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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2019

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2019 | Volume 23 | Issue 4


Do You Have the Research Experience Necessary for a Competitive Graduate School Application?

Jennifer L. Hughes, PhD,
Agnes Scott College (GA)

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Have you ever wondered how professors select applicants who apply to work with them in psychology graduate school? Because of large numbers of applicants, many admission committees evaluate grade-point average (GPA) and the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores first in order to narrow the pool of applicants (American Psychological Association, 2007; Walfish & Hess, 2001). High GPAs and GRE scores are expected from most PhD and master’s programs (Cynkar, 2018; Dunn & Halonen, 2016), with PhD programs and higher ranked PhD programs expecting to see the highest GPAs and GRE scores (American Psychological Association, 2007).

If applicants meet the GPA and GRE cutoff scores, then the admission committees typically evaluate the following criteria:

  • course work in psychology,
  • letters of recommendation,
  • personal statements,
  • psychology-related work experience, and
  • research experience.

Some programs interview applicants as well (American Psychological Association, 2007). However, the American Psychological Association (2007) noted that the criteria used and the emphasis placed on each one varies by the type of degree, area in psychology, and the prestige of the program. Several authors have suggested that PhD review committees, and especially the higher ranked programs, evaluate research experience after GPA and GRE in order to further cut applicants (American Psychological Association, 2007; Buskist & Sherburne, 2007; Schultheiss, 2008).

We wanted to know more about how graduate faculty evaluate the research experience of applicants, so we decided to specifically investigate this. We wrote an invited editorial in the Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research called, “Professors’ Research Expectations for Admission to Psychology Graduate Programs,” which was published this spring (Hughes, Li, McDonnell, Engsberg, & Goss, 2019). The editorial covers our findings from 765 graduate school professors who participated in our research study. In this Eye article, information will be presented about the topic, and then the findings from the editorial will be summarized. Importantly, graduate faculty’s key advice from an open-ended response section of the survey will be given as well, most of which was not published in the original editorial.

Weighing Your Research Experience

Unfortunately, most undergraduate students do not know that it is much more difficult to get in to graduate psychology programs than it is to be accepted into an undergraduate college or university (Dunn & Halonen, 2016). In addition, students often do not know what is involved in becoming a strong applicant for psychology graduate programs, and they often do not realize how important research experience is for acceptance into these programs—especially PhD programs (Sanders & Landrum, 2012). Privitera (2014) wrote that research skills are considered to be a strong predictor of success in graduate school and particularly for PhD programs; professors expect applicants to have research skills and experience when applying.

You may be wondering how research experience is evaluated. Walfish and Hess (2001) give some examples for those applying to psychology graduate programs such as

  • statistics and research design and methods courses taken,
  • working as a research assistant or conducting independent research,
  • research skills, and
  • research presentations and publications.

Wegenek and Buskist (2010) include research match with graduate professors as another important way applicants are evaluated for PhD programs in psychology.

Now that you know this, what should you do? Dunn and Halonen (2016) give useful advice for applicants. They suggest that students consult with a professor or advisor in psychology in order to develop a feasible plan for applying to graduate school including getting involved with research. They also suggest that applicants should read the book Graduate Study in Psychology, which is useful because it lists the admission criteria for each individual graduate program. They note that most applicants who receive offers of admittance exceed the minimum qualifications listed in the book.

Graduate School Professors’ Expectations

For this project, we developed a survey and sent it to one third of the psychology graduate faculty members in the United States. We had 765 graduate school professors complete the survey (Hughes et al., 2019). Our survey asked the professors questions about the research criteria they use when evaluating graduate applicants for master’s and doctoral programs.

We found that faculty from PhD psychology programs and higher ranked PhD psychology programs evaluated research as being more important as compared to faculty who taught in other types of programs (i.e., master’s programs in psychology, PsyD programs, and PhD psychology programs housed in education departments). These faculty also expected applicants to have spent more time gaining research experience, and they wanted the applicants’ experiences to match their research areas. Finally, they were more likely to want applicants to have conducted independent research.

