No doubt about it -- getting into a Ph.D. program in any area of Psychology is challenging. According to the American Psychological Association, acceptance rates averaged just 22% in 2010 across areas. Some areas like Clinical and Social/Personality were especially low at 8-12%; others like Educational Psychology were higher at 48%. For a further breakdown of acceptance rates, see this article: http://www.psichi.org/Pubs/Articles/Article_876.aspx
Needless to say, these numbers make one message abundantly clear for those applying: you've got some stiff competition. In this post, I'll introduce one way in which an applicant can show that he or she has gone the extra mile in preparing to enter doctoral studies. To show an admissions committee that you are an especially directed, informed, and ambitious candidate, apply for at least one fellowship.
Fellowships are essentially highly competitive scholarships and applying for one or more is a great way to further enhance an already strong Ph.D. application. Different fellowships are available to students at all levels in higher education, but the ones that are particularly helpful for Ph.D. applicants are those that fund one's first (or second) and subsequent years of a doctoral program. Remember, Ph.D. students in research-oriented programs usually receive a stipend from their University throughout the course of their studies (in the form of a research assistantship or teaching assistantship, see this past post for more information about assistantships). Fellowship winners are granted one to three years' stipend by the organization sponsoring the fellowship competition. Fellowship winners, thus, are extremely attractive candidates because they "BYO," that is to say "bring your own" funding, at least for a few years. Bringing your own funding is perhaps the pinnacle of applicant attractiveness. Those who win prestigious fellowships will likely be admitted to nearly any Ph.D. program they choose.
While winning a fellowship is outstanding and fantastic for chances at admission, hopeful Ph.D. students can benefit from just applying, even if they do not win. Yes, showing that you've just applied for a prestigious fellowship can give you a leg up in Ph.D. admissions. Why? First, submitting a fellowship application means that the name of the fellowship and a status listed as "decision pending" can be included on an applicant's resume/CV (final fellowship competition decisions are usually made after Ph.D. program application deadlines). This information sends a clear signal to faculty members who are reviewing applications. Having applied for a fellowship shows that the applicant understands something about the importance of getting grants for researchers. It shows that he or she is well-informed and did the research before applying to grad school. The truth is, relatively few candidates know that these fellowship competitions exist, let alone that they are eligible to apply for them even before being admitted to grad school. Second, having applied for a fellowship assures the admissions committee that a candidate has given a good amount of thought to the type of research he or she would like to conduct as a Ph.D. student because fellowship applications require a research proposal. Third, when an admissions committee reads that an applicant has applied for a fellowship, it is understood that that person has a chance to "BYO," bring his/her own funding.
There are still other ways in which preparing a fellowship application can improve a Ph.D. program application. First, fellowship applications require some essay writing. They also require letters of recommendation, GRE scores, and other documents that are standard for Ph.D. program applications. The deadlines for fellowship applications are usually earlier than Ph.D. program application deadlines. Thus, applying for a fellowship can greatly help applicants get all the documents necessary for applications compiled early. It also requires applicants to spend time thinking, writing, and researching topics they would like to focus on during their doctoral program. This will come in handy when it comes time to write personal statements. With so many benefits to applying for a fellowship, what have applicants got to lose?
The two most well known fellowships are colloquially called the "Javits" and the "NSF." Both of these are only for students who are applying to matriculate in the fall of the following year (e.g., the application deadline is in the fall of 2011 for those who plan to enter grad school in fall 2012) OR for current first year graduate students. For more information about eligibility, how to apply, and deadlines, see the sites below:
The U.S. Department of Education sponsors the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship. http://www2.ed.gov/programs/jacobjavits/index.html
The National Science Foundation sponsors the Graduate Research Fellowship Program. http://www.nsfgrfp.org/
Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit her website: www.gradadmissionsconsulting.com to learn more about improving your graduate school application. Follow Laura on Twitter for links to current grad school admissions news.