Advice on Graduate School

Things to do now

Take a Broad Range of Courses and Do Well in Them.

Be sure you have taken a wide range of psychology courses (and courses in related disciplines where appropriate). Don’t concentrate too heavily in one area, e.g., social or developmental, just because you are sure that’s what you want to do. Give serious consideration to taking Physiological Psychology (which usually requires Brain and Behavior or Cognitive Neuroscience as a prerequisite). Having at least a year of biology and/or chemistry is highly desirable. One reason for taking these natural science-type classes is that major new developments in psychology (especially clinical) are originating there. A second reason is that doing well in such classes shows you can handle difficult, demanding work. Interestingly, many graduate admissions committees will take a science major, even with little experience in psychology, over a similarly qualified psychology major; they figure science majors are smart and hard working and can pick up psychology pretty easily. Psychology majors without experience in science will find it a lot harder to fill that gap. Take math, both discrete math such as statistics and continuous math such as calculus. Psychology is a much more theoretical science than you would ever realize from your undergraduate courses and often those theories are expressed in mathematics. If your background in mathematics is weak it means a whole lot of catch-up and it sharply limits what you can do. Grades are a concern, of course. You will be competing against applicants with some pretty spectacular grade-point averages, particularly with the grade inflation of the last decade (but see the Graduate Record Examination section). So, the better your GPA, the better off you will be. It may comfort you some to know that most graduate programs put the greatest weight on your last two years and on your grades in your major.

Get Research Experience.

There are a lot of reasons to do this, even if you don’t think your career goals will ever involve research. First, it lets you work closely with a faculty member who can mentor you and who will get to know you well enough that she or he can write a very knowledgeable and compelling letter of reference. Second, it will give you experience with how the science of psychology really works. One thing graduate schools want to know is whether you’re really aware of what you’re getting into. If you have done research, it shows you know what the field is about. Third, it will provide opportunities for you to present work at professional meetings and, perhaps, to have your research published in professional journals. Presentations and publications are worth their weight in gold when you apply to graduate school. They show that you are already successful at what they plan to teach you to do. (If that sounds oddly circular, you’re right!) Fourth, it may very well provide you with some pretty sophisticated ideas for a senior thesis. Some words of advice. Go looking for research opportunities; don’t wait for a faculty member to find you. When you find one, be compulsively responsible. When you say you’ll do something, do it. A faculty member who feels she or he can’t count on you is not going to write a very strong recommendation. Learn from your experience. Ask questions. Ask why things were done one way instead of another. Take initiative. If you see a better way to do something, suggest it. If you see an interesting potential new direction for the research, suggest it. When it comes right down to it, the people who are most likely to succeed are those who are motivated and who work hard (and smart). Faculty here know that. Graduate schools know that.

Find Opportunities to Present or Publish Your Work.

It’s a little scary, but it’s very rewarding and unusually fun. It looks great on your résumé. It gives you a chance to introduce yourself and your work to faculty members at other institutions with whom you might want to work as a graduate student. You can submit work done in collaboration with a faculty member or work you have done on your own (such as your senior thesis). Probably the least intimidating are the Undergraduate Research conferences. The presenters are all students like you, although faculty advisors from a range of institutions will be there. There are a number of these. The oldest and often the best is the Western Regional Undergraduate Psychology Research conference held every year at Santa Clara University (abstracts usually due in March). The next step up is the Western Psychological Association (held this spring in Seattle; abstracts are due November 18). The most prestigious general conferences are the American Psychological Association (in August; abstracts due December 1) and the American Psychological Society (in June; abstracts due about March). A number of areas have their own specific conferences (e.g., Society for Research in Child Development, American Educational Research Association, Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, Society for Neuroscience). Unfortunately, the Psychology Department has no funds to support attendance at conferences. In the past President Bekavac has sometimes provided support (last year she supported a presentation at the American Psychological Society but denied a request for the Western Psychological Association).

Things to do when it’s time to apply

Keep Track of Time.

Many graduate school applications are due as early as December; few are due later than mid-February. That means you should begin researching graduate programs to which you might apply at the end of your junior year (or over the summer) but no later than the very beginning of your senior year. Request applications early in the fall. Be aware that some programs charge even to send an application package. You must take the GRE (perhaps for a second time) no later than October of your senior year. You should approach faculty who might serve as references by October. Once you’ve drafted a personal statement for the applications, it’s a really good idea to have one or more faculty critique it. Take their advice to heart; they’re as eager to see you get into the best program possible as you are.

Focus, focus, focus.

You need to think very carefully about the area in which you want to study. The most successful applications are those in which the person has researched the graduate program fully and in which she describes interests that converge well with the faculty and emphasis of that particular program. This often means that you need to sound a lot more certain than you really are. It also means that you may describe different interests in applying to different schools. Avoid vagueness! Vaguely-described interests (“I’m interested in studying children” or “I”m interested in social psychology.”) are going to put you back in the pack. You want to stand out as someone who knows what she is about and who has made an informed decision that this particular graduate program is the right place to pursue it. How do you find out what schools have what programs? One excellent resource is the book, Graduate Study in Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association and available in the Psychology Department. Another approach that’s often productive is to use Netscape to search the World Wide Web.

Apply to a Person Not to a Program.

