support, and overall structure.

“None of the other programs I visited had the kind of structure that allows you to get everything done in four years like Curry does,” explained Varga. “Also, other places I visited were not encouraging students to work with different program faculty. I think everyone here is dedicated to helping students succeed and letting them work on what they are passionate about.”

Varga has definitely explored her passions. Right now she is doing research that examines youth-adult relationships and takes an ecological look at the different resources available, such as social support and social capital, in these relationships.

“In this work we interview youth to get their perspective on how they interact with adults and how they find support,” said Varga. “Our work has the potential to counter the predominant narrative about American teenagers—that they don’t need adults, they turn toward their peers, and they are only engaging in risky behaviors.”

“I am very focused on how we leverage adults as assets for youth, but I am also interested in identity development and the complex role culture plays in these areas.”

Shannon VargaThis research is also interesting to new cohorts of SURP interns. Varga has served as a graduate student mentor for a number of summers.

“Mentoring SURP interns gave me the opportunity to teach, and now I feel like that I have done the full range,” said Varga. “I feel I am a well-rounded researcher now, because of all the opportunities the SURP and EP-ADS program has given me, from workshops to courses and mentoring.”

What other advice does Varga have for graduate school? She says to find something you are passionate about and then find an institution that is willing to support you in this passion so you have the most fulfilling experience.

Vargas will be leaving the Curry School after graduation, as she will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Promise at Boston University this fall.

Varga is also a fellow in the Virginia Education Sciences Training (VEST), a pre-doctoral fellowship program funded by the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences.