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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2013

Eye on Psi Chi

Fall 2013 | Volume 18 | Issue 1

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.

Questions provided by the University of Mary Washington Psi Chi Chapter.

If I am interested in a specific area of research, how do I find faculty who are conducting research in that area? How should I go about contacting them?

VanderStoep: One way to identify faculty with research interests that match yours is to conduct PsycINFO searches and look for scholars, research units, or universities that fit your area. Another way is to start with universities in which you might be interested and look at the psychology webpage of those institutions. Then e-mail the faculty member. In that email, I would succinctly and professionally do the following: (a) identify yourself, your school, and your current situation; (b) show your interest in applying to the faculty member’s institution; and (c) ask whether the faculty member anticipates taking any students into her lab next year.

Landrum: I definitely agree with Dr. VanderStoep about using the research tools that psychology majors learn about, including an author search on PsycINFO as well as searches of institutional web pages and Google Scholar. Time permitting, meeting a professor at a convention your junior year can make for more conversational interactions during your senior year, where following up on graduate school opportunities feels natural because the faculty member and you have already met in person. The e-mail advice that Dr. VanderStoep provided is superb; one additional tidbit I would add is to NOT ask the faculty member a question that is easily answerable from available web information. That is, never ask a faculty member what research area they study; you should be able to determine this by using the research tools of your trade. Show prospective faculty members that you have done your homework on the institution, department, and individual professor, and be sure to only ask savvy and insightful questions.

Handelsman: I have just two points to add. First, when you identify a professor who is doing research you’d like to be involved in, find out (from the school’s web page) what program the professor is affiliated with. If you’re interested, for example, in social psychology, and the professor teaches in the clinical program, that professor may not be in a position to offer you experience, funding, etc. Second, when you contact the professor, it is good to show (via the questions you ask or comments you make) that you’ve read and have thoughts about the research the professor has done.

How can I compensate for poor GRE scores?

VanderStoep: Here are a few ideas. First, you can take the GRE again. But only do that if you are confident that there is a high probability that you will do better the second time. There are no guarantees, but a way to increase your confidence is to study a lot and then take some practice tests. The GRE has high reliability, so unless you’ve done something to change your performance (like studying), this is not always a good option. Second, you can expand your list of schools to include ones that either have less stringent GRE requirements or that do not weight GRE scores as heavily. Finally (and you should do this anyway), emphasize the characteristics and experiences that you have that will make it likely that you will thrive in graduate school. The truth is, bad GRE scores are going to eliminate you from some elite programs. But there are still many graduate-school options for folks with lower-than-desired GRE scores.

Landrum: First, the news that most prospective graduate students do not want to hear: the GRE is the great equalizer across students, especially with high variability in the meaning of what the GPA represents from institution to institution. Said another way, a high GRE score can offset the negative impact of a low GPA, but a 4.0 GPA does little to offset low GRE scores. Dr. VanderStoep’s advice about taking the GRE again is good advice, but be sure to study in-between the test administrations. The senior year for active psychology majors is usually extremely busy, but do not make excuses for not finding time to study (or restudy) for your GRE. The GRE score is key for some graduate admissions programs, so take it lightly at your own risk. I do talk to students who are so GRE-aversive (for whatever reason) that these undergraduate students actively shop for graduate programs which do not require the GRE; there are many good graduate programs in the country, and some require the GRE and others do not.

Handelsman: Just one note of optimism: Some programs use GRE scores as their lynchpin, but others do not. Some programs weigh GPA more heavily because they feel that a consistent record of success might be more predictive of success than a one-day assessment—and because they know that GRE scores may not be as valid for some groups as others. Some programs (I’m thinkin’ master’s, here) may not have a hard cut-off, so they’ll see other parts of your application (like research experience). And if your scores are just good enough to make the first cut, GRE scores may become relatively less important than other indicators.

What should I do if I do not get into grad school?

VanderStoep: Get a job. After all, what choice do you have? That’s the bad news. But the good news is: Things will be just fine. I went to graduate school, and I loved it. So did all of your professors. But there are so many other ways to pursue meaningful work than by seeking graduate education. And the better news is this: After a few years of working, making some money, and proving yourself to be an integral part of your organization, you will have a much more impressive resume, be wiser, have more solid financial footing, and be better prepared for graduate school because of your work experience. But perhaps by then the idea of graduate school may have lost its luster in your mind, and you may be happy continuing to pursue your vocational dreams by staying where you are.

Landrum: My advice would be this: stay connected to psychology if you want to apply again to graduate school, or if you never intend to apply. Stay connected by volunteering in the community, reading psychology journals, writing a psychology blog, working in a local psychology laboratory for free, or whatever it takes to stay connected. It’s pretty typical for a bachelor’s degree recipient in psychology to get a good job and start advancing through the career ranks. It is sometimes a difficult decision to then return to graduate school because they have a rewarding job with a decent salary, and going to graduate school means giving that up and perhaps going into debt. In graduate school, students who go most of the way without finishing are called ABD, or all-but-dissertation; perhaps we need to have a new designation, ABGS, or all-but-graduate school. Personally, I believe that the biggest predictor of admission to and success in graduate school is persistence, and if you really want graduate school as your goal, then be persistent about it and resilient to setbacks.

Handelsman: As you apply to graduate programs, work with your school’s Career Center (or whatever the equivalent is called) and explore Plan B. As you work at your job and stay connected to psychology, (a) learn about yourself as a human being, and (b) collect the experiences and stories that will enhance your life no matter what paths it takes.

Does it look bad to take time off after college before applying to grad school?

VanderStoep: Nope. In fact, gap years seem to get more popular each year among my students who just a few years ago were grad-school bound no matter what. And one could argue the trend is changing from gap years being times of self-discovery and a break from school to gap years being resume-builders. I am old-school enough that I believe if you want to pursue graduate training and you’re sure of it, then do it right after you finish college. Don’t wait. One obvious risk is that people won’t return to graduate school after enjoying the different pace (not to mention the income) of work. This is possible, but it’s not the reason that I am not a big fan of waiting. My main reason is that graduate school is not prison (insert joke here). You can leave anytime you want. If you like the idea, and if you get in, then go for it. Graduate school, especially doctoral programs, take a long time. Delaying the start delays the beginning. Of course, if you’re not sure, or you don’t get in, then perhaps a gap year is best.

Landrum: Does it look bad to take a year off between bachelor’s degree receipt and starting graduate school? Not at all. Should you do it? That is a different question, and each person must answer it individually. If you are sick and tired of school as you finish your undergraduate degree, then maybe a gap year is a good idea to get refreshed and rejuvenated for upcoming graduate school challenges and tribulations. However, many students have momentum and are in a learning-and-testing "groove” if you will as they finish their bachelor’s degree. Studying and testing are part of graduate school life, so those study skills honed as an undergraduate will serve you well as a graduate student. As Dr. VanderStoep mentioned, some students are easily distracted, and if they step out for a year, they may have pleasant life events which make the sacrifice for graduate school a difficult decision. However, just as Dr. VanderStoep mentioned that one can leave graduate school at any time, to some extent the reverse is true; after having completed your undergraduate degree and being in the workforce, you can apply for graduate school at any time in the future. Graduate school education is not going anywhere, and if life circumstances and expectancies lead you to the need for advanced graduate education, those opportunities will continue to exist in the future.

Handelsman: Pretty much the only time off between undergraduate and graduate school that doesn’t count positively in some way is jail time. And just to present a little more in favor of time away from school (in the form of a gap year or years, an initial career, or forever): I’m not sure it’s a bad thing to risk the realization that life can be fun and rewarding without a graduate degree.

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. 18, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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