|Questions (and Answers) About Graduate School
|Mitchell M. Handelsman, PhD, University of Colorado Denver
Scott W. VanderStoep, PhD, Hope College (MI)
R. Eric Landrum, PhD, Boise State University (ID)
The Psi Chi chapter of Winthrop University submitted the following questions for this column. The chapter is small but
actively engaged on campus and in the local community. The chapter offers
academic, social, and service activities each semester, working closely with
the Psychology Club and other campus groups. The members are especially known
for their extensive involvement in undergraduate research, and they have been
honored to win several Psi Chi Regional Research Awards. The chapter regularly received
a Model Chapter Award, and in 2009 received the Psi Chi Regional Chapter Award.
What do graduate schools look for when interviewing a candidate for their program?
Here, in no particular order, are three important things that I have looked for when interviewing candidates: (a) The ability to self-reflect. For me, this has translated into the ability to benefit from supervision. It’s a good sign when students can take responsibility for, and critically evaluate, their own behavior. (b) The ability to think on more than one conceptual level. For example, can applicants apply theory to case examples? (c) The ability to think on one’s feet. I always try to get students "off-script” by asking questions until I find one that they haven’t prepared for. Then I can see what they do under conditions of uncertainty.
Landrum: I would add two items to Dr. Handelsman’s list: (a) match and fit and (b) personableness. If you are fortunate enough to have made the first cut in the graduate school admissions process, the interview will help graduate faculty determine your match and fit within the program. Does your research or clinical interests, as you described on paper, actually match with your real interests and the specialty areas of the faculty? An interview can help size up the match and fit fairly quickly. In addition to a research fit, is there a personality fit? That is, do both the graduate faculty member and prospective graduate student see a possible working relationship— are the personalities a good match and fit, or do the personal styles clash?
VanderStoep: Since interviews are usually done only in clinical programs, you will be interviewed by people who have keen insights into human behavior. If you try to pretend that you are someone you are not, you will likely be exposed. Prepare well. Find out the type of research their faculty is conducting and how you can fit into their program. Be prepared to talk about a time in your life when you were faced with a complex problem (preferably not a classroom assignment) for which there was not a demonstrably correct answer; describe how you set goals for solving the problem, developed plans and strategies, and reflected on the implementation of those plans. This ability to set a goal for a difficult problem, enact a strategy, and then evaluate your performance is a sign of cognitive and social efficacy.
Would it be okay if I emailed the graduate students at a particular program to ask if they like the program, their research, their mentors, etc.?
Handelsman: I think this a great thing to do; it’s part of your data collection. Here are my favorite questions to ask graduate students: What was it about the program, or about graduate school in general, that you didn’t expect? What surprised you?
Landrum: Absolutely yes, make contact, but not too much—don’t appear to be a stalker. More information is better. And, for some graduate admissions committees, current graduate students are asked to serve on the committee. So if you happen to inquire to a graduate student who then happens to be on the departmental admissions committee, you may have an additional advocate who can speak to your enthusiastic application.
VanderStoep: Yes, I would do a little groundwork before you ask a question. You don’t want to make the email too long, but you also don’t want to send a one-liner asking, "Hey, do you like grad school at University of X?” Indicate that you’re starting the grad-school search and were curious about life at that institution. It also might be wise to ask around your current department. It’s possible that a faculty member knows someone at that university and/or a former student attended there previously. Keep in mind the power of small samples. Asking one or two people might not be representative. Also keep in mind that graduate school is stressful and doesn’t always bring out the cheeriest attitudes on life. In fact, the summer before I started graduate school, a professor told me, "Graduate school is an inherently miserable time of life.” These are the students who experience long hours, little pay, and infrequent positive feedback. On the other hand, the self-perception effect could kick in ("I’m in the program, so I must be happy! Otherwise, I would be an idiot for continuing”). People may selectively remember only the positive features of the program and omit the negative. So be cautious how you interpret the feedback you get.
How many schools should I apply to?
Handelsman: Enough that if the worst happens and you didn’t get into any of them, you could say to yourself, "I gave it my best shot.” This is preferable to "Ugh! I could have applied to another program or two. Why didn’t I?” In addition, I don’t think it’s a good idea to apply to programs that you wouldn’t go to even if accepted.
