Graduate Study in Psychology:

General Advice

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  1. Is graduate school really for you? This is the most important question to ask yourself as you are thinking about applying. Graduate school is a time-consuming and expensive commitment. Make sure you talk to a lot of people and do a lot of internet research so that you know what you're getting into before you decide to apply. Graduate school can be extremely rewarding, but only if you are passionately interested in whatever it is that you are interested in studying.
  2. Are there any absolute rules that you can follow to ensure that you are admitted? No. No matter what your qualifications are, it is impossible to predict with absolute certainty whether you will be admitted to certain programs or not. Obviously, better students will get more acceptance letters than poor students, but factors outside of your control are going to play a big part in where you are admitted. So keep in mind that the rest of the advice on this page includes general guidelines--there are no guarantees.
  3. What are the most important strengths that an applicant can have? As you probably know, your grade point average (GPA), your Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, and your letters of recommendation are the most important pieces of information that admissions committees will use to decide on your application. Grades, scores, and letters of reference help professors make quick and easy judgments from the beginning. Often, admissions committees will make "likely", "maybe", and "unlikely" piles out of the applications right from the start. Although every application will be looked at briefly, you want to make sure that you have the sort of grades, GRE scores and letters of recommendation that get your application channeled into the "likely" pile right from the start.
  4. What are "good" grades? Here are some very general guidelines about grades: all else being equal, students who have above a 3.4 can expect to be admitted to some PsyD or PhD programs; students who have above a 3.0 can expect to be admitted to some very respectable Masters programs and even some PsyD programs; students who have a GPA above 2.8 can expect to be admitted to some Masters programs. (If you need to know more about the difference between PsyD and PhD programs, see question 3 on the Frequently Asked Questions page on this site.) There are no true cut-off scores though--I know students with 3.1 GPA's who are in PhD programs, because they had other outstanding qualifications when they applied that made them look really good. But I also know a student with a 4.0 GPA who wasn't admitted anywhere, because she didn't get any research experience before she applied, and she didn't apply to a wide enough range of programs.
  5. Can an applicant be "too good" for some programs? Yes, sometimes. If you have excellent qualifications and apply to a low-ranked PhD program, for example, they may reject you simply because they know that you're not serious about their program and that you'd rather go to another, far more prestigious program. This probably only happens for PhD programs, and my sense is that it occurs rarely.
  6. What if your grades are disappointing? If you messed up your GPA and you have a good explanation for your grades, explain why your GPA is as low as it is in the essay that you submit with your application. If you started college as a biology or physics major, for example, your less-than-optimal grades during your first two years of college may be perfectly understandable. Also, admissions committees will usually look more carefully at your recent grades than the grades you received two or three years ago.
  7. Is a 3.80 GPA better than a 3.60 GPA? Not really. I sometimes hear students saying things like, "I wish I could just get my 3.65 up to a 3.7", not realizing that nobody cares about trivial little differences like that. Other factors like the school you graduated from, what your letters of recommendation say about you, and the kind of research experience you've had are what really make you stand out from the other applicants who have high GPA's and high GRE scores.
  8. Does the quality of your undergraduate school make a difference? Often, yes. I know that some top-notch PhD programs consider your undergraduate school quite seriously. Also, most schools will try to interpret your GPA based on where you graduate from. After all, a 3.2 GPA at Columbia University may reflect the same amount of intelligence and effort as a 3.9 GPA from Daemen College. The other advantage that students from top-notch undergraduate schools have is that they are more likely to have letters of reference from professors who are well-known in their fields. Admissions committees tend to pay special attention to letters of reference written by hot-shot researchers.
  9. How can you get a doctorate if your grades aren't the best? Some students with average grades who are highly motivated to get a doctorate can realize their dream by doing it the long way: by getting a Masters first, and then reapplying to PhD or PsyD programs later. Of course, this is going to take you longer and will probably cost you more money, but it's probably the best thing for you to do if your grades aren't the best. (To read about how long graduate programs take, read the answer to question 5 on the Frequently Asked Questions page.)
