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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2020

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2020 | Volume 24 | Number 4

Questions (and Answers) About Your Acceptance Into Graduate School

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

https://doi.org/10.24839/2164-9812.Eye24.4.8

By the April release of this article, graduate school applicants such as yourself completed their applications several months ago. Most recently, you have either received your acceptance or rejection letters, or you are (patiently?) waiting to receive these letters any day now.

Looking back, it took a lot of time and dedication to complete your applications—probably a lot more time than you ever dared to believe! But you persevered, and now your work is finally done. All you have left to do is to sit back and wait to reap the rewards of graduate school, right? . . . Well, maybe not!

In this issue of Eye on Psi Chi’s Three Heads ARE Better Than One series, our graduate school experts, Drs. Handelsman, VanderStoep, and Landrum, each share their thoughts and wisdom about how to spend the final three months before you start your first semester in graduate school.

I’ve been accepted into grad school! What should I do between now and the start of my first semester?

Mitch: What a great question! I’m assuming you are referring to after the party and other celebrations.

I’ve written elsewhere (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-ethical-professor/201205/open-letter-college-freshmen) about the transition from high school student to college student. The message is similar in the transition from undergraduate to graduate: Rather than thinking about graduate school as “school,” think of it as your first (or next) professional position. Graduate school is not a stepping-stone to anything—it’s now your job. Even if it’s part time. You are much closer to being a professional and further away from being a student.

Two major tasks for you are saying goodbye and saying hello. Your current relationships with family and friends will be changing—even if you don’t move away. You need to say “goodbye” to them, and—to some extent—to parts of the person you’ve been (You might be able to reconnect with those parts after you get licensed, tenured, or retired!). And you need to say hello, by making contact with your advisor, your new cohort of students and advanced graduate students, and others. See what you can learn about the atmospherics and the logistics of your program. And make sure to set up your lines of communication with the program so you don’t miss important information about courses, registration, finances, etc. Of course, if you’re moving to begin a program, you have to think about the logistics of housing, moving, locating nearby pizza places, etc.

My final word: balance. No, wait—mindfulness, that’s the final word. OK, there are two final words. In any case, be aware of what you feel like personally, and what is now expected of you professionally. Be grateful for the opportunity (as you know, not everyone gets the chance you have) and make the most of it.

Eric: My colleague Mitch has offered some wonderful advice, and I cannot disagree with any of it! Let’s think about the typical timeline under which this might be happening. If your graduate program informed you by April 15 of the offer, and you accepted soon after, and school starts in the fall, you probably have three solid months from the time you accept until the time you start school.

Three months can seem like a long time. It will, in reality, be no time at all. My recommendations are really not that different about spending “time” compared to those that Mitch made, especially if you are reading carefully:

  1. Take the time to say thank you. Write thank-you cards to those who live far away or to those who are close by and contributed a little. To those who are nearby and contributed to your success a lot: thank them by spending time with them. If it works for you, have coffee with them. You are still networking, and connections are important.
  2. Take the time to research your future. Where will you be living, what professors will you be working with, when can you set your fall class schedule, and so on. Do as much as you can in advance so that when you get to graduate school—especially if that program is in a new location—you can concentrate on the work and not how to navigate the city.
  3. Take some time for yourself. Spend time with your undergraduate friends before they all scatter. Take some time to rest, recharge, and be mindful as Mitch suggests. You are likely going to be a working professional the rest of your adult life. This “break” you are about to have between your undergraduate and graduate education in some ways may be considered the last break you’ll ever have. Take it. Take an occasional day (or part of a day, whatever works for you) and just watch Netflix, spend it with your dog in the dog park, go to three movies in a row, sleep all day, take a road trip, read an entire book in one day, binge listen to your favorite podcast, or do that thing that makes you happy and recharges life’s batteries.

Those three months are going to fly by.

Scott: Congratulations. I decided on my grad-school destination in March of my senior year. I spent the last eight weeks of undergraduate soaking up friendships that I knew would get depleted after we parted in a pre-Internet world, working hard in my classes, hanging out in the psychology department with my professors and fellow students, and being nostalgic.

