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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring/Summer 2014

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer/Spring 2014 | Volume 18 | Issue 3

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.

The following questions were adapted from various posts in the Psi Chi LinkedIn group.

How common is it to go directly from an undergraduate degree to a PhD program?

VanderStoep: At my institution, it is becoming less common. The average age of a first-year student at a top-10 medical school last year was 24.4. So-called "gap years” are being chosen by students and, in my view, being valued by graduate institutions more now than in the past. Spending time in high-quality postbaccalaureate experiences could make you more attractive to future programs. But be advised, if your application materials have a noticeable weakness (e.g., poor GRE, poor psych GPA), experience can only do so much to mitigate these shortcomings. In other words, I don’t believe "I have bad GRE scores so I’m going to volunteer in a psych inpatient unit” is a good strategy unless a lot of time has passed since your GRE. If this is your reason for a gap year, I would instead recommend doing something to erase or diminish those weaknesses such as applying to a master’s program at a less competitive institution or studying for and retaking the GRE. Perhaps my colleagues believe otherwise?

Handelsman: The questions that go beyond how common it is include "What should I do for a year or two?” which Scott addressed in a way I cannot disagree with. The next broader question might be, "What do I want to do with my life, and when can I do what?” Taking some time before graduate school to pursue other dreams (Yes, people have dreams that don’t include psychology!) might be a wonderful idea. It’s also a good idea to take some time if you’re not sure or passionate about your graduate training.

Landrum: I think there is a direct question here and an indirect question as mentioned by my colleagues. To answer your question directly, I’m not sure we have national data about the most common path to PhD programs, whether that be from the bachelor’s degree straight in or via a terminal master’s degree. I do wish there was stronger advocacy for undergraduate psychology majors such that an organization somewhere was interested in answering those types of questions. I think the indirect question is this: "How will I know what I want to do?” And I think the answer is through serious self-reflection; it doesn’t have to be a gap year, but it could be. Students are in such a hurry to "get courses out of the way” and "get through their psychology major” that I think they often fail to stop and think about why they are doing what they are doing, and what will be the next steps. Having a thoughtful plan with accompanying action steps and a strong mentor will go a long way to a successful path, whatever that path may look like.

Is it worth going to a school that doesn’t have a top-ranked graduate program?

VanderStoep: I can give my perspective as someone who has hired about 30 faculty in the last eight years as department chair and divisional dean. And that is, if you are considering an academic career, the very first thing search committees usually look for is a strong record of teaching and a promising area of scholarship (preferably with some refereed publications during graduate school). You can do that at any program if you have a productive advisor. However, search committees also look at prestige of the institution and, thus, you may be at a disadvantage against those from more venerable programs. But it is not at the top of most search committees’ list. Now, if your goal is a career in a clinical or industrial setting, my sense is that the difference between programs means even less than it does in academia. Other thoughts, oh learned colleagues?

Handelsman: First, would you like to know what graduate program I’m from (over 30 years ago) before you believe my answer? It may not be as prestigious as you might guess. Second, think of your most inspirational teachers. Where did they get their degrees, and does it matter? Third, are you at a top-ranked undergraduate program? I think you can take the "LeBron” approach and only play for a team that has a chance to win it all, or you can take the approach (I don’t have a name for it yet) of going to the best team that will have you.

Landrum: This is a situation where a psychology major should be able to apply his or her psychological skills to this question. As you know, psychologists spend a lot of time carefully considering how dependent variables are measured. When an organization like U.S. News and World Report issues rankings, those numbers can be considered dependent variables. So ask all the questions that you would if you were reviewing psychological research: what do the numbers mean, how were the scores calculated, are the data valid and reliable, and so on? At best, these data represent aggregate overall summaries of quality. Say there are 100 schools on the list, ranked 1 to 100. We could find a person at School 1 who had a lousy experience and a person at School 100 who had a worldclass experience. So the rankings data are one piece of data, but they should not be the only data considered in a graduate school decision. The key question here is "what is the best graduate school for me?” Answering that question will take a lot of due diligence and the active application of your psychological research chops!

What are the advantages and disadvantages of attending a graduate school that is very far away from where I presently live with all my family and friends?

VanderStoep: I would not frame the question as advantages or disadvantages. If you’re paying attention to distance, it is likely that you may have family or relationship situations that require you to consider distance. This is reasonable. We all must do what is best for the folks with whom we are closest, and those obligations may conflict with our own professional goals. If your concern is that you would like to stay near family because of comfort, familiarity, or anxiety about the unknown, I would encourage you to move beyond those concerns. The challenge of being away from family will pale in comparison to the challenge of doctoral-level graduate training.

Handelsman: I love this question (I also love Scott’s answer.) because it speaks directly to the fact that graduate training is part of the bigger picture of your life. Sometimes your training is bigger than the other parts, sometimes not. On a more practical level, here’s a hint for your long-range planning: If you’re looking at clinical training, where you do your internship is often more predictive of where you wind up living than where you do your graduate program. On a personal level, my decision to go halfway across the country to graduate school (after staying very close to home for undergrad) was a great professional decision, which I knew at the time. What I didn’t know at the time was that my decision threw me into amazing growth-producing situations that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Landrum: Being in graduate school may be one of the most stressful times in your life, so having a social support network close by makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, having a strong family network nearby can be distracting at times. I remember studying for prelims in graduate school, and my parents wanted to visit the weekend before. It was about an 8-hour drive for them, and I still had a hard time convincing them of the importance of this "test.” It was wonderful that they wanted to see me, but I was torn between studying for the test that would determine if I was admitted to candidacy (or not) and spending time with my parents (or not). If you stay close, be sure to have a conversation about boundaries, and let loved ones know that your availability during graduate school may not be the same as it was during your undergraduate years. And if you go far away, try to save for airfare and/or gas money because that family lifeline is important.

After I get my graduate degree, could I sometimes be told that I am overqualified when applying for jobs? What is the appropriate response to this?

VanderStoep: I believe this is occasionally true. One reason that this could happen is because an employer is fearful that you may not feel satisfied and therefore you will not stay for long. I recently assisted a department in a search for an office manager. It was a $15/hour job and required a bachelor’s degree. We received an applicant from someone with a PhD from a premier (I’m not exaggerating) institution. We didn’t hire him. We didn’t even interview. This was destined to be an unhappy vocational match. It is not because the person could not do the job, but this is not what we felt the person was prepared and built to do. He would not have been happy. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the dilemma from the employer’s perspective. On the other hand, if you want or need a job, apply for it. It will be your task to convince them that this is the job that you want and will keep.

Handelsman: Appropriate responses include the truth about why you’re applying to a job that looks like it requires fewer qualifications or experience than you have. In general, remember that having more education will open up more and more attractive possibilities. But let’s go back to Question 1: If there are jobs you might want to have (at least for a few years) that require less education than you would have, think about the possibility of taking one or two of those jobs to see what it’s like. The world is changing very quickly, but graduate programs will be around for another few years! Taking a bit longer to get your graduate degree can add richness to your experience and your professional life.

Landrum: It’s fun to write this column with two colleagues that I respect and admire because they often take the high road. So I’ll take the other path. Being told that you are "overqualified” could also mean that the employer is being cheap and wants to cut corners by hiring at the lowest salary possible. You asked "what’s the appropriate response to this”; I’d say walk away. You certainly don’t want to get into a discussion as to why you are not as qualified as you are. After attending graduate school, you should have some skills and expertise that the right employer will value. Making connections during graduate school such as during an internship or field placement might make the transition from graduate school to a career a little less bumpy.

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. 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 2014 (Vol. 18, Iss. 3) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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