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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring/Summer 2013
Questions (and Answers)
About Graduate School

Mitchell M. Handelsman, PhD, University of Colorado Denver
Scott W. VanderStoep, PhD, Hope College (MI)
R. Eric Landrum, PhD, Boise State University (ID)

In this issue’s "Three-Headed Advice” column, we have adapted the questions we were asked in Psi Chi’s LinkedIn group.

I have been accepted into a PhD program for educational psychology and I am set to start my program in December. After graduation I am hoping to do research with my degree. My questions are: is there anything that I should or should not do while in my program to help my chances of landing a research grant after graduating? And second, where is the best place to look for grant funding both for my dissertation research and post-doc studies?

Handelsman: My advice is to talk with several recent graduates of the program you are entering to see where they are working, what they found useful in the program, where they obtained funding, and which professors and other students are the "go-to” people for learning the skills you are asking about. Of course, you also want to talk with your graduate advisor and/or mentor to formulate a long- term plan for your education and some steps and benchmarks along the way. In general, the more research skills you have and the more research you accomplish while in graduate school, the smoother the sailing afterwards.

VanderStoep: My PhD is in Ed Psych, so I’m particularly excited for you. My advice is simply this (and it’s more general than concern about a research grant): do good work while you’re in grad school and make good professional connections. If you connect with successful researchers, you’ll increase the chances you’ll be successful as a researcher. Don’t make a research grant your goal. Instead, find a topic that lights you up, then go tell a funding agency about your excitement. Searching for a research grant is letting the tail wag the dog. Get excited about research, do well in it, then go tell someone who has money and wants to pay you to do what you already are doing. That’s the motivational answer. The pragmatic answer is to look close to home—many universities have funding sources to sponsor dissertation work.

Landrum: The only advice I’d add here is to try to stay connected to the grant world during graduate school. Perhaps your faculty mentor has an active grant program; volunteer to help out with those tasks so that you can see the inner workings of how grants work. If you can volunteer to serve on grant review panels, try to get that experience as a graduate student so that you’ll be ready to launch when you receive your degree. And be sure to take advantage of local opportunities—many institutions offer grant writing workshops. You may not be writing a grant, but if you attend these events you can learn a lot from both the workshop facilitator and colleagues in the room attending the grant-writing workshop.

I have applied to PhD programs and unfortunately was denied to all of them. I believe it was because of my GRE score, because my GPA was fantastic, and I had research experience. However, I was accepted into a great master’s program (that I applied to as backup). What is your advice to someone who will be applying to PhD programs after completing a master’s program? I heard mixed stories
that getting a master’s before PhD can actually hurt your chances if you are not applying to same institution, but also heard that it can improve. And would graduate schools expect to see more on my applications because I do have the master’s program experience?

VanderStoep: I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you. I got rejected from almost all of my doctoral programs coming out of college too. Why? My GRE Verbal was too low. Although I did get accepted
to an excellent program, I still pined for admission to another program. So my first 2 years of grad school, I studied for the GRE (along with my stats homework and my master’s thesis). I did much better 18 months later. I don’t think times have changed much at top-ranked programs. If your GRE score is your Achilles heel (like it was mine), you probably need to take it again. But I would also recommend that you take the offer at the MA program.

Handelsman: You are getting conflicting views because nothing
 is so simple! My view is that if you didn’t succeed the first time,
 a master’s won’t hurt and can help. A master’s degree is certainly better than lots of other ways you could be spending your time. Some admissions committee members take the view that the best predictor of graduate school success is graduate school success!
So turn yourself into an excellent graduate student and seek out opportunities to learn things that will make you more and more competitive. Hopefully what programs will see is more proof that you’ve done research and other things, and an even better personal statement in which you can speak more specifically about the research you’ve done, the skills you have, and your plans for the future. Here’s another bit of advice: What you do is never just a means to an end, but an end in itself (some of you might recognize echoes of Kant). So recognize the value of your master’s program and take advantages of the opportunities it offers.

