Advice from Graduate Students
Recently in your shoes...
We know preparing for graduate school often comes with many questions. Therefore, we asked our current graduate students to share their expertise and answer many common questions about preparing and applying for graduate school as they were recently in your shoes. See the menu of questions below to learn more!
If you are considering applying to a PhD program in psychology, it's important to keep in mind that *research experience is the most important part of your application.* Ideally, you would apply with at least one year of research experience, either from your undergraduate studies or postbac research experience. The more, the better! The research experience you have doesn't have to be exactly what you want to do in graduate school, but it should be at least tangentially related. You can get research experience through working/volunteering in a lab as an undergraduate, either during the school year or over the summer, or after you graduate and before applying to graduate school. If you are able to present a poster at a conference or if you have publications, this will also help your application. - Ellen C. Social Psychology PhD Student.
Research experience is a necessity for Social Psych grad programs. 2+ semesters of experience as a research assistant during undergrad would be nice. To get that, reach out to professors whose research interests you and ask if you can help out, but before doing that it's good to familiarize yourself with the research that professor and their grad students are doing. - Alex S. Social Psychology PhD Student.
So important! Research experiences throughout undergrad are not only important to show you have experiences that graduate programs are looking for, but also because research is such a major (if not the biggest) component of the work you will do in psychology graduate program. It's important to get opportunities that allow you to determine whether you enjoy it! Don't feel as though you need to wait until you are a junior or senior student to be eligible for research experiences. Most research opportunities for undergraduates involve specific training for projects, so you will get the skills you need once you join the lab! So, would start pursuing research experiences as soon as you realize you may consider applying to graduate programs. Commitment level in research experiences varies widely, but in general I would aim for research experiences that involve at least 3 or 4 months of commitment on a project/in a lab. I would also aim for getting research experiences in multiple labs, as this will give you more skills/knowledge and a better understanding of different topics you might enjoy. It seems like UA has a helpful structure of directed research experiences, and students often reach out to lab's that interest them to get research experiences. If there is a lab you are interested in, you don't need to wait until you see them post a listing requesting research assistants. I recommend writing a brief email introducing yourself, your interest in a faculty member's work/lab/projects, and indicating you are interesting in learning if they have any kind of need for undergraduate research assistants. Be open to multiple kinds of opportunities, because you never know what they can turn into. You also are not limited to research experience at UA. For example, if you are living somewhere other than Tucson during the summer, you could see whether there are any nearby universities and whether they have faculty doing research of interest to you. And you could email those faculty with the same type of brief introduction! - Riley O. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
I would say that research experience is one of the most important things when applying to grad school. Not only is it a huge selection criterion for grad programs, but it is also crucial for you to decide if you really want to pursue a research-based program. If you are considering grad school, talk to professors or go on their lab websites and see if they are looking for undergrad assistants. They are usually very open to that. I would recommend to stay in a lab for at least a year, but you can switch if you do not adapt or stay longer if you’d like. - Laura B. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
Research experience in the area that you would like to study for a PhD is really important to make sure that you actually like what you're going to be doing. If you're not sure which area you want to study, getting research in multiple labs can help you figure that out. You should probably have at least a year of research experience but the more experience you can get, the better. - Alana M. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
My advice on research is to start early if you are interested in attending graduate school in psychology. Look for a faculty member in your department who is carrying out research related to your interests, while also taking into consideration that there are major fields of psychology research (neuropsychology, health psychology). know that it is never to late to participate in research, there are even summer research programs that are meant to refine your skills as a researcher. Lastly if your writing skills are lacking, practice practice practice because writing is a major part in publishing your research and graduate school. - Daniel H. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
If you are not sure what your exact interests are, then explore different labs and try to find your area of interest. I suggest aiming for two years of solid research experience and one project where you do independent research and/or take lead in doing research. Be clear about what skills you aim to learn and what you want to get out of the research (learn certain programs, data analysis, hoping to get on poster or article). Talk to grad students and professors, ask how their journey was into their career. - Kimberly L. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
Check with the schools you are applying to make sure they still require the GRE, many do not because of COVID-19 - Jackie L. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
Create a study schedule. It's difficult to stay motivated about studying for the GRE, so setting aside a certain number of hours per day can help you stay on track. Additionally, I created a sort of "syllabus" to help guide the topics that I needed to study. Remember that GRE scores do not always reflect your value as a graduate school applicant -- unfortunately, standardized exams such as the GRE are steeped in bias and restricted understandings of intelligence. If you are unhappy with your GRE scores, that's okay! I didn't have great quantitative scores but I still received offers of admission. A good program will place greater emphasis on your research experiences, interests, and passion - Ellen C. Social Psychology PhD Student.
