Part 5: A look inside the interview process

I had no idea what to expect when starting graduate school interviews! First, I had not thought too hard about interviews because I didn’t want to get my hopes up that I would even get any interviews. I took a non-traditional path and worked at health-focused start-ups in the Bay Area rather than working as a research assistant in a lab or something that more clearly led to a PhD in psychology; I was not sure whether this difference would help me or hurt me in the application process. Luckily, I think it helped me! I ended up getting a number of interviews, which I felt completely unprepared for.

The first thing I did was lots and lots of research. I heavily researched each faculty member who I was interviewing with; I read all of their papers, listened to podcasts they had been interviewed on, and looked for snippets of their lectures on YouTube. I went all out and I 100% believe it was worth it. This kind of research helps you learn about their research focus, but also about how they engage with the community.

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The other thing that was really helpful was talking to another trusted friend who was interviewing at the same time. My friend was interviewing for clinical programs so we were on different tracks, but he had so much insight into good questions to ask and seemed to understand the unspoken rules of interviewing for graduate school more than I did. We chatted about the process, discussed our anxieties, and answered practice questions with each other–all of which made me feel a little more at ease.

I think anxiety is one of the hardest parts of this process; making it to the interviews means that you are qualified and would do well in a PhD program, but the interviews are all about fit. I kept reminding myself that if the program or faculty member did not see my interests or goals as a good fit for their program, then I probably would thrive there any way. It has to be a match on both sides. I also remember interviewing at a few places where I felt uncomfortable with faculty or the students gave me bad vibes (I wish there was a better way to describe this!) and, in hindsight, realize those were all great reasons to be comfortable with being rejected, waitlisted, or turning down an offer. For example, I remember one program where students from one lab were talking about favoritism and clearly not including some applicants. Take note of these observations and feelings because they tell us more than what students might say about their experience in a program. If students look and act miserable and say the program is perfect and they wouldn’t change a thing, don’t believe them.

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Lastly, when you get your interview schedule I recommend reading a little bit about everyone who you will interview with. If you are interviewing with every faculty member at a program it might take some time, but coming in prepared with at least one thoughtful comment for each professor indicates preparation and respect.

For the next post I will talk about the financial side of the interview process–how to cut costs, make the most of your visits, and manage anxiety.

Part 4: The application timeline

I talked a little bit about the application timeline in my last post, but I think it is helpful to have a full post dedicated to managing all the components of grad school applications. Ideally you want to have the GRE done and out of the way as early as you can. The GRE is good for ~5 years so take it when it works well for you. Maybe you have a light class load if you’re in college or you are working a 9-5 that means you have extra time in the evenings–take advantage of that time and study or take a prep class for the GRE. I love the Magoosh app for vocabulary (it’s free)! The GRE can feel like a major time suck at times, so I suggest you try and knock it out early.

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Next, I would reach out to potential recommenders to see who has time and get a shortlist together. If you are applying to programs with a Fall deadline (November/December), then try reaching out to your potential recommenders in July or August. Don’t be offended if your favorite professor doesn’t have time to write you a letter–it’s easy to forget professors have lives too! This is is why it is nice to have 5-6 people feel comfortable asking and who know you well enough to write a thorough recommendation letter.

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As you are reaching out to recommenders, I suggest also working on your personal statement. Your recommenders will likely need this document to tailor their letters, so it’s important to have a solid draft ready for them. Hopefully you are applying to similar faculty and similar programs so you won’t have to change everything about your personal statement for each school. Get a draft of your basic essay ready as early as possible. Send it to trusted friends and family for editing! If your college has a helpful writing center or career center that works with alumni, it could also be useful to use that resource. Personal statements are hard–give yourself time! I would recommend having a solid draft of your bare bones personal statement by the end of September so you have time to change it up for each program and faculty member you are applying to work with.

Unfortunately every school has a different application process. For example, some schools have an online portal and some require you to email all materials to an admin. I would recommend making a big spreadsheet to keep track of what needs to be submitted where and when. The whole application process requires a ton of juggling so starting early makes it just a little bit easier!

