What is Distinctive about Studying Developmental Psychology at UW-Madison?
The developmental program is a tight-knit and synergistic group of faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars. A common feature across our lab groups is a focus on mechanisms and processes of change. Our program is oriented around modern perspectives on learning: we seek to explain how humans acquire and advance skills and capacities across a variety of domains. Thus, members of our group have opportunities to focus on whichever cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotion-related behaviors that are of interest to them, while being connected to scholars who are similarly interested in and studying learning in other aspects of development.

In addition to creative and cutting-edge laboratory-based research, the developmental program prides itself on community engagement. Our faculty strongly identify with the longest and deepest tradition surrounding the University of Wisconsin: “the Wisconsin Idea”. The Wisconsin Idea signifies a general principle: that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the university. As examples of this, the developmental psychology faculty have long-standing partnerships with the Madison Children’s Museum, the Madison Metropolitan School District, the Dane County Department of Human Services/Division of Children and Families, and the Odyssey Project.

The developmental program is also deeply interdisciplinary. Every developmental faculty member is also an active member of at least one other area of the Psychology Department. Our faculty also hold appointments with the Institute for Research on Poverty, the LaFollette School of Public Affairs, the Harlow Primate Laboratory, and the Departments of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Pediatrics, Anthropology, and Educational Psychology. Our strength is enhanced by extremely rich relationships between the developmental area group and the Institute on Aging, the Waisman Center, and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. We have fully state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, enhanced by unique opportunities at the Waisman Brain Imaging laboratory, which is specifically designed for work with children and adolescents. Graduate student and postdoctoral funding and interdisciplinary activities are enhanced by a number of developmentally-oriented training programs including our Emotion Research Training Program, Interdisciplinary Training Program in Education Sciences, and Morse Scholars Program.

Our Approach to Research
The developmental program is primarily oriented around experimental techniques to explain how developmental changes occur. However, all of our laboratories flexibly integrate a variety of approaches to best understand development. In addition to experimental behavioral methods, Martha Alibali’s lab also uses observational methods in educational settings. Stephen Ferrigno uses comparative approaches that include both human infants and monkeys. Pearl Han Li’s lab uses cross-cultural approaches and draws insights from philosophy and cognitive sciences. João Guassi Moreira’s lab uses functional magnetic resonance imaging and techniques from computational science. Ashley Jordan’s lab uses a variety of cognitive methods. Students working with Seth Pollak have employed cognitive science, computational, hormonal, epigenetic, ERP, fMRI, and other physiological markers in their experiments. Carol Ryff uses longitudinal and cross-cultural approaches. Jenny Saffran’s group is engaged in numerous projects intended to improve the behavioral methods used to study infants and young children. And Kristin Shutts’ lab has undertaken community and family intervention projects.

Current Research Emphases

Within the broad domain of human learning, students in our developmental program are currently focused on a range of timely issues. These include the development of decision-making, emotion, gender and identity, language acquisition, mathematical reasoning, scientific thinking, problem solving, social cognition, symbolic reasoning, and resiliency. Our students also focus on the relationship between perception and learning, effects of stress, adversity, and poverty on social development and learning, and educational interventions to improve classroom learning. Across our labs, students have opportunities to also work with a variety of clinical and at-risk populations of youth.

The Doctoral Training Program
Students in the program share an interest in where behaviors come from and how behaviors change over development; however, students differ in their domains of interest. For example, a student studying language acquisition is likely to include classes on adult language processing and linguistics in their curriculum, and/or take courses in Communication Sciences and Disorders. A student interested in social cognition may fold in coursework in social psychology and perhaps sociology. Students interested in classroom learning often take additional courses in the UW Graduate School of Education, while those interested in public policy may engage with the La Follette School of Public Affairs, and other students may include courses from the Neuroscience Program. Depending upon the research approach students are using, students may use different types of methodological and statistical approaches; relevant courses are offered in the Psychology Department, as well as the School of Education, and Departments of Statistics, Biostatistics, Medical Physics, and the School of Computing, Data and Information Sciences. For these reasons, the Developmental Psychology program is expressly designed to afford students maximal flexibility. Each student, with the input of their mentor and the developmental faculty, designs their own interdisciplinary curriculum that is consonant with their own goals and interests.

Every student enters the program with at least one primary advisor. During the Fall semester of the first year, students begin to refine their research interests and, with their advisor(s), design a First Year research project. The project is designed to allow students to launch their research careers by increasing their abilities to design a small-scale study, create stimuli, program the experiment, and gain hands-on experience with research participants. During their first year, and with the guidance and support of the developmental faculty, students develop their own individualized educational plan and curriculum for their doctoral degree. Thus, there are no required developmental courses. This personalized curriculum ensures that each student achieves breadth across domains of development, as well as cross-disciplinary depth in an area of interest to the student. At the start of their second year in the program, students share their First Year Project progress with the Psychology Department in the form of a department-wide symposium and celebration.

