Have you ever been told that you would make a great psychologist? Perhaps you've heard this from friends, who rely on you for advice and wise counsel. Or maybe faculty, pointing to your analytical mind and interpersonal skill, have encouraged you. Maybe your own enthusiasm and ability in psychology classes has sparked your interest in following this career path.
No matter which factors influenced your decision, once you determine that you want to apply to graduate school in psychology, a number of additional considerations await you. Some of the issues you'll face include the following.
1. Which specialty area?
Psychology is a very rich and diverse field. As one illustration, consider the American Psychological Association (APA), which currently lists more than 50 "divisions," including behavioral neuroscience, developmental, industrial-organizational, and clinical psychology to mention just some of the better known specialties. Deciding which to select depends, in part, on what you want to do professionally. For instance, if you want to work with clients, you'll probably lean toward one of the license-eligible specialties such as clinical or counseling psychology. If you want to focus on research and teaching, then experimental psychology may be your preference. However, there are a variety of other factors you also might want to consider such as differences in competition for graduate school admission, the length of training, minimum requirements for professional practice, and future employment outlook. For instance, admissions for license-eligible specialties generally tend to be somewhat more competitive (with clinical psychology being among the most competitive), involve a longer duration of training (including a yearlong predoctoral internship experience), and require passing a licensing examination for independent practice. Due to shifting market forces, the employment outlook for different specialties can be difficult to forecast. However, at the present time, health psychology, neuropsychology, and pediatric psychology seem to be especially popular.
Given the many factors to consider, deciding on a specialty can involve a complex decision-making process. One place to start is by reviewing a couple of books on this topic. Some of the best are edited volumes containing chapters written by psychologists working in different areas (e.g., Sternberg, 1997). Armed with this overview, you might gradually begin to narrow the field. Discuss your thoughts with your advisor. If you know psychologists specializing in an area you are considering, make contact and arrange to spend some time talking with them or, if possible, taking their classes or working on their research teams. If your psychology department has graduate programs in the specialty, talk with graduate students about what the training is like and their hopes for the future. The time and effort spent not only will help your immediate decision-making process but also will make you a more informed consumer when you do apply.
2. Which program?
Having decided on a specialty area, your next task is to identify programs to which you might want to apply. One excellent source of information is the APA publication entitled Graduate Study in Psychology (2001), which contains a description of graduate programs nationwide. Most university libraries will have this guide among their holdings. Examination of this publication is a good first step to surveying the range of possibilities available. If you are able to relocate, consider programs from a wide range of geographic areas. To the extent that you are tied to a specific location, your options will be more limited.
After you identify the programs that pique your interest, have a look at their websites. For programs that you continue to find appealing, request additional program materials. Pay particular attention to the program description and listing of faculty interests. A key question centers on how well your background and interests match those of the program and current faculty. For instance, if you are interested in conducting research on schizophrenia and no one on the faculty works in that area, you probably would not be happy in that program. In sum, familiarize yourself sufficiently well with the program materials to determine if you and the program match. You'll probably want to eliminate those programs where the "fit" is not good. Gradually, the ones that represent a good match with your background and interests should rise to the top of your "apply" list. For each program on your final list, you should be able to articulate the reasons you believe you and the program match and to identify faculty with whom you would be particularly interested in working.
3. Who should write letters of recommendation?
An important part of the application process is identifying individuals who will be asked to write reference letters in support of your application. You should make this decision with great care. Ensure that you select letter writers who are able to comment very specifically on your abilities to pursue graduate study.
If your only experience with a faculty member was in the context of a class in which 80 other students were enrolled, it is unlikely that person will be able to say much about you that would be helpful to a graduate selection committee, even if you did come to class regularly and get an A on all your exams. A much better choice would be the faculty person you assisted on a research project or the psychologist who closely supervised you on a practicum.
4. What is a "personal statement"?
In the applications for most programs, you will be asked to write a paragraph or two about yourself. The personal statement is an opportunity to provide a sample of your best writing and gives you the chance to describe how your academic background and professional goals are consistent with the program's mission and faculty specialty areas. This is not the place to reveal deep, dark, personal or family secrets. It's always a good idea to have your current advisor review your statement in draft form. In this way, you will increase the chances that you are clearly conveying the points you intended to express. Obviously, you'll also want to be sure your writing is grammatically correct and the final copy is free of typographical errors.