After submitting your applications in November/December, you can expect to hear back about interviews or a decision starting at the end of December through the beginning of April. If you get an interview, you will likely find out between late December and early February (at the latest).

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Part 3: The Elements of a Grad School Application

So by now you know how much work goes into submitting even one application for graduate school. Most people I know submit somewhere between 5 to 17 graduate school applications. That might seem excessive but I think it’s still fairly reasonable depending on your circumstances. It’s important to remember that graduate school applications are typically not free; when I was submitting for programs I paid anywhere between $35 and $105 to submit my application. this adds up fast! Plus it also is expensive to send your official GRE scores to all of your schools. Luckily, some schools accept unofficial GRE scores and you only have to send official scores if you’re accepted. It’s also important to keep in mind the cost of visiting if you have the chance to interview. I actually thought about that as a litmus test; if I couldn’t imagine wanting to visit in person for interviews, I didn’t apply to the program. For example, I had Purdue on my list but after looking at the weather and thinking about the location I never even applied. Now I walk through every component of the application so you get an idea of what you’ll have to pull together for each school.

GRE: The GRE is the worst. My best advice is to take it, get “good enough” scores, and be done with it. Good enough scores will look different for different programs, but for my knowledge of admissions it’s generally more about reaching a certain threshold so the program knows that you can handle the work. A professor once told me that they don’t care about your scores unless you’re so far below average that they worry you could keep up with the coursework. Honestly, I was worried about my math scores. I was in the 60th percentile after studying and doing my best and I couldn’t see that score getting too much higher. luckily, I really don’t think it mattered. The GRE is expensive to take and I would not recommend taking it over and over and over again if you think it’s going to make or break your application–it won’t.

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Recommendation Letters: Well I hate to say anything is the most important component of an application, you could make a good case that recommendation letters are a key element of an application second only to your personal statement. This could also be the hardest thing for some people. If you didn’t have good mentors or establish good relationships with professors in college, it can really be tough to find the people who know you well enough to write a good recommendation letter. Personally, I don’t think that’s always fair–with research showing that first generation students struggle to reach out and build relationships with professors, it’s easy to see how this can perpetuate privilege into the graduate school application process.  nonetheless, here we are in recommendation letters matter. I definitely recommend reaching out to faculty, mentors, and supervisors well ahead of time (at minimum a month early). Ideally, you might have had some idea that you would apply to graduate school in the future, so hopefully it’s not a complete surprise when you ask (I know some of my recommenders actually already had letters already pre-drafted for me). It’s nice to have a list of recommenders and make sure they are clear on your motivations, goals, and, most importantly, deadlines. I reached out to all of these people ahead of time and understood what they could commit to and when they expected to have a draft of my personal statements. It’s really important that your recommenders have a draft of your personal statements they can write the best letter for you and for the program that you’re applying to. I suggest you keep a spreadsheet of all of your recommenders and schools and when you reach out to make sure you don’t get your wires crossed. Also, make it as easy as possible for your recommenders! Please do not forget to keep these people updated with your progress and don’t forget to write them all thank you notes.

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Transcript: I think it depends on your program, but grades do matter to a degree. About half of the programs I applied to wanted a official transcript and the other half only wanted an unofficial transcript. I’m sure your transcript is looked at in the context of University and the classes you took, but I don’t know too much about this. If you have any grades that you’re not too proud of, it would be helpful to have a clear narrative to explain why you received those grades.

Essays: This is the really hard stuff. I was lucky and had an essay prepared while I was an undergraduate for a number of different fellowships I applied to (none of which I was awarded). So I was so bummed after pouring hours into a personal statement that would never be used, but then I realized it would be the perfect skeleton for my grad school applications. so I was lucky that I had a good jumping off place. If you don’t have that, don’t worry! I would recommend starting early on writing a draft of an statement that outlines your broad goals and interests. I could do a whole post on writing a personal statement, but I truly don’t feel qualified to do that. I can tell you that it requires lots of time and revisions; reach out to people you trust and ask for feedback and recommendations to improve your personal statement. Get real with yourself around what your goals are while keeping in mind what programs are looking for. So once you have a solid draft you can mix-and-match different components to fit the different programs. You need to talk about the faculty members you’re interested in working with, why you want to work with them, why you want to attend that specific program, what you’ll bring to the program and why what you will bring matters. It’s important to show that you’ve done your research! Writing this out is also helpful practice; if you can’t make a case as to why you would be a good fit, maybe you aren’t a good fit! Some schools have additional essays, such as diversity statements or essays around your theoretical orientation so try and review what you need for each school early.

