Jonathan Golding, Ph.D. and Anne Lippert, PhD

Careers in Psych

4 Critical Questions to Ask When Choosing a Ph.D. Program

Consider these impacting, yet not so obvious, factors.

Posted Oct 11, 2016

It’s that time of year when thousands of students are planning to apply to Ph.D. programs in Psychology. In the US, these Ph.D. programs are typically located in Research 1 institutions. In the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, there are 115 Research 1 institutions, indicating the highest level of research activity. Keep in mind, however, that there are strong Ph.D. programs in other countries, including our Canadian neighbors to the north.

Over and over again,I (Jonathan) get asked how a student should choose where to apply for a Ph.D. program. Although there are a number of issues that may come into play when paring down your list of schools, I want to argue that no matter what there are four critical questions that a you need to answer.

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1) Are you OK living where a school is located? I know this sounds petty, but you need to be clear in your head that you and the location are a match. For example, when I applied to graduate school many years ago I only applied to schools in part of the US that I felt comfortable. Did I lose out on attending certain universities? The answer is almost surely “Yes.” But, I knew I was going to be living in a certain place for at least five years so I was not going to apply to a place where I would be miserable. I understand that you go to a graduate school because of what you will learn and because it is a path to a future career. Also, it is important (as discussed below) to go to a school where you will have a mentor who will guide you through your graduate years. Still, I would argue that at least for some of you choosing a particular location might be an important issue.

2) Does a school offer a tuition waiver (i.e., free tuition) and a stipend (i.e., a fixed salary) for all the years you will be in school? In my mind, you must try your best not to incur any debt when you are in Psychology graduate school. To accomplish this you need to make sure your school will pay your tuition and that you will receive a reasonable stipend for either being a teaching assistant or a research assistant. The latter will never be a huge amount, but it will cover most of your living expenses and keep you relatively debt free; a loan or two may still be necessary. The issue here is that when you graduate with your Ph.D., the salary you will earn for most psychology careers is not going to be huge. To see this more clearly check out the following link that appears on my website. One other point to keep in mind is that a graduate school may not be able to legally promise you tuition and a stipend for multiple years. It may be that you sign a contract each year with the unwritten understanding that if you are in good standing you will receive financial support.

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3) What specific area of research are you interested in? This goes beyond choosing a program in one of the major sub-areas of psychology like clinical, cognitive, developmental, social, or neuropsychology. I am talking about deciding what topic area you want to be researching during your time in graduate school and possibly for a long, long time. For example, if you are applying to clinical psychology, do you want to study depression or PTSD or ADHD or eating disorders…I think you get the picture. Of course, you can change your research focus at some point, but no matter what you end up doing you need to have a specific research focus when you apply to a Ph.D. program. The likelihood of getting accepted can really take a hit if you apply with no real research direction. This point gets even more important as I move to critical question #4.

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4) Who do you plan to work with during graduate school? It is really a must to have done your homework and determine who you would like to be your mentor if you get accepted. To apply and not have this explicitly stated in your personal statement is to risk a quick exit from the selection process. The issue is really quite simple. A faculty member is more likely to push for selecting a student who has a clear interest in the faculty member’s research being conducted than a student who may look good on paper (e.g., good grades) but who has no clear research direction.

Finding a possible mentor can take two routes. Let’s say you are interested in cognitive psychology. First, you can check recent journals in cognitive psychology and find researchers who are conducting research that you find interesting. Then, go to the websites of these researchers and see if they say they are accepting new students. If there is no information about whether they are taking new graduate students, I think it is fine to send a quick email asking the faculty member what their plans are with regard to taking new students in the future. It might be that they are not accepting new students because their lab is filled or they have stopped being an active researcher (e.g., they plan on retiring). The key point here is that you only want to apply to work with someone if they are an active researcher and are open to taking new students.

The second way you can find a possible mentor is by going to the website of various schools. You can then read what researchers are at a particular school and determine if they are investigating topics you would like to pursue. One problem with taking this route is that it may not be clear if a faculty member is an active researcher. They might have a link to their vita, but you might need to do a little checking on a site like PsycInfo to see if the faculty member has recently published any articles or chapters. Again, you will need to do some checking to see if they are open accepting new graduate students. You can get more insight on these issues of faculty mentors by checking an excellent website on applying to graduate school in psychology here.

In closing, it is important that you understand that applying to Ph.D. programs in Psychology requires a lot of work before you are ready to actually apply. Hopefully, all of this effort will reap benefits for you with many acceptance letters. Good luck!

Want more?

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