5. What if questions arise while completing the application?
The majority of applications have detailed instructions attached. If you are sure you have read the instructions carefully, it is perfectly acceptable to seek clarification of unclear questions or other issues that arise. A good place to start is with your advisor or other faculty at your current school. If, after local consultation, the question remains, contact the program directly. Depending on the question and the program, you might find the program secretary helpful (e.g., if the question has to do with the correct mailing address). However, as the person responsible for program administration, the program director or director of clinical training is generally available to discuss applicants' questions or concerns. In fact, if the application is unclear in some way, it would be very helpful for the director to have that feedback. Of course, whenever you contact program faculty or staff directly, you should endeavor to "put your best foot forward."
6. What about those application deadlines?
Application deadlines are not uniform across programs. Therefore, the various deadlines are important to keep in mind as you put together your applications for different programs. Keep in mind that the application deadline is the date by which all materials must be received, not just the part of the application for which you are responsible. To ensure that your materials arrive on time, request your GRE scores and letters of recommendation well in advance. At least one month before the first deadline, provide your letter writers with a list of the programs to which you are applying, the name of the individual to whom the letter should be sent, the deadline date for each, a copy of your recent curriculum vitae, and any additional reference forms required by the programs. Moreover, it is customary to provide a stamped, addressed envelope for each letter to be sent. It's not a bad idea to ask your letter writers if other information would be helpful to them.
7. To check or not to check?
Universities vary in the way they process graduate school applications. Some schools ask you to assemble the various pieces and submit one complete packet. For example, your letter writers may be asked to provide letters to you in sealed envelopes for inclusion in your application. However, at many schools, the pieces of the applications (e.g., your part, the reference letters coming directly from faculty, GRE scores, etc.) arrive independently and travel on a circuitous route through various graduate school divisions before they reach the program for which they are intended. In addition, at large schools, the admissions staff are processing incoming applications for many different departments and programs all at about the same time. Consequently, there are numerous opportunities for things to go awry. For these reasons, you'll want to check to be sure your application arrived and that all the various components are there. Some programs will not review incomplete applications.
8. What if the program director or program faculty calls?
Once you send in your application, there is a chance that a representative of the program (such as the program director or other faculty member) may contact you. Although not everyone will be contacted by phone, it is wise to prepare for the possibility. Toward this end, several points are worth considering.
The phone number you list on your application should be one that will answer during normal business hours (even if the answer is by machine) and reliably transmit a message to you. For instance, if you share a phone with several roommates, be sure that they will take messages accurately and get them to you in a timely way. If you share an answering machine with several others, make every effort to ensure that no one will erase an incoming message in error. This also would be a good time to review the greeting on your answering machine. Does your greeting present you as you would like to be seen by others or does it create an impression that does not reflect your assets? If you recently added a greeting in questionable taste as a joke among your friends, this might be the time to reconsider it.
Be aware that the timing of a call may seem somewhat unpredictable from your perspective. In other words, you could be in the middle of anything when a call comes. For instance, if you listed your cell phone number as your phone contact number, you could be shopping, rushing to your next class, or arguing with a significant other when you are phoned. Make every effort to minimize the influence of these extraneous factors on the professionalism with which you conduct yourself during a conversation with program representatives.
Even if you applied to many programs, try to keep in mind all the program names and key characteristics. If you don't remember applying to the program or remember very little about the program, you could find yourself in an embarrassing position in the event that someone calls. Be prepared to discuss typical questions such as why you applied, your fit with the program, and faculty with whom you might like to work if you were to be accepted.
9. To interview in person or by phone?
Programs differ in the way they handle interviews. However, if you are given an option to interview either in person or by phone, it is well worth the effort to select the in-person interview. Visiting the campus and meeting personally with faculty, staff, and students not only gives you much more information on which to make a decision but also provides data that are difficult to detect based on the written program materials alone. For instance, during the course of visiting for a personal interview, you'll get a sense about how you might fit with the other students, program climate, graduate student office space, and campus facilities (e.g., library, gym). If you are unfamiliar with the city, a visit could help you decide if you would be comfortable living there for several years.
10. What if I don't receive an offer of admission?
Application to graduate school has become increasingly competitive over the years. In many programs, there are far more excellent students seeking admittance than graduate student slots available. For this reason, the absence of an offer does not mean you are not a good candidate for graduate school. If you are not admitted this year, take time to review your application strategy and background. Did you limit yourself to a very small geographic area? Are there things you might do differently in preparing your application? Does your interview style require some fine-tuning? Are there areas of your background that could benefit from some additional work (e.g., research experience, course work)? If so, make some changes based on what you learned. Take some time to strengthen your application and reapply next year.
American Psychological Association. (2001). Graduate study in psychology: 2002 edition. Washington, DC: Author.
Sternberg, R. (Ed.). (1997). Career paths in psychology: Where your degree can take you. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.