Getting into Graduate School

This is the first week of my first semester as a teaching assistant at Illinois. I held office hours this week, even before leading a discussion session, and was surprised to have a student use them. This student wanted advice on what steps he could take to make himself a strong applicant for a psychology PhD program. Even though I’ve only been here for a year, I’ve compiled a fairly large number of resources I pass onto undergraduates as well as a stock set of advice I give. However, I’m curious about what advice or resources others would pass on. I want to do the best for my students and research assistants and provide them with sound advice.

Here’s an outline of the advice I typically give:

  • Gain as much research experience possible. Both because it is exactly the kind of training they need and because it is the best source of letters of reference.
  • Read literature in the field that interests you. This will help you narrow down your interests, make you sound more intelligent and informed, and help you identify potential advisors of interest.
  • Speak to a professor in your intended field about what his or her job is like and what graduate school in that field is like. Similarly, speak a graduate student in your intended field about his or her experiences. Consult with professors and grad students about the schools/advisors you are considering applying to; ask them about who has good placement and whose students never graduate.
  • Email professors you are interested in working with. Tell them you’ve read some of their papers and share some interests. Ask whether they will be taking on new students and what they look for in a graduate student. Your match to an advisor is one of the most important components of your application and of your experience in graduate school.
  • Join professional societies and honor societies and take an active role in them. Subscribe to their listservs. This will keep you up to date on the field, provide you with opportunities for extra experience/CV lines (e.g., reviewing for student competitions, competing in those competitions, departmental service, etc.), and make you look engaged. You might also find opportunities for summer research positions or post-graduation jobs advertised on the email lists.
  • Read a bunch of academic/science blogs or message boards. These will help you understand and navigate academic culture and give you better insight into the variety of experiences of academics.
  • Take the GRE very seriously. Study for a long time. Take lots of practice tests.
  • Seriously consider if graduate school and an academic career is a good option for you. Graduate school is intense. The academic job market is really tough, and the pressure does not end even if you land a great job at the end. You might be a post-doc or Visiting Assistant Professor before landing a more permanent position, and even once you are on the tenure track, you still have years of fighting for tenure ahead.
  • Apply for jobs, too. You might not get in.
  • These are just the things that you can (more or less) control. There’s a lot that you cannot control, such as departmental funding, grants won by faculty members that might support students, the number of other truly awesome applicants who happen to apply in the same year to the same advisor, the number of students graduating from the program that year. You will likely be rejected; it’s not personal, and it doesn’t mean you are not smart enough or capable enough to complete the program.

What would you advise differently from or in addition to the above? Are there any special resources you usually pass on toย  undergraduates considering applying to grad school?

Edit 1: A friend pointed out that I had neglected to mention the importance of the statement of purpose/personal statement (the admissions essay in a grad school application). This is a critical component of the application. The best advice I can give is, first, to tailor your essay to the specific program you are sending it to. Mention the names of potential faculty advisors and what research questions you might pursue with them or which research of theirs you would like to work on. (And sound like you’ve actually read their papers.) Second, start early and have as many people as you can convince read your drafts–especially faculty members or graduate students.

Edit 2: Another friend points out the wisdom of working in multiple research labs to gain a diversity of experiences and training. I would add that this is also a good way to get more than one letter of reference from a research supervisor.

The comments below also add great advice and perspectives.


19 Responses to “Getting into Graduate School”

  1. A useful post ๐Ÿ™‚ good to see information being shared simply for others. 2 questions… What’s a GRE? and how did you get an advert for Final Destination 5 to appear in your post? CC

    • Thanks, Chris! The GRE is a standardized test that many programs in the US require for admission to graduate school. It consists of a math and a verbal portion as well as two essays. One of the reasons it’s required over here is that we don’t use external examiners or comprehensive exams for most undergraduate programs, so it’s very difficult to compare results from different schools. The GRE, at least, is a more comparable measure across applicants.

      Hah, I actually have AdBlock Plus installed, so I don’t see the ads–not sure I ever even knew they were there. However, I find that ad match quite hilarious for this post. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • I might as well add that the advice here is all very US-centric. Graduate school, and academia in general, varies considerably over the world. (We don’t, for example, make the same kind of clear distinction between taught and research programs as is made in the UK, and out PhDs are typically longer because they include the “taught” portion.)

      • Thanks very much for these replies… I’ve only just come across this now!

        Thinking ahead a few weeks, you might be aware that we have been sending out ‘resources’ every Wednesday on the RSP. Might you be willing to let us put this out at some point?

        All the best,


      • Hi, Chris. Yes, I have noticed the resources. They are great! I’d be thrilled if you posted this. Just let me know if you would like any edits if/wen you do.

      • Argh! An errant click on my iPhone deleted your other comment! So sorry!!

      • Wonderful… I shall let you know. I’ll probably leave it a few weeks as we have had quite a few similar resources just now, and you have just posted… but this would be great. Thanks a bunch!

