Advice to Applicants
1. Start early
PhD-level study is very different from undergraduate study in that you focus on a more narrow set of interests and work more closely with a faculty advisor. Successful graduate school applicants need to identify (1) specific interests, (2) a program that will support those interests, and (3) a potential advisor(s) within the program. This process can take several months.
2. Naming an area of study
The faculty of the Psychology Department of The University of Arizona focus on basic research in four areas of psychology: (1) clinical psychology, (2) cognition and neural systems, (3) ethology and evolutionary psychology, (4) social psychology. When prospective graduate student applications arrive at the Department, they are sorted by area, and each area makes a decision about the students it will interview. Therefore, it is very important that you indicate which of the four areas you want your application to be reviewed by. Occasionally, an applicant feels that s/he would like to pursue graduate study that crosses two areas. If you are such an applicant, you should name one area of study on the application, but indicate in your personal statement (see more advice below) how your specific research goals would benefit from intensive work in the second area. Within all four programs an additional emphasis area is offered in psychology, policy and law.
3. Naming possible advisors
Graduate study in psychology typically involves a close mentoring relation between a graduate student and an advisor. One of the criteria that our Department uses when evaluating a graduate applicant is the degree to which s/he ‘fits’ with potential advisors. Applicants who identify a specific advisor and who have already been in contact with that faculty member are often given priority. Therefore, we advise you to become familiar with the research of faculty members in the Department whose interests appear to match your own (Faculty Research Interests). If you continue to find a faculty member’s work interesting after your initial reading, email that person, provide some information about yourself and your interests, and ask if the faculty member is taking new students in the upcoming year.
4. Your personal statement
Purpose and parameters of the personal statement
Your personal statement is an opportunity to sell yourself in terms of your research interests, previous research experience, and research goals. Unless you have extensive research experience, most personal statements should be about two pages long (single-spaced). Your writing should be clear, concise, grammatically correct, and professional in tone. You may wish to convey some personal experiences that have led to your current interests or that make you a particularly promising candidate.
Components of the statement:
You will want to describe the following: 1) Relevant personal experience; 2) previous research experience; 3) current research interests; and 4) career goals.
- Relevant personal experience:
A good way to start your statement is by describing experiences that have sparked your interest in a career in psychology. Perhaps a particular class, internship, or volunteer experience led to your interest, or perhaps it was a series of experiences. In some cases students start out interested in one area of psychology to discover in the end they interested in an altogether different area. Other students obtain a degree in a different discipline (like physics), spend time in the work force, and then decide a career in psychology is what they really want to pursue. In describing your personal experiences, be sure to convey how these have prepared you for graduate school. Also be sure to include information unique to you that will enhance our program having to do with culture, race, ethnicity, gender, social class, or religion.
- Previous research experience:
Describe research you have worked on in sufficient detail to convey your understanding of the scientific goals of the project. Note the advisor, your role on the project, any class papers you may have written, and publications or conference presentations that list you as an author. Be sure to describe the skills you have acquired in your research.
- Current research interests:
Describe the topics you find most interesting and why. Although you may not know the exact problem you want to address within a particular area, you should be able to narrow things down to the expertise represented in a particular graduate program. For instance, as an applicant to the CNS program at the University of Arizona you may be interested in the sub-area of language acquisition, visual perception, or memory (as opposed to all of cognition and neural systems). As an applicant to the clinical program you may be interested in family psychology or sleep. As a candidate in social psychology your interests may extend to prejudice and stereotyping or cultural psychology. Be sure to let us know if you are interested in more than one sub-area or topic within an area so we can determine all of the ways you may fit into our program. Use our website to identify potential advisors and explain how your interests overlap with theirs.
- Career goals:
Ending by describing the type of career you would like to have. Do you want to conduct research in an academic setting where you will also teach or in a private or government institution where you will only conduct research? Do you see yourself in a more applied setting? This information will help us determine your fit to our program.