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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2006
Interview With Donald Asher
Christopher Koch, PhD, George Fox University (OR)
Donald Asher is one of the nation's foremost authorities on the graduate admissions process, and the author of the bestselling Graduate Admissions Essays: How to Write Your Way into the Graduate Program of Your Choice, published by Ten Speed Press. Mr. Asher lectures to student groups from coast to coast on careers and higher education topics, and tens of thousands of students have used his book or seen his lectures and tapes.
Many students are encouraged to follow a timeline for submitting applications to graduate school that is based on the graduate school application deadline. The timeline helps students get the applications completed and turned in by the deadline. How should students approach the published deadline for applications?
I used to survey graduate programs and discovered that, as a rough rule of thumb, 50% of applicants would apply in the last ten days before the deadline. I hear anecdotally that students have gotten more savvy about this since I ran my surveys approximately ten years ago. In short, I think most students applying to most graduate programs should apply 30 to 90 days early, and if they are seeking full funding, they should know that many fellowships and assistantships are in fact assigned before the application deadline even arrives, especially in science and engineering. Students do get in at the last moment, but that is not the way to plan it! For medical school, it is often better to wait a full year to submit a complete and well-thought-out application in the first week of June. For the top MBA and law programs, I recommend students apply in the first trimester of availability, that is, find out when they first accept applications for any given class, find out the final deadline, and try to apply in the first third of the cycle.
Psi Chi is the National Honor Society in Psychology. How will being a member in Psi Chi impact how an application is perceived by a graduate school search committee?
Membership in a professional honor society shows maturity, depth of commitment to a discipline, and professionalism. It is also important to do more than send in a check to join, however. A student should consider seeking a leadership role in the local chapter, such as president, membership officer, or treasurer. Most organizations are in need of a treasurer, it seems, and if a student can balance her checkbook, she can be treasurer of a student organization. Also, contributing book reviews or articles to student newsletters and journals is a way to deepen one's involvement with the society. If a student can attend national meetings, that is the best demonstration of commitment. In short, mere membership is a plus, but demonstrable involvement is a huge plus.
Many applications include a section to indicate if you have been in contact with anyone from the school. How important is it to contact someone from the school you are applying to?
For the PhD, prior contact with faculty is pretty common. A student can write to a faculty member or set up a visit. Not all faculty are approachable in this way. If a student cannot get a response from a faculty member, at least showing familiarity in an application essay with a faculty member's writings or research topics can serve the same purpose. Correspondence and visits are most positive for mature, passionate students who know why they have an interest in the faculty member's research. Before writing, calling, or visiting any faculty member, a student should follow Asher's Law. Asher's Law is this: "Thou shalt not write, nor call, nor visit any faculty member without having read some of his or her writings first."
Students often ask how many schools they should apply to. What is your suggestion?
In most cases, a student should apply to at least six schools–two safe schools, two reach schools, and two schools where he thinks he can "probably, maybe" get admitted. In some competitive areas, such as psychology, it may be in a student's interest to apply to more schools, in particular, in clinical psychology. I would argue that there is no such thing as a "safe" school in clinical psychology, even for a student with a 4.0 GPA and a couple of solid research projects. It is statistically easier to get into Harvard Medical School than it is to get into most clinical psychology programs. This is one of those areas where a student absolutely must sit down with an academic advisor and work out a strategy. The American Psychological Association (APA) book, Graduate Study in Psychology (2005), is an indispensable resource in handicapping safe, reach, and middle-of-the-road schools. By the way, even if a student is applying to ten or twelve schools, every single application should be completely customized to each school. The days of copying and pasting one essay for all applications are over.
Who you work with in graduate school can have a significant impact on your graduate school experience and potentially how easy it will be to find a job after graduating. Are there any strategies maximizing the likelihood of being accepted into a graduate program and working with someone with whom you want to work?
