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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2020

Eye on Psi Chi

SPRING 2020 | Volume 24 | Number 3

Questions (and Answers) About Graduate School Fit

Mitchell M. Handelsman, PhD, University of Colorado Denver
Scott VanderStoep, PhD, Hope College
R. Eric Landrum, PhD, Boise State University (ID)

https://doi.org/10.24839/2164-9812.Eye24.3.12

With so many graduate school programs in psychology, how do you know which one will be the right one for you? A key aspect to consider, which is often overlooked, is your “graduate school fit,” which refers to how you will fit into a program and how that program and degree will fit into your future goals. In this issue of Eye on Psi Chi’s Three Heads ARE Better Than One column, our graduate school experts, Drs. Handelsman, VanderStoep, and Landrum, each share their thoughts and wisdom about some common questions regarding graduate school fit.

How can I “test the waters” to see if a particular graduate school program is right for me?

Mitch: Put a toe in: What is the general area of the program. Does that fit your career aspirations?

Splash around: Look at the statistics (GPA, GRE scores) of their successful applicants—are yours floating at the top or submerged compared to them?

Do some surfing: What do the programs say on their websites? Of course, programs are going to portray themselves in the most positive light, but each program will brag about its faculty, students, opportunities, and graduates by highlighting slightly different things. After a while, you’ll be able to notice those differences and see what strikes you as compatible.

Finally, swim with the fishes—communicate with students and/or graduates of the program.

Scott: I interpreted the question differently: Can you try out a program before you enroll? The answer has always been “no” in my experience. You’re either in or you’re out. Once you’re in a program, you can definitely do some testing. I have a student starting a master’s in applied statistics this semester; the university is telling her to take three or four courses but to sign up for six, and then drop two or three after the first couple of weeks. First time I had heard of such a strategy. That is testing the waters, but the student has already been accepted.

Eric: Let’s see if I can split the difference between my colleagues. First, before a full commit, try to talk to current graduate students there in the program. Typically, they will tell you everything going on in the program, positive and negative, especially if you can ask in person and ply them with food. That’s one way you can test the waters without actually having to get in. Second, I have known of students taking graduate-level classes as an “unclassified graduate student,” essentially the graduate level version of an undergraduate “undecided major.” This means you have to be in the town where the graduate school is located (unless online) and you usually have to convince each individual professor to let you into their class.

How can I find out ahead of time if the faculty and students in a particular program work together well and create a positive environment?

Mitch: Swim with the fishes.

Scott: I think Dr. Handelsman is slightly more optimistic than I am. Everyone puts their best foot forward when they entertain visitors. If you visit after you interview and get accepted, you’ll be able to identify some department culture issues, but not all of them. I would focus on how well you can get along with the folks nearest you: your future advisor and her advanced students. And know that you’re going to run into some political problems; it happens everywhere but at most places they’re mild and manageable with the right amount of emotional intelligence on your part.

Eric: So is “swim with the fishes” from Godfather I or Godfather II? (I know well enough not to bother to ask if it is from Godfather III). I think the best way to figure this out is to talk candidly with graduate students onsite; they are likely to spill everything about everybody. But also, you have to be prepared for conflict, and you need conflict resolution and stress reduction/self-care skills. Even the most positive environments and best people have to deal with negative situations and terrible events from time to time. There is no way to insulate against this.

I’ve heard that the members of some programs are somewhat competitive with one another? Is this a good thing?

Mitch: This is pure personal opinion: Of course, there are lots of different ways of competing, and you need to look at the balance of competition and cooperation in a program’s culture. But in general I’d say that too much competition might not be so good. One analogy might be intramural sports: Student compete against each other but then go to classes together, develop friendships, and don’t let their sports activities spill over.

I’ll end my part with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—‘God damn it, you've got to be kind.’”

Scott: Short answer: yes. Faculty are competitive, especially at top-tier schools. They are self-confident and motivated and in many cases that breeds competition. I think sometimes the best faculty advisor is a professor who is in her fourth to ninth year. She is on the top of her game and driven to get tenured or full professor or endowed chair or national recognition. If you can tie your star to her wagon, you can be part of a very productive lab. Of course, you have to be able to work with the professor and the other students. But these are driven and competitive people in graduate school; use it to your advantage.

As a counterweight to Vonnegut, I’ll end with a quote from Springsteen: “Poor man wanna be rich; rich man wanna be king; and the king isn’t satisfied until he rules everything.”

Eric: Wow, eloquent quotes, and I am impressed. In some graduate departments, the faculty are competitive about the courses they teach, or the lab space they need, or the grant monies they acquire, or the graduate students they attract, or some combination thereof. In some departments, not all. And departments change over time; a cut-throat department from 10 years ago may now have a new dean and new department chair, three senior faculty have retired, and the environment is splendid. When the faculty members behave this way, sometimes their graduate students pick up cues that they should behave that way as well (which I would recommend against as much as possible). I think following the Golden Rule generally works, but I prefer the Platinum Rule, which is “Do unto others what they want.” Think about it; it is a subtle yet important difference from the Golden Rule.

And I’ll end with this quote, often attributed to Henry Kissinger, which applies to the context of faculty members arguing and debating courses, lab space, grant money, or graduate students: “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” Faculty members should not be fighting over such topics, but leveraging their might toward learning opportunities and student growth.


R. Eric Landrum, PhD, is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Science at Boise State University, receiving his PhD in cognitive psychology from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He is a research generalist, broadly addressing the improvement of teaching and learning, including the long-term retention of introductory psychology content, skills assessment, improving help-seeking behavior, advising innovations, understanding student career paths, the psychology workforce, successful graduate school applications, and more.

Mitch Handelsman, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and CU President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver, having earned his PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Kansas in 1981. He has coauthored two ethics books, Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (2010; with Sharon Anderson), and Ethical Dilemmas in Psychotherapy: Positive Approaches to Decision Making (2015; with Sam Knapp and Michael Gottlieb). He is an associate editor of the APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (2012). His blog for PsychologyToday.com (“The Ethical Professor”) focuses on ethical and teaching issues.

Scott VanderStoep, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Dean for Social Sciences at Hope College (MI). He received his master’s in social psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his PhD from the University of Michigan. His research articles have largely been in the area of reasoning and problem solving, college student thinking, and psychology and religion. He is the coauthor of two editions of Learning to Learn: The Skill and Will of College Success and Research Methods for Everyday Life: Blending Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches and editor of Science and the Soul: Christian Faith and Psychological Research.

Copyright 2020 (Vol. 24, Iss. 3) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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