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Out of the ten schools I applied for I got interviews at six. I don’t know what is normative, but I was happy with the number of interviews I did receive. I don’t say this to show how well (or poorly) I performed, but instead as a way to give you an idea of what your experience could look like. I didn’t get interviews at some of the schools where I submitted what I thought were my strongest applications. It is an unpredictable and, at times, impersonal process. Hang in there!

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Part 2: How do you find the right graduate program?

I wish I could tell you that finding the right graduate program is straightforward and streamlined….but it’s definitely not. I remember sitting in a beautiful coffee shop in the Mission in San Francisco for hours just poring over faculty members at different Counseling Psychology programs. I found it most helpful to look at the list of all APA-accredited Counseling Psychology and weed out any schools that were in places I knew I would not like (e.g. University of Minnesota would just be too cold for me). It’s important to remember that you will be living where your school is for the next 4-5 years so it has to be bearable!

Next I made a spreadsheet of each school and went through and looked through the faculty profile pages to see if any of the faculty members aligned with my interests. If I found someone who was a good fit, I would look to see if there was any note of whether they were taking on a student for the next year. Unfortunately, many faculty pages are not regularly updated so I would say about one third of faculty indicated their availability. For all the faculty where it was unclear, I sent an email. Let’s just say I ended up sending a ton of emails! This part was the most frustrating in my opinion. I generally heard back from most faculty members, but there were a few who never responded. I usually sent something like this:

“Dear Dr. XYZ,

I graduated from XXX University in the Spring of 2017 and currently work in the wellbeing technology space. During my time as an undergraduate, I focused my studies and research on trauma, memory, resilience, and wellbeing under the direction of Dr. Wonderful. Beyond the lab, I was involved with numerous public health initiatives focused on student mental health in partnership with Dr. Happy.

I am very interested in your focus on early intervention, positive psychology, and long-term implications of adverse childhood experience. I am particularly interested in creating accessible, sustainable positive interventions. This is one area I could see myself exploring further in research as a graduate student.

I will be applying to Ph.D. programs this fall and would very much like the opportunity to join your lab group. Will you be accepting applications for new graduate students for entry in the coming year?

Thank you so much for your time. I’ve attached my CV here for your reference. I hope we have the chance to speak in the future. Have a nice afternoon.

Sincerely,

Hannah”

This narrowed things down quite a bit! I would hear back and then sometimes engage in a few more emails to learn more about the faculty member and the program. Overall, I was very impressed by how kind and generous faculty were with me. I recommend starting this process early (around late July/early August) so you have enough time to hear back from most professors.

After you’ve heard back and feel like it’s a good fit, start getting organized for the application process. This was also quite daunting to me! Luckily, I have a few friends who have been through this in years past and they shared some great tips. I ended up making a spreadsheet like this:

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It might be hard to see, but I have headers for application deadlines, faculty, notes, what was sent and when, GRE requirements, transcripts, essays, recommendation letters, and application fees. I highly recommend using hyperlinks as much as you can so you’re not constantly googling the same programs and faculty members. Creating this spreadsheet is a great way to begin getting a grasp of what you have to do and when you have to have it done by.  It can also feel very overwhelming at times. Definitely start early so you can go slowly if you can!

I’ll outline how to get started on your application materials in the next post.

