Clay Routledge Ph.D.

More Than Mortal

5 Tips for Picking a Psychology Graduate School and Advisor

It’s not just about getting into a program

Posted Sep 08, 2016

If you are finishing your undergraduate degree in psychology or a related field, and want to go to graduate school, this article is for you. The following tips are based on my personal experience. I was once a graduate student myself and now I mentor graduate students. I am very happy with my career and feel like I have been pretty successful. But I also got lucky in many ways because as an undergraduate student at a small liberal arts college I did not really know what I was getting myself into when I applied to grad school. I ended up in a great lab and had wonderful mentors, but I was fortunate. Hopefully, this advice will help you.

1. Figure out if graduate school is really for you.

First, before thinking about where to apply, ask yourself if you really need to go to graduate school. Seems like a silly question but a lot of college students think going to graduate school is what they have to do in order to be successful. But every year spent in grad school is a year you are not making money, getting work experience, or climbing the career ladder. So think carefully about your career goals and do the research to determine what you will need to do to be successful. A graduate degree is not always the best option.

Many students say they want to be professors or academic researchers so they obviously need to go to grad school. What they don’t realize is going to graduate school and getting a PhD is often not enough, especially in the current job market for academic positions in psychology. Most positions go to people who have published research in top journals. This means as soon as you start school you will need to get heavily involved in conducting research and writing papers for publication. It is not just about attending classes. In fact, classes are often not viewed as particularly important in research-focused graduate programs. You will be expected to do well in your courses. But you will need to figure out how to do that while at the same time being an active researcher. This is increasingly the case even for more liberal arts teaching jobs. Research experience as documented by publications in peer-reviewed journals is becoming a basic requirement for most faculty positions.

If you don’t necessarily want an academic job, figure out what experience and expertise you need for the job you want. It doesn’t help to apply to programs that don’t offer advanced statistical training if your goal is to work in industry as a data analyst or research scientist. Or maybe you want to be a therapist but in the state you live a PhD is not required for the specific position you want. Do the research. Don’t just go to grad school because it seems like the thing to do next.

2. Stop thinking about where you would really like to live.

Don’t focus on location. When I talk to students thinking about applying to graduate school it amazes me how many of them talk about where they would like to live. Graduate school is temporary. You are not looking for a place to put down roots. And it is certainly not a long vacation. So stop thinking about where you would like to live and start thinking about the fact that you are about to spend many years in school to train for a career. If your main concern is how cool the city is or how close you are going to be to the ocean, you are probably neglecting some of the more important dimensions of your application strategy.

Similarly, be open to moving anywhere. Obviously, some people have real restrictions that keep them tied to a particular region. However, if you are a typical undergraduate student who has the ability to move anywhere, then be willing to move anywhere. As I will make clear in the remaining three tips, getting into a graduate program is far from a guarantee that you will have a successful career. A willingness to move anywhere for the right opportunity is a great start down the path to success.

3. Carefully consider potential advisors.

This tip is most applicable to those who want to pursue a research career in academia. Many graduate programs require you to apply to work with a specific advisor. When doing your research to pick a potential advisor, don’t just focus on that person’s research area. Focus on her or his research productivity. This is a big mistake many students make. They look at a webpage bio and get excited about the professor’s research expertise, but don’t bother to consider whether or not that person is actively doing that research, or any research.

What I am about to propose might be controversial to some, but I think it is generally true. The amount of research an advisor does is more important than her or his specific topic of research. Now, it is true that you can’t just count publications because the topic of research often influences the number of publications a researcher can generate. And it is also true that you might need a specific type of training to do the work you want to do. But if the person you want to work with has not published a paper in the last year or two then you should be concerned. You are going to need research experience and probably publications, but if your advisor is not actively doing research, it is going to be hard for you to do research. This is why I think productivity is more critical for success than specific area of interest. Sure, you need to be interested in the topic and you want to get experience in the area you want to pursue a career in, but plenty of successful researchers have developed new skills and lines of research throughout their careers. You can’t do the research you want to do if you don’t have a research job so do what you need to do to get a research job. Work in an active and productive lab.

4. Find funding and try to avoid student loans.

Most quality graduate programs will offer some kind of funding usually in the form of a tuition waiver and stipend in exchange for working as a teaching or research assistant. The stipend is not usually very much but if you live like a monk it might be enough to survive. If you are considering a program that will require you to pay tuition and offers no assistantship work, you should thoroughly investigate whether or not it is financially worth it. How much will you have to borrow and how much can you reasonably expect to make when you finish the program? Don’t be flattered because you got in to a program, or by a school’s efforts to sign you up. They are running a business and you should be looking out for your own interests. Some psychologists make a lot of money, but many do not.

5. Treat grad school like a risky job that does not pay well.

Ok, this tip is really more about being a grad student than applying for graduate school but it is important to consider prior to starting a program.  As I said before, it is not enough to get into a program or finish one. Unless you are independently wealthy and just going to school for fun, your main goal is to get a job. And though you will certainly be amongst a small group of people in the country who have a graduate degree, there is still lots of competition for jobs. In other words, you cannot afford to just casually go through your program. You need to position yourself to be competitive for a position when you finish (see tip #1).

If you are going for a PhD, you will probably be in school for at least five years. You need to make those years count. I see so many students struggle with the lack of structure in grad school. For the most part, people are not going to be telling you what to do each day. Sure, your advisor might yell at you if you have not analyzed the data or finished the manuscript you were tasked with writing. The truth is, procrastination can thrive in grad school because most of the projects you are working on are so big that days can easily turn into months. And if you were able to follow my advice and get into a productive lab, your advisor will be busy and will rely on other, more ambitious students to get the job done. You will be left behind. Or if you are in a less productive lab, your lack of progress may not even be noticed for some time. In short, it is on you to make the most of the opportunity. You are not getting paid much and your time will only pay off if you position yourself to be competitive for a job after graduation. So treat grad school like the risk it is. Respect it and learn to grind.

About the Author

Clay Routledge, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.

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