How Can You Make the Best Grad School Choices?

How can you find a graduate program that best suits your interests?

Posted Sep 08, 2015

Dear Data Doctor,

Hope you're doing well and enjoying the last of summer. My mom sent me the article you wrote about taking a gap year after college and I really enjoyed it. I'm thinking about applying to grad school this fall for either counseling or psychology. I was wondering if you had any suggestions or advice on which major would be best. I really enjoyed the research experience I was able to do with you and could foresee that being something I want to pursue. What interests me the most is the role of increasing technology and how it affects us on a deeper level, as well as the impact of nature on our psyche.

Do you have any advice when it comes to graduate school?

Thanks and look forward to hearing from you!

--Lucy

Dear Lucy,

It's good to hear from you and I'm glad to learn you are thinking about graduate school. 

The role of technology on our lives is one of the fastest growing research areas.  If you want to pursue that, there are several choices.  You could study counseling or clinical psychology, but you should know that a large part of your graduate school program will involve teaching assessment and therapy skills.  Because these programs are usually accredited by the American Psychological Association, there are also a lot of basic science requirements in social, developmental and other areas.  So those programs usually require more courses than others. 

On the other hand, if you want to really focus on a question like understanding the impact of technology or figuring out the "nature-nurture" debate, you might want to consider a research-oriented program.  For the study of technology on our lives, that could be part of social psychology, which studies human behavior in social contexts.  You could study developmental psychology and explore ways that technology influences the ways that children perceive the "real" world and relationships.  You could study cognitive psychology and explore how technology affects our mental perceptions and ways that we categorize the world. You could study industrial-organizational or "I/O" psychology and work on ways to both understand and perhaps improve the benefits of technology.  Neuroscience is probably the fastest growing area of research in psychology and there are also ways to study the effect of technology at the cell or neurotransmitter level. 

If there is an area you really want to study, Ph.D. programs in these areas might be appealing because you usually would only have to take 4 to 6 classes a year (2 or 3 in the fall semester and 2 or 3 in the spring semester) for a year or two and then even fewer classes after that. 

What do you do with the rest of your time?  Most graduate school training in psychology works on the apprentice model.  You will join the lab of a professor and spend most of your time conducting research and learning about the current research of others in your program.  It is active, real-world learning.  The upsides of the apprentice model is that it can be much more effective than classroom learning.  Despite lots of research showing that lectures are poor teaching methods, a lot of college education still relies on lectures.  Learning by doing is more effective.  The downside is that if you get attached to a bad advisor