Dear readers, In this issue’s "Three-Headed Advice” column, we have adapted the questions we were asked at our last in-person gig at the Midwestern Psychological Association meeting May 2012 in Chicago. We appreciate our continued opportunity to serve by answering your questions of interest.
What is a good way to narrow down the search of professors to work with in graduate school?
Landrum: Nice question! First, it is good you are thinking ahead and know to do your research about the professors already at a particular university. As with so much of the graduate school admissions process, this too is about match-and-fit. After you have read about all of the faculty in your program of interest (including what’s on their web site as well as some author-based PsycINFO searches), you need to seriously self-reflect about what your interest areas are and what they might be in the future. Then, it is about match-and-fit. But let’s say you want the answer to this question as you are writing your personal statement for your graduate admission package. The additional piece of advice I would offer would be to not put all your eggs in one basket; that is, do not limit yourself to wanting to work with only one graduate faculty member. You may not know if that faculty member is about to retire, go on sabbatical, or enter the job market. Always include two to three faculty members you would be most interested in working with; that way, you can avoid any eggs-in-one-basket situations.
VanderStoep: I agree with Dr. Landrum. Let me add a couple of other thoughts. First, I encourage students to consider sending an email to potential faculty advisors. Make sure this email is carefully prepared and professional. It is your first impression and it must be done well. Ask the professor if she/he will be taking students next year. This is where you will get insight into sabbaticals, leaving for another institution and other constraints to which Dr. Landrum referred.
Second, picking a professor within a program should be an important criterion, but let me offer other criteria. First, location is a big deal to some and irrelevant to others. If you think there is a zero percent chance you would ever live in fill in the blank then save their time and your money and do not apply. Second (this may sound like I am speaking out of both sides of my mouth), have a broad and diverse portfolio of schools. Many students suffer from what might be called an ESPN worldview of higher education. That is, unless a university appears regularly on College Game Day, students assume it is not worth considering. In fact, having a broad and diverse set of schools will allow you to find some schools that you have never heard of. It is far better to be happy and perform high-quality work with a stellar advisor at a lesser-known institution than to be miserable and perform marginal work at a well-known institution.
Handelsman: As usual, my colleagues have nailed this one! I would concur and add simply that you can also have a diverse portfolio of professors to work with in each program you apply to. Define your interests as broad (not diffuse, but broad). In some programs you may wind up working with more than one professor and thus learn a range of research skills.
I originally graduated with a BA and a low-ish GPA. Now my GPA is climbing higher as I finish two more BAs. How will this be viewed?
Landrum: First, good for you for being so persistent. Generally graduate programs concentrate most on what you did last. Although the graduate program will probably request transcripts from all of your bachelor’s degrees and undergraduate institutions, they tend to value most that which you have completed most recently. This is why a master’s degree is often a great stepping-stone to a doctoral degree program. Sometimes undergraduates with a less-thanstellar undergraduate transcript enter a master’s program to "prove themselves,” then apply to a doctoral degree once the master’s is complete. In your particular case, you substituted two additional bachelor’s degrees as your stepping stone. Also,be sure to be fair with the data. Do not gloss over that first degree with the low-ish GPA. If asked about it, tell the story; perhaps you were not a serious student when you first arrived to college, but your record since that time proves otherwise. Do not leave your first degree off of your CV in an attempt to hide it—always be fair with the data.
VanderStoep: Interestingly, I just had an advising appointment with a student last week who had a poor first-year GPA. He has now hit his stride academically and is doing much better. I told him not to ignore his first-year GPA when writing his personal statement; people will notice it so there is no sense in pretending it is not there. This is similar to your experience, in the sense that my student’s first-year GPA is roughly equivalent to your first BA and his later GPA is equivalent to your subsequent degrees. Thus, I agree with Dr. Landrum that you should not ignore something in your past.
The trick will be to describe carefully what was going on in your first degree. Was the topic of study different/more difficult/ not something you enjoyed? Did you have self-assessed maturity issues that prevented you from achieving? Describing this academic transformation might help you because it will show a positive change. Conversely, it also might hurt you because sometimes programs are so competitive they are just looking for reasons to eliminate people because there are so many strong applicants in the pool.
Handelsman: Let me balance this discussion a bit by encouraging you to not pay too much attention to your first degree. Because of the recency effect that Dr. Landrum explained, I would spend more time detailing the graduate-study-related experiences you have had in your last two degree programs including internships, research experience (in detail), development of career goals, and writing ability. Another way to put this: SHOW them what you have done rather than telling them too much about why you started slowly.
Should I self-disclose my own mental illness in my essay?
Landrum: This is a complicated question, and I am so glad to have trusted colleagues to also weigh in on any potential advice to offer here. First, congratulations on making so much progress given the situation. The ability to treat and cope with a mental illness is admirable, and even more so if you are able to seriously consider graduate school with the motivation of helping others; your perspective could be extremely valuable and insightful. As for disclosure, I lean toward encouraging disclosure; this will avail you to some of the positive impacts of the protections offered by the Americans with Disabilities Act., I think this is a delicate balance; you want to disclose (which also allows you to be fair with the ‘data’), but if you over-emphasize this, some on the faculty might begin to question whether the mental illness might overshadow your ability to benefit from graduate education and successfully enter the profession. Of course, all of this would be context dependent on such factors as to the type of mental illness, its severity, if remission is possible, and so on. Consultations with your undergraduate faculty mentor and advisors will be key for you to be able to navigate this delicate situation.
VanderStoep: I tend to recommend more limited disclosure than Dr. Landrum is recommending. First, prevalence rates for mental illness are very high, especially for anxiety and depression. Using mental illness to make the case for graduate admission to clinical psychology could be seen as analogous to a medical school applicant saying she is more qualified because she is diabetic. I know this is an extreme analogy, but the argument seems plausible. Second, my fear is that such disclosure creates certain impressions that might not be helpful. However, the one exception to my own rule would be if your particular condition makes you a particularly unique applicant for a particular program. For example, a diagnosis of PTSD might benefit someone who is applying to a program in trauma psychology. But overall, I am concerned that a general diagnosis of mental illness may draw unnecessary and unwanted attention to your application. Fortunately, our Three-Headed Advice panel has a clinical psychologist, who can now break the tie between me and Dr. Landrum. Dr. Handelsman, the floor is yours.
Handelsman: I have another analogous question: If you were applying to a graduate program in chemistry, would you disclose your mental illness? The key point is that experiencing a mental illness, in and of itself, is not a qualification for graduate study. Having said that, many people who experience mental illness learn a lot about themselves and a lot about mental illness. What you know about yourself and mental illness might be good to include in your statement, but you may not need to discuss any details of how you know it!
One mistake that I have seen in some personal statements is students who write that because they had success with a particular treatment (cognitive-behavioral therapy, Paxil, dance therapy, mindfulness, whatever), they know that that particular treatment will work for anybody with that illness. That is, they overgeneralize from their experience. In this case, they still need to learn the research behind various treatments and understand that there are unique elements to peoples’ experience with mental illness that may influence treatment decisions and effectiveness.
However you decide to proceed, make sure you get several experienced people to read and comment on your draft statements. They can tell you if they see any red flags regardless of the level of detail you choose to present.