Among the vast number of psychology majors, Psi Chi members represent the best and the brightest, and a large number of Psi Chi members choose psychology as a career. However, to call yourself a psychologist requires a doctoral degree, and, consequently, Psi Chi students will want to prepare themselves for getting in and staying in graduate school. As I mentioned in my previous message, Keith-Spiegel, Tabachnick, & Spiegel (1994) contend that the top three criteria for admission to a quality PhD program are a high GPA (3.5-4.0), high GRE scores (1,200 and above), and strong letters of recommendation. Whereas these three criteria are critical in gaining admission to graduate school, they do not often discriminate among the top students. As a result, second-tier criteria are used to make decisions about admittance. Among the most important of the second-tier criteria is involvement in research. In this president's message I will explore each of these areas and demonstrate why it is important to get involved in research as an undergraduate.
Though having a high GPA is important in getting into a graduate program, by itself it is not enough. You must also have specific skills that are acquired through specific courses and experiences. In 1987 we published a comment in the American Psychologist that identified the curricula of 50 of the leading undergraduate psychology programs in the nation (Purdy, Reinehr, & Swartz, 1987). The criterion used for picking these programs was a report by Hall (1985), who surveyed all undergraduate programs and picked the top 50 programs that had produced the most majors who went on to obtain their PhDs in psychology. Examination of the programs revealed more similarities than differences. Virtually all schools required an introductory psychology class and a statistics course. More than half also required an experimental methods course. A majority of schools also required students to choose at least two courses from among a group of research- or laboratory-based courses and to choose at least two courses from among more applied courses. Courses in the research group included cognition, comparative, learning, physiological, and sensation and perception. Courses in the applied group included abnormal, clinical, developmental, personality, and social psychology. These courses, then, represent the mainstream courses that psychology majors at the top schools take.
Graduate admissions committees also look for skills outside of psychology. Additional course recommendations include computer science, more statistics, math, biology, and chemistry. Students interested in clinical neuroscience, clinical psychology, biopsychology, and neuroscience will need to know a great deal about the physiological bases of behavior. Courses in organic chemistry and molecular biology will go a long way toward understanding the role of the brain in behavior. Students interested in quantitative psychology, behavioral modeling, and neural networks will want to take a number of math and computer science courses. Of course, a great deal of time in graduate school is spent writing. Take as many English and composition courses as you can.
A high score on the GRE is also a top-tier criterion. Some institutions have cutoffs on the GRE score. For example, some programs may not take an individual who scores lower than 1,200 on the GRE. This, however, is probably not the norm, and even within these programs this criterion may apply inconsistently depending on need and number of applications. Still, the GRE is one of the main criteria for graduate school, and you will want to take it seriously.
Letters of recommendation are also critical. Having written hundreds of letters of recommendation, I can attest that they are not fun to write. Still, letter writers take the task seriously, and they want to write the best letter they can. To do this, the writer needs information. Know when the letter is due, enclose all appropriate forms, provide an addressed and stamped envelope. Remember to give your letter writer plenty of time to prepare your letters. Provide your GPA, GRE scores, course grades, and include your personal statement. To ensure that your letter writer knows you well, work with that person, if possible, on a research project or some other major project. A professor who had you in one class along with 250 other students is going to be hard-pressed to write you a long and glowing letter that documents your readiness for graduate school.
Keith-Spiegel et al. (1994) argue that the conduct of research as an undergraduate is critical to admission to graduate school. As mentioned in my last message, research experience offers several major advantages to students. Students acquire a better understanding of the scientific method, and they learn to design better experiments. By conducting research and by presenting and publishing their work, students become more competitive in a tight graduate school market, and they are able to contribute to such programs earlier. The experience allows faculty members or your research supervisor to get to know you well. This will have obvious benefits when it is time to write letters of recommendation. Finally, the experience will show to graduate admissions personnel that you are ready for graduate school.
So, how do you go about acquiring research experience? Begin with your home institution and be flexible. It is very important to note that it is the research experience that matters and not the specific topic on which you work. Having research experience in any area is useful. Do not be afraid to get experience working with a social psychologist when your interests are in biopsychology or developmental psychology. The methods of scientific inquiry generalize across all areas of psychology. Find someone who is willing to work with you on a project and work with that person. Do not be afraid to go outside the department if it becomes necessary to do so. Several students in the psychology program at Southwestern University have worked with biologists or sociologists or even physicists and computer scientists. Examples of students who have worked in my lab include Karen Roper and Joey King (optimal foraging in fishes and turtles); Melissa Burns, Mary Ann Humphries Collins, and Jennifer L. Peel (observing responses in fishes); Alison Roberts (influence of predators on foraging); Madeline Rhodes (spatial learning in turtles); Cynthia Garcia, Adam Ferguson, and Michael Disch (sign tracking in cuttlefish and fish); and Sarah Dreumont (maze learning in cuttlefish).
Once you have acquired research experience at your home institution, it is time to consider moving on to another institution and a different experience. This is actually easier than it seems. One sure way to do this is to write or e-mail a person with whom you would like to work. Then volunteer your time. Indicate that you have read the person's publications and are very much interested in working in his or her lab. In essence you are indicating that you will work in the person's lab for no money. You will be amazed at how many people will be able to find a spot for you. You will also be amazed at how much this experience helps in terms of getting into graduate school. Again, numerous students from my lab have worked in other labs around the country. A few of these students include: Robin Joynes (Terry Walters, University of Texas Health Science Center, neuroscience), Karen Roper (Louis Herman, University of Hawaii, dolphins, and Mike Domjan, sexual conditioning in quail), Amelia Caine (Ed Fantino, University of California, San Diego, operant conditioning in pigeons), Misty Karin (University of California, San Diego, cognitive science and linguistics), Alison Roberts (John Forsythe, National Resource Center for Cephalopods and the Center for Whale Research, New England), Madeline Rhodes (Steve Schapiro, MD, Anderson Cancer Center, primates), Sarah Dreumont (Vin LoLordo, Dalhousie University, behavioral neuroscience), and Adam Ferguson (Jim Grau, Texas A & M University, neuroscience).
Students who worked in my lab or who worked in a major research labor both are doing extremely well. Where are some of these students now? Karen Roper received her PhD from the University of Kentucky and is now on the faculty at Wake Forest University. Jennifer Peel received her PhD from Texas Christian University and is currently working at the University of Arkansas Medical School. Robin Joynes received her PhD from Texas A & M University and is on the faculty at Kent State University. Mary Ann Humphries Collins received her PhD from Brandeis University and is currently on the faculty at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala. Many of these students are currently PhD candidates. Examples include Madeline Rhodes (State University of New York), Adam Ferguson and Amy Sieve (Texas A & M University), Michael Disch (University of California, Berkeley) and Sarah Dreumont (Dalhousie University).
The names of the students are not important to remember, and I have left out the names of many students who have worked in my lab. Of importance is the fact that these are real people who worked in an aquatic animal research lab and who have gone on to be successful psychologists. I hope my point is clear. Take the right courses in your major, and supplement those courses in areas of interest to the graduate programs to which you apply. Take the GRE exam seriously, and, importantly, get involved in research at the undergraduate level. The research experience prepares you well for graduate school and beyond, and it provides the information letter writers need to say nice things about you. Stay tuned for forthcoming announcements regarding the ways in which Psi Chi hopes to facilitate you in your quest to obtain the research experiences you need to succeed.