Glenn’s Advice on Applying to Graduate School

(See: http://www.glenngeher.com (look under "Advising" section) for more information)

So you’re applying to graduate schools – great! If you do it right, this process should be relatively painless and, hopefully, fruitful. There are lots of things you should know to help you succeed in this process. Here’s a list of things that I’ve found are useful for students to think about.

1. Realize that graduate programs which typically take in students with undergraduate psychology degrees come in all different shapes and sizes. First, figure out your long-term goals. Do you want to:

A. Help normal people with day-to-day problems (counseling psychology)

B. Help people with diagnosable disorders – perhaps in the context of a hospital or clinic (clinical psychology)

C. Help families and kids who are challenged by familial, economic, or situational circumstances (social work)

D. Help kids in the schools get the assistance they need based on their particular situations (school psychology)

E. Help kids in the schools figure out what they want to be when they grow up (school counseling)

F. Conduct research to help organizations function better (industrial/organizational psychologist)

G. Conduct research on basic questions about human behavior (experimental/academic psychologist)

… IF so, which AREA of psychology are you interested in researching (evolutionary psychology, developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, personality psychology, social psychology, psycholinguistics …etc.)?

First thing’s first – figure out which path you want to ultimately follow – because that will greatly affect your graduate school applications. See: http://www.glenngeher.com (look under "Advising" section) for more information on different degree options followed by psych grads.

2. Realize that getting into graduate school is competitive – but programs vary considerably in terms of how competitive they are. Many PhD programs accept less than 10% of applicants while MA programs in some applied fields (such as school counseling) accept considerably more applicants.

Do your research – know the numbers. You should know the acceptance rate of each program, the minimal requirements (in terms of GPA and GRE, etc.), and the specifics regarding how to apply (including the deadlines). This information is not all that hard to get …

<>3. Realize that most PhD programs include a master’s degree as part of the deal. Many students don’t realize this fact. There are implications. First off, don’t apply to a program with just a master’s degree thinking that you need to complete your MA before your PhD – it doesn’t really work that way. Most good PhD programs accept most students right out of their undergraduate programs.

Another implication: Don’t expect that work done in a master’s program at one school will transfer to another school. You may get a master’s degree at Schmedly University and then get into a PhD program at Generic U. There’s a good chance that the folks at Generic U. will not allow your master’s thesis and/or your prior classes to count toward their PhD. These decisions are likely done on a case-by-case basis – and their resolutions are often less student-friendly than students realize. The transfer process at this level is much trickier than the transferring of classes from one undergraduate degree to another.

4. OWN THE BOOK: Each year, the American Psychological Association publishes a Guide to Graduate Programs in Psychology and Related Fields. This book (available at amazon.com) has ALL THE INFORMATION YOU’LL NEED to apply to EVERY SINGLE program in the U.S. (and, I believe, Canada). It will have, for instance, deadlines, minimal GPA and GRE scores, information on how many people applied last year – and how many were accepted. It will also have information on FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE – and you’ll be surprised. Some programs waive tuition for all students and PAY ALL STUDENTS to be in the program.

There are other books out there the summarize this kind of information for other kinds of programs – see this site for a list: http://www.newpaltz.edu/~geherg/undergrad/advise/book.htm.

5. Give yourself a fighting chance. Use the information from the book on different graduate programs to guide your choices of schools. Be smart about it. Apply to some programs that seem like a reach – but possible. Apply to several that seem to match your grades, GREs, and so forth, and apply to a few safety schools. Unfortunately, I suggest you apply to about 10 or so programs – using this strategy. I’ve seen too many good students get shut out.

EXAMPLE: Suppose you want to get a PhD in social psychology. You have a 3.6 cumulative GPA and a 3.7 in your major. Further, your combined quantitative and verbal GRE scores are 1170 – and you’ve done some research with some professors and you actually are an author on one publication based on that research.

How should you proceed? Well, there are some top-notch PhD programs in social psychology out there – such as the ones at Stanford, Princeton, and Michigan. Should you apply to these programs? Well, if the average GRE of the students who were enrolled last year at these programs was 1400, you might not bother – a sad, but true fact. The great GPA, letters of rec, and publication may actually matter less than you’d think.

Perhaps apply to one top-flight program that is particularly of interest to you – but you should also apply to several that are more in the range that corresponds to your grades, GREs, etc. Be sure to apply to a few safety schools also – some that you should definitely get into (e.g., in this case, programs with average GREs that are less than 1170 and with average GPAs less than 3.5 or so). See: http://www.socialpsychology.org/ranking.htm for a list of the PhD rankings of US psychology PhD programs.

