Psychacademia Curious to Serious
Updated: Aug 9
Despite being in the midst of a renaissance, psychedelic research is still a field with a lot of stigmas, and simultaneously a lot of trendiness. You can be utterly earnest about wanting to study psychedelics, but how do you distinguish yourself from someone who watches a few documentaries and has a fleeting interest from someone looking for a career in a groundbreaking, rewarding, and still extremely limited field?
Much has changed since the 2006 MAPS article, "So You Want to be a Psychedelic Researcher?" by R. Andrew Sewell, MD. Although Sewell makes many valid points, hearing from someone who has navigated trying to be involved in the field when psychedelics are appearing on 60 Minutes due to a $17 million dollar research center opening and psilocybin-centered wellness retreats are featured on Netflix is also a valuable perspective.
These tips were developed from a condensation of my experience of going from a high school senior doing a project on the history of psychedelics to someone starting a Ph.D. focused on psychedelics science this fall within the span of four years. Let them serve as a guide to the more meaningful ways to interface with the renaissance.
Note: Some of these tips are not viable during the pandemic. However, there will be a time when these activities will be possible again, so they are included as well. Pandemic time tips are also mentioned.
Are You Experienced?
If you want to be a researcher in any field, the most obvious approach is to get some research experience. When do you start doing this? As soon as possible. The day you walk into your first undergrad classroom is a great day to start asking for research assistant positions. Many intelligent and capable students I've talked to have said something along the lines of not feeling ready for a research position, despite being interested in research.
The reality is at first your job will likely be as simple as entering data or scheduling participants. I've been there. It can be boring and seemingly irrelevant to what you want to do. Yet, it also serves as a vital stepstone for learning how research works and developing a good relationship with a mentor.
If you are expecting to find a lab in your university directly studying what you love, odds are it won't happen. However, venturing away from obvious options, and seeing if any studies are going on in your area on the clinical trials registry is worth the gander. Even if you are unable to snag a research assistantship directly related to psychedelics, getting a basic footing in the world of research is essential. However, it helps to choose something related to what you would ultimately like to do.
If you are interested in a more clinically-oriented approach, finding a lab relevant to one of the conditions currently being investigated in psychedelic-assisted therapy trials makes sense. Depression or PTSD are no brainers, but there are other conditions as well.
This method may be more relevant to more neuroscience-oriented students. After identifying your area of interest, figure out what methods they use primarily. Labs, where you will have the opportunity to learn how to program, do neuroimaging analysis, or develop very strong skills in statistics, are tools not only in hot demand in psychedelic science but other neuroscience disciplines as well.
Coming Up: Starting Psychedelic Research
If you are reading this, you know that psychedelics can be an incredible tool for healing and learning about the mind. But so does anyone who's watched a few documentaries on the subject. Distinguish yourself by having specific, potentially testable areas of interest. This makes a world of difference. Saying you want to know more about people's brains on psychedelics versus saying you want to understand how the default mode network is altered differently between psychedelic states and schizophrenia is very different. The later is a potential research inquiry and shows you have dug deep into the literature and have the ability to think critically and creatively about the field; the former shows that you may have perused How to Change Your Mind.
Even if you do not have your heart set on pursuing your "specialty" long term, using it as a pathway to create an honors thesis or other independent work shows that you are more likely to have what it takes to be a productive researcher. Even though you may be unable to actually pursue your ideas fully in undergrad, you at least will be more well-versed in psychedelic science and the process of research for trying. In addition, if you are trying to connect with researchers, having specific ideas is one of the most helpful things you can do to have a meaningful conversation.
Finding Ways to Bring Psychedelic Opportunities to You
After getting some general research experience, it is probably time to find a way to integrate your psychedelic bent into your research experience. The simplest way to do this at institutions without existing psychedelic research is to start your own project. Even as an undergrad, this is doable. This is part of what makes the psychedelic field special; because there are so many questions, it's relatively easy to come up with a novel project. How to do this will be mentioned in a future edition.
What's unique about the field of psychedelics? Well, for one, you can go to massive festivals such as Lightning in a Bottle, Envision, and even Burning Man and claim it as being part of your professional development and, guess what? It legitimately is.
