Many students ponder a career in psychology but have a limited understanding of what it takes to reach their goals. The first part of this document (Building Your Experience) provides some steps you can take, even early in your studies, to help you reach your goals. The second part (Applying to Graduate School) provides tips for coping effectively with the graduate application process.
BUILDING YOUR EXPERIENCE
To pursue a career in psychology, some of your planning should begin fairly early in your undergraduate studies (e.g., in your second year, or once you have declared psychology as your major). Here are some pointers:
Identify the area or areas in psychology that most interest you. The study of behaviour is so vast that the field of psychology is divided into separate subspecialties. For example, our department has separate programs in clinical, social, cognitive, behavioural neuroscience, developmental, and industrial/organizational psychology (http://www.psychology.uwaterloo.ca/gradprog/). Undergraduate programs typically require you to sample from different areas to fulfill your coursework requirements. Use this opportunity to understand not only the breadth of psychology, but also to narrow in on the area that holds the most interest for you and fits your unique skills or talents.
Get to know your professors. Graduate school applications generally request three reference letters, and often require that at least one of these be from a professor or other faculty member who will know your academic ability and work ethic. Students often make the mistake of soliciting letters from professors with whom they have had a class that they have done well in, but they don't really know the professor. Although such professors can comment on your grade performance relative to other members of the class, they cannot give more information that will help your application. Granted, it is sometimes quite difficult to get to know your professor if you are in large lecture classes. However, you may want to approach the professor during his or her office hours to understand the topic better or pursue volunteer or research assistantship opportunities in his or her lab. Small, specialized courses are also good opportunities to get to know your professors better and for them to get to know you and your skill sets better. These letter writers are often some of the more helpful to your cause.
Contrary to popular belief, most of your professors are not evil, unapproachable trolls. However, they are quite busy. So, here are a few tips before going to their office hours, requesting a meeting, or emailing them.
- Do your homework. Make sure you have done the reading or sought out more information on the topic you will approach the professor for. Their office hours are not there to reiterate the lecture or the text that you did not read. Rather, they can clarify or help you come to a deeper understanding of the material.
- Have a purpose. When you schedule a meeting, attend office hours, or send an email, outline the purpose or set of tasks you would like to attend to with the professor. He or she may not be able to accommodate all of your needs in one meeting, but outlining some of what you need will help the two of you best determine how to accomplish it.
- Be specific. General questions like "Can you tell me more about your research?" will likely get you a very general response that will not be helpful (e.g., "I study motivation and emotion."). Asking about new projects that may be underway or any unpublished work is fair game, but it is important to have some sense about the work that the professor has done. Search his or her website, look up and read publications (empirical and/or invited chapters). This will help to frame your questions.
Remember, face to face meetings (even though quite anxiety provoking for some people) help the professor get to know you a bit better. Email can yield mixed results. You may get quite detailed information or you may get very little, due to differences in faculty styles of communication or the current workload of the professor. Remember, the fall term is particularly hectic for most professors because not only do teaching and research activities kick into full gear, but many students are contacting them regarding graduate school. Be patient for their replies.
Obtain practical research experience. One of the main things that professors look for in potential graduate students is whether students have had experience as a research assistant or, even better, have conducted their own research project (especially an honours thesis). Although breadth of experience can be important for finding the research that most interests you, depth of experience is probably most important for graduate school. Students often make the mistake of trying to accumulate a long list of different research experiences without really developing an in-depth understanding of what they are doing in any one project. Many labs require that you stay on for more than one term, and if you do, the level of responsibility or types of tasks you can take on will change, giving you a broader base of research knowledge and skill sets.
Get involved in the lab you are working in. Working in a lab gives you a unique opportunity to see research in action. Although you will obtain skills through this work (e.g., entering data, organizational tasks, running complex experimental protocols), you will also have a chance to really understand the theory and methods that dictate the area you are studying. If your lab mentor does not offer you readings upfront, seek them out and understand what you are doing. Simply having the experience on paper will not mean as much to a prospective graduate advisor as will knowing that you took interest in and understood your research activity. Once you have been involved in a lab you may also want to ask if there are opportunities to author or assist in writing a paper about the project with which you are involved. Publications, although not necessary for you to get into graduate school, can be an addition to your application that helps you stand out from the rest of the crowd.