So, what does this mean? It means that undergraduate students who hope to get accepted to PhD programs in psychology departments, and especially for the higher ranked programs, will want to

  • spend a considerable amount of time getting quality research experience,
  • match the area of the professors they apply to work with, and
  • possibly conduct independent research.

For students who plan to apply to master’s programs in psychology, PsyD programs, or PhD psychology programs housed in education departments, they will want to get some research experience, but that experience does not need to be as extensive.

Also, in the editorial, we presented information from our examination of subfields within psychology and looked specifically at PhD programs in psychology departments (i.e., clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, neuroscience, social psychology, and quantitative psychology; Hughes et al., 2019). We found that almost all of these subfields were the same (i.e., did not statistically differ). These faculty

  • viewed research as important and expected at least a year of research experience,
  • expected a match between the applicant’s research experience and the professor’s area of research, and
  • many hoped to see independent research experience.

Industrial and organizational psychology was the only area that showed some differences. The possible reasons for the differences are listed in our editorial. We were surprised that faculty in clinical psychology did not differ in the other areas evaluated (i.e., except for industrial and organizational psychology) because clinical psychology programs often have the most applicants, so they have been seen as being more selective with their applicants (American Psychological Association, 2007; Council of University Directors of Clinical Psychology, 2017; Dunn & Halonen, 2016; Prinstein, 2017; Wegenek & Buskist, 2010).

When we included psychology PhD programs housed in education departments (i.e., counseling psychology, educational psychology, and school psychology) into our analyses, we did find differences. Those faculty typically had lower expectations for research in the areas listed above.

Advice for Applicants

The comments written by the PsyD, master’s, and PhD faculty in education departments were fairly similar in that they wanted to see some involvement in research, but they did not expect to see as much research experience as the typical PhD applicant would have. Because of this, only the comments from the PhD faculty in psychology departments were content-analyzed. Before those results are presented, it should be noted that several respondents who taught in PhD programs in psychology departments stated that they used different criteria when accepting applicants with a bachelor’s degree as compared to a master’s degree, which often included more research experience expected for those with a master’s degree. The following themes emerged from the content analysis of the open-ended responses.

Research experience. Most of the faculty who wrote responses stated that research experience was very important for an applicant to be accepted. For example, one professor wrote that “research experience and products of that research are the best predictor of success in graduate programs; It reflects persistence.” Faculty often mentioned that applicants should provide evidence of their roles in the research they conducted. For example, a professor wrote, “I look for independence and initiative, and a first author publication or presentation is definitely one way to demonstrate that. Coauthorship can also be, but it would depend on how they talk about the project and what the letters of recommendation say about their role.” Many of the faculty said that applicants should be able to describe the research they were involved with by stating how they conceptualized the research question, analyzed the data, and wrote the research paper. Faculty also mentioned that applicants’ letters of recommendation should vouch for student’s strong research interest and skills.

Research fit. Many PhD psychology faculty members wrote that research fit was the most important factor for accepting applicants. One faculty member wrote that applicants can demonstrate this in personal statements by

  1. articulating how well they understand the professor’s research program from reading the professor’s previous publications,
  2. stating how they would like to contribute to that research program with new project ideas, and
  3. describing how their past research experiences will aid in being able to execute those ideas.

The professor also added that applicants with less research lab experience who clearly understand how to read and extend ideas from the professor’s journal articles are more sought after than applicants with lots of research experience, but who do not tailor their personal statement research goals to the specific research lab. Another faculty member wrote, “I look for interest in my specific area, program, and school; I tend to be turned off by applicants who have very general or cookie cutter statements and letters of interest, rather than addressing specific components of my program and school (e.g., I compare it to dating; nobody wants to be asked out on a date ‘because you were just there and I felt like seeing a movie,’ but would prefer a date express common interests or specific attributes).” Finally, many of the faculty included statements about wanting to see evidence of applicants thinking like scientists.

Many PhD psychology faculty members wrote that research fit was the most important factor for accepting applicants.

