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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2007
Finding the Right Mentor: Gaining Admission to and Succeeding in Graduate School
Betty S. Lai, University of Miami (FL)
William D. Ellison, Pennsylvania State University
It has become increasingly difficult to obtain admission to doctoral programs in psychology. According to the American Psychological Association's (APA; 1997) book Getting In: A Step-by-Step Plan for Gaining Admission to Graduate School in Psychology, approximately 25 applicants vie for every one position open in a psychology doctoral program. As competition increases for these spots, schools are choosing candidates based on whether their interests "match" those of an existing faculty member. Schools hope to find and train promising applicants as "apprentices" who will work primarily under the guidance of one mentor (Kaplan, 2006). Thus, proving oneself to be well-matched to a current professor is one of the keys to gaining admission to graduate school in psychology. The APA graduate admissions guide (1997) noted that an applicant's research experiences and his or her fit with a school have become extremely important, regardless of the field of psychology in which the applicant is interested. Application committees will deny admission to even the most stellar student if the applicant's interests are not a good fit for members of the faculty.
Finding the right mentor is not only one of the keys to getting into graduate schools in psychology, but it is also one of the biggest keys to succeeding in graduate school. The right mentor will set you on the path to reaching your career goals, help create a network of colleagues and collaborators that will last you throughout your lifetime, and begin to shape your perspective on the field. More immediately, most students take five or six years to earn a doctoral degree in psychology (APA, 2006), and the quality of your relationship with your mentor will be an important determinant of how successful and productive those years are.
Discovering the right mentor is a multistep process. The steps include determining your own interests, finding professors whose work matches those interests, making initial contact, (hopefully) applying successfully, and making your decision. This article will provide a few hints on each step.
Step 1: What are your interests?
Until you determine your own interests, no one will be able to help you explore them. Thus, the first key in finding a great mentor is to learn more about yourself. If you are reading this article, you already know that you are interested in psychology. But how do you narrow down your interests in the field? The best way to begin is to find a lab where you can work as a research assistant. It is best to do this early in your undergraduate career because faculty will often have their students begin with very basic work. Once you have proven that you are committed to the lab and to research, your tasks will grow. Your ultimate goal is to get involved in research in a conceptual way. Make sure you work efficiently, ask pertinent questions, and do background reading to get acquainted with the lab's research focus and the specific study on which you are working. All the while, you should be asking yourself: What aspects of this research appeal to me? The area of inquiry? A particular dispute that this study might help to resolve? The methods? The population of people you hope to understand? If you can answer these questions, you will be one step closer to figuring out where to apply.
Do not hesitate to work in more than one lab if you can spare the time and if it is possible for you to do so. Besides giving you another chance to answer the previous questions, working in more than one lab is a great way to gain perspective on more than one area of research. Each lab will probably have its own theories, its own methods, and its own atmosphere. The more you can expose yourself to these differences, the more you will be in a position to choose between different labs at the graduate level. You will also be able to use the knowledge you have gained from one lab to impress your colleagues in the other lab. Even if you are not interested in research as a career, the APA guide to psychology graduate school admissions (APA, 1997) notes that "Although practice-oriented programs tend to place less emphasis on research experience, such experience is still highly valued" (p. 74).
While working directly in research is the best strategy for refining your interests, it is certainly possible to narrow your focus in other ways. If you find yourself fascinated by a particular topic in class, talk to the professor about it and find out what you can do to get involved. This may mean taking a higher-level class, doing extra reading, or finding a research group that is working on the problem. Similarly, if you are dedicated to understanding the psychology of a particular population (e.g., a minority group or people with a certain mental disorder), you can refine your interests by exposing yourself to that population–ideally in a professional psychology setting. Starting to define your interests early not only demonstrates your commitment to the field, but it also allows you to "test the waters" and discover which areas of psychology excite you the most.
Step 2: Who is doing the work that you want to do?
Once you have decided which topics interest you, you can begin to narrow your search for the right mentor. This is done by looking for labs and faculty that are focused on the specific areas in which you are interested. Not every applicant who applies to graduate school will go through the trouble of finding a great mentor match. However, focusing now will decrease time wasted later; it will also ensure that your graduate education is more "narrowly focused" and that you may hit the ground running as soon as you begin graduate school (Kaplan, 2006). The most convenient way to find potential mentors is to read as many papers as you can. Whose research catches your fancy? Whose works are cited often, especially by various other authors?