If your program offers the opportunity to do an honours thesis (or similar independent research project), don't pass it up! The capacity to do your own independent research is an essential part of graduate school. Thus, completing an honours thesis is one of the very best ways to prepare for graduate school in psychology.
For those interested in a clinical career: Check to see if there are any opportunities to pursue experiences in a clinical setting. Clinical experience is not absolutely necessary for you to be admitted to a graduate program in clinical or counselling psychology. However, for those students who think they might want to pursue a career in counselling or clinical psychology, it will be useful to understand what happens in these settings. Although these experiences are hard to come by, teaching hospitals, community outreach programs, and university clinical programs may have investigators conducting projects that can utilize students. While your duties will not involve clinical activity (e.g., counselling clients), you may be intimately involved in the project and gain a greater understanding of what it means to work with clients in a clinical setting.
APPLYING TO GRADUATE SCHOOL
Start researching programs early. Deadlines for graduate applications generally come near the end of the fall term (December); however, each school has different application deadlines. Starting early usually means beginning your graduate school search at the end of the summer or beginning of fall term the year before you wish to attend graduate school. Recognize also that successfully navigating this task will require your efforts throughout the term.
Take the Graduate Record Exam, or any other exams required by your program of study, early. Many students find the GRE an intimidating test and delay taking it. Because this is an unfamiliar and somewhat daunting task, plan considerable time to review study guides and take practice exams in order to become familiar with the format and content of the exam. Some students additionally enrol in courses or study groups to aid in this process. The GRE is now administered by computer, which allows some flexibility in the date which you take the exam. However, do not wait until the last minute. For more information on this exam and administration procedures visithttp://www.gre.org/.
Narrowing down your search. Some students start with a broad search--- identifying all of the schools that have graduate programs in their area---and then narrow down their search by restricting their list by different constraints (e.g., only selecting clinical programs with APA and CPA accreditation). We start with some general guidelines to navigate this task:
- Visit your psychology department's graduate coordinator and/or the graduate studies office to get recommendations on how to best navigate the application process. He or she may have websites that they can recommend that will organize graduate programs by specialty area or provide other search engines to help you begin your search. He or she may also have catalogues or other paper advertisements from schools that will give you the essential information you need about the program.
- Ask for recommendations from your undergraduate advisor or other faculty mentors. They may be able to give you information about the benefits and challenges of different graduate programs, and they will often be able to tell you about potential faculty in your field of interest with whom you may want to work. Importantly, your faculty mentor may also be able to help you network with faculty at other programs---again a way for you to not just be another application packet on the pile.
Most graduate programs now have extensive information about their programs located on their webpages. At first pass, you may want to skim these pages and jot down notes about the program, including names of faculty who you might be interested in working with or particular features of the program that seem intriguing. It is often helpful to create a spreadsheet to organize this information as well. Although it is a bit more work, it allows you to easily go back and read your notes, as well as compare features across different programs.
There is no magical number of applications you should send out. Although some may want to play the odds by sending out applications to as many schools as possible, there are often costs to this approach. Specifically, graduate school applications require you to craft your applications to fit each school and sending out mass quantities of applications will often diffuse your ability to so. Certainly, there are also substantial financial costs to this approach. While the decision of how you go about applying is ultimately yours, we recommend that you keep in mind a few tips:
- Apply to a range of programs that vary in their level of competitiveness. For any number of reasons (e.g., number of faculty taking students, competition level in the pool of applicants, funding) admissions to top-tier schools may vary from year to year.
- Make sure the program objectives and offerings match up with your area of interest and there are faculty in the program with whom you want to work. Graduate school is an exciting and intense time---you want to choose the place where you will most optimally flourish.
- Put time and energy into crafting your application so that it reflects how your interests and goals will fit with each particular program and/or potential supervisor. Indeed, for some programs or areas of study in psychology, your fit with the research interests and goals of a particular faculty member you'd like to work with may be the most important criteria in being admitted to the graduate program by that faculty member.