  2. i would also emphasize that speaking to potential grad school mentors is quite important and I might push that piece of advice to the next level- try and go work in their lab over a summer or semester break. At my grad school lab we had a number of potential students come and work with us for a summer (some found funding through APA or other orgs). This provided the student with the opportunity to see what we do, what some of grad school entails, and to build a relationships with the potential mentor and lab (or not).

    • Thanks, Alaina. That is great advice and is almost certainly the best way to try out a lab. But it’s also a tough call. Most of these positions don’t pay, and it’s difficult for me to encourage my students/RAs to move (often to a more expensive place–Champaign is cheap!) and spend a summer working without pay, especially when there’s no guarantee that they will get into grad school. They are welcome to stay here and volunteer in our lab for free, while also being able to work locally. The experience isn’t as diverse, and most of them won’t want to apply here, but it is less costly for them. I usually tell them to apply for these positions only if they are also looking for funding or can afford the summer without a job.

  3. I’d add this: be sure the field is something that you feel good about pursuing… I mean, you should feel ‘one with it’ deep in your core. If thinking about the future working in that field feels like thinking about swimming into the shark-infested ocean blindfolded, then that may not be the right field for you.

    Don’t grab onto a particular program because you believe it will lead to a job. Do your best to think long and hard about your own personal interests, what questions motivate you to learn, what fascinates you, etc. If nothing motivates you to study, if no questions excite you to do research, then grad school probably isn’t for you.

    Of course, I’m only starting this process of looking at grad programs and getting the facts and making the contacts. But before I revisited my own motivations, the future looked like a lot a useless thrashing and effort. Now, I’m more focussed and feel good about making the decisions that will lead to an interesting and rewarding future.

    • Mary, your advice is spot on. There is absolutely no point in doing this if you are thrilled at the idea of pouring yourself entirely into it. For that, you need to be strongly motivated by a love of the field. However, I also think a career-oriented, or perhaps goal-oriented, approach is appropriate.

      The income of a graduate students is small (possibly negative) and the cost of foregone wages is pretty high. Getting a PhD can actually make it harder to get a (non-academic) job. PhDs may be seen as too specialized in something unrelated or as demanding a salary that outstrips their experience. Grad school is (as Melanie points out) also very emotionally taxing, even more the best students. A realistic view of the life paths (whether they are careers or other goals) that are likely after completion (or non-completion) is important.If one is going to suffer the monetary and emotional costs of grad school, I hope that one does so with the belief that there is some payoff for it. The payoff of learning might be enough while one is in school, but if it leads to chronic unemployment or underemployment afterwards, the costs might be too severe.

      It’s a decision that’s very personal, and each person will have to decide, given the best data they can get, whether it is a risk worth taking. Obviously, I decided it was for me.

  4. I think you just about covered all of the good advice I could think of! I just wanted to add in an extra “plug” for the “make sure academia is really what you want to do” bullet…I was dead set on grad school in college and I *still* stay up on some nights crying because I’m worried I made a huge mistake. The people I know who were not so set on grad school and who came in ambivalently, having been equally torn between grad school and law school/med school/etc., almost all left after 1-2 years or getting their Masters. It’s not a great place to be for people who aren’t 100% sure they want to be here – and even for those who are “sure,” you won’t be sure forever. TRUST ME. Not a single person I know made it to the 2nd year without once thinking, “Oh my god. I am going to die or drop out, whichever comes first.” So, it’s normal, and it’s fine, but just…expect that (once you get in), and before applying, yes, definitely make sure you are REEEEEEEALLY sure it’s what you want to do, or else you will probably end up just wasting 1-2 years of your time. Would be my (TOTALLY OPTIMISTIC AND CHEERY) advice. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Also, I guess I should add that my advice should be taken with the “currently studying for Quals” grain of salt. But honestly, I think it’d still stand at any time. Everyone I know really has doubted if grad school was for them at SOME point in the past 2 years I’ve been here – even the most brilliant, prolific, amazing, NSF-winning, publishing-fiend, theory-coming-up-with people who look like perfect grad students to everyone else. So, it’s normal, but…it’s not for the faint of heart.

      • Melanie, yeah, I, uh, know what you mean. ๐Ÿ™‚ There is something brutal about all of this that makes it not for the faint of heart. I’m too lazy to do a lit search right now, but I imagine that grad school also attracts exactly the chronically-anxiety-prone, perfectionistic people who would spend all night thinking about these things. Perhaps, if you’re not the sort of person who is really concerned about constantly being awesome, this isn’t for you. (Because an attitude that alright is good enough would not be well-tolerated–and would not lead to good science.)

      • I think that’s a good point, and not to TOTALLY self-plug, but that sentiment reminds me a lot of the quote that I just posted on my blog last night (mostly to fill space while I take time off from forseriousblogging to study, but I still think the quote’s great! I actually printed it out and taped it to my desk at home…)


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