With organizations like the Zendo Project and NEST, you have the opportunity to be trained in how to compassionately support people through difficult emotional experiences while they are often but not always in an altered state.
On top of sitting people, you'll also be surrounded by like-minded people who are deeply involved in the field. Even if you are more interested in neuroscience-related ways to study psychedelics, I think volunteering in harm reduction at a festival is something any psychedelically-oriented student would benefit from trying at least once.
Aside from the bigger name brand opportunities which can be competitive to volunteer for, chances are there are similar opportunities locally. Many regional burns and smaller festivals have Zendo-inspired harm reduction spaces. Queerdome is also an emerging organization that focuses on emotional support for members of the LGBTQ+ community.
DanceSafe is another option that focuses primarily on fact-based drug education and harm reduction (basic safety measures like providing earplugs and at some venues drug checking) for the electronic music community. Although strictly speaking not psychedelic-focused, at smaller events, it's likely that you will also get a chance to provide emotional support for people, who odds are will be under the influence. There are 17 chapters across the country, and if there are none around you, starting one is always an option.
Pandemic Times Tip: If you are looking to develop your skills supporting people in crisis, volunteering at a crisis hotline is an excellent physically distancing approved way to improve your skills. That way, when festivals do appear again, you'll be more likely to be selected for competitive volunteer opportunities. Crisis Textline is a great place to start, but there are many other options.
On Finding the Others
Psychedelic Societies & Other Organizations
If I was to name one thing that was helpful for me taking my interest in psychedelics from a quirk to landing me in a PhD program, it would be my involvement with my local psychedelic community, PsyAtlanta. It was through them that I jumped from attending documentary screenings to leading integration circles to presenting live monthly talks and workshops.
Chances are if you live in a medium-sized city there may already be an existing group in your area. Depending on the composition of the group, community organizations can either be a way to network with established psychedelic therapists or researchers or your chance to develop your leadership skills.
Integration circles are relatively simple to lead and, similarly to volunteering in harm reduction, provide a chance to sharpen your skills as a space holder. Psychedelic Support has excellent resources to get you started.
One advantage of psychedelics versus other fields of research is, generally speaking, people are captivated to learn more about your interest. Use this to your advantage and consider giving a basic psychedelic science talk.
This may sound challenging, but the rewards are worth it. Each talk provides an opportunity to dive deep into the latest research and learn it well enough to explain it in a thought-provoking way to a general audience.
Through this process, it becomes easier to see where crucial gaps lie in knowledge and, therefore, is fertilizer for interesting, specific ideas. During the process of preparing psychedelic science talks, I developed the questions that would lead to my honors thesis and research practicum project, and odds are you might too. A detailed guide to creating talks will be featured in an upcoming blotter.
What if there's not a society/meetup/local organization?
If there is no existing group in your area, making one either through your school or for the general community doesn't have to be that much work. Starting with simple gatherings like documentary screenings and integration circles is a fantastic way to get started. Another option is to start a chapter rooted in an existing network such as the Intercollegiate Psychedelics Network (IPN), Psychedelic Club, or Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
Although this youth-led organization is primarily focused on ending the war on drugs through sensible drug policy and education, they also have a strong psychedelic study bent. Most recently, they have started the Psychedelic Pipeline, which matches SSDP members with a psychedelic-oriented professional for a year-long mentorship. The matching process requires essays, interviews, and the exact composition of mentors varies each year. It is an investment in time, but the opportunity to work directly with some of the brightest in the field is definitely worth it.
SSDP also provides a program that empowers students to be an SSDP-certified "Just Say Know" peer educator to provide fact-based drug education to their peers about numerous drugs and sensible policy. Becoming an SSDP-certified "Just Say Know" peer educator requires going through a thirteen module online curriculum that discusses drug education, harm reduction, and leadership skills. There is also an optional psychedelic-specific elective module. The curriculum is at least as dense as a standard college class and takes a fair bit of commitment to complete but the skills learned are applicable to many other leadership arenas.
Pandemic Times Tip: Many groups are active online, and thus, it is an excellent time to collaborate and learn from different groups around the country and even the world.