Compared to the last step, in which you struggled to define and refine your own interests, it might seem like a simple matter to identify specialists in the field in which you are interested. However, it is not always straightforward, and you can save yourself a lot of aggravation if you take the time to get reliable, current information on potential mentors' research. Just because researchers have published extensively in your area of interest, that does not mean they will continue to do so. Their own interests and goals may be shifting, or they may be on the tail end of a longstanding grant and about to change course. In any case, it is often difficult to know from researchers' curriculum vitae (CV) whether you will fit into the future of their research program.
One way to obtain a clearer picture of the field and its future is to attend conferences. The benefits of this are many. First, you will have the opportunity to see firsthand the "state of the art." Poster sessions, lectures, and discussions will expose you to what psychological professionals consider the most important topics of study. Second, you can absorb from others a sense of whose research is considered worthwhile and impressive, which researchers are more personable, and where the field as a whole is headed. Finally, talking to potential mentors about their work will allow you to ask them questions about the future of their research programs. Big conferences, such as the APA's annual meeting, are fine, but smaller gatherings can often provide better opportunities for learning about specific areas in detail.
Step 3: Are professors willing to train new students?
Now that you have identified people with whom you would like to work, you need to know if these potential mentors are interested in working with you. At the start of the application season, it is a good idea get in touch with the people on your list of potential mentors. Around September or October, compose a short email to potential mentors. Within the email, explain that you are interested in the topics that this person has studied in the past. Ask if the professor is still pursuing this topic and if he or she is accepting students for the upcoming school year. It is also appropriate to attach your CV to the email. Individualize these emails as much as possible, in order to convey your serious interest in the topic and give the professor something concrete to which he or she can reply.
Remember that professors are very busy and may not reply to your email. In addition, this is a professor's first impression of you, so keep the tone of your email professional and courteous. It is also helpful to email graduate students. Often, graduate students have more time to email and may be able to offer a more candid view on the laboratory environment and the future directions of research within the lab.
The simple act of emailing professors and graduate students may save you hundreds of dollars and a great deal of time. If a professor is not taking a student, applying to a program will be a fruitless endeavor, because there are no available training slots for the topic in which you are interested. Occasionally, schools will return your money when they discover that you have applied to work with professors who are not taking new students. However, most schools will not. Use the information you have gathered through emailing professors and current students to narrow down your choices; submit an application to the schools that focus on topics in which you are interested and also have professors with whom you would like to work.
Step 4: The interview process
If you are lucky enough to receive an interview at a school to which you applied, use this time to impress the admissions committee and to see if the school and your potential mentor are good matches for you. During the interview, make sure to ask about the professor's views on clinical work and research. If you want to focus solely on clinical work, choosing a mentor who expects students to focus solely on research would be a poor fit. Also, do the professor's goals match yours? Does he or she plan to continue to focus on the line of research in which you are interested? What is the professor's mentorship style like? Does the professor prefer a hands-on approach, or does he or she prefer that you take the lead and ask for help when you need it?
This is also a wonderful opportunity to get to know graduate students in the lab. What type of work are they conducting? Do they have time to pursue their topics of interest? Do they have opportunities to publish? Do you like spending time with these students? Your mentor and lab-mates will be your colleagues for a long time. Are these people with whom you would look forward to working?
Step 5: Making you decision
The most difficult and most rewarding part of the admissions process involves making your decision. If you are lucky enough to receive multiple offers from schools, there are many variables to take into account, such as location, funding, and average time to completion. Trust your instincts when making your decision. If you feel that your personality does not match your mentor's personality, you might be right. If so, working with that mentor for five or six years might be extremely difficult. Ultimately, you know yourself best. You are the best person to judge what school and mentor will be right for you.
American Psychological Association. (1997). Getting in: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology. Washington, DC: Author.
American Psychological Association. (2006). Graduate study in psychology 2006. Washington, DC: Author.
Kaplan. (2006). Get into graduate school: A strategic approach for master's and doctoral candidates (2nd ed.). New York: Kaplan Press.

Betty Lai received an MST in science education from Pace University (NY) and a BA in premedical studies and women and gender studies from Columbia University (NY). She taught middle school mathematics and science in New York City with Teach for America before returning to school to pursue studies in psychology. She is currently a first-year doctoral student in child clinical studies at the University of Miami (FL). Her work focuses on adolescent peer groups and infant mental health.

William Ellison
received a BA in history from Princeton University (NJ) before refocusing on psychology at Columbia University's post-baccalaureate psychology program. He is currently a first-year doctoral student in clinical psychology at Penn State University, where his research centers on personality and personality disorders, the psychotherapeutic process, and the relationship between self-concept and self-regulation.

Copyright 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 4) 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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