Students can tell in advance if their intellectual interests align with a faculty member's, but they often cannot tell in advance if they can develop a good working relationship with that faculty member. I tell students to look at more than one potential mentor at each school. There is (usually) time in the first couple of years of coursework to assess fit and match, before advancing to the critical proposal stage. There is so much to consider! Is the faculty member supportive and accessible, or arbitrary and harsh? Do this mentor's advisees finish their programs of study in a timely manner? Does this faculty member have funding to support her graduate students? Does this faculty member allow students to publish, or does he keep them slaving away unseen in support roles? The best book on these topics is Robert L. Peters' (1997) Getting What You Came For. Reading this book carefully could shave a year off a PhD effort.
Outside of a psychology program, what are some other graduate school programs that seek psychology majors?
Almost half the people in graduate school are studying something they did not major in as an undergraduate, so every psychology major has many, many options. Organization development, a burgeoning new field, is fond of psychology majors. The many master's programs in advertising love psychology majors. Family studies is an area where many of the graduate students started out as psychology majors. Communications, sociology, criminal justice, social work, women's studies, ethnic studies, and even such topics as nursing and journalism come to mind as departments receptive to psychology majors. Really, though, the individual psychology major should decide what field she is interested in studying, and go seek academic advising from professors in that field to find the shortest route from where she is to where she wants to go. A couple of well chosen classes, a research project, and maybe an internship can convert a psychology major into almost anything.
One approach to maximizing training and skill development is to apply to a master's program in experimental psychology, for example, and then apply to a clinical psychology program. The idea is that you would have training as a clinician and additional training as a researcher. This could improve marketability. Alternatively, a suggestion offered to students who might marginally meet entrance requirements or who want to go to a top program is to get a master's degree first to demonstrate the ability to succeed in graduate school and then apply to the program of choice. How do doctoral programs look at applicants with master's degrees?
This is called a "stepping stone master's" and it is common in psychology and in English, among other disciplines. For one thing, it allows a student to develop a strong graduate GPA, which will make his undergraduate GPA much less relevant. This is a good technique overall, but perhaps especially so for clinical psychology, because it allows the student time to develop more maturity and accumulate more life experiences. The median age in many of the clinical psychology programs is in the thirties, and thus many candidates can bring years of field experience into the programs with them. Getting a master's degree is part of a candidate-development strategy, and I have seen preclinical psychology students combine that with these out-of-classroom experiences: (a) volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline, or an HIV crisis or runaway teen hotline; (b) residential counselor at a halfway house for troubled teenagers; (c) camp counselor for emotionally disturbed youth; (d) research assistant to a psychology faculty member; (e) ride-along observer with a local police force, with special permission from the chief of police and as a special research project for a master's level psych class; (f) probation officer assistant; (g) volunteer community outreach researcher for a personal recognizance program, a public defender-sponsored program to improve community ties and reduce defendants' bail; (h) volunteer at a battered-women's shelter; (i) group counselor at a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility; and (j) recreational volunteer inside a locked psychiatric ward. These types of experiences, combined with a master's in psychology, greatly strengthen a candidate's chances of admission to the most competitive graduate programs.
American Psychological Association. (2005). Graduate study in psychology (2006 ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Peters, R. L. (1997). Getting what you came for: The smart student's guide to earning an M.A. or a Ph.D. (Rev. ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Chris Koch, PhD, received a BS in psychology with honors from Pennsylvania State University, a MS in experimental psychology, and a PhD in cognitive-experimental from the University of Georgia. He is currently in his 12th year at George Fox University (OR) where he has served as Director of Undergraduate Studies in Psychology, Director of External Scholarship, and headed University Assessment. During that time, he has also promoted research in psychology by planning a biannual undergraduate research conference, editing the Journal of Undergraduate Research in Psychology, and working with youth organizations and local high school classes on psychologically-based research projects. He has served as a councilor for the Psychology Division of the Council on Undergraduate Research and the President and Western Region Vice-President of Psi Chi, the National Honor Society in Psychology. He has held a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities at the University of Virginia, was a Fulbright Scholar to Russia, and is a fellow of the Western Psychological Association. His primary research interests focus on the interaction between attention and cognitive and perceptual processes.

Copyright 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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