  10. How important is research experience? It is crucial! I know of one person who applied to graduate programs with a 4.0 GPA and pretty good GRE scores who was rejected at every program she applied to since she had no research experience. Working in one of your professors' labs is not only a good way for you to learn what graduate school will be like, it's also an easy way to boost your GPA. Most schools will give you course credit for the research work you do, and it's usually easy to get an 'A' as long as you do a good job. Working on a professor's research is also a good way to get high-quality letters of recommendation, because professors will get to know you better if you work in their labs.
  11. What if your research experience is in a different area from the area that you are interested in? That doesn't matter all that much. Any research experience is better than none. In fact, if you have trouble finding a psychologist to work with, try looking for research opportunities in the sociology, education, business, or medical schools in your area. However, there are some advantages to getting into a lab that researches something similar to what you're interested in. If you are applying to, say, a social psychology program, a letter of recommendation from a famous social psychologist will definitely help you more than a letter from a famous clinical psychologist. But once again, any kind of research experience is better than none at all.
  12. How important is it to do your own research project? It's not crucial, but it definitely makes you look good. Many schools have honors programs that require undergraduates to do a project of their own, and usually these are the only undergraduates who become co-authors on their professors' papers. (And of course, being an author on a published paper looks really, really good when you apply.) If you have experience running your own study, collecting your own data, and writing up a report, you'll be well-prepared for graduate school.
  13. What is the "shotgun method" of applying? One of the best ways to ensure that you are able to go to graduate school the first time you apply is to apply to as many graduate programs as you can, and to apply to a wide range of them. Most applicants who want a doctorate and know what they are doing will apply to at least 6 doctoral programs and 2 or 3 masters programs. But of course, you'll want to adjust this according to the strength of your application. For example, if you have a 3.8 GPA and your GRE scores are in the 600's, you can probably just apply to 7 doctoral programs and 1 masters program, because you have a very strong chance of getting into doctoral programs with those qualifications (assuming that everything else about your application is good). On the other hand, if you have a 3.2 GPA and your GRE scores are all in the 500's, and you decide that you're only going to apply to the doctoral programs at Stanford, Princeton, and Berkeley, well, you're taking a huge risk and probably wasting your time and application money (but who knows?). The point is, you want to apply to a broad range of schools so that when all of the decisions are made, you know that you'll at least be going to some program somewhere. (To see the U.S. News Rankings of PhD programs in the United States, see the Helpful Links page. There is no such thing as rankings for Masters programs, so just use the PhD rankings as a rough guide.) If you apply to 6 PhD programs, for example, you may want to apply to two schools in the top twenty, two schools ranked between 30 and 50, and two schools ranked below 50. Rankings should be used only as a rough index of how hard it is to get into the school.
  14. How valid are program rankings like those on the U.S. News web site? Not all that valid. The first problem with them is that they represent departments as a whole, not specific areas of the department. A school may have an excellent cognitive psychology program and a terrible clinical psychology program, for example. The second problem with rankings is that they really don't mean anything at close range. For example, while the 10th-ranked school may be quite a bit better than the 70th-ranked school, the 10th-ranked school may really be just as good as the 25th-ranked school. At close ranges, the rankings are arbitrary, so don't make the mistake of telling yourself, for example, that it's easier to get into the 10th-ranked school than it is to get into the 5th-ranked school.
  15. How important is it to select a good advisor/mentor? Exceedingly important! If you are seeking a PhD, your faculty advisor is going to make all the difference in the world. If your advisor is well-known and thinks that it is important for students to publish and conduct independent research, then you will find your chances of pursuing a strong research career much improved. But if your advisor doesn't help you a lot (and most advisors are in this latter category), you will have a pretty miserable time trying to build your career all by yourself. (And even if you are only pursuing a Masters degree, you will want a helpful advisor who is going to support you in your career goals and perhaps help you get into a doctoral program later.) So choose your advisor wisely! Email students who are in the program already to find out what the faculty are really like.