Landrum: Dr. Handelsman is absolutely correct about applying to graduate schools that you would not attend. It is a waste of time and resources to apply and for the graduate program to evaluation your application. Apply to your dream schools, as well as some backups, in case you don’t get into those schools. In truth, there just isn’t an answer that will apply to everyone. I’ve had students apply to 1 school, and others apply to 25 schools. The national average is about 4–5 schools.
VanderStoep: I tell students 8–10 doctoral programs. For clinical, I also recommend adding one or two master’s programs. Some people say to apply for your top program. I would recommend doing this only if you think you have at least a small chance (10%) of getting in. But, if your GRE scores and GPA are well below the median and/or you don’t have much research experience, it might be a waste of time and money, and will only disappoint you in the end. The problem with applying for dream schools (or dream jobs, for that matter) is that with each hour you spend on the application, personal statement, etc., the more convinced you become that you might get in. After all, you’re spending all this time highlighting your strengths. And those strengths become salient in your mind, and in turn, your belief in the probability of admission falsely increases. So, I tell students to apply to places where they have a reasonable (or better) chance of admission. My advice is usually different from other professors, so it’s good to get a second opinion (and in this article, a third as well).
Are summer classes available for graduate students, or do you typically take classes only in the fall and spring? (In other words, can you speed up your graduate training?)
Handelsman: In my experience, most graduate programs have things for you to do over the summer: Research practica, a clinical course or two, etc. However, these activities are in addition to your fall and spring courses, alternatively. There are so many opportunities, activities, and projects to take advantage of in graduate school (e.g., an extra research study, a teaching experience, a summer job in a prison) that you don’t want to rush and miss what could be some wonderful training. (At the same time, I’m not a fan of staying in graduate school too long—until you know everything or until your professor squeezes one more publication out of you!)
Landrum: I think this will vary greatly depending on different graduate programs. Some may expect you to be a student full-time, and thus, stipends, assistantships, and fellowships may be based on a 12-month cycle; other schools may take the approach that summer school is truly optional. Regardless of whether you attend summer school in graduate school, you should stay connected to psychology by working on a master’s thesis, collecting data for your dissertation, job shadowing at the VA Clinic, or whatever you can do to keep up and stay on track with your graduate education.
VanderStoep: Most doctoral programs offer courses only during the academic year. Summers are for research training, writing theses, etc. Master’s programs offer summer courses more often. My guess is that professional clinical schools have summer opportunities. If you’re in a doctoral program, you’ll find that courses are of secondary importance, and finishing early is not what students are concerned about. In fact, they want to take advantage of the years they have in graduate school to try to build their teaching and research resumes.
Most of my top choices are across the country, making in person interviews difficult to impossible. How important are the interviews to the total process? Do phone interviews lead to equitable success?
Handelsman: Great empirical questions, which I don’t know the answers to. From my informal observations, I believe there is wide variability among programs. I have done my share of phone interviews with the understanding that students are on limited budgets, and I’ve felt that I was able to get lots of information from what applicants said and their tone of voice. It helped for me to have standard questions to ask. I also felt that I was able to cut out a lot of extraneous information—like the inevitable business suits that applicants wear that we never see again! These days, Skype and other advances may help as well.
Landrum: I definitely agree that you should use modern technologies. If you cannot attend an interview in person, arrange for a Skype or Facetime interview; we learn so much about each other through facial expressions and body language. Make sure the interviewers get the chance to see and hear you if you cannot attend an interview in person.
VanderStoep: I wonder if you could find out in advance if the program has a policy on this. If they are strict about requiring face to face, you probably should only apply if you think you can travel, lest you be disappointed. But I would be surprised if programs don’t allow some video conference technology to allow for such circumstances— I would always check before I applied.
What is the biggest mistake students make when applying to graduate programs?