 
Without a detailed study of the programs of interest from the Guide to Graduate Programs, you’re not really in a position to even make the judgments needed to do this best – so, to repeat a prior point, get the book. And, whatever you do, do NOT rely solely on information from the actual websites of the graduate programs of potential interest - these are pretty much all biased and marketed to increase attention and make their programs seems ideal - the APA book represents an unbiased, impartial assessment of graduate programs with all the information needed to compare programs side-by-side.

p.s. Applying to just one program is almost never a good strategy.


6. Glenn’s Suggested Timeline for Applying to Graduate School

Deadlines for applications are often surprisingly early for students. If you want to start grad school the Fall after you graduate from your undergraduate program, you may need to submit applications as early as DECEMBER OF YOUR SENIOR YEAR. If you wait to start the process until spring of your senior year, there’s a very good chance that you’ll have to postpone the whole grad school thing for a year. Here’s a suggested timeline:

On a related note, you should realize that many (most?) graduate programs only accept students in Fall. This is especially true for relatively good programs. Waiting to apply to get into a program during the Spring is usually not a great plan.

If you want to get into a graduate program in the Fall of, for instance, '15, you need to start your homework way before Fall of '14. Here’s a suggested timeline for applying to programs starting FALL '15:

 
JUNIOR YEAR

A. Spring '14 – buy the APA guide to grad programs.

B. Spring '14 – figure out what kind of programs you want to apply to.

C. Spring '14 – narrow down your list to 20 or so programs – meet with an advisor to discuss – to help you break it down further.

D. Spring '14 – take the GRE – or make plans to take this test in the Fall. (at the latest!)

E. Spring '14 – ask professors if they’d be willing to write letters of recommendations for you – you’ll need three in total. This process often takes longer than you might think.

F. Summer '14 – try to get the list of programs down to 10 or so.

G. Summer '14 – follow the steps for each program to acquire the application forms and letter of recommendation materials (these forms will likely vary much from school to school – the website for the forms should be given in the APA book. Additionally, this book will have the name and contact information for the department chair and/or graduate program coordinator – to help you make sure you have all the materials you’ll need).

<>SENIOR YEAR

H. Fall '14 – take GRE if you haven’t already.

I. Fall '14 – write personal statement (most applications require you to write a statement summarizing your interests and background)

J. Fall '14 – have a professor go over your personal statement with you (trust me, it helps)

K. Fall '14 – Get three professors in your field (psychology) to agree to write letters of recommendation for you. Start asking folks EARLY in the fall. With this said, don’t be afraid to check on your letter-writers during the process to make sure they have sent the letters out – it’s your future at stake here.

L. Fall '14 – organize materials for the folks writing you letters of recommendations in a way that makes it very easy for them to help you. I ask my students to follow a specific set of guidelines (found at: http://www.newpaltz.edu/~geherg/letters.htm). I suggest following these guidelines for ANY person writing you a letter.

Most importantly

• organize the material clearly
• provide your letter-writers with all needed forms/envelopes
• collect all forms and give to letter-writer in one package at one time
• give your letter-writer PLENTY OF TIME to complete the task
• also, don’t be afraid to check on your letter-writer (this is your future – make sure the letters get in the mail on time).
• anticipate your letter-writer being out of service from about 12/10 – 1/20 of the next year – seriously. We really do turn into pumpkins. Honest.

M. Spring '15 – Check your mail … a lot!

7. Don’t worry about costs associated with graduate school – seriously … Most students who get a graduate degree after completing a psych undergrad either get a (a) master’s degree in some applied field (e.g., Social Work) that they can use to get a well-paying job (to pay off loans) in a relatively short amount of time OR (b) PhD in some research-oriented area of psychology. If you get into a PhD program, realize that life is usually good – such programs typically will have ASSISTANTSHIPS – which will often pay most or all tuition (for 5 or so years) AND will pay students an annual stipend for helping faculty with teaching or research. Stipends run about $17,000 a year these days. You won’t be rich, but you won’t starve. So, in either case, don’t worry about the money (and don't expect to hear phrases like this one too much more in your future!).

8. Keep your professors apprised of how you’re doing!

It’s true! We really really do care. We’re in a strange profession whereby our success is measured by your success – so keep in touch!

Don’t hesitate to contact me about the points summarized in this document – or about getting into grad school in general (geherg@newpaltz.edu) - I care about your future.

GG