Your graduate training will be most valuable and rewarding and you will be most likely to find a good position when you finish if you have worked closely with a mentor. Other things being equal, the bigger the reputation of your mentor, the better off you will be. (Of course, mentors being equal, the bigger the reputation of the school, the better off you will be.) Because other things are not equal in this world, think seriously about a woman scientist as a mentor. You’ll learn a whole lot more about how to make it in the world than you will from the best man. All of this means that you need to do extensive research before applying. Don’t just look at schools and the programs they offer. Look at the faculty who are there. Most literature from graduate programs lists their faculty. Look up the promising ones in the American Psychological Association (APA) Member Directory. (The back of the Directory also lists faculty by institution.) Most but not all psychologists are members of either the APA or the American Psychological Society. Look up their written work in PsycLit (then at least go skim it). Look them up on the World Wide Web. Now comes the hard part. For the ones that look like the best fit, telephone them. Introduce yourself, tell them you plan to apply to their program, and ask if you can talk with them about their graduate program and their own interests. Ask if there will be space for a graduate student in their lab. Tell them about your own work and what interests you. In short, establish a personal relationship. Then, when your application comes through, you won’t be just another name.

Apply to a Range of Schools.

The advice here is just the same as for applying to colleges in your senior year of high school. Apply to a couple that you’d really love to go to but are long shots (schools like Harvard, Stanford, Michigan). Apply to some that seem the most appropriate choices. Finally, have one or more backups, places to consider if none of the rest come through. Even if your ultimate goal is a Ph.D. program, consider applying to one or two M.A. or M.S. programs. Research them just as you did Ph.D. programs. Look for specific faculty members who actively publish their research and who might be good mentors. GREs and undergraduate grades are often much less important in applying for a Ph.D. program for students who have been successful and productive in completing a good-quality M.A. program. There are several very good M.A. programs at the California State Universities. If you are a California resident, these are a real bargain. There is a surprisingly large number of successful psychologists who began their careers in M.A. programs.

Graduate Record Examination.

It’s sad but true that whether your application gets looked on favorably (or even looked at in the first place) depends on your score on the GRE. A score of 1200 (combined verbal + quantitative) is sort of a magic number. Above 1200 you can be pretty sure your application will be reviewed seriously. (You won’t necessarily be admitted, but you won’t be eliminated at the first step.) Approach 1400 and you’ll be a strong enough candidate that they’ll overlook weaknesses. Between 1100 and 1200, particularly strong letters of reference or other salient strengths may be enough to attract attention. Below 1100, chances drop rapidly. The book, Graduate Study in Psychology, gives the average GRE of admitted students for each program. (Take those with a grain of salt. I suspect many schools inflate the reported scores.) Why so much weight on the GRE? It’s the one thing that’s comparable across students from hundreds of different schools with different grading standards. It seems more objective than letters of reference. And it’s the best single predictor of success in graduate school. It may or may not help you to know that most programs give greater weight to the quantitative score than to the verbal score. All of this means that it’s really worth preparing for the GRE, perhaps taking it in the Spring of your junior year as a preparation. If you tend not to do well on standardized tests, consider taking one of the more reputable review courses such as Kaplan or Princeton Review. The computerized version of the test is given all year round, so you might consider taking that as a practice. (I have heard credible reports that scores on the computerized version average more than 100 points below the paper-and-pencil version. This could be because the computerized version uses adaptive testing, choosing question difficulty based on how you appear to be doing.) The College Board also sells a computerized practice test; you may find this helpful. Many programs also ask for the area test in Psychology. The best preparation for this is to reread your Intro Psych textbook. Your professors may be able to arrange some sample multiple-choice tests from an intro text; this will be very much like the GRE Psychology test.

Plan Ahead for Letters of Reference.

The GRE is mostly a hurdle you have to jump to get into the race. One thing that heavily influences how you place at the end of the race is your letters of reference from faculty members. The best references are faculty who know you really well, who can write about specific skills and achievements. At least one should be a faculty member with whom you’ve worked closely on research. Others can be faculty with whom you’ve taken several classes. They need not all be in psychology. As I said above, speak to them by October to be sure they’re willing to write letters. Try to get them the reference forms at least six weeks before they are due. In my experience, many students believe that a letter of reference can be done in a day or so. Even if faculty didn’t have lots of other obligations, it takes a lot of time and thought to compose an effective letter. You can’t expect to get top priority over teaching and committee work. Once the letter is done, it takes the departmental secretary time to format the letter and print out personalized copies for each school. Do not forget to include stamped, addressed envelopes. Be sure to indicate on the form whether the letter is to be confidential or not. In my experience, this doesn’t matter much. I have never spoken to a faculty member who said they would write differently depending on whether or not the student reserved the right to see the letter.

When you go for interviews.

For programs other than clinical, if you are invited for an interview, that probably means they really want you. (In clinical, your chances at that point may be no better than one in ten.) Sure you want to impress them, but also use the opportunity to decide if this is the place for you. Try to talk to current graduate students one-on-one. Ask them what they like and don’t like about the program. Ask them how successful recent graduates have been in finding jobs. Ask them which faculty are helpful and supportive and which aren’t. (Sometimes big-name superstars can also be big-time SOBs!) When you listen to these students, keep some perspective. Students the world over grumble about the program they’re in, whatever the program (just think about Scripps!).


For programs other than clinical, money should not be a concern. Most high-quality Ph.D. programs find ways to support fully the students they want to recruit. Most will provide support for four years, some for five. Don’t be afraid to ask about support. If the answer is unsatisfactory, maybe you shouldn’t be considering that program.

If you don’t get in

Before you read further, go back and see what I said about applying to back-up schools, particularly M.A. programs. If you don’t want to take this option, another alternative is to look for work in some related area and then apply again in a couple of years. Several Scripps students have been successful with this approach. Recently, two students–who had been unsuccessful the first time–applied to clinical programs after two years of working with psychologists at a major medical center and were admitted to top-ranked schools.

Alan Hartley