Career Minded

The Path to Becoming a Research Psychologist

Getting Started

Getting started with grad school apps.

If you are planning to go to graduate school, the summer before your senior year should be a busy one. By the start of fall semester you should have: determined your final year’s class schedule, taken the GRE, written your Curriculum Vitae (often CV or Vita), and contacted graduate students and potential mentors at graduate schools where you might apply. Each of these tasks can be daunting, especially if you don’t know where to begin.

The easiest of these tasks should be scheduling your final year of classes. You’ve been scheduled for classes all through your undergraduate career and senior year shouldn’t be any different. Unfortunately as you look to graduate school you often get ideas about adding a minor, or a second major. Popular choices are biology, philosophy, math, or chemistry. Each of these fields has significant interaction with psychology and it would be advantageous to have experience in them for certain (but not all) graduate school programs. Last minute changes in curriculum though will often require you to take a heavy course load your senior year, or--even worse--intensively scheduled summer school courses. Taking Organic Chemistry as a 6-week course when you don’t have a strong chemistry background is probably not a good idea. Neither is taking 12 hours of math courses in the fall on top of your psych courses, because all fall you will be busy applying for graduate school. You want to try to keep your fall semester relatively light so you can focus on your applications. In a later post I’ll talk more about the advantages of minors or double-majors, but just keep in mind that changes in the 11th hour don’t often work out well.

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Taking the GRE should be relatively straightforward as well. You probably already took a big standardized test (like the SAT or ACT) before you came to college in the first place. The GRE isn’t really much different. As psychology students you probably have been developing your verbal skills by writing and reading numerous papers as an undergrad. You likely didn’t spend near as much time on math. Practice, practice, practice. I can’t stress it enough; take every practice opportunity you get for the GRE. Often times Kaplan offers a practice administration; check on your campus to see. You can buy practice books, and take practice tests online as well. This score isn’t necessarily the end-all-be-all of your graduate applications, but it is often used as a limiting factor. If a graduate school gets 200 applications, and is accepting 6 students, they have to pare down the list somehow and it is easy to cut the bottom half of applicants based on GRE. The other question is whether or not to take the Psych Subject GRE. This psych specific test may be required at some programs, and that is the only reason to take it. If you’ve had a History & Systems course then many of the questions will be familiar, but the same advice about practice applies to the subject tests.

A Curriculum Vitae (CV), or vita, is like an academic resume’ listing all of your academic achievements, experiences and interests. It is a very important part of the process of applying to graduate school, not only because it relates to others your academic history and future, but also because it helps you to determine your possible specializations in the broader field of research psychology. If you’ve never seen a vita before you are welcome to check out mine here. Your vita is an opportunity for you to show how your unique combination of training, skills, and experience will fit in to the lab of your graduate school. Throughout your undergraduate career you have done things to develop your vita (whether you knew it or not); memberships to organizations like Psi Chi, leadership roles in any student organization, presentations at undergraduate conferences, work in a related field, related minors, or even taking special topic electives all go on your vita. Future posts will look more in-depth at ways to both develop your vita by both doing things and different ways to present your information.

Networking is huge. This summer you should be visiting the program pages of the graduate schools where you might apply. “But,” I hear you lament, “I’ve already gotten a stellar score on my GRE and my vita looks amazing.” These things may be true, but what graduate schools are looking for is ‘fit.’ You have to fit into the lab where you apply. Talking to potential mentors is a great way to establish your goodness of fit, and to determine how the program of research operates at your potential graduate school. Good questions to ask include (but are not limited to): “Your vita indicates that you have researched <TOPIC> in the past, are you continuing to research in this area?” “Are you currently taking on graduate students?” “What is your mentorship-style? How involved will you be in my academic development?” “Do you accept Master’s students?” “What are funding opportunities like at your institution?” and many more. The idea is to not only gather information that will be useful to you in applying but also to convey your research interests, so that before ever seeing any paper about you the professor has a good impression. I’m going to tease you one more time here and say, in future posts I’ll look more at how to choose a program, how to choose a mentor, and how to get involved in a program of research.

Hopefully these tips can help you get some direction on where to apply your time and energy over the summer break. If you wait until fall to get started on these graduate school application chores your coursework will surely suffer in the scramble!

Mitch Harden is a third year doctoral student in the behavioral neuroscience program at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.

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