An interview with aspiring environmental psychologist: Tuvshinzaya Amarzaya on her applications for PhD

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Tuvshinzaya Amarzaya

Since one of the main reasons people visit this blog is to learn about environmental psychology and getting resources to delve further into the field, many readers might find it interesting to learn about applying for Environmental psychology PhD programs from someone who recently experienced it first-hand.

Tuvshinzaya Amarzaya, a recent Psychology B.A. graduate and a Watson Fellow from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, has been applying for PhD programs in environmental psychology all over the world during the past few months. She has some insights to share with us.

Tuvshinzaya, I’d like you to tell us about Watson Fellowship. What does it entail? How did you earn it?

The Watson is a very unique Fellowship that essentially allows young college graduates dedicate a year to explore whatever their passion is – and I mean it when I say “whatever it is”. Unlike most fellowships, the Watson project does not have to be “practical,” “scientific,” or “for the betterment of society” at all. Fellows are not even required to have a tangible result product to show at the end of the year. The Watson Foundation interviewer later told me that it is so because this Fellowship was an investment in the fellows as people, not in the fellowship projects. Honestly, in their eyes, I think the quirkier the project (and the fellow), the better. Watsonites over the decades have studied everything from gondola-building, feminism in weaving, role of theatre in war-stricken countries, contorionism and anthropology, marine biodiversity, to challenges of stand-up comedy in non-native language. Graduating seniors from select 40 liberal arts colleges in the U.S. are eligible to apply (regardless of citizenship!) and each college gets to nominate four candidates based on the written project proposal, personal statement (roughly 6 pages each) and an internal interview. The nominees go onto interview with one of the Watson Foundation alumni, who decides who the winners will be that year. I wrote my pieces, which must be the most personally revealing essays I have ever written so far, went through my interviews (which I thought I really bombed) and I somehow “earned” my spot as a Watson as you have put it.

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Tuvshinzaya at Shaolin Temple, Deng Feng, China; photo by Tuvshinzaya

Wow, that sounds amazing! What was the focus of your research during that year?

I set out to explore the relationship between martial arts and the artist; particularly, in regards to how individual martial artists understand and self-identify with her or his martial art. I was always fascinated by martial arts because I believed that martial arts not only help its practitioners get in shape, but it shapes who they are as a people. Each martial art style comes with a particular history, philosophy, and even a lifestyle attached onto the physical training.  I wanted to understand what made people choose their particular martial arts style, and how it affects their self-and-cultural identity. My initial hypotheses were soundly disproven, though. I found out that for most of the serious martial artists, their martial arts have chosen them, not the other way around. It is usually comes as a way out of poverty, and starts when they were too young to really make a choice, least of all about life philosophy, discipline, and lifestyle they would like to lead. But, I learned a great deal about the heights of motivation and discipline that people can reach and what it is like to put your body and health on the line for your profession and passion. During the year, I got to live alongside the Shaolin Warrior Monks in China, practiced under Wing Chun masters in Hong Kong, danced with Capoeira Mestres in Brazil, and was led by Muay Thai coaches to my first ring fight in Thailand. It was easily the most challenging and the most rewarding year of my life yet for sure.

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Shaolin Warrior Monks; photo by Tuvshinzaya

That’s really impressive experience! What did you learn about different cultures during your travels that was new or significant for you?

Even though my main question was how martial arts shape individual practitioners, I was also very interested in whether learning a particular martial art influences a practitioner’s understanding of that country’s culture. As I learned about the historical significance behind each ritual or gear, and the events that led to particular formulation of defenses and attacks, I started wondering about how martial arts themselves develop and build their self-identity in response to historical times and events. Somehow on this line of thinking, I started looking for patterns in how countries build their self-identity. Since I was traveling, I started taking notes of how the general attitudes (e.g. stress level, stranger-friendliness) seem to differ between countries, cities, and even neighborhoods. Of course, I became more appreciative of cultural differences during my travels, but in a sense, I was struck more by the sameness of people than their differences. In lack of better words, I think I was starting to notice the ways in which the culture or environment shapes a person, rather than how individuals choose a philosophy and culture to follow.  I have always leaned heavily on the nurture side on the nature vs. nurture debate, and this year of living in different cultures and observing the customs of daily lives actually convinced me even further of the strength of our environments in shaping who became to be.