In the summer, I lived on a friend’s boat in a Lake Michigan harbor (still the best summer ever). And I read. I was fortunate enough to have minimal expenses so I only worked a few hours a week in the evening. In the day, I read journal articles from many of the faculty at the program that I would soon join.

The first couple of weeks I felt inept. Even though I had strong undergraduate training and felt prepared, the concepts were complex and the writing was dense. But by the end of the semester, I felt more empowered and confident. I was still a rookie, to be sure, but that summer of soaking up sun and psychology was wonderful personal and professional experience.

Should I load up on classes with one professor who I think I’ll like or take classes with a variety of professors instead?

Mitch: My impression is that in most programs you won’t have that many options—to choose courses or professors. My hunch would be to err on the side of variety in courses, because (a) you will be somewhat limited in people with whom you will be doing research, and (b) you don’t want to come out as a clone of your advisor.

Eric: For some graduate programs, the first-year curriculum is preset for most students, with very little wiggle room. Often, a cohort starts the first year with a very similar curriculum, and then depending on the specialty areas, students separate onto different curricular paths in the second and subsequent years.

Thinking ahead a bit to after you complete your graduate program and the next “thing” in your life, you will likely need three references for a resumé/CV or three letters of recommendation for some sort of application to something. So in keeping with this idea of three, it may not be best to stack all of your classwork with one professor, because that might result in one fantastic letter of recommendation and two lackluster letters. Hopefully your letter from your thesis/dissertation advisor will naturally be the strongest of multiple letters. my advice is for students to be strategic and think about two additional strong letters, just like they should be strategic as an undergraduate when thinking about applying to graduate school.

Scott: In most undergraduate and graduate psychology programs, the subspecialization is high, especially in graduate school. I think it would be more advantageous to do an independent study or join the professor’s research lab and start on one of her projects. The value and availability of course work will diminish over time in graduate school.

I haven’t received an acceptance or rejection letter yet. How long should I wait before reaching out?

Mitch: The day after the application deadline is too soon, right? But if you have received word from other programs, if the program is high on your list, if they indicated that you’d be hearing by now, or if you are in the midst of making a decision, you can certainly make a very polite inquiry to the program’s assistant, or to the person whose lab you applied to (if that’s your situation).

Eric: I was just asked this recently! First, no news is good news (in my opinion). Not hearing anything means that you are still under consideration. Taking a super-long time might mean that you are not in the top list of students to be made offers, but the wait list (sometimes this is called being “on the bubble”). That is, if a graduate program has 10 new student “slots” to fill, that graduate program makes an offer to their top 10 candidates who qualify based on their admissions criteria and “match and fit.” But it is unlikely that all 10 of those candidates will say “yes” to this program, because those students also applied to multiple programs, and when they say “yes” to one they say “no” to all the others. That takes time.

So let’s say you have applied to the graduate program, and the school has ranked its applicants in the order they are going to make offers, and you are 13th in order. The school makes an offer to the top 10 applicants—you don’t hear anything. The top 10 applicants have until April 15 to decide, and at that time, six applicants accept, and four applicants decline. Now the graduate program turns and makes offers to the 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th people on the list because of the four rejections the graduate program received. Now you have an acceptance (hooray!), but it took a while. That’s why I say no news is good news.

To answer your question, I’d wait until the third week of April to inquire. If you really must ask sooner, go ahead and ask. But you will be asking incredibly busy individuals to stop what they are doing (making graduate admissions decisions) to give you an update on graduate admissions decisions that they are not yet finished with; the graduate admissions committee wants to finish the task just as much as the applicants want the task finished.

Scott: My colleagues might disagree, but I would call and not email. Emails are easier to ignore. Find a friendly office manager in the grad office. Faculty members create the lists but support staff are more likely to manage the list (imagine a faculty member saying to the administrative assistant, “Student #6 just declined, who is next on the list?”). Unlike Dr. Landrum, I would call sooner than April. Most programs have made their initial decisions after three weeks, so I think you could know your status after a short period of time.


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.

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.

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. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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