Landrum: One of the strategies that graduate admissions committees follows is that they look at the last things that you did. Since you are currently enrolled in a master’s degree program,
 your doctoral admissions committees will look more at your current master’s-level performance than they will look at your undergraduate degree performance. So I concur with my colleagues to ‘knock it out of the park’ regarding the program you are currently enrolled in. If you identify a weakness, actively work to turn a weakness into a strength. When a graduate program knows that you wanted in so bad that you worked for 18 months to improve low GRE verbal scores, that tells graduate faculty that you’ll also work hard to conquer the challenges of a doctoral program. Persistence, tenacity, and hardiness are characteristics that academics tend to appreciate!

I am a graduating senior in a psychology program at
a pretty underfunded institution. As such, I have little opportunity to participate in research. I have a good
 GPA and GRE scores, but haven’t had a chance to ‘prove myself’ in a lab or research setting. How does one go about gathering recommendations to get in grad school? Does this practice of prioritizing recommendation letters and research experience put students from underfunded institutions at a severe disadvantage when applying for grad school? (I am taking a semester off to intern at a reputed lab out of state to address this inadequacy, apart from other motivations.)

Handelsman: I usually ask students to consider this question:
Who are the three people in your academic (and professional)
life who—when all three letters are read—can provide a detailed, 3-dimensional picture of your strengths as a student and/or professional. The question of whether a lack of research experience will put you at a "severe” disadvantage is a complex one. The factors that enter into the equation include: your GPA, your interests, your GRE scores, the type and level of program you are applying to, your personal statement, the efforts you’ve made (like the internship you are going to do, which is wonderful!), and the fit between your interests and abilities on the one hand and the focus of the program on the other. You might find that you change or expand the list of schools you apply to, but the bottom line is not to let one relative weak spot in your application deter you from (a) applying, and (b) continuing the fine efforts you’ve made to fill in the gaps in your profile. Remember, people carry an umbrella to work even if there’s only a 20 or 30% chance of rain. Saying that you have less of a chance at some programs perhaps should not stop you from applying!

VanderStoep: I would encourage you to consult the Psi Chi website. There are several opportunities for students in situations like
yours. As for recommendation letters, the best letters are the ones that come from people who can speak to your potential as a grad student and research/professional psychologist. Obviously, people who have worked with you on research would be a better letter, especially for a program that is research-intensive. There is nothing, per se, that disqualifies letters from (what you referred to as) underfunded institutions. The quality of the letter is what matters.

I also think it matters what institution you attended. Students from prestigious institutions are at an advantage, all other things being equal. But if you’ve done solid work and (this is particularly true
of students from lesser-known institutions) do fabulously on the GRE, these institutional difference will go away. Grad committees will see that you can hold your own against students from the best universities.

Landrum: I don’t have much to add to what my esteemed colleagues have already mentioned, but I’d encourage you not to undervalue your undergraduate experiences. There are enough graduate programs in the country that if you have a stellar record in all areas but research experience, you should still be competitive at some programs. And to your credit, you are already working to fill that void as an intern. I would recommend that you go for it, and if you are not accepted into programs that you desire, then work to formulate a Plan B so that you know what to do to strengthen your application for the next time around.


Mitch Handelsman, PhD, is currently professor of psychology and a CU President’s Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver, where he has been on the faculty since 1982. In 2003–04, he was president of the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association. He is a licensed psychologist and a fellow of APA. He currently writes the quarterly column Ethics Matters for Eye on Psi Chi. His blog, "The Ethical Professor,” can be found at www.psychologytoday.com.

R. Eric Landrum, PhD, is a former Psi Chi Rocky Mountain Regional Vice- President (2009–11). A professor at Boise State University (ID) and the chapter’s faculty advisor, Dr. Landrum often give talks about issues such as graduate school admissions. He has over 225 professional presentations at conferences and published over 20 books or book chapters, and has published over 65 professional articles in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals.

Scott VanderStoep, PhD, previously served as Psi Chi Midwest Regional Vice-President from 2002–06 and President from 2008-09. His educational journey began in the same place where he currently works—Hope College (MI)—and where he is associate professor and department chair. In his 18 years of college teaching, he has taught introductory, developmental, social, cognitive, industrial/organizational, research lab, psychology of religion, and advanced data analysis.

Copyright 1996 (Volume 1, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

 

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Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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