Handelsman: The best data I’ve seen on this question is in an article by Appleby and Appleby: http://www.tandfonline.com/ doi/pdf/10.1207/s15328023top3301_5. They list five categories of mistakes, which they call "kisses of death”: "(a) damaging personal statements, (b) harmful letters of recommendation, (c) lack of program information, (d) poor writing skills, and (e) misfired attempts to impress” (Appleby & Appleby, 2006, p. 19). They recommend getting really good advising and mentoring. We would add, of course, to get multiple opinions and to read our column!
Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2006). Kisses of death in the graduate school application process. Teaching of Psychology, 33, 19–24.
Landrum: Absolutely check out the literature on the graduate admissions process, including the article Dr. Handelsman references and many resources available at the Psi Chi website. It’s hard to know the biggest mistake, but let me offer three possibilities: (a) not gathering enough background research on the graduate program beforehand, so the application is a mismatch; (b) not following directions carefully, whether that be signing the form prior to giving it to letter of recommendation writers or sending more letters than requested (without a prior OK); and (c) not really understanding what graduate school is all about. Some students have this fantasy view about graduate education, and they really do not understand what they are pursuing. So if you are absolutely sick and tired of school, homework, and professors during your undergraduate senior year, do you really want to sign up for 2–10+ more years of higher education?
VanderStoep: In highly competitive programs, selection committees are looking for reasons to disqualify (DQ) applicants. Sometimes they seem silly, like typos and poorly written sentences. I actually don’t think these are silly, but even so, they are discriminating features of the application. Care in writing and preparation is very important. One predictor of these kinds of mistakes is time pressure. We all make more mistakes when we are under deadline. Work ahead and ask others to proofread. Don’t give selection committees a reason to DQ you.
As I am getting into the application process, how many hours should I expect to spend on each individual application?
Handelsman: I’m not aware of any data about that, and it would seem that applicants would vary wildly in the time spent, depending on their personal work habits, styles, application demands, etc. Two observations, though: First, you’ll probably spend less time on the later applications once you get the hang of them—they get easier with practice and some elements of the applications (like the vita) can pretty much be done once. Second, you may want to think of applying to graduate school as a part-time job to which you will devote a significant amount of time, rather than as a list of tasks that you can check off your to-do list.
Landrum: Here’s what I tell students. If you are doing most of your application work during the fall semester (assuming entry into graduate school the following August), you should think of the application process as an additional 3-credit course. If you are taking 15 credits in the fall and applying to multiple graduate schools, it should feel like an 18-credit semester if you are doing it right. Paying attention to the details, such as customizing each personal statement, filling out forms, coordinating multiple letters of recommendation, requesting transcripts, studying for the GRE, and so on add quite a bit of work to your normal academic workload.
VanderStoep: I’ve never thought about this. Once the template for the personal statement and vita are prepared, you can probably modify them slightly to fit each program. I would anticipate 10–15 hours of preparing materials, but I’ve never asked any of my students. You will want to do a lot of work over the summer in studying for the GRE and researching programs. These tasks are time-intensive and are hard to do during a semester.
After submitting an application, should I wait to hear back from them, or should I check on the status?
Handelsman: You might want to contact programs to confirm that your application is complete. At that time, you can inquire about when you should hear about decisions.
Landrum: Yes, do follow-up on your application materials, especially to ensure that all the recommendation letters arrived (and especially if the writers were to send their letters separately). Even with electronic submissions, things can go wrong, so double-check and follow-up (plus this demonstrates your attention to detail). You might email or speak with a graduate secretary, but if possible, interact with the graduate admissions director—another personal contact for you is a good thing.
VanderStoep: You can check on your status. If you haven’t heard, and the deadline the program gave you has passed, you might be in an academic purgatory—you’re in the second batch of candidates. The program is waiting to see how many in the first batch accept admission before they decide how many (if any) they can take from the second batch.
If I’m taking time off before heading to grad school, what should I do to make sure I am prepared when I do go? Is it a disadvantage to take time off?
Handelsman: I’ve said this to students: The only time off that is not in your favor is jail time. Time off can be good because students often gain maturity, perspective, clarity about their goals, professional experiences, and even some savings.
