Applying to graduate school can be a daunting process — from standardized tests to grueling on-site interviews. As someone who recently completed graduate school, there are many things about this process that I wish I had known before I applied.

Nuts and Bolts

Before you apply to a graduate program, explore what career employment your degree will earn you. Are you interested in working in academia? Do you like doing large-scale research projects? Would you prefer a fully clinical career? In what type of setting would you like to work – a hospital, or an outpatient clinic, for example?

If you are not sure where to begin, try creating an Individual Development Plan (IDP), a tool to objectively assess your goals and discover what career paths may help you best accomplish those goals. [1] Your IDP will also help you identify the experiences and trainings that you will need to cultivate in order to reach the next step in your career trajectory, as well as provide concrete procedures to help fill these gaps.

What are Your Options?

Graduate programs have different focuses, so investigate professionals who have the careers you want and learn about their educational backgrounds. Do you need a doctoral degree, or will a master’s degree be sufficient? What type of master’s or doctoral degree would be better for your goals? [2]

For example, if you know you want to work as a professor, it may be best to consider an experimental psychology, social psychology or cognitive psychology doctorate, to name a few. If you are mainly interested in case management, policy analysis, or coordination of care for clients, then a master’s degree in social work (MSW) may be most helpful.

A clinical psychology doctoral-level degree (PhD or PsyD) would be appropriate if you want to research how to treat or intervene with mental illness. A master’s in mental health counseling (MHC) would offer the chance to work one-on-one with patients experiencing emotional difficulties and distress in a wide range of settings.  There are a number of options, and knowing what you want to do is the best way to help you determine the right path (or paths) to help you reach your goal.

There are a number of websites, forums and books that can help you further explore the options that are open to you. [3] One helpful resource is the Student Doctor Network, which has a number of threads that allow opportunities to ask specific questions or just explore what other applicants have done to increase their chances of success. [4]

Do Your Research

Once you have an idea of the programs you like, investigate them. The American Psychological Association keeps up-to-date lists on which programs they accredit, and all accredited programs are required to make certain statistics available to applicants. [5]

For example, you can discover how long most people take to complete their program, internship match rates, and a variety of admission statistics (e.g., average GRE scores, number of applicants, size of incoming class and average undergraduate GPA). This information will give you a better idea of your odds of being admitted to the program, and it should be easily accessible on the program’s website. Try not to limit yourself geographically — this will make it much less likely that you will receive an interview.

Find A Research Mentor

When looking at most PhD programs (and some PsyD programs), arguably the most important part of choosing where to apply is finding a mentor who matches your interests.

A mentor is someone who is expected to provide guidance for your research projects and professional development throughout your time in graduate school. They are nearly always a professor in the department to which you are applying. Your mentor is also responsible for overseeing your thesis and dissertation projects.

Looking back, I remember being so worried about finding a mentor who aligned perfectly with my research and clinical interests. However, this varies greatly from one mentor to another. Some are more open to taking students with less experience, whereas others will expect you to initiate research projects your first day on campus.

If you find a mentor you like, consider reaching out via email and asking questions about what he or she is looking for in a mentee. It is critically important that, when reaching out to a mentor, you have a professionally formatted email and use correct grammar. This is your chance to make a good first impression, so put your best foot forward.

Hidden Challenges

While the biggest hurdle of applying to graduate school may seem like the actual application process, it’s also important to understand the milieu into which you are throwing yourself so eagerly.

Burnout is Realistic Possibility

As discussed in at least one previous Time2Track article, graduate school is a grueling process. [6] If you are in a doctoral program, you will be on campus a minimum of four years (even if you come in with a master’s degree), and your final year will be spent at a pre-doctoral internship that will likely be in a different location.

Finally, the majority of state licensing laws require at least a year of a supervised postdoctoral experience, which may take place in yet another new location. Thus, you might be moving around frequently and may be living far outside of your comfort zone and away from your family.

