Both of us have had experience applying for graduate schools and serving on graduate admissions committees. Likewise, we have been applicants for academic jobs, and we have been on committees that hired new faculty members. After over 20 years of such experiences, we have learned that the skills that are necessary for applying to graduate school are the same as those that will come in handy later when you apply for jobs. Our solemn task in this column is to help you prepare for the application process. Everything in this column--except for the made-up parts--is based on actual interviews.
After all, truth IS stranger than fiction.
Finding the Right Position
While undergraduate students are perusing Graduate Study in Psychology, graduate students (and some faculty members) are busy looking at the APA Monitor and other such publications. In both cases, months of searching lead to the realization that there is no perfect graduate program and no perfect job. Graduate programs want applicants with publications; a letter to the editor of the South Evansville Weekly Post-World-Dispatch-Intelligencer just won't do. Likewise, universities want new faculty members with international reputations, and having spent one's last vacation in Montreal is not as impressive as you may think. Thus, it is important to spend some time narrowing down choices. Say, to about 50.
Letter of Application
Once you've made the choice about where to apply, the trick is to write a form letter in such a way as it does not sound like a form letter. In the age of word processors with mail-merge functions, this is easier, but it still takes some doing. Here are some tips that we have picked up for writing such letters:
- Do not use stationery from the motel you stayed at during your last spring break, or last year's job search.
- Do not write letters of application in longhand, even though your handwriting looks like a doctor's.
- Although it is very desirable to provide some detailed information about yourself in your letter, it is not good to provide information ON your letter. In other words, do not leave any indications of what you had for breakfast, lunch, or dinner on the letter. This is because it tends to show some sloppiness. It's also because you need to leave room for committee members to leave bits of their own meals.
- Do not indicate that your career aspirations include being dean of the college, and then supreme leader of the world.
- The correct form of address is not "Dear Sir, Madam, or whatever . . ."
- Do not question the wisdom of the institution's requirement that letters of recommendation (a) be forwarded directly to the institution, (b) be from people who actually know you, and (c) cannot be written in your handwriting.
- Remember that committees will probably not be inclined to accept you for a position at "Name of School here."
Whether you are applying for graduate school or a job, you sit by the phone, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, hoping that it will ring with news that you have been selected for an interview. (The only difference is between sitting in a dorm room or an apartment, on a secondhand sofa or a beanbag chair, with textbooks or with journals on your shelves, and whether the shelves are made of milk cartons or cinder blocks.) You gladly accept the invitation before you realize that you have no money to travel and you'll have to start driving this afternoon for your interview next week. Some places have travel money, but others do not. You should be careful, however, not to accept an interview at a place that asks you if you have some Burger King coupons you could bring with you.
First impressions are very important. Thus, appropriate clothing is a must for any interview. Be aware, then, that a Santa Claus hat is NOT in good taste, even if the interview occurs during the Christmas season. Although the data are sketchy, it appears that wearing dark glasses to interviews does not improve one's chances.
Some places make it a point to take the applicant out to lunch (assuming that the applicant is not out to lunch already). It is important to bear in mind that even mealtimes should be considered part of the interview, so be on your guard. For example:
- Do not order the most expensive item on the menu (assuming you are NOT using your own Burger King coupons).
- Asking for a doggie bag at the buffet line is not considered top form.
- For that matter, neither is bringing your dog.
- Forgetting to remove one's lobster bib for the afternoon interviews has been known to cast clouds over the entire interview process.
- Eating olives by throwing them high in the air and catching them in one's mouth has been known to reduce chances of acceptance.
Here are some tips that are especially useful when interviewing for graduate schools:
- Do not convey to the interviewer that you will answer questions "on a need to know basis."
- You should prepare to interview by reading one of several very good books on graduate school admission. However, you should not leave the interview to phone the author of the book to ask if it's OK to loosen your tie.
- Most interviewers will not be interested in your stamp collection, bird calls, or jazz oboe.
- Even clinical programs will not necessarily be impressed with your idea to revise the traditional Rorschach cards by inserting graphics from Nintendo games.
- Do not challenge the interviewer to hand wrestle to see who buys the other beer after the interview.
- Try to avoid questions concerning the strictness of the school's policy against selling illicit drugs.
- When asked what your research interests are, do not respond, "You mean, in my current life?"
- Do not ask the interviewers how they ever got into graduate school.
- Do not bribe the interviewer. However, it may be acceptable to send gifts to interviewers if the gifts can be consumed without leaving traces.
- When asked about your long-term goals, do not say, "Define 'long-term'; define 'goals.'"
- It will not help your chances of acceptance to volunteer automatically to participate in any research project that involves hypnosis, out-of-body experiences, drugs, or sensory deprivation.
Our tips for interviewing for academic positions are similar:
- You will invariably be asked to give a colloquium or talk during your interview. Dress well, speak clearly, and remember always to refer to "collecting" rather than "buying" or "making up" your dissertation data.
- During your talk, try as best you can to ignore the noise made by senior faculty members who think an applicant's talk is a great time to eat lunch.
- Eating habits of senior faculty members is not a good topic of conversation during the rest of your interview.
- When you are interviewed by the dean, it is considered less than impressive to place a tape recorder on the desk "just to make sure there are no misunderstandings."
- Do not ask if the school has a policy prohibiting faculty from cohabiting with students. This will not endear you to the administration.
- When they ask your opinions about grading, try not to say, "I think everyone deserves an A regardless of effort."
- If they ask you if you've ever been in trouble with the law, do not ask, "Just what exactly do you mean by 'trouble?'"
In general, it is best to present yourself during the interview as a dedicated, highly motivated, self-starting individual. After all, there is limited time during an interview, and the truth can wait.
Winter 1998 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 52-53), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 1998, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.