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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2012
Applying to Graduate School in Psychology: A Professor’s Perspective
Whitney M. Herge, MA, Sherilynn F. Chan, BA,
Valentina A. Podkowirow, Betty Lai, PhD, MST, University of Miami (FL)

This article is the second part of a two part series on applying to graduate school. Part one of this series focused on finding a program and a mentor that fit your needs, as well as the benefits of becoming a career psychologist. In this article, Annette La Greca, PhD, a professor at the University of Miami, offers her perspective on ideal candidates for graduate school, experiences needed to be an attractive graduate school applicant, how to write a personal statement, and general words of advice.

Describe your ideal prospective graduate student.
La Greca: There are four things I concentrate on the most:

  1. Intelligence—I want to work with someone who is really smart, someone who has good grades. GPA is incredibly important. It’s ideal to have good GREs and strong letters of recommendations that convey the person is intelligent.
  2. Hard Working—I look for evidence that the person is hardworking; this information can come from an applicant’s GPA and letters of recommendation. Another way to get this information is to look at the person’s resume to see what kinds of things that person has been working on. Is this a person who has managed to get a good GPA and do research, but also has part-time interests or other hobbies or jobs? I look for applicants who really apply themselves but are also wellrounded.
  3. Similar Research Interests—I look for an applicant who is highly interested in my areas of expertise, because that is someone I can mentor more effectively. It doesn’t have to be an exact match, but it should be someone who could build on one of my areas of expertise. For example, one of my former graduate students applied to work in my lab, and she was really interested in bipolar disorder. I am not an expert in bipolar disorder, but she was interested in building on my expertise in peer relations to bring that into the bipolar area. That was a good fit, because then I felt like I could contribute to what she was doing. I’m going to be more excited and enthusiastic about someone whose interests match well with the research that I’m doing—something in trauma, peer victimization, peer relations, internalizing disorders. Those are the themes I would look for if I were trying to recruit a student.
  4. Good Interpersonal Skills—Grad school can be much more fun if you’re curious and like learning new things. I also think enthusiasm and collaboration are important, so I look for applicants who are enthusiastic and enjoy collaborating with others, rather than someone who always has to do things his or her own way or would rather work alone. I often find evidence of interpersonal skills from a letter of recommendation before inviting someone to interview. Upon meeting the person, I try to gauge what it would be like to work with the applicant, since we are going to be working together for a long while. It’s really a pleasure when you have people who are fun to work with.

What experiences, both in and outside of psychology, will a good candidate have on their Curriculum Vitae (CV)?
La Greca:
Again, there are four things I look for:

  1. Research Experience—Number one for someone who is interested in a PhD program is research experience. That could be attained through work in a lab. Although often you do not have control over this, it helps if you can work in a lab with someone who is doing research that is similar to work that you want to do in the future, because that mentor will know other people from the field in the graduate programs that you apply to. For example, one of my graduate students worked with Edith Chen at the University of British Columbia. Edith is wonderful, and I would take very seriously any student she recommended to me. It isn’t essential that you have a mentor who is familiar to the person that you are applying to work with, but it helps. Also related to research is the coauthoring of presentations and publications. Although not necessary, the probability that an application will get attention is enhanced if it shows coauthoring experience.
  2. Good Statistics Grades—I know undergraduates often tend to shy away from statistics and might only take a minimal amount of statistics, but it looks great on their resumes if they have not only the basic statistics courses, but also a more advanced statistics course. Experience with statistics in a lab setting is also great and makes the applicant look more attractive.
  3. Extracurricular Activity—Something that rounds out a person’s academic and research experience is participation in a service organization like Psi Chi, or some other extracurricular activity. This shows an interest in working with people. It is even better if that person has played a leadership role in an organization.
  4. Multitasking Ability—Another strength is evidence that the applicant is able to handle multiple tasks. For example, someone who is doing well in school and also has a job or a volunteer position shows the ability to juggle a number of tasks—a skill that is definitely needed in graduate school.

What should the tone of a personal statement be, and how can applicants best convey their personality and experiences?
La Greca:
Most critically, the personal statement needs to be well written. Even if you are a good writer, have other people check it and recheck it, because that’ll be an immediate turn off if it’s not a well-written statement. It should be positive and upbeat, focusing on things you have learned from your experiences. Convey your enthusiasm—enthusiasm for learning or enthusiasm for something in psychology you want to pursue for your career.

