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

Careers in Psych

Careers in Experimental Psychology: A Community To Do List

Some career steps are best accomplished outside of college, in your community.

Posted Mar 30, 2017

In our previous post, we discussed steps to take for a career as an experiment psychologist that may be best accomplished in a college setting. This post names critical steps to take within your community.

1. Develop critical skills particular to experimental psychologists. 

There are always opportunities to develop skills in addition to what you learn in classes and by conducting research—computers, writing, and oral communication skills. Remember, graduate schools are looking for well-rounded students, not just students with high grades. Take free online advanced stats or computer science courses or join a toastmaster's club to better your public speaking. You can also invest your time by learning how to write grants or developing better organization skills.  

2. Get involved in extracurricular activities related to your research interests. 

YamaBSM/pixabay
Source: YamaBSM/pixabay

This involvement also demonstrates a high level of motivation and interest. Any involvement just adds to your overall record and makes you a more competitive applicant. You may be thinking what could I do related to Experimental Psychology, so I will give you two examples. If you were interested in animal research you could volunteer at a Humane Society. If you were interested in cognition, you could volunteer at a local school, helping kids with their studying strategies.

3. Get work experience related to your area of interest if you can. 

It is not critical that you are employed in an area related to your graduate school interests, but if you can get such a job that is a real bonus. This could range from working in a medical setting and interacting with patients to analyzing data for companies. Before becoming an experimental psychologist, I (Anne) worked on the psychiatric unit of a hospital and as an educational director for a community outreach center for at risk youth. 

4. Understand the Importance of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). 

StartupStockPhotos/pixabay
Source: StartupStockPhotos/pixabay

We listed this step in our previous post, but because it is so important, and much time preparing for the GRE is done independent from college work, we list it again. We have three Psychology Today blog posts about the GRE that you are free to read (e.g., https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/careers-in-psych/201604/de-mystifying-the-gre-part-i), but we will still go into some depth on this exam. To begin, if you are not clear about the GRE, you must understand that this is the standardized exam that almost everyone who applies to graduate school must take. It can be viewed as the “graduate SAT or ACT”. Because it is a standardized exam that means almost everyone across the country and even in the world takes the same exam in the same way on the computer. Also, be aware that most schools will want you to take the “regular” GRE that includes a verbal component, a quantitative component, and an analytical component. Some schools may want you to take a subject GRE exam in Psychology. Because of this, it is probably a good idea to keep your textbooks from your Psychology courses to help with your studying.

Your GRE scores are extremely important. Because the GREs are a standardized test, the argument is that this score allows each graduate school selection committee to compare your score in an equal fashion against all other applicants. This gets even more important if you are going to a college that is perceived as less strong academically. For example, if you go to the University of Kentucky (U.S. News and World Report college ranking of 129) and get a GRE score of 2200 and a student going to Harvard (U.S. News and World Report college ranking of 2) gets a GRE score of 2000 your application will likely be viewed as quite strong. Another way GRE scores can work for you is if you have only mediocre grades (e.g., a 3.20 overall GPA), but you score really high on the GRE this high score can, in effect, offset those modest grades.

As far as preparing for the GRE, some argue that you should begin preparing for the GRE by your sophomore year. This would involve using GRE practice books and software on a regular basis. One reason to use GRE software is that, because the GRE is only given on computer, you should familiarize yourself with this type of exam format.

As far as the three specific parts of the GRE, let’s talk about each. First, there is math. If you are pretty good in math and plan on taking at least some Math courses in college, you are putting yourself in a good position as you begin to study. However, if you do not feel you are good in math and have no plans to take a Math course in college beyond a freshman Algebra course you probably need to rethink your plans, and think about either taking more Math courses or get someone to tutor you on the math that will be covered in the GRE. Next, there is the analytical component. The same issues here apply as with math. There are courses you can take that will help you out with this section, like Logic. Finally, the verbal component of the GRE requires you to have a strong background in English. You may think you know the language well, but the GRE asks some pretty tough questions ranging from word definitions to comprehension of stories. One piece of advice is to Read, Read, Read. Over the years we have seen many bright students suffer on their verbal GRE scores because they just are not exposed enough to verbal information. For example, one of the best ways you can learn new words is by reading these words in a news article or novel.