- As alternatives to a clinical program, which holds both a research and clinical practice focus, those interested in clinical practice or similar applications may also want to consider programs in counselling psychology, educational psychology, or social work.
Contact the school directly for information and guidance in their application process. Most graduate programs now have dedicated webspace that contains information to help students navigate their application process. Further, many have a graduate coordinator who can answer any further questions you may have about the application process. Download any application forms and read through the materials thoroughly first before contacting the graduate coordinator or faculty of the university.
Identify which faculty members you are most interested in working with. Faculty are interested in students with good academic and experience records; however, they are also often interested in the "fit" of students within their program. For example, many programs have moved toward admitting students to work with a particular faculty advisor or advisors. So, when choosing programs, your interests should closely match the interests of one or more of the faculty in the department to which you are applying.
Often students contact professors by email or phone in order to simply introduce themselves, request a face-to-face meeting or try to establish email exchanges in anticipation of applying to their graduate program. Although this effort is in the interest of making the student more recognizable come application time, there are several ways that students commonly fail to negotiate this effectively and in turn make their contact less desirable to the faculty member. Here are a few tips on what to do (and not to do) when contacting faculty:
- Follow the same rules outlined above in the "Building Your Experience" section on meeting with faculty: do your homework, have a purpose, be specific. Many faculty will not grant face to face meetings or prolonged phone interviews with prospective applicants simply to discuss the structure of the program.
- It is perfectly acceptable for you to contact faculty to find out whether they are taking students for the upcoming year.
Write, rewrite, have a mentor read your application essays, and rewrite them again (Do we see a pattern?). Your application essays are one of the only ways that faculty have access to you. How you organize and communicate your experience and your interests are vital. Although these essays are often referred to as "personal statements," this does not mean you should reveal your most personal information. This is a professional application and the personal statement pertains to your experiences, goals, and future interests that have led you to apply to the program.
Provide organized materials to your reference letter writers. You will want to choose letter writers who will be able to comment on your academic record as well as other experiences or relevant skill sets. To help your letter writers craft the best letter possible, you may want to provide them with a resume, a copy of your transcripts, as well as a brief statement outlining your previous relevant experience and your goals for your graduate studies and future career. Further, you should provide them with a typed list of the names and addresses of the schools to which you are applying, mailing envelopes with postage addressed to these programs, any paper or electronic files that they need to complete and include with the recommendation letter, and the deadlines for each of the applications. You should not expect your letter writers to go seek out these materials. Finally, you need to give your letter writers adequate time to complete their task, and ask them as early as possible.
Arrange to have all of your graduate admissions exam scores and transcripts sent out early. Often students forget to do this until the last minute. University registrar offices and exam reporting facilities are extremely busy at the end of the fall term and often close for extended holidays, which can cause delays in the reporting of your scores or transcripts to the programs to which you are applying. Incomplete applications may cause delays in your application being considered by the faculty, and in some cases may cause your application to not be considered. Get these in!
Check your application before you send it out. Most schools have an application checklist that will help you make sure that you have completed all tasks necessary. Once your application is received, graduate coordinators often send a notice that your application has been received and let you know whether the application is complete or is missing particular components. If you are concerned about receipt of your application or its completeness, you may contact the graduate admissions officer of the department.
Wait. After all of your work, this can be the toughest part of the whole process. Faculty usually begin reviewing graduate applications shortly after the admission deadline passes. The length of time for any faculty to review applications varies by school. For programs that conduct interviews, these are generally granted on an ongoing basis within the first month post application deadline and beyond. Keep in mind that interviewers will certainly ask about the research you have been involved in; thus, you should prepare by organizing your ideas about the purposes and implications of this work. Interviews can continue for some time. If you have not heard back from a program, you may want to contact the admissions officer to ask the status of applications.
If you have offers at other schools but have not heard from a program that still interests you, you may want to contact that program to inquire about the status of your application to their program and let them know that you have offers at other institutions.
If you do not get into graduate school the first time, do not be discouraged. Instead, you may want to contact the institutions to which you applied and ask about ways in which you could improve your application (e.g., get more research experience, retake the Graduate Record Examination). Talk to your faculty advisors, and consider alternatives or applying again.