My Gap Is Over, Now What? Grad School After a Break

Putting your best foot forward in grad school applications.

Posted Oct 06, 2015

Hi Dr. Hamby,

I hope you are off to a good year at up at Sewanee. I have enjoyed reading all of your articles when I see them on my news feed (usually courtesy of Dr. Bardi!) 

I am writing because I am considering applying to the MAPPS Program at the University of Chicago. I'm not sure if you are familiar, but it's a one year master's program and I would be applying for a Masters of Arts in the Social Sciences. It's been about two years since I left NEDA [an eating disorder program] and while I love my current job (where we help treat children born with clubfoot in developing countries), I have a yearning to go back to psychology. I am not really sure what the specific job I want is, but I want to promote positive body image in children somehow. I think this program would be great in helping me figure out what path to take.

I wanted to know if you would be available give me some advice with my application? I've been out of the psychology world for a second and I want to make sure I am giving them what they want. I would be so grateful for any wisdom you have for me. 

On a slightly unrelated but exciting note — I have actually given notice at my job, and will be leaving midway through January. I will be travelling for six weeks through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. Then, who knows. If you are considering starting Life Paths Asia, let me know! 

I look forward to hearing from you, 

Elisabeth 

Dear Elisabeth,

It's good to hear from you and good to hear about all of your exciting adventures!

Those adventures will serve you well as you apply to graduate school. The most important pieces of advice I can offer are: 1) Craft your story and 2) Leave your doubts out of your story.

Crafting your story

You have a great story to tell.  Your story has strengths in one of the most important skills to show—experience working in a clinical setting, even a challenging clinical setting.  The idea of helping people, and perhaps the idealized way it is often presented on TV and in other media, is often more glamorous than the reality.  Being around suffering and confronting the tragedy of unmet mental and physical health needs is challenging.  A fair number of people who think they want to go into psychology or a related field actually are not really up for being around distressed people all the time.  It takes a certain kind of inner strength to be a practitioner (see my article on the resilience secret I learned from the Apache for more on that kind of strength). 

You can also tell the story of your early interest in body image and eating disorders and finding that is still your main interest even after exploring other types of clinical settings.  That will be very appealing to eating disorders researchers, because it suggests it is really a strong, consistent interest and not just a passing fancy. 

Your work at NEDA and at the organization serving children born with clubfoot disorders will hopefully also give you an opportunity to talk about the ways that you have gone over and above in those settings.  Faculty members are not looking for people who are just trying to meet minimum requirements.  Professors are looking for passionate people who want to excel at their work.  Tell a story about a time you did more than you had to. 

The weakest part of your story might be your lack of research experience.  This is important because, as I have written elsewhere about graduate school, struggling with the required thesis or dissertation is the most common obstacle to graduating.  Thus, faculty like to see some evidence you know what you are getting into with research projects. 

If you have not done much that is specifically about research, then try to focus on other types of precision or detail-oriented work you have done.  If you have been trained in any kind of structured assessment protocol, for example, that involves some similar skills. Perhaps you had responsibilities to keep records of client contacts or services.  If you were involved in any report writing or grant writing, those would be great experiences to mention too. 

When you pull it all together, it should tell a story of you following a path that has naturally led to your graduate school applications as the logical next step.

Leave your doubts out of your story

Even at this stage in my career, some of my colleagues and I like to joke around about "what we will do when we grow up."  It is common—surely almost universal—to have doubts and second guesses about life decisions.  In your generation, there is also very little expectation that you might pick one job and stay with it for the rest of your life.  So it is fine to have doubts and uncertainty.  It's good to think about what those might mean and envision some other options.

However, when it comes time to write your application essay, that is the time to focus on your enthusiasm, your commitment, and your realization after exploring some other possibilities that you really want to focus on body image.  Perhaps women might especially be prone to softening their statements regarding their own abilities.  Regardless, the essay is the place to put your best foot forward.  Be more like an athlete—go in there and give it your best shot even if you know in the back of your mind that you are still working on your back hand or jump shot or whatever the case may be. 

For most graduate school programs, one important piece of this is do your homework on programs and faculty.  For master's level and doctoral programs, study up on the unique aspects of the program and find one that matches your interest.  Then talk about those areas of shared interest in your essay. 

For doctoral-level programs, it's also important to learn about individual faculty and gear your letters to specific faculty members.  At almost all doctoral programs, it would be the kiss of death to apply with a letter about your strong interest in eating disorders if there is no one on the faculty who specializes in eating disorders.  No matter how strong your application is in other respects, they will look at that and think you won't be happy at their program.  They won't want to invest a lot of their resources in someone who really wants something else. 

Best of luck and let me know if you have any more questions as you delve further into the process.

--The Data Doctor

Notes:  Have a question for the Data Doctor?  Send an email to sherry.hamby@lifepathsresearch.org or sherry.hamby@gmail.com or put it in the comments.

The Data Doctor appears on Tuesdays.