Not unlike the general public, current psychology majors are commonly unclear about potential career paths and frequently express a desire for assistance in preparation for employment (Ogletree, 1999). Given that psychology majors represent the future of professional psychology, this review presents a series of recommendations for undergraduate psychology majors at all stages of the graduate school application process. A current second year graduate student at the University of Akron provides an insider’s perspective on factors that increase success (and decrease stress) when applying to graduate school, and the former Graduate School Application Advisor at Ohio University provides a consultant’s viewpoint on how to gracefully navigate the application process.
Recommendation #1:Understand if graduate school is right for you.
It is a common misperception that psychology majors have a narrow and limited array of career options, or "must apply to graduate school” in order to find employment. Do not allow pressure from others to force you into graduate school. Individuals with liberal arts degrees are well-suited for a range of careers that require critical analysis, communication skills, and problem solving.
Given that many degree programs have varying emphases on scientific research versus conducting clinical practice, it is important to understand what you enjoy. Notably, only 50% of individuals with advanced degrees in psychology are clinical or counseling psychologists (O’Hara, 2005). Just as many individuals have advanced degrees in other areas of psychology (i.e., developmental, social, industrial/organizational, or cognitive psychology). If you are currently unsure what field of study will allow you to reach your professional goals, consult professors, clinicians in the field, and researchers. Also, use coursework and research opportunities to examine what types of topics you enjoy. Furthermore, given the time and dedication necessary for graduate study, it is vital that you have a sound sense of what subfield you would like to study, and what degree is necessary in order to achieve your career goals. For example, what career options do the MEd, MA, MS, PsyD, or PhD give you? Explore your options by talking with professionals in the field you desire to enter in order to see what educational goals might be appropriate. The structure, length, and content of a program differ across doctoral, masters-level, and professional degree programs, so it is important to choose the best-fitting option for your career goals.
Recommendation #2: When starting the application process—make a timeline.
The process of applying to graduate school can begin early in your undergraduate studies, by taking relevant coursework, engaging in volunteer and research work, and narrowing your career interests. Six to 8 months prior to the deadline for applications is a good time to review the different steps you’ll be completing. A timeline of tasks to complete is provided in Figure 1. Start by compiling school information, identifying application costs (upwards of $50 per school) and cost of GRE (over $100 per administration) and save accordingly. Prepare and take the GRE and relevant GRE Subject Test if needed. Narrow your list of schools ensuring that your GRE scores meet minimum entrance criteria and prepare your curriculum vitae (i.e., an academic resume), solicit recommendation letters, complete your personal statement, and submit!
Recommendation #3: Keep your options open.
Whereas it may be clear that a PhD is necessary to meet your career goals, consider applying to different types of programs (i.e., MS and MA as well). This will give you a safety net if your first-choice schools fall through. If you are unable to enroll in a PhD program immediately, completing a MS or MA program (or seeking employment as a research-assistant in a relevant field) will likely increase the probability of subsequent acceptance in a doctoral program. Once you have determined the type of programs to which you will apply, it is a matter of finding where the best-fit schools for you are located. If you are a lifelong resident of your home state, applying to out-of-state programs may seem intimidating. Adding out-of-state programs to a list of schools may feel frightening but may open up an array of possible choices for graduate study.
Recommendation #4: Stay organized.
You will acquire an array of information during the application process. One strategy for staying on top of all the information is to use a binder as a "one stop location” for your paperwork. A possible layout for a spreadsheet of deadlines and possible schools is seen in Figure 2. Next, consider organizing the material in the binder with tabbed sections for each individual school in order to allow a place for information regarding each program, special application instructions, GRE score reports, printed email correspondence with faculty, and anything else pertinent.
Recommendation #5: Trust your gut.
Not every part of the process of applying to graduate school is clear-cut. Learning to trust your intuition will allow you to narrow your list of schools and identify faculty with whom you wish to do research. As our "insider” Stephanie Judson, notes: In the beginning of my school search I wasn’t overly concerned with the finer details of each program. My plan was I would go where I was accepted and learn to like it. When the time came to visit schools, I realized those finer details actually did matter. For example, one school that looked amazing from the website was not everything I had hoped for in person. This program emphasized research heavily and had more limited teaching opportunities. Throughout the interview day, I realized that this wasn’t the school for me. On the other hand, I found an instant connection with other schools. What I connected with wasn’t the facts and pictures from their website, it was the atmosphere in which I felt comfortable. When navigating the application process, also keep in mind what you can and cannot control. You can control your studying habits for the GRE, creating (and revising) a solid personal statement, seeking advice on your application materials, and requesting letters of recommendation from individuals you know will speak highly of you. What you cannot control is if the admission committees feel you are the right fit for them. By learning to trust your gut in this process, you will find the most satisfaction when you have accepted admission to a school that looks good on paper and feels good in person.
Recommendation #6: Do not underestimate the importance of letters of recommendation.
A well-written letter should provide the admissions committee with personal information and perspectives that extend upon information found in your other application documents—such as your personal qualities, work ethic, and experiences that make you a good fit for the program. No one person can speak to all the various aspects of your experiences. Aim for a set of letters that speak to the range of your academic, leadership, research, and applied work experiences. Consider asking individuals who know you well, know you in different capacities, and can speak to your personal qualities and qualifications for graduate study. These individuals may include, but are not limited to, faculty members, supervisors, internship coordinators, and employers.
Recommendation #7: When asking for letters of recommendation—make the process simple for your letter writers.
Writing a letter of recommendation takes a considerable amount of time. Approach potential letter writers (in person if possible) 3-4 weeks prior to the deadline (if not earlier) to explain your career path, why you are applying to graduate school, and ask if they feel comfortable writing a strong letter of recommendation. If people agree to write a letter, provide them with all of the information they will need. Consider writing a cover letter describing why you are choosing to go to graduate school—aim to remind them of why you are interested in certain programs. It can be helpful to provide them with a spreadsheet of the programs you are applying to, university/college contact information, and the due dates of the letters. Consider using a binder with tabbed sections of descriptions of programs and schools, your curriculum vita, your school transcripts, your personal statement, additional forms needed for letter writers, and pre-addressed and stamped envelopes. As the deadline approaches, check in with your letter writers and remind them of upcoming deadlines (without nagging!) It is also appropriate to contact the administrative assistant of the graduate programs to which you are applying in order to ensure that your application is complete.
Recommendation #8: Take time off if needed.
Many students take time off prior to graduate study for personal reasons, to gain experience in the field, or to narrow their interests in the field. If you are considering taking time off prior to graduate school, it is appropriate to contact potential letter writers prior to leaving the institution in order to inform them of your future plans and the possibility of contacting them in the future for a letter of recommendation. Also, be sure to keep in touch with these mentors after graduating.
It is clear that choosing a career path after undergraduate studies can be stressful. Ensuring that graduate school is the right choice and that you are applying to programs that fit your goals is important. Keep your options open, start early, and stay organized. Approaching the application process with these recommendations in mind will allow you to navigate your way to the best program and future for you.
Ogletree, S.M. (1999). Improving career advising: Responding to alumni surveys. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 26, 42-45.