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
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
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!
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
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
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.