If you’re considering a graduate degree in psychology, you may be wondering about how to tackle the potentially daunting application process. However, some key information can help to demystify the process and get you through this critical step in pursuing a career in psychology. Before you apply, spend some time carefully considering which type of degree you want to pursue. Think about what matters to you – what you’re passionate about, your goals, what kind of career you’re seeking, the type of setting in which you want to work, etc. For example, multiple pathways exist for becoming a therapist. The application process for doctoral programs in psychology presents several unique aspects, which will be primarily addressed here.
One of the best ways to prepare yourself to be a strong applicant is to gain research experience. It’s really never too early or too late to get started in research! For some great tips on how to get involved, see here and here. Being a full-time research assistant or volunteering in a psych lab provides an excellent opportunity to gain valuable skills, explore your interests, and learn more about the process of conducting research. Remember to think outside the box – even tasks like data entry can get you involved and thinking about critical research questions. Completing a senior thesis can be a particularly meaningful way to gain research experience. This kind of independent project allows you the exciting chance to take part in the research process from start to finish and typically involves close mentorship with a faculty member. In addition, try to develop connections in the lab in which you work. Many scientists are incredibly passionate about their work and are eager to share it with developing psychologists like you!
On to an important question – what are graduate programs looking for? Your academic and research background will likely be critical, as will your fit with the program and a specific lab or mentor. As you get ready to apply, here are some important things to consider:
- Do your research – on graduate programs, that is…
- Get to know the program (e.g., the extent to which research and/or clinical work is emphasized, training, funding, etc.) and the work of professors who you might be interested in working with
- Consider emailing professors to ask if they’re accepting students (there is no clear-cut answer on whether or not this is a good idea, but it can be helpful to know whether it is worth applying)
- Apply to many programs (it’s competitive), but also keep in mind the cost of applications and travel for interviews
- Fit, fit, fit – Think about how your goals and interests fit with the program and potential mentors (You will likely be tired of hearing this word by the end of the process, but it really is that important!)
Applications typically consist of several key components, including a personal statement, GREs, undergrad transcript, and letters of recommendation. The personal statement provides a great opportunity to highlight your research experience in more detail, including what you learned from your role in the research. It can also be a good idea to identify a potential mentor in your personal statement. Be sure to request your transcripts early and to give your letter writers plenty of time.
Now pretend that you’ve submitted your applications (and you’ve spent countless moments anxiously waiting to hear back!), and you are thrilled to hear that you’ve been offered an interview. The interview is a critical part of the application process – it provides the program an opportunity to get to you know you, and it also gives you the chance to learn more about the program and your potential mentor. Come prepared with questions, and don’t be afraid to ask them. While you’re visiting, get to know the students in the program. Find out what they like and dislike, what the general atmosphere of the program is like, how they spend their time, what it’s like to live there, etc. These are all pieces of information that can play a big role in your decision. In addition, take some time to talk with grad students in the lab that you’ve applied to. They can be a great resource and can help you get a better sense of life as a grad student. Most of all, enjoy getting to know the people who could be your future classmates, labmates, and mentors!
Though the application process is often stressful, it can also be an exciting time!