I once had a student who applied to a graduate program that had two openings and just over 100 applicants. Obviously, gaining one of those positions was highly competitive. How do you make yourself standout from all of the other applicants? This topic is frequently addressed at Psi Chi sessions at the regional and national conferences. A book on the topic, Getting in: A Step-By-Step Plan for Gaining Admission to Graduate School in Psychology (APA), walks you through the entire process of applying to a graduate program. A quick review of Eye on Psi Chi shows that the topic of graduate school has been addressed 32 times over the last 24 issues. In fact, articles about graduate school are published more frequently than any other topic. Career preparation was addressed in 18 articles and chapter growth in 23 articles over the same time span. However, Psi Chi does not simply present facts; Psi Chi presents opportunities.
If you attended any of the Psi Chi symposiums on graduate school or read the Eye on Psi Chi articles mentioned above, the three most important criteria examined by graduate schools are GPA, GRE scores, and letters of recommendation. Obviously, Psi Chi does not help you improve your GPA, but it does recognize students who have excelled academically. Therefore, membership in Psi Chi often serves as an immediate indicator of student's academic ability. Being a Psi Chi member also puts you into close contact with one or more faculty members, which leads to better letters of recommendation. However, when you have 100 applicants with high GPAs, good GRE scores, and glowing letters of recommendation, graduate admissions committees examine secondary criteria to differentiate between students applying to their programs. One of the most important secondary criteria is research (Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000).
Psi Chi helps its members in all phases of the research process. Once you have an idea for research, you need to determine how to conduct the study. Psi Chi has research grants and the SuperLab grant to help facilitate this. Learning the grant process through Psi Chi and obtaining research funding can help you not only in your application for graduate school, but for an eventual academic job as well. After you conduct the study, you need to disseminate the findings. Psi Chi has programs at seven regional conferences and at the national conferences held by APA and APS. Additionally, the Psi Chi Journal provides an excellent outlet for publishing your research. By taking advantage of these programs, you can have a research grant, a conference presentation, and a publication to enhance your graduate school application. In addition, regional research awards are given to members for outstanding research presented at the regional conferences. The Guilford, Allyn & Bacon, and Erlbaum Awards provide a way to recognize exemplary student research on a national level. All of these programs can set you apart from the rest of the applicants applying for graduate school.
However, we know that only 10 percent of undergraduate psychology majors enter graduate programs. We suspect that the number is slightly higher for Psi Chi members (see Thelma Hunt Report, p. 34). The point is that the majority of undergraduates do not pursue graduate school. Occasionally, I run into former students that say "I still want to go to graduate school but ..." One of my goals as a professor is to prepare students for graduate school, but I also want to provide them with the knowledge, skills, and experiences to achieve their goals, whatever they may be. Likewise, Psi Chi recognizes that all members do not enroll in graduate programs to become research psychologists. However, our mission to "produce a well- educated, ethical, and socially responsible member" is not limited to those who attend graduate school. Our programs are designed to help students achieve their goals regardless of what career path they choose to take.
Dr. Drew Appleby outlined the top job skills valued by employers in Eye on Psi Chi (Appleby, 2000). The skills were social skills, personal skills, communication skills, information gathering and processing skills, and numerical and computer skills. By taking a few minutes to read the article, you'll see how engaging in research and taking advantage of Psi Chi's programs can improve your ability to secure the job of your interest. For instance, one of the specific behaviors employers are interested in is the ability to work productively as a team member. Similarly, a research project that includes you, a faculty member, and other students comprise a team. Your ability to work as a team member can be used in a reference call or reference letter by that faculty member.
Recently, one of my students conducted a study in which he obtained a list of people who met the qualifications we were interested in, contacted each person on the list to see if they would be willing to participate, and then scheduled their participation in the study. Since the participants were not necessarily college students, the study was conducted at times that best fit their schedules. Therefore, he made himself available at a variety of times, including the evening and weekends. He did a great job managing the project and, as a result, I can speak very specifically about his initiative and time management skills. In addition, making a conference presentation or publishing your research can provide tangible examples of your communication skills. Similarly, you can go through the remaining categories of skills employers are most interested in and find examples of how research and Psi Chi programs are related to each skill area.
Essentially, we (the National Council and National Office) want you to succeed, and we want to provide opportunities that encourage and foster your success. Take advantage of these opportunities that make you stand out from the rest of graduate school and job applicants.
Appleby, D. C. (2000, Spring). Job Skills Valued by Employers Who Interviewed Psychology Majors. Eye on Psi Chi, 4(3), 17.
Keith-Spiegel, P. & Wiederman, M. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology, counseling, and related professions. (2nd ed.) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.