Personality. As mentioned in the editorial, many of the faculty wrote about personality and how it can be the deciding factor when it comes down to their shortlist of applicants (Hughes et al., 2019). They said that they had to go with their general feeling about the applicant’s fit with their lab. The type of personality they were looking for varied (i.e., maturity, grit, curious, conscientious, humble, etc.; Hughes et al., 2019). One professor wrote, “I prefer applicants who are dedicated, hardworking, and passionate and who possess a more cooperative than competitive orientation.” A few of the faculty also said that they look for nice or helpful applicants who will contribute positively to their lab culture and ask their current lab members to give their assessments of the applicants as well.

Knowledge of statistics. Several faculty members wrote about how important it was for applicants to know statistics well and to be able to use statistical software. They suggested that applicants seek opportunities as undergraduates to create strong statistical skills and then to mention those in their applications. Several respondents also said that they expect grades in applicants’ statistics and research design and methods courses to be stellar.

Writing. A faculty member wrote that “applicants should be strong writers and enjoy writing papers.” Applicants can demonstrate writing ability through their personal statement and writing samples (e.g., research papers). Several faculty noted that writing errors in personal statements, generic personal statements, personal statements that are not mostly about research, and oversharing in the personal statements represented red flags to admission committees.

Apply to multiple programs. Finally, a few faculty wrote about how hard the decisions are to admit applicants and that applicants should apply to many programs to increase their odds of getting accepted. For example, one faculty member wrote “the hardest part is having to turn down numerous very qualified applicants each year. Applicants should not take it personally when they are rejected, the margins between who to accept and who to reject are often razor-thin and quite subjective.”


The results for our research study and from our content analysis of the open-ended responses of our survey reinforce that research experience is important to faculty when accepting psychology graduate students. This is especially true for the PhD programs in psychology departments, higher ranked programs in PhD psychology departments, and most subfields housed in psychology departments. If you want to be accepted, you should meet with your faculty or advisor to come up with a plan to find quality research experiences that can help you become a more qualified applicant.


American Psychological Association. (2007). Getting in: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Buskist, W., & Sherburne, T. R. (2007). Preparing for graduate study in psychology: 101 questions and answers. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Council of University Directors of Clinical Psychology. (2017). Getting into clinical psych grad school. Retrieved from

Cynkar, A. (2018, November). Clinch your graduate school acceptance. gradPSYCH, 5(4). Retrieved from

Dunn, D. S., & Halonen, J. S. (2016). The psychology major's companion: Everything you need to know to get where you want to go. New York, NY: Worth.

Hughes, J. L., Li, M., McDonnell, E. R., Engsberg, E. V., & Goss, C. S. (2019). Professors’ research expectations for admission to psychology graduate programs. Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 24, 2–11.

Prinstein, M. (2017). Mitch’s uncensored advice for applying to graduate school in clinical psychology. Retrieved from

Privitera, G. J. (2014). Getting into graduate school: A comprehensive guide for psychology and the behavioral sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Sanders, C. E., & Landrum, R. E. (2012). The graduate school application process: What our students report they know. Teaching of Psychology, 39, 128–132.

Schultheiss, D. P. (2008). Psychology as a major: Is it right for me and what can I do with my degree? Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Walfish, S., & Hess, A. K. (2001). Succeeding in graduate school: A career guide for psychology students. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wegenek, A. R., & Buskist, W. (2010). The insider's guide to the psychology major: Everything you need to know about the degree and profession. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Jennifer Hughes, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Agnes Scott College and has taught there since 1998. She earned her PhD in industrial and organizational psychology from Kansas State University and her BA in psychology from Auburn University. She has been involved with the Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research since 2002 and has served as an Associate Editor for the journal since 2012. She also has served as Agnes Scott’s Psi Chi advisor for the past 21 years. She enjoys teaching, advising, and working with students on research projects. Her two main research areas are the psychological and physical effects of commuting to and from work and positive psychology applied to work and in relationships. She has coauthored research papers with 175 students. That work has resulted in 31 published journal articles (including 16 in Psi Chi Journal), 143 presentations at national and regional conventions, and 141 presentations at Agnes Scott’s research conference. In addition, she has received several awards such as the Vulcan Materials Company Teaching Excellence Award at Agnes Scott College in 2013, the Florence L. Denmark Faculty Advisor Award from Psi Chi in 2018, and the Mentor Award from the Southeastern Psychological Association in 2014.

Copyright 2019 (Vol. 23, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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