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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2013

Eye on Psi Chi

Winter 2013 | Volume 17 | Issue 2

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)

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Dear readers,

In this issue’s "Three-Headed Advice” column, we have adapted the questions we were asked in Psi Chi’s LinkedIn group. Look for part 2 of this discussion in the Spring issue of the Eye.

I’m having trouble getting started on my personal statement. I have read some that begin artistically with personal stories and others that get straight to the point. What is the most effective way to begin a personal statement?

VanderStoep: Personal statements are a bit misleading. They are not really personal. That is, they are not your personal journey. Instead, view it as a chance to tell your professional story. That might involve some personal information. For example, I just advised a student who is interested in PTSD because of a family member who is suffering from it because of combat exposure. That’s ok to discuss, in my opinion, as long as it is a gateway to more professional prose about the research topic. I would worry less about the rhetorical style and focus on writing well and ask several people to critique it. Tell your story—tell your professional story.

Landrum: The only item I would add is to answer the personal statement prompt directly and succinctly. Students need to customize each personal statement to each graduate programs, because the prompts often vary and one size does not fit all.

Handelsman: Remember that there is no one formula for personal statements, although one really BAD way to start is with a cliche or with sloppiness. For example, you don’t want to start with "I’m happy to be applying to name of school here...”!

As long as my GRE scores meet the minimum requirements of the graduate schools I am interested in, is it safe to assume that I still have a good chance of being accepted if I have exceptional recommendations and personal statements?

Handelsman: Yes. (Although, this question is easy to answer because we’re dealing in probabilities!) More specifically, when you make the first cut the numbers—like GPA and GRE scores—become less important. Your experiences (like being a laboratory teaching assistant) and the information provided in your personal statement and recommendations become more important. The initial question of many admissions committee members is "Is this person academically qualified to do graduate work?” Once that question is answered, these types of questions become more important: "Is this somebody whose interests and abilities fit our training program?” "Will this person be an asset in our lab?” "Does this person have the interpersonal qualities we’re looking for in a clinical trainee?” You get the idea.

Landrum: Different graduate programs see requirements differently. The minimum scores could be seen as a multiple hurdles approach, meaning that to stay qualified in the potential pool of applicants, minimums on all the requirements must be satisfied—this hurdles approach is similar to what Dr. Handelsman mentioned as the "first cut.” Five key variables are the most salient with regards to graduate school admission: GPA, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, research experience, and your autobiographical statement. So if you excel in all 5 of these areas, I would say that your chances are good.

Do you recommend taking a year off before applying to a doctoral program if I am planning to enter one with only an undergraduate degree?

Landrum: This is such a personal decision! If you do take time off, be sure to stay connected to psychology in some way during your time outside of academia. For some students, they absolutely need time off because they are so burnt out of school and have a severe case of senioritis. But for other students, they know they have good "academic momentum” going, and they know they need to keep going to school because they might be easily distracted by the lures of life calling. Will taking a year off be refreshing and restorative or are you just delaying and looking for distractions? In both cases, either path is acceptable, and there is no right or wrong path, but whatever you can make work for you.

Handelsman: I make no blanket recommendation either way because it’s such a personal decision. In my experience many students are fearful of taking a year off. My response is, "The only time between college and graduate school that doesn’t help your application is jail time.” On a slightly more serious note, I would encourage you to make the year worth it. See if you can accumulate some research, some experience, and some savings! If you really want to go to graduate school right away, I say go for it if you have the time to put together a good application. The worst case scenario is you won’t be accepted. But you will have tried, you’ll have gotten some good experience, and you’ll have good stories to tell. If you’re not sure about what you want to do, then taking a year (or 2, or 6) off can be a great idea. It’ll give you some time to ponder, some experience, and some clarity about your goals. You can ask your recommenders to write your letter now so they don’t forget you (although that’s not likely in just one year), or at least let them know that you’ll keep them posted on your post-graduate journeys and ask them to write the letter when you know where you will be applying. I hope I’ve been exactly 50-50 on the issue, but that I’ve also given you some useful things to think about. In the meantime, you might want to talk with your professors (in and out of psychology) about their experiences. I’ll bet you’ll hear some good—and unexpected—stories!