Part 1: So You’re Applying to Graduate School

Congratulations! Deciding that you want to apply to graduate school is a pretty big deal. Now comes the scary part of deciding which schools to apply to and actually applying. My thought process for deciding to apply for Counseling Psychology PhD programs was long and sometimes felt circular. I landed on Counseling Psychology after eliminating most other program types. I considered all of the following options:

  • Masters in Public Health
  • Masters in Social Work
  • Masters in Counseling
  • PhD in Community Psychology
  • PhD in Clinical Psychology
  • PsyD in Clinical Psychology
  • PhD in Counseling Psychology

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None of them felt right. I had an amazing experience at the University of Michigan Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) focused on public health (shameless plug: this program is amazing and life-changing). I loved learning about the social determinants of health, but I missed the emphasis of individual psychology. I thought that a Masters of Social Work could potentially help fulfill the individual-level psychological interest, but I was worried about what my job prospects might be. I did not want to feel like my options were limited to a classic social work setting since I could see myself quickly burning out in that type of environment.

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I liked the idea of a Masters in Counseling, but then you run into the issues of how the degree might transfer to different states and the cost of programs. For example, with a Masters in Counseling you have a lot of flexibility in Kentucky, but you might not have the same flexibility elsewhere. I don’t know the ins and outs of these differences, but I know enough to know that I did not want to have to figure it out! I also had a lingering worry that maybe I wouldn’t like just seeing clients and I felt like I might miss working my brain in other ways (like data analysis, research, etc.).

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So at this point I realized that a Ph.D. program was the right fit for me. I love school, I love learning, I enjoy research, and I wanted to leave my options open career-wise. I’m also relatively young and had a few years to save money after graduating with my BA, so I felt like I had the time and financial resources to pursue a Ph.D. I looked into Community Psychology PhD programs and felt like there were not any programs that were a great fit for me and didn’t feel like the right option if I wanted to pursue clinical practice.

Next, I looked into Clinical Psychology programs. I was all too familiar with the process of applying to clinical programs after seeing numerous friends and acquaintances go through the process during my senior year as an undergraduate student. After seeing this process, and hearing about how competitive and cutthroat the programs seemed (well, some of them), I was pretty turned off. In doing my own research, I also was a bit shocked by how few programs mentioned social justice or health disparities in their mission or as an area of focus. As someone who is passionate about social determinants of health and health disparities, I wanted to join a program that prioritized social justice (or at least mentioned it). Clinical programs are also generally much more focused on research and clinical practice is often seen as secondary. For example, I interviewed with one combined Clinical-Counseling program and as soon as I mentioned that I was interested in a career combining research and clinical practice, the interview was over. I’m sure this is not every clinical program, but research is often the primary focus. The fourth, and final, nail in the coffin for my interest in Clinical Psychology programs was the focus on psychopathology; it is largely focused on diagnosing mental disorders with little discussion of considering individual strengths and the role of an individual’s environment.

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I also did some research into PsyD programs. PsyD programs are focused on clinical practice with less of an emphasis on research. Importantly, you typically have to pay tuition for PsyD programs. With the typical PsyD student leaving school with $100k+ in debt as a result of paying tuition and typical cost of living for 4-6 years…this option was crossed off my list pretty fast!

That led me to investigate Counseling Psychology Ph.D. programs! It almost felt like coming home; I finally found the type of program that emphasized social justice, interpersonal relationships, research, and clinical practice. Unfortunately, there are not too many Counseling Psychology programs, which can make it hard to find programs and faculty that align perfectly with your interests. In the next post I will walk through the process of looking for the right programs and finding faculty who match up with your research interests!

 

 

 

Interrupting Ted Talk Friday for a Special Reason…

I’ve released a podcast! Yes, you read that correctly. I’ve been working on this idea for the past eight months as part of the Kentucky Psychological Association Leadership Academy. This program is new and provides early career psychologists, including students, with the opportunity to develop their leadership skills and complete a leadership-focused project.

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My project stemmed from my love of interviewing interesting people and hearing the stories of individuals I admire. Each episode features a leader in the field of psychology in Kentucky who shares their career trajectory and their vision of leadership. We have fun conversations and hard conversations and we grapple with the challenges of staying motivated, changing policy, and managing the unique personal and professional challenges we’ve faced this past month in the wake of COVID-19 and increased racial violence.

I hope you enjoy! You can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Podbean (coming soon to Spotify!):

 

 https://apple.co/3genw84

 https://bit.ly/2CMGaoX

 https://bit.ly/3gdSQDP