  16. How important is it to have a well-established advisor? It is important to have a well-established advisor for a variety of reasons. First, there has long been a trend in psychology for the students of famous psychologists to fill the most coveted jobs at prestigious universities. Students of famous advisors, in other words, often get more job offers than other equally-qualified applicants. Second, well-established advisors will often have lots of grant money, which can benefit students in the form of extra pay and perhaps coverage of students' research expenses. Third, well-established advisors are often invited to write chapters and commentaries for journals, and in cases where the advisor likes to collaborate with students, this means that students will have lots of publication opportunities. Fourth, well-established advisors tend to be older and tend to have more experience advising students. Sometimes this means that they will make fewer mistakes in the ways that they treat and collaborate with their students (but not always). So regardless of whether you are pursuing a masters or a doctorate, your graduate school experience will often be better if your advisor is well-established, if not famous.
  17. How do you find out whether a faculty advisor is well-established? Find out the answers to the following questions:
  18. Is it appropriate to email a professor you are thinking about working with? It is not only appropriate, it is important for you to do so. If you're interested in working with a particular faculty member in graduate school, look up that professor's articles and familiarize yourself with what that professor does. Then send him or her an email saying that you've read a few of their articles, that you think their work is interesting, and that you are curious about whether they will be taking on any new students next year. From that point forward, play it by ear. Sometimes professors right back and ask you to stay in touch and tell them a little bit more about yourself. Other times, they just politely answer your question and leave it at that. Above all, respect professors' limited time, and only write them repeated emails if they have encouraged you to do so.
  19. How concerned should you be about money? Very concerned. Look very carefully into the financial aid situation at the programs you're applying to. Graduate school is very expensive, and good graduate schools should provide you with some kind of financial assistance. PhD students usually get tuition waivers and part-time jobs as research assistants. They also often have opportunities to teach undergraduate courses in the summer or during the school year. Masters students are sometimes also allowed to teach for pay, and sometimes they are able to fulfill other office or research work for the department, but in general, masters students usually don't get much financial assistance. PsyD students don't usually get much assistance either. Furthermore, when you're thinking about your financial situation in graduate school, keep in mind that the cost of living in the area your program is in makes a huge difference. For example, if the University of Georgia offers you $12,000 a year to be a research assistant, that's going to go a whole lot farther in Athens, Georgia than if New York University (located in New York City) offers you the same amount!
  20. Are programs in some areas of psychology more competitive than others? Yes. As you think about applying, realize that the difficulty of getting into a program depends on the area of psychology you are applying for. Clinical psychology PhD programs, for example, are notoriously hard to get into. Talk to professors and graduate students beforehand so that you are aware of how much competition there will be when you apply.
  21. What else should you know about applying to psychology graduate programs? I've said very little about the GRE on this page, because I have an entire other page devoted to the GRE. There are also separate pages on letters of recommendation, the essay you must submit with your application, and the most important acceptance factors. The most important things for you to know about getting into grad school are the following: You may also want to check out the page on this site titled The Seven Deadly Sins of Applying to Psychology Graduate Schools.
  22. What happens after you've been admitted? You need to know that after you have been accepted by graduate programs, things are going to be very different, because the programs will now compete with each other to get you. They will probably call you and give you an interview either right before or right after accepting you, so be prepared. (Clinical programs tend to ask people to come out for a face-to-face interview before they accept you, so the pattern varies.) Be prepared for these surprise interviews by making a list of intelligent questions that you can ask when they call.

    Just remember that getting into graduate school is largely a matter of luck. But if you've done background research to find out what it takes to get in, you will have a huge advantage over all of the applicants who have not. Most applicants, for example, won't have the patience to read all of the advice on this site or to look up all of the information that they should on the programs that they will apply to. I hope you're not among those applicants. Good luck!

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