VanderStoep: I agree with Dr. H. Jail time is a bit hyperbolic, Mitch, but it makes the point! With each year you get older and wiser. And by the way, if you want to study for the GRE while you’re taking your year off, I highly recommend it. I currently have an advisee who is taking the benighted "year off” and is doing a little coaching, a little volunteer work, and other "light work.” But in her spare time, she’s been studying for the GRE. And she just got her scores back and she blew the doors off. So I’m confident that some of the rejections from last year will turn into acceptances this year. Use your time wisely.

I graduated in 2008. Since then I have been living abroad teaching English and have built no direct experience in the psychology field (other than teaching, which is somewhat related). I would love to go to graduate school to get a master’s, but am a little worried about my chances. I started college in 1998 and my teachers certainly won’t remember me at this point to write a recommendation letter.

VanderStoep: You should definitely apply. It might seem a little intimidating since you have been out of school for so a while. But your experiences overseas are very valuable; you should definitely highlight those in your application. These experiences have the potential to separate you from the other applicants. Although it is true that professors from 14 years ago might not remember you, I’m sure you have other professional relationships from colleagues and supervisors who can attest to your qualifications. I would pursue people who are more current connections and use these folks as writers.

Handelsman: I would concur with Dr. VanderStoep. I’d only add that I still might want to track down a favorite professor or two and see if they remember you well enough to at least write a short letter. This may help with programs that want one or two academic references.And you may be surprised to find that some professors have good memories!

Landrum: Don’t undersell your experiences! Teaching English abroad involves a variety of psychological skills and abilities. But since you graduated in 2008, look to see if any of those folks can write one letter for you; and I think that your other two letters could easily come from folks who know your current professional skills and abilities from you current teaching position.

I am currently a paid intern at a market research company and was considering asking my supervisor for a letter of recommendation. After reading about the kisses of death, though, I am not sure anymore. Given that a letter of recommendation should not be written by an employee (as Drew Appleby found), would a letter of recommendation from an employer also be inappropriate? Is it better to obtain letters of recommendation from academics?

Handelsman: A letter from an employer is OK if (a) the writer knows you well, (b) he or she can speak to specific skills that you will need as a graduate student or a professional, (c) the letter gives information that cannot be obtained from other letters and so rounds out the picture programs will get of you, and (d) you also have letters from the number of academics the program requires.

VanderStoep: I agree with Dr. H and (slightly) disagree with Dr. Appleby (at my own peril). Employers are most unhelpful when they are outside of the area. So, if you worked in a retail or dining establishment, probably not a good idea. But if you worked in mental health or in research, these are good choices.

Landrum: I’m going to slightly disagree with many. Depending on the situation, a letter of recommendation from an employer (outside of your area) could be helpful if that employer can speak to your skills in areas such as leadership and teamwork. If you worked your way up the corporate ladder and obtained more leadership responsibilities over time, I believe that’s a good letter. I do think you need at least one letter from an academic, but for me, the overarching principle is that you need your letter writers to have the ability to speak to your professional skills and abilities.

Mitch Handelsman, PhD, is currently professor of psychology and a CU President’s Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver, where he has been on the faculty since 1982. In 2003–04, he was president of the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association. He is a licensed psychologist and a fellow of APA. He currently writes the quarterly column Ethics Matters for Eye on Psi Chi. His blog, "The Ethical Professor,” can be found at

R. Eric Landrum, PhD, is a former Psi Chi Rocky Mountain Regional Vice- President (2009–11). A professor at Boise State University (ID) and the chapter’s faculty advisor, Dr. Landrum often give talks about issues such as graduate school admissions. He has over 225 professional presentations at conferences and published over 20 books or book chapters, and has published over 65 professional articles in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals.

Scott VanderStoep, PhD, previously served as Psi Chi Midwest Regional Vice-President from 2002–06 and President from 2008-09. His educational journey began in the same place where he currently works—Hope College (MI)—and where he is associate professor and department chair. In his 18 years of college teaching, he has taught introductory, developmental, social, cognitive, industrial/organizational, research lab, psychology of religion, and advanced data analysis.

Copyright 2013 (Vol. 17, Iss. 2) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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