As I have discovered during my time in graduate school, this academic journey can easily leave you feeling isolated and lonely, as your friends and family move on with their lives while you are engrossed by your classwork, research responsibilities, and clinical obligations. The grueling schedule and often overwhelming workload that are required of graduate students can take a toll on mental and physical health. [7]

Moreover, while I have been single throughout my time in graduate school, my friends and colleagues who have partners, spouses, and/or children often remark on the difficulty of spending time with their immediate family members. For my part, even though my graduate school was relatively close to my hometown, I was rarely able to visit my parents and extended family.

On the other hand, graduate school will offer you the unique opportunity to meet new friends, immerse yourself in interesting communities and, in general, find your place within a society of like-minded individuals. It is important to carefully consider not only your career goals, but also to make sure you consider the effect of this process on your relationships.

Less Money, More Problems

Graduate school is an expensive undertaking, from application fees to class materials and student charges. One recent study revealed that over half of graduate students felt stressed about their financial situation. [8]

Even if you attend a program that provides funding for graduate students for the duration of your education, your stipend will likely put you close to the poverty level. You may be dependent on your family, your partner, or student loans to pay your rent and buy groceries. Even if you make it through the majority of your on-campus time without taking out loans, in doctoral programs for clinical psychology, the application process for internship often involves expensive travel for interviews, not to mention hefty application fees.

On the plus side, many jobs in the field of psychology will qualify for public service loan forgiveness, which can help you pay off loans faster once you graduate. [9] All in all, it is doubtful that most people reading this blog are hoping to enter the field of psychology to become millionaires. Still, it may be helpful to plan ahead as you go through the application process to allow for some financial flexibility as you complete your degree.

References

[1] APA’s resources for individual development plans. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/education/grad/individual-development-plan

[2] Michalski, D.S., and Fowler, G. Doctoral degrees in psychology: How are they different, or not so different? American Psychological Association. Retrieved fromhttps://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/psn/2016/01/doctoral-degrees

[3] Finding and applying to grad school. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/education/grad/index

[4] Doctoral applicants read first: Helpful threads. Student Doctor Network. Retrieved from https://forums.studentdoctor.net/threads/doctoral-applicants-read-first-helpful-threads.714255/

[5] Michalski, D.S., Cope, C., and Fowler, G.A. (December 2017). Summary report: Admissions, applications, and acceptances. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/education/grad/survey-data/2018-admissions-applications.pdf

[6] Graydon, M. (18 July 2018).  Grad school burnout is real: Here are the symptoms. Time2Track Blog. Retrieved from http://blog.time2track.com/grad-school-burnout-is-real-here-are-the-symptoms

[7] Perry, D.M. (5 Feb, 2019). How to make grad school more humane. Pacific Standard. Retrieved from  https://psmag.com/ideas/grad-school-continues-to-ignore-students-with-disabilities?fbclid=IwAR3gmZcDx8dwbnFtl-EgDUWyoJJadhDpTpkb37QwFoQ1iqtDSbOUE7PdhSU

[8] Luberecki, B. (11 Apr 2017). Managing finances might be graduate students’ toughest test. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2017/04/11/managing-finances-might-be-graduate-students-toughest-test/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.79020a3e63e5

[9] Public service loan forgiveness. Federal Student Aid. Retrieved from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/public-service

Laura K. Hansen, PhD

Laura K. Hansen, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. She recently completed her clinical psychology pre-doctoral internship (autism emphasis) at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis and graduated with her PhD in clinical psychology in August 2019. Dr. Hansen has worked in a wide variety of clinical settings and has particular expertise in the treatment and assessment of children and adolescents. Her research is focused on assessing and improving literacy of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the general population. In her spare time, Dr. Hansen enjoys spending time outdoors running and cycling, as well as spending time indoors with her cat, Jaime Lannister.
Laura K. Hansen, PhD

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