Landrum: If you know you need some time off, then not taking it would be a mistake. What I tell students is that during that time off, stay connected to psychology in some way. Your job does not have to be in psychology, but be sure to volunteer, continue reading journal articles, attend local and regional conferences, etc. Also let your recommendation letter writers know you won’t need a letter for a while. Check in with them every so often (once or twice a year) to let them know what you are up to, how you are staying connected to psychology, and how you continue to appreciate their support.
VanderStoep: I don’t believe there is a disadvantage to taking time off, per se. However, my experience is that students do not always return to graduate school. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, but if at age 22 you wanted to go, what happened between 22 and 25 that made you change your mind? Did you change your mind for the better—grad school wasn’t really for you, and now at age 25 you realize that? Or, did life happen—you got derailed and unmotivated, and now lack financial and psychological resources to go back? One of my most talented students decided to take a year off before pursuing a PhD in social psychology. He was a slam dunk for admission. He is now involved in many business ventures, including for a world-famous multilevel marketing corporation. Only he knows if he made the right decision.
When I send my graduate school application, should I send writing samples and other support materials?
Handelsman: I would use caution in submitting application materials that programs haven’t asked for. It may come across as not following directions. Additionally, the chances of it being read are probably small. Programs may have enough of a writing sample in the personal statement. If you do want to send a writing sample, make sure it’s very good—more than an A paper from a course. If you are applying to a research-oriented program, ask the professors you want to work with if you can send them your writing sample directly.
Landrum: I agree! Being an overachiever, you may be perceived as unable to follow directions. Wait to be asked for other support materials prior to providing them and make sure that your writing sample is absolutely perfect, including all the subtle nuances of APA style and format. Your work is a representative sample of your ability and aptitude.
VanderStoep: I would limit extra writing samples to manuscripts that: a) are actually under review at a journal, b) will be forthcoming as a book chapter, and/or c) have won an award through Psi Chi or other academic organization. If all applicants submitted extra material, the e-pile of materials for the selection committees to read would grow quickly.
For letters of recommendation, is it acceptable to use someone that has been my manager for a long time, or should I try to use professors or other school-related people?
Handelsman: Some programs will tell you how many academic references they want. The guideline I use is that two of your three recommenders should be professors—after all, you’re applying to an academic program. Managers and other nonacademic references still need to speak to relevant aspects of your academic and professional achievements and development.
Landrum: I think that the manager can be a good letter of recommendation writer if he or she can speak to your professional skills and abilities. This does not even have to be in a psychological context, but if the manager can speak to your leadership skills, initiative, self-directedness, punctuality, intellect, positive attitude, etc., then the manager could be a good choice as letter writer.
VanderStoep: If the job is related to your future schooling, absolutely. If the job is unrelated, I would recommend professors. I also have urged caution (in a previous column) about asking athletic coaches. As a former college athletic coach who is married to another former college athletic coach, I can confidently say that I like college athletic coaches. But remember that these applications are being read by academics who have a certain vocabulary and bias. They will be looking for that vocabulary and bias as they evaluate. Nonacademics often speak a different language.
Is it better to have letters of recommendation written by people who know me well or by people within my discipline of study, even if they do not know me as well?
Handelsman: The best letters of recommendation are informative and academic. You should have one letter from a psychology professor, but having letters from other professors is fine. Depending on the type of program to which you apply, having a letter from, for example, a biology professor with whom you’ve done some research would be a plus.
Landrum: Here’s my standard advice: your letter writers must be able to speak to your professional skills and abilities. Can people who know you well—your pastor, your mother, your next-door neighbor (even though a psychologist)—speak to your professional skills and abilities? I would ask people who know your skills and abilities to write your letters of recommendation. Here’s an additional tip: if you go to a psychology professor (or anyone, for that matter) and ask for a strong letter of recommendation, and the person has to ask your name, this isn’t a good sign. People who know your professional skills and abilities already know your name.
VanderStoep: If you’re applying to psychology programs, psychology professors are always better. Of the three writers, at least two of them should be psychology professors. I have cautioned in previous articles about nonacademic letters. If you select a coach, job supervisor, or other mentor to write for you, be sure to counsel that person on the type of information grad schools desire—quantitative reasoning, problem solving, love of research, and writing skill.