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Tuvshinzaya at Mestre Bimba’s balcony, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil; photo by Tuvshinzaya

It sounds like you picked up some cues leading towards environmental psychology. Have your research or professional interests become clearer after this experience?

The previous question made me stop and think for quite a while, but this one is an immediate and resounding YES! In August last year, I was planning to apply for PhD  in IO Psychology. At that point, I was still yet to have heard of environmental psychology as a field, so I was essentially trying to build up an individualized program by putting IO as the core and some urban planning, anthropology, public policy, and maybe even sprinkle in some philosophy courses. I am so glad I have found your blog, and consequently the field of environmental psychology as I am sure my patchwork PhD would have turned into a Frankenstein. I chose IO as a core, because I always had that “must-improve-always” mindset, but I think environmental psychology gave me a way to play in the big leagues. With IO, I would have been thinking about how to improve a specific school or organization, but upon finding environmental psychology, and becoming more convinced of its principal theories, I started thinking about how to improve cities and regions in order to raise the quality of life for much larger group of people. Psychologists are more aware than most about the myriad of difficulties in changing people’s behavior and attitude, but if their environment shapes people that much more naturally and effortlessly than other people, then that is a great field to do some more digging! Finding the field of environmental psychology was nothing less than a revelation for me. It seems that I caught on pretty late (after four years of formal study in psychology), but I am just glad that I stumbled upon the field now even if it came by bits and pieces a year after graduation. No Frankensteins!

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Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, main square; photo by Marco Fieber

Did living in Ulaanbaatar have anything to do with your interest in quality of life, sustainability and urban planning?

I think it has more to do with the future direction of my studies than the origin of my interest. I think my interest in quality of life started because I had a childhood illness and had a pretty limited life for a long while as a result. Living in Ulaanbaatar had actually shielded me from urban planning interest as it is a very young city that was essentially built by the Russians during Communist periods. The majority of the city’s buildings are uniform grey blocks that really do not elicit the same awe and inspiration that colonial European or old Japanese neighborhoods do. Urban planning was elementary to say the least. Then again, maybe precisely because my city is not all that it could be, that I feel strong attraction to urban planning. We are still transitioning into urban settlement from our nomadic lifestyles. My travels had opened my eyes to not just the art of city building, but the science of it. What really took me by surprise on this journey was finding how sustainable the entire city of Berlin was compared to Ulaanbaatar. I would love to make my city just as breathable, as orderly and effective as Berlin. As I said before (or tried to, really), Berlin is not the more sustainable city because the German people are somehow genetically more conscientious or inherently more responsible than Mongolians, but it was because their built environment (city) has great environmental protection systems in place that better encourage sustainable behavior, mindset and habits. So now I am hoping to help address one of Ulaanbaatar’s most urgent problem – air pollution. I want to help figure out how to make Ulaanbaatar breathable. Currently, in the winter specially, we can taste the coal when we breathe, so we try to limit our outdoor life as much as possible during our long winters. I love my country, but I would give Ulaanbaatar a failing grade on quality of life at the moment. Here’s hoping that I can find a practical solution or two to help in my PhD years!

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Apartment buildings in Ulaanbatar; photo by Michael Chu

Where did you apply for PhD?

At first I planned on reaching 5 continents, but by the time I had found Mind-Shaped-Box and the field of environmental psychology, I had already missed the deadline for University of Melbourne. Now, it was down to 4 continents, but then I found out the program in La Sapienza has some required courses that are only offered in Italian. I had the same trouble with University of Brasilia – I had learned some Portuguese in my time in Brazil, but nearly not enough for grad course level! So finally, I ended applying to 7 programs in just 3 countries. In the USA, I had Colorado State University, City University New York, Cornell University, University of California Irvine, and Yale. I also applied to University of Victoria in Canada, and Nangyang Tech University in Singapore. I recently accepted Cornell’s offer and enrolled in Design and Environmental Analysis PhD program for the next fall!

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Cornell University; photo by eflon

Congrats! That’s great news! Do you have any advice for other aspiring environmental psychology students about choosing and applying for programs in this field?