Monitoring Goals for Progress and Success in the Ph.D. Program

Rather than using traditional exams or papers, developmental students submit a portfolio of their activities to qualify for dissertator status. By deeming the portfolio to be Satisfactory, the faculty will have determined that the student has developed a rich knowledge base and skill set and is prepared to pursue independent research in the form of their dissertation. The portfolio, which begins in the student’s second year of the program, provides a mechanism for developmental students to organize, plan, and reflect on their progress through our program–including building skills in research, teaching, and research-informed service. A special feature of our program is that students, in addition to TAing, have the opportunity to teach their own courses–both small discussion seminars (capstones devoted to specialty topics) and lecture courses (e.g., child development). It reflects the program’s values, highlighting the importance of both breadth of study/experiences in developmental science and allied topics/disciplines, as well as depth in a specific area of study as core components of doctoral training.

The portfolio also allows students to receive regular feedback on all aspects of their progress through the program and to appreciate the ways in which all their activities during graduate school are contributing to their professional development. Student portfolios are explicitly designed with the flexibility to reflect each student’s career goals, intellectual interests, and choices; each student’s path through the program will be unique. This system is meant to respect what we think students should have achieved by the end of a Ph.D. program focused on developmental science, while at the same time supporting flexibility. A distinctive feature of the portfolio system is that the portfolio is a working document that will develop and change each year based upon dialogue with the student’s mentors. The portfolio is intended to be a useful tool to guide graduate student development flexibly and productively, while keeping students aware of their own progress and to prepare for their next intended career step. More information may be found here.

Advising and Mentoring

Every student enters the program with at least one primary advisor. The developmental faculty enjoy collaborating with each other around students’ interests, and all of us have co-mentored doctoral students with other faculty (within the developmental area, with other psychology faculty, and with faculty from other departments on campus). It is often very effective for doctoral students to have co-mentors, and we encourage you to contact our faculty directly to share your ideas prior to submitting an application. All graduate students in the Psychology Department also have a personalized Mentoring Committee composed of three faculty in addition to the student’s primary advisor. Members of the mentoring committee are selected by the student towards the end of their first year in the program and can include faculty from any area of the Psychology Department as well as faculty from other departments.

Proseminar in Developmental Psychology

Graduate students are required to enroll in, regularly attend, and participate in PSYCH 706 (Proseminar in Developmental Psychology) for all semesters in which they are enrolled in the graduate program. The Developmental Proseminar is designed to keep faculty and students abreast of developments across sub-areas of developmental psychology, provide public speaking experience for trainees, allow students earlier in their careers to hear from more advanced trainees, provide connections for members of the area group beyond their own lab, and offer professional development training, guidance, and opportunities. Developmental students interested in occasionally attending a different Psychology Department proseminar in a given week may do so (students are not expected to attend more than one proseminar per week). Students who plan on regularly attending a different departmental proseminar should consult with the Developmental Area Chair. Requests for exceptions to the proseminar requirement should be directed to the Developmental Area chair. Dissertators are required to enroll for three credits per semester: 2 credits of PSYCH 990 and 1 credit of PSYCH 706.


For specific information about the admissions criteria used by members of the developmental faculty, please see this page.
An undergraduate degree in psychology is not necessary for admission to the program, though applicants should have some research and/or work experience with youth in the age range that they plan to study.
If you have questions about completing/submitting the UW-Madison Psychology Department application itself, the best person to contact is our graduate coordinator, Kevin Belt. You can reach him at

Career Paths of Wisconsin Developmental Ph.D. Students

Students who graduate from our program have gone on to pursue a wide variety of careers. For example, some graduates have gone on to start their own labs at major research universities, while others have taken positions at undergraduate-focused colleges and others at regional colleges. Still other graduates have applied their graduate degree skills to public policy work, industry jobs, and non-profit organizations.


Martha Alibali
I study learning, development, and communication in STEM domains—primarily in mathematics, but also in biology

Stephen Ferrigno My research investigates the evolutionary, developmental, and cultural origins of concepts and cognition.

Ashley Jordan (Starting Fall, 2024)
My research examines the emergence of children’s social preferences and their inferences about social groups.

Pearl Han Li (starting Fall, 2025)
I study children’s moral cognition and social learning from developmental and cultural perspectives.

João Guassi Moreira (Starting Fall, 2024)
I study social decision-making and emotion regulation in adolescence and develop quantitative methods.

Seth Pollak (Developmental Area Chair)
My students and I are interested in understanding how emotions develop and factors that affect learning across domains.

Carol Ryff
I study psychological well-being – what influences it and how it matters for health.

Jenny Saffran
I study how infants and young children learn, particularly in the domain of language.

Kristin Shutts
My interests include social cognitive development, intergroup biases, and sociocultural learning.