A good application finds a good match between you and a
graduate program. The process is often anxiety producing, but the
anxiety can be replaced by knowledge. The knowledge you will need to
write a good application is not so much the sort you find in books.
Rather, it is more like wisdom--you find it in a variety of places. I
will detail three sources: (1) your perspective, (2) individuals in your
audience, and (3) the culture in your audience.
An application with a clear sense of purpose is
impressive. But learning about yourself in relation to psychology may be
the hardest task of the application process. After 8 or 10 courses in
psychology, you have probably read references to 2,000 different
articles. That's less than 1% of psychology articles of the last seven
Psi Chi members who attend the national convention of
the American Psychological Society are the cream of the crop [This
article was originally presented at the 1997 APS Convention.--Editor]
You are interested in world-class psychology or you wouldn't be here.
Bloom's (1985) study of becoming world class in various fields revealed
three steps: (1) begin with a teacher who makes it fun, (2) move on to
one who hones your skills, and (3) perfect them with a world-class
What psychological specialties are fun to you?
in her career Janet Taylor Spence told her students that to make a
difference in psychology, people had to spend nearly all of their waking
time on it. Three decades later, at her inaugural address as the very
first president of the American Psychological Society, she talked on
workaholism. I caught up with her later in the poster hall, reminded her
of her earlier comments, and asked, "What's the difference between your
advice back then and workaholism?" She thought for a moment, perhaps
remembering her early work on the Taylor Manifest Anxiety Scale. "I'm
not sure," she answered, "but I think workaholics do it because they are
afraid not to, while great psychologists do it because they love it."
Both of her words to the wise can be life-forming, but the later one
tells you how to add grace to the process.
already fun for you, or you wouldn't be seeking more of it. Even so, at
application time, it will help to review. Go back to your General
Psychology book and leaf through it. What catches your eye again?
Imagine yourself doing every step of the study. Do these activities feel
interesting? What did your favorite teacher like best?
What skills have you developed?
undergraduate research project can be a ticket to studying with a
person in the area of that research, but use your letter of introduction
to yourself to keep it from also "foreclosing" on your choices. That
happens when people focus on the content of your project rather than the
skills it developed or revealed. Let people know how far from that
problem you may be interested in straying. Also, note on your
applications the particular skills you used in the project and any other
unusual skills you may have. Since your advisor's letter may be more
convincing than your own, make sure you share your list with him or her.
you have a stronger than usual background in computers, science,
mathematics, literature, history, music, outdoor recreation, languages,
data analysis, writing, videotaping, behavior coding, electronics,
animal training, drawing? There are few areas of human knowledge that
psychologists have not studied and used. Every special skill could be a
ticket to some research program where it might be useful, but is
currently in short supply.
How will you make a difference?
complete your preparation for making a difference in the world,
according to Bloom, you need perseverance and world-class feedback from a
master in your field. Either in graduate school or during postdoctoral
work. you will need input from someone who has made a difference during
his or her generation. Make sure your letters show that you know what
difference your potential advisor(s) have made.
Individuals in Your Audience
Because it is the quintessential science of
people, psychology may ultimately be the most useful science. Every
science, every business, and every art is ultimately about people. Don't
forget the individuals within the generalities of the science. You are
applying to study with a person first, her or his department second, and
your "chosen specialty" third. Have a person in mind when you write
Who is recommended by someone you know?
are probably only two or three people between you and each of the
greatest living psychologists--you know someone, who knows someone, who
knows them. If you have done research with people at your campus, they
can be especially helpful. Who do they know, like, and admire? If you
are presenting at a conference, take a special interest in anyone who
comes and talks to you. A person who is interested in your paper might
make or know a great doctoral advisor. Even young faculty in an
acclaimed or growing program can make excellent advisors. As you help
build their career, they will help you with yours. The results could
well be a lifelong friendship.
Who is eager to talk about programs they know?
communications theorist, Marshall McLuhan, argued that "the medium is
the message." People not only love to talk about the programs they are
in, but the way they talk and even the attention they give you can be as
important as what they say. Thus, graduate students at good schools are
competent; good communicators have good social skills; and researchers
who make time for strangers also make time for their own students.
your time at conferences to talk to people from departments that
interest you. Graduate students presenting papers can be informative.
Listen to their answers, but also ask yourself if the person's work
appears good to you. Listen to talks that interest you, but also ask
yourself if you like the person as well as the work. Introduce yourself
with quality questions, but also note if the presenter will make time
for you (if not right at that moment, try for a time later in the
conference or in conjunction with a trip to see their lab).
Are distant places actually close to home?
Steele Commager argued that one of the three pleasures of history was
the discovery of great companions from the past. Likewise, you can use
journal articles and even the Net to find great companions in distant
places. Do a PsycInfo search on each person you have found interesting.
Look up their name on the Web, but don't stop there. Read at least two
recent articles before writing to them about their work or their
program. Tell a little about yourself and ask for papers and information
about their current interests.
The Culture in Your Audience
Renowned cultural psychologist Michael Cole argues
that the defining characteristic of humanity is our tendency to inhabit
environments transformed by other members of our species. The people
and laboratories in a department provide a setting for the growth of
everyone in it. Your application will be screened, not just by
individuals, but by departments and even schools.
What are the program's interests?
what subfields does a department have several faculty members? In what
areas is it especially productive? Are there special opportunities for
research that could only be found in their region of the country? By all
means, check out the department's Web site and read a few articles by
at least a few of the faculty listed before applying.
How does the department rate?
the National Research Council ratings for research published in the APS
Observer (available from quality faculty members anywhere). This ranks
nearly 200 doctoral programs for research productivity and impact. It
also gives interesting figures, like the average length of time for
obtaining a PhD.
The Final Steps
The final steps are communicating your sense of purpose and trusting your audience.
Communicating your sense of purpose
through the application forms you have solicited until you find one
that poses questions you like. Draft an answer and share it with the
person who will be your primary reference. This serves two goals: it
communicates your goals to the referee, and it gives you another
opportunity to get feedback. As a result, both the referee's letter and
your own will be improved.
Trusting your audience
Twain tells of two strangers who passed through a town asking if it was a
good place to live. An old man at the outskirts answered after first
asking them how they liked it where they came from. The first passerby
was fleeing dismal, old neighbors and the old man told him he probably
wouldn't like the people in his town either. The second was forced by
circumstances to move from good friends and the old man welcomed him to
the town. Don't lose sight of the idea that no matter how technical it
becomes, scientific psychology is a people business. You are seeking to
enjoy psychological work, to know and like the people involved, and to
make your best choices about programs. As you accomplish these goals,
getting into the right graduate school will lose much of its
anxiety-producing aspect and become an exciting part of the process of
learning to make a difference in this world. If you have done this
right, there is a very good chance that people at one of the right
programs will agree with you.
Bloom, B. S. (Ed.). (1985). Developing Talent in Young People. New York: Ballantine Books.
This article is based on material presented by David K. Dirlam,
formerly of King College, as part of a Psi Chi Symposium titled
"Getting Into Graduate School" (Norine L. Jalbert and Lynne Baker-Ward,
cochairs) at the 9th Annual Convention of the American Psychological
Society, Washington, DC, May 24, 1997.