In this issue
Balancing it all in graduate school: Helpful tips for graduate students
By Kristen Condeelis, Elizabeth Hahn, and Elizabeth Handing
Applying to Graduate Programs
The graduate school application process can be a challenging and taxing endeavor, but it doesn't have to be impossible. Whether it is an application for a Master's or Doctoral program, the two most important things to remember are to prepare well in advance and be organized. If you are applying for a Master's or Doctoral program while you are still an undergraduate, the beginning of junior year is a great semester to begin the preparation process. If you are out of school, working, or currently in a graduate program, a good time to start thinking about the process is two years prior to when you intend to start a program. As you prepare to apply to graduate programs, a seemingly obvious, but sometimes under-recognized, part of the process is to determine which programs you are most interested in pursuing. Determining which programs you should apply to includes knowing what you plan to do upon completion of the program and understanding the types of skills and certifications you will have upon completion of the program (e.g., skills for clinical settings, teaching skills, and/or research skills). Remember that fit is also very important, and as a result, when researching programs, identify ones that have faculty members with similar research interests and provide training that will be beneficial for attaining career goals. For example, a student with both a great resume and test scores may not be accepted to a program if her interests do not align with the faculty in that program. Therefore, doing your homework can pay off if you find programs that best suit your needs and interests. For help with this process, consider reaching out to academic advisors or specific faculty members you are interested in working with and visiting the websites of programs of interest as well as the Graduate School Directory on the APA Div. 20 website.
Getting Accepted into Graduate Programs
Once you have determined which programs you will apply to, you will then begin preparing for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Consider purchasing or borrowing study guide materials and/or registering for GRE preparation courses. Moreover, allow ample time to study for the GRE, as many programs use GRE scores as a criterion for admissions decisions and fellowship awards. This is when organization becomes helpful, because you will want to keep track of the different programs you are applying to along with their specific instructions. For example, there may be GPA requirements for programs, which are often available on a program's website or by contacting the program directly. In addition to great test scores and a good GPA, research experience is another fundamental aspect of graduate school applications. Therefore, it is imperative to gain research experience as an undergraduate research assistant by volunteering or working in a research lab that is interesting to you. While volunteering as a research assistant, you will not only acquire research skills, such as working with data management and analysis software programs, data collection, and participant recruitment, but you will also begin to develop an understanding of the types of topics that interest you. Not only will this experience help to diminish the learning curve that often occurs at the beginning of graduate school, but it will also provide the opportunity to set you apart from other applicants. In addition, working in different labs will allow you to gain diverse research experiences via collaborating with multiple researchers and/or gaining experience with multiple populations.
Another major factor that can help you get into graduate school is having good recommendation letters. Most schools require three letters of recommendation, but this can vary by program; consequently, it is important to understand requirements ahead of time. This is yet another important aspect of the graduate school application process that requires both organization and preparation. Remember that when you ask your letter-writers to write you a recommendation, they likely have many other students with similar deadlines for whom they are also writing letters. Therefore, know your deadlines, and request recommendation letters early! Choose referees who can speak to your talents and are familiar with your research capabilities and academic performance. Moreover, it is often useful to provide a packet of information for each program that includes due dates, a curriculum vitae, personal statement, and information about the program. Furthermore, it may be helpful to generate a spreadsheet that denotes due dates and specific directions concerning how to submit recommendation letters (i.e., online, by mail) and disseminate it to each referee. You want to make this process as easy as possible for your referees, so send them clear and concise instructions for each application. A good referee should know you already, but it is helpful to remind them of some of your specific accomplishments and the reasons you are interested in a particular program.
Before you submit the applications, review the deadlines and requirements for each school again and make sure you have completed all the necessary steps. Schools have different deadlines and application processes (i.e., online versus mail), so reading every detail might be the difference between getting accepted and not getting your application submitted. Therefore, plan ahead and submit your application early so that you have at least one week before the deadline just in case any unexpected delays or changes occur. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact the program director or departmental staff. Program directors and departmental staff are very helpful and friendly, and remember they are there to help with the process and are more than willing to tell you more about their program.
Once the applications are submitted, it's still not the end of the road. Schools often take a few months before sending out decision letters. Waiting to hear about your plans can be both nerve-wracking and anxiety-provoking. However, try to remain patient, and if you haven't heard back from the school, follow-up and be sure there were no errors with your application. Although you might not want to think about it, have a back-up plan in case you do not get accepted to your desired programs. Investigating back-up plans is also a good use of your time while waiting for responses from the programs to which you have applied. In fact, there are various other options for things you might do for a year or two before re-applying to graduate programs that can only help you down the line. For instance, you could look into volunteer opportunities, related work experience, online classes, or internships in your field. Even if you do not get accepted into your desired program on your first try, more experience helps build your resume and makes you an even stronger applicant during the next round.
Successfully Completing Graduate Programs
Okay, fast forward a few months and you are accepted to your dream program! Now, how do you succeed? Entire books could be (and have been) written on advice for excelling and successfully completing graduate programs. Below, we have listed some specific book recommendations as well as some general advice for excelling in graduate programs:
- Karp, J.R. (2009). How to survive your PhD: The insider's guide to avoiding mistakes, choosing the right program, working with professors, and just how a person actually writes a 200-page paper. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.
- Peters, R. (1997). Getting what you came for: The smart student's guide to earning an M.A. or a Ph.D. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Ruben, A. (2010). Surviving your stupid, stupid decision to go to grad school. New York: Three Rivers Press.
A lot can be said about the expertise and skills that can help you be a great student and succeed in your academic endeavors. However, there are other very important qualities that make great students as well, and these include, among other things, being persistent, being inquisitive and having self-motivation. Above and beyond raw intelligence, these qualities can help you to complete projects (that sometimes seem daunting), make it through some of the bumps in the road and ultimately learn from them and stay motivated towards your ultimate goal of completing your degree and starting a career in the field of psychology. This article just scratches the surface of advice on how to apply to, get accepted to, and complete a master's or doctoral program. We hope that it was helpful to you and wish you the best of luck on your path towards academic success.