Further, you want to say something about you personally. It could be a personal anecdote or an interest you have such as running. Maybe you’ve learned from running. If you run long distance, you’ve learned how important it is to train and to have endurance. You can then take that and apply it to why some aspect of psychology interests you. Maybe running makes you interested in health; maybe the endurance part of running might make you interested in resilience in the face of stress or disasters. Look for something about you personally that you can convey in a positive way but also ties into your interests in psychology.

Additionally, it’s ideal if you can use the personal statement to show why you match well with a specific graduate program. Most graduate programs have more qualified applicants than they could ever interview, so once you are in the ballpark of being competitive, then a lot of it is about how well you fit with the program. You may have one potential mentor that you would really like to work with, but if there are other faculty whose interests are also fairly closely aligned, convey that in the personal statement as well. Sometimes the person that you most have your heart set on working with may already have someone in mind that they want to work with, or they might not be taking students that year, but there may be others who would also be a good match. That’s why it’s so important to convey something about the match with the program and with multiple professors, otherwise faculty are not going to be sure about whether or not you are a good fit for the program. You should mention specifically which faculty you’re interested in working with, what type of training they offer that you are interested in, why it meets your short and long-term career goals, and also, if relevant, why you like that location. Maybe if you have family in the area or grew up in the area; that would be a good thing to reveal in an application, because people may think, "Here’s somebody who’s already been to this area and would enjoy living here,” and who might be more likely to come. Keep in mind that the faculty members reading your statement are going to be thinking, "Well, why should I select you?” So give them some good reasons to select you!

General word of advice?
La Greca:
We’ve mostly been talking about preparing an application—however the application only gets your foot in the door. If you’re fortunate enough to get an interview, there are still several things you can do to enhance your chances of being selected. Prepare carefully for the interview process. Know the program really well, know about the faculty in the program who you’re likely to meet, know about what their interests are and what their training is so that you’re prepared to ask intelligent questions about the program. Remember, while you’re on an interview, you may be evaluated at any point: it’s not just when you’re sitting one-on-one with a student or a faculty member in a formal interview. People might also be paying attention to how well you fit in, whether you socialize with others, and whether you seem to be someone who’s positive and enthusiastic. So, I think those kinds of interview behaviors and interpersonal skills are behaviors that need to come through during the entire interview process. There’s no real down time during an interview, and I think that’s extremely important to remember. Finally, you can usually set the tone for how things go by being positive and enthusiastic during interviews, so make sure you let your excitement shine through!

Whitney M. Herge MA, is a third year clinical psychology PhD student (Pediatric Track) at the University of Miami working with Dr. Annette La Greca. She earned her bachelor’s degrees in both psychology and English from Boston College, graduating Summa Cum Laude, and earned her master’s degree in general psychology from The American University. Ms. Herge is currently working on her dissertation, which is focused on identifying peer victimization profi les through latent profi le analysis, as well as examining the prospective relationship between peer victimization, anxiety and somatic symptoms in adolescents.

Sherilynn F. Chan, BA, is a second year clinical psychology graduate student (Pediatric Track) at the University of Miami working with Dr. Annette La Greca. She earned her honours bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of British Columbia. Sherilynn is interested in risk and resilient factors as they relate to children’s and youth’s psychological and physical health. Her current research is focused on examining the relationship between peer victimization and adolescent substance use, and the moderating roles of gender and peer aggression.

Valentina A. Podkowirow is a fourth year undergraduate at the University of Miami. She is studying to receive her bachelor’s of science in psychology with a minor in chemistry. Ms. Podkowirow is working as a research assistant under the
supervision of Dr. Annette La Greca. She is currently examining post-disaster functioning, as well as the potential moderating effect of disclosure on the relationship between peer victimization and somatic symptoms.

Betty Lai, PhD, MST
, is a child psychologist currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship with the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine. She graduated from the clinical psychology program at the University of Miami (Child Track), and she completed her clinical internship at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford/Children’s Health Council.

Copyright 2012 (Volume 16, 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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