The Value of Relevant Experience
How experience in the field can be a safety net in more ways than one
Posted December 28, 2011
During the holidays, I really enjoy catching up with friends who I haven't seen in a while. A few weeks ago, I was in New York City and visited with one of my former college roommates. Unfortunately, this friend recently experienced a family tragedy and, at dinner, she brought up to me how this sad event was changing her professional motivations and goals. She explained that she felt inspired to redirect her career path to one that involves helping those who are affected by similar tragedies and influencing policy making and research about the issue. She also indicated that this type of work would require her to get a graduate degree and expressed concern about the application process and how to obtain letters of recommendation.
I found my friend's newfound passion and career calling to be authentic and certainly a worthy endeavor, but knowing her background, education, and training, I also knew that such a professional change would not be trivial for her. Right then and there, as a graduate school admissions consultant and also as a friend, I advised her to gain as much experience as possible in the area before committing to the time, dedication, and expense involved with applying to and attending graduate school. Despite having motivation and passion for the work, I urged my friend to learn what the day-to-day would be like in the career before fully making a commitment to it. I also provided her with some practical suggestions about how she might find opportunities to get experience.
I am sharing this personal anecdote because during this meeting with my friend, I realized that in previous posts I have not placed enough emphasis on the importance of gaining experience in a desired field before applying to grad school. And so, here it is, loud and clear: get all of the relevant experience you can in advance of applying to graduate programs. I cannot stress this enough. Graduate school is a huge investment of dedication, time, effort, and money. Obtaining hands-on experience in the area you would like to pursue before making the investment is of paramount importance. Here are some ways in which it will be helpful:
1.) Getting first-hand experience in an environment in which you would like to work will help you decide if you truly enjoy (or can even stand!) that type of work. If you don't have experience working with people in a one-on-one setting, how do you know counseling is for you? Likewise, if you have never set out to conduct a study or publish a paper, how do you know research is the career path you prefer? Getting involved with the type of work you envision doing after graduate school, even if it is only in a peripheral capacity, is the best way to make an informed decision about whether it is the right path for you.
2.) Gaining experience also benefits you because you will be exposed to professionals in the area. Current professionals are an extremely valuable resource. From them, you will learn a) what the work is really like on a day-to-day basis, b) what they like and dislike about it, and, in some cases, c) how they believe you can enhance your graduate school application.
3.) Graduate school applications require personal statements. Gathering relevant experience will come in handy when it's time to sit down and write. Describe the skills you have acquired. Show that you can write about your experience intelligently. Perhaps the best, most persuasive application essays include a description of how the applicant has already immersed themselves in the field. This shows admissions committees that they are prepared and ready to pursue graduate school in the area.
4.) Finally, gaining experience relevant to you future graduate degree will help you develop relationships with individuals (e.g., supervisors, professors, etc.) who can write compelling letters of recommendation.
Now that I've listed the ways in which relevant experience can be beneficial to grad school applicants and their career goals, let's talk about some practical ways to become involved in Psychology both on university/college campuses and in the community:
Lab manager jobs
Many University professors obtain grants to do their research. Sometimes one expense that granting organizations cover is a Lab Manager position. A lab manager is a paid, full or part-time staff member. The job involves doing administrative tasks to help with data collection (e.g., recruiting participants, scheduling sessions, paying participants, data handling, etc.). Few people outside of the field realize that these jobs exist and they are among the best ways to prepare for a research degree. Lab managers have an in-depth understanding of how research is conducted. They get to know current graduate students and professors, and might be offered opportunities to be authors on conference presentations and publications. The best way to find advertisements for these jobs is on professional groups' listservs (e.g., the Society for Personality and Social Psychology's listserv). Check with professors for more information.
Research assistant volunteer/course credit
At Universities, there are also less formal opportunities to get involved with faculty members' and graduate students' research. Students (and at times non-students) can volunteer their time in research labs to get become acquainted with the research process. Students may even be able to get course credit in these positions. Getting experience as a research assistant usually involves helping with data collection or data management and attending lab meetings. In other words, one might be asked to collect surveys or other behavioral measures from undergraduates or enter data into spreadsheets. Although such tasks might seem mundane or only loosely related to a research career, research assistants are immersed in the laboratory and research culture. They get to know current graduate students and professors, might be offered opportunities to be authors on conference presentations and publications, and discover if the research environment is one they would like to work in long-term.
Campus and community volunteer positions
For those who would like to gain experience in mental health and counseling, there are also many good options. Refer to your college or university's community service office for help finding a volunteer position that includes exposure to individuals with mental health issues. For those who are not students, check out sites like idealist.org for volunteer opportunities near you. Great opportunities exist both on campus and off-campus. For example, on campus, there are suicide/depression hotlines, sexuality organizations, and drug and alcohol awareness groups. In the community, volunteers are needed at shelters, organizations that mentor and/or tutor kids, and many other locations. Volunteers gain valuable, hands-on experience working with individuals that they can write about in graduate application essays and also, as an added bonus, might feel happy about spending time on a worthy cause.
Though scarcer than campus or community volunteer positions, some counseling practitioners, mental health facilities, and hospitals offer internships. Many of the internships are for those who are already attending Masters or Ph.D. programs (to complete supervised practice hours), but it is worth checking into in your local area. Interns may have the opportunity to shadow professionals and learn first hand what their day-to-day responsibilities are like.
I hope you also enjoy spending time with family and friends you might not see often this holiday season! Think about how you can obtain experience relevant to your educational and professional goals in 2012.
Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit her website: www.gradadmissionsconsulting.com Services include personal statement editing, interview coaching, and general strategy Q&A sessions. Follow Laura on Twitter for links to current grad school admissions news.