Conferences & Talks
Conferences can be expensive. They require travel and potentially missing some classes. But they are so worth it. Many students at first are most often interested in catching all the talks at a conference. The talks are often available online for free afterward. Don't obsess over the content or try to take as meticulous as possible notes.
The real opportunity that conferences present is finding the others. Find other undergraduates serious about psychedelic studies. Find psychedelic research assistance and current PhD students. I even found my current PhD advisor through attending one of his talks and asking a ton of questions afterward.
Convinced yet? Also, keep in mind, they need not be expensive. Plenty of conferences offer scholarships to students such as the Sleep Octopus Assembly on Psychedelic Science's Emerging Voices Educational Award. In addition, the Students for Sensible Drug Policy Chapter Activity Tracker (CAT) points program is willing to provide funding for select conferences based on the work you're doing as a chapter (provided your chapter agrees on how the points are spent).
Many organizations such as DanceSafe, SSDP, MAPS, also table at conferences and are willing to provide you a ticket in exchange for a few shifts of tabling. Volunteering to table can be an especially potent way to connect more deeply with people as you are literally getting the chance to chat it up with people in the renaissance all day.
Pandemic Tip: Going to in-person conferences is not an option right now. While there are online conferences, these may be a better platform for learning than connecting. Joining a listserv provides a better way to network. The MAPS grad student listserv is a valuable resource for anyone serious about the field, regardless of if you are currently a graduate student. Many opportunities for research assistant positions and volunteer opportunities are posted here first or exclusively.
To Tell or Not?
Be Open About Your Professional Interest
If you have been doing a lot of the suggestions mentioned, chances are you may be accumulating substantial research, volunteering, and/or leadership experience for an undergraduate student.
Yet, I have repeatedly heard students being hesitant to share their volunteer or leadership experience if it is at all related to psychedelics. In a time where the public's and scientific communities' interest in psychedelic is rapidly expanding, this does not make any sense. Moreover, gaining research experience related to psychedelics, volunteering, or leadership experience is still professional experience. Don't hide it.
Personally, when I applied for a competitive supplemental instructor position and a study abroad scholarship, I told both of them all about my work with PsyAtlanta and research experience. I got both opportunities. Don't hide your hard work and be clear about what your professional intentions are by being in the field.
This is one of the most dividing topics in the community. I have had some researchers say what their personal favorite psychedelic is the first time I met them, yet, I have also heard that talking about personal use is the "kiss of the death" in some circles. For harm reduction's sake, if you will, don't say anything, initially when connecting with professionals in the field. Do not say your personal experience is your reason for doing research. Anyone can have a profound experience on a potent 5-HT2a agonist, yet having a substance-assisted mystical experience does not mean you would necessarily enjoy being a researcher or are well suited for it.
Take it Easy, But Take it!
If you were looking for the path of least resistance, this isn't it. Well-meaning professors may very well suggest you take a bit of a more well-followed path. They may not understand or even believe that the career you want is possible. Even today, despite psychedelics being increasingly prevalent in pop culture, the reality is there are still only a handful of places across the world doing psychedelic research.
However, I don't imagine this will be the case for long. There is still so very much to know. It's a bit as if the field froze in the late 1960s, and it is only now slowly but surely dethawing. There are incalculable questions to answer and ways to contribute. New voices are needed. We now have the tools to understand what is going on in the psychedelic state beyond ponderings based in psychodynamic thought. We have higher standards for clinical trials and are perhaps more in need of novel treatments than ever to address the growing mental health crisis. But it will still take time for the field to become as accessible as more established approaches.
With the mycilinating movement to decriminalize psychedelics and the increasing promise of potential FDA-approval of psychedelic-assisted therapies, the need to scientifically understand what tools we are working with has never been more essential.
So, despite the difficulties of trying to get involved, the competitiveness and frustrations of finding a graduate school with a psychedelic-bent, the potential stigmas and doubts people might express- just go for it.
Even if you do everything recommended here, you may not end up being a psychedelic researcher. But the skills you get in research and leadership, all while chasing after something you're passionate about, will pave the way to something meaningful, regardless of precisely where you end up.