I am sure that by the time students have started planning for their PhD, they will have heard all there is to hear about making sure there is a fit between program, advisor, and so on. While very important, it is a very individual process, so I will just stick to logistics advice. In my undergraduate years, I planned on applying to 9 colleges, but hit submit on the only one. I had a major case of freezing up with preemptive fear, and did not send my applications to many of the schools that I thought were a reach for me (which ironically included Cornell University) and accidentally-on-purpose missed deadlines for others in my panic. It turned out for the best for me, I loved my time in Berea College and it led me to my Watson Fellowship journey. However, I really hope that these aspiring environmental psychology students do not suffer from the same affliction. Just in case it is helpful though, knowing my own past, I actually made a decoy application of a sort this time around. I found a program that had the earliest deadline and that I felt confident about my chances, but did not mind getting rejected from if it came to be (I knew I would not be able to live for 5 years in that city) and made myself apply there first so that I could get over my initial fear and move forward with the applications that I did care about.

I would also like to really highlight the importance of emailing potential advisors or professors of interest (POI) ahead of applying to the program. I truly sympathize with the difficulty; at times, I felt like emailing a POI was = research + mini essay + asking out a celebrity. However, I discovered through emailing that one of my POIs had shifted his focus on research. It can also serve as a great indicator on how well you and your supervisors would get along. Most of the professors were delightful; I had exchanged movie recommendations, shared travel stories, bonded over our shared values in coaching youths and Ikea and even commiserated over Trump’s administration with those professors. One of the professors even emailed me a copy of all his reading materials for environmental psychology course. On the other hand, I dropped a program because the advisor I would have worked closest with had listed 20+ pages worth of awards and accomplishments, but did not have a single sentence on their teaching philosophy, and further email indicated that publishing in prestigious journals was a higher priority than outreach work. So it is a tough deal, but emailing professors ahead of applications could really help save time and effort, as well as help clarify what is important. In my later interviews, I started asking how they would rank publishing, outreach work, and teaching, and I think that helped me figure out what I value most and where will be the best fit.

I also just learned that it is customary to start applying/searching for housing the same time you apply for the program itself! It blew my mind when I found out, but apparently at least in Cornell, the affordable and the desirable places are signed a year or so before the lease date! So I would definitely recommend looking into the housing situation as soon as you are seriously considering the program so that you do not get caught by surprise like me. 😊

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Arts Quad at Cornell; photo by Barbara Friedman

 Thank you for all this advice. With this exciting new frontier ahead of you, what do you think is  the specific contribution psychologists can make in the interdisciplinary field of human-environment relations?

As a textbook jack-of-all-trades, I always liked the flexibility and the endless relevancy (for a lack of better word) of psychology. In undergrad, every class I took seemed like a showcase of how the field of psychology contributed not only to mental health, but education, social justice, technology, law, international politics – and, of course, environmental sciences. As long as there are human minds behind the wheel steering the world, psychology will be a relevant and, I daresay, an essential field of study. In environmental or ecological psychology, I think it holds particularly true as we are part of a group trying to undo man-made damages. The advances that material scientists, engineers, and activists have brought are frankly amazing, but I think behavioral scientists can contribute by making sure that these advancements can be successfully implemented and carried out by the people.

I am trying so hard not to be a cliche or be caught as a hopeless naive romantic here, but I do believe that every profession and field is/should strive to improve our human condition (including our environments) in some way. Not just doctors and firemen staving off death, but economists on understanding and easing poverty, engineers and construction workers allowing us more time for pursuing our passions rather than fetch water or filtering it (less time for surviving, and more for living), artists on bringing reflection and meaning closer to us,  and I think it is psychologists’ mission to understand the human mind  in order to concentrate and direct our collective efforts on how to better the human condition.

Throughout our correspondence over the last five months, I’ve been fascinated by Tuvshinzaya’s story and approach towards work and life in general. I’m sure all the professors she contacted felt the same. She’s been kind enough to offer her contact to readers interested in following her path, so she could further assist them with useful information: tuvshinzaya.amarzaya@gmail.com.

It’s been extremely rewarding to share her joy when she enrolled in PhD program at Cornell earlier this year and I hope we’ll be able to do a follow-up chat once she settles in! 🙂 Thank you, Tuvshinzaya, for sharing your story!

Gallery: more photos from Tuvshinzaya’s travels

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