If you have specific graduate programs in mind, I would first make sure they are still requiring the GRE. It seems like a lot of schools are beginning to waive that requirement. If you do plan to take the GRE, I would give yourself enough time to at least take it twice before the time when you will be submitting your applications. I would prepare/study before each time you take the GRE (versus not studying at all the first time, and then studying after that) - Riley O. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
Getting involved and engaged with things that interest you is the reason why internships/volunteer experience are so useful to pursue! There is no "correct" internship/volunteer experience to pursue. I think length of commitment to the internship/volunteer experience and how engaged you were with it matter more for applications than type of internship/volunteer experience. - Riley O. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
Volunteer and internship experience is not very important if you are applying for a PhD program. Typically, research experience is much more important. - Jackie L. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
Volunteer experience and internships are a critical component when being evaluated or assessed holistically as an individual. This are the types of experiences that will set you apart from others and make you a much stronger graduate candidate. - Deva R. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
Find experiences to complement your ultimate goal and that are also worthwhile. Volunteering is a great way to start building your resume/CV if you do not have much experience. - Kimberly L. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
Ask early and let your recommenders know what experiences you would like them to highlight in their letters. You only have so much room in the personal statement, so you can supplement your statement by asking recommenders to note experiences that you might not have room to include in your statement - Ellen C. Social Psychology PhD Student.
Get to know a few professors/faculty enough that they know who you are. A letter of rec from a professor who knows a bit about you and your life circumstance is much better than a letter from a professor whose class you just got an "A" in but barely knows you beyond that. Go to office hours and chat them up about their research (within reason...be respectful of their time too) - Alex S. Social Psychology PhD Student.
These take more planning ahead than people may realize! To have a supportive letter of recommendation from someone, it is ideal that you have had many experiences in relation to the recommender that show your skills, dedication, responsibility. You should plan to have 3 people who you can ask that can speak about your experiences in this way - Riley O. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
Do not be afraid to remind your recommender if a deadline is approaching. - Laura B. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
If you have done well in a psychology course you can ask the professor of that class if they can write you a letter of recommendation especially if you have taken courses with them before. You can also ask the principle investigator of the lab you may be volunteering in for a letter of recommendation after time contributed to research. - Daniel H. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
Always seek at least three letter writers who are familiar with your academic success, community service, and research experience. Always ask if they would be willing to write a "strong letter of recommendation". If your letter writer is not familiar with your accomplishments, tenacity, and perseverance you may be doing yourself a disservice as the letter may come across as vague and undistinguished. - Deva R. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
The best letters come from people who have worked with you directly. It is important that the letter writer can write about your skills and how you have shown that you'll succeed in graduate school. You can ask professors of classes you have taken especially if you had more interaction with the professor and did well in the class. If you didn't interact with the professor much or did not do well in the class, they may not be the best letter writer for you. Usually, graduate schools value letters from professors (with PhDs) more than letters from masters students, PhD students, or post doctoral fellows. However, you can also have your boss or supervisor write a letter of recommendation if that is the type of work that you will do in graduate school. - Alana M. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
Do NOT just pick a professor you had once for a class a year ago (for example). Letters of recommendation should come from professionals that can speak to a wide range of your academic abilities - not just your ability to complete course work. This is also why it's so important to foster good working relationships with faculty early on in your undergraduate career. - Veronica K. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
Think early about who you want to write letters for you and what abilities are they speaking to (clinical, teaching, academic, research). Make sure you ask early. - Kimberly L. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
"Know thyself", as inscribed in the temple of Apollo, is invaluable in life. When you know who you are, what's important to you, where you want to go in life, what sort of impact you want to have, and how you're going to make that happen...then writing a personal statement becomes easier and can even become fun. You are the author of your life and a personal statement is an opportunity to put a narrative story to who you are and what you plan to accomplish. Let your experiences in life shape who you are and talk about those. A story is more memorable and more compelling than a dry list of character traits or volunteer experience or awards - Alex S. Social Psychology PhD Student.
Start early! Many people seem to underestimate how difficult it will be to write a personal statement. And the personal statement is your best shot at showing an application reviewer who you are and what experiences/knowledge you bring. I would start drafting this at least 4 months before you plan to submit your application, because you want to have a lot of time for getting feedback and help from other people - Riley O. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
Start early and revise often. Ask other people to revise it for you as well. - Laura B. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
A personal statement should reflect your very own personal and unique experiences that will distinguish you from amongst others. Rather that stating what things like "I did this or I did that" it would be far more impressive to communicate your accomplishments by your actions and engagements which will demonstrate you qualities without listing them directly. Others will see your merit and credibility though your outreach, research, and community engagement. In addition, be honest and personable. Allow your character, personality, and perseverance shine through. - Deva R. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
Start early and have several people read it and give you feedback. It is usually hard to write about your own accomplishments and to do that without sounding pretentious or like you're bragging can be even harder. Having multiple sources of feedback can help you make sure the tone of your statement is humble but does show your accomplishments. - Alana M. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
Give yourself time. This is an iterative process. Develop a roster of editors - people you trust. Spend a weekend without your phone and write about anything. Return to this page - comb through your ideas. Also: https://prepexpert.com/personal-statement-dos-donts/ - Jacob D. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
Definitely do it! Taking a gap year (or gap years) before applying to graduate school can be a valuable time to gain additional experience and explore your research/career interests. You might also find yourself in a completely new location for graduate school, so taking time off can give you time to connect with your friends and family before starting your graduate school adventure. I suggest reaching out to your current research labs to ask if you can continue working with them during your gap. Advisors will oftentimes be happy to continue working with graduated students. - Ellen C. Social Psychology PhD Student.
I was a non-traditional student, starting undergrad at 27 years old, and I couldn't recommend it enough to live a little, get out in the world, and get to know yourself better before spending so many years in school. That said, taking a gap year in between undergrad and grad school has pros/cons. The main cons, I think, are losing touch with skills/knowledge and potentially losing touch with the professors who could write you recommendation letters and/or them forgetting details about you that are nice to have in the recommendation letters they write. - Alex S. Social Psychology PhD Student.
Highly recommend! I think a lot of people worry that it is uncommon or they may not be able to get back into the momentum of academia if they take time off. But, time off before graduate school can provide you with time for a lot of incredibly useful things that will help you in graduate school: gaining additional research and/or internship experiences; saving money; refining your own research and graduate interests more. - Riley O. Clinical Psychology Student.
I took two years off from undergraduate to work as a Post-Bac research fellow. This helped my application to graduate school immensely as well as helped me decide what type of graduate program I wanted to pursue. - Jackie L. Clinical Psychology Student.
Time off prior to graduate school may be need based contingent on the needs of individual. However, in my experience, time off can detrimental as others in your cohort may have the advantage of additional training and critical skills needed to thrive in the program. The first year in a graduate program is extremely challenging. Reliance on members in your cohort will be a necessity that can met most effectively if one begins the program during the normal course of the academic year. - Deva R. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
It is absolutely fine to take some time off of school before applying to graduate school and you can make really good use of that time to prepare. This time is especially good to figure out what field you want to study if you're unsure. It is much better to take a year off and explore your options than to commit to a PhD program and later find out you don't enjoy what you're studying. Getting more research experience or working as a lab manager can be really helpful for both figuring if you like the research topic and getting more research experience. - Alana M. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
I am extremely thankful that I took a year off before going into graduate school. I was able to focus more on my application. It also gave me more time to make extremely important choices - choices that would ultimately change my life forever. I worked in industry during my gap year, which allowed me to learn new skills, practice existing skills, and experience new things. If I could go back, I'd do the same. If you are not ready or are unsure of what you want to do, take some time before going into graduate school - it's worth it! - Veronica K. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
If you decide to take some time off make sure you are still doing something that is preparing you for grad school. whether its learning statistics, writing, or volunteering for non profit organizations that serve diverse populations that you hope to work with in graduate school. - Daniel H. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
This is a personal choice on what is best for you. Decide what feels right for you. Consider both pros and cons. Talk to people who have done both. Kimberly L. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
I did an undergrad honors thesis. I think it's definitely a helpful experience both for oneself to learn about the research process to see how you actually enjoy it and it definitely looks good on grad school apps. - Alex S. Social Psychology PhD Student.
I do recommend this! My undergraduate institution had something similar but it was nothing compared to the one in the psychology department at UArizona. I WISH we would have had this resource! - Veronica K. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
YES! I did not have a class like this in undergrad but it's an incredible opportunity. Grad school is very different from undergrad and there is a lot you can do to prep for it before you get there - Alex S. Social Psychology PhD Student.
Yes, very much recommend it! It can be a confusing process and a course like this would be so helpful. I had a similar one at my undergraduate institution, and it helped me learn a lot of the pieces of the process that helped me get into graduate school - Riley O. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
Yes, I would recommend taking Graduate School Preparation courses which at some institutions are a part of the NIH MARC and IMSD Scholars Program. Yes, I was an SDSU NIH MARC Scholar two years prior to acceptance into a graduate program. - Deva R. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
I do recommend taking a class dedicated to graduate school preparation. I took one at my undergraduate institution and it did help me prepare a great deal. I haven't taken PSY 396C but in the course I took, the assignments included identifying programs I would actually like to apply to, writing a personal statement, identifying professors that could give me letters of recommendation, having a mock interview, and making a timeline of when to start each major part of the application. The best part of classes like these is having working drafts of the written portions like the personal statement that you can adapt to the different schools you have already identified. - Alana M. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
Be thinking about what you want to do with your future as early as possible. Think ahead to what you want to do AFTER you graduate. Wanting to go to grad school simply for the sake of going to grad school or earning that title is not the best reason to attend grad school, in my opinion. This is why my resounding piece of advice is to get to know yourself - identify what you enjoy doing, what you're good at, what sort of problem(s) do you want to solve during your life, how might your specific talents and interests be suited to effect change on that problem, THEN ask what sort of knowledge/skills you can seek out that can help you effect that change, if a graduate degree can help you toward that end then do it, but if not then you might just end up wasting your time. That said, if you're not clear on that, don't sweat it. Another guiding principle that has always served me well is to follow my curiosities. If there's something you're just endlessly fascinated by and you feel a strong pull to continue learning about it, then that can be a good reason for grad school too. - Alex S. Social Psychology PhD Student.
Time management is a critical component that will be the key to navigating and traversing through a competitive graduate program. - Deva R. Clinical Psychology PhD Student.
While each part of the application needs to be to a certain level of competency, keep in mind that one single part of the application isn't going to destroy your chances. I was convinced that I was not going to get into graduate school because of my GRE scores. While they weren't terrible scores, they weren't where I thought they needed to be to get into UArizona. Well, they were good enough, but also, the rest of my application made up for them! My research experience, course grades and knowledge, and personal statement made up for what I thought was an arrow in the knee (Skyrim reference) to my graduate school adventure. - Veronica K. CNS Psychology PhD Student.
Look for resources and don't be afraid to ask questions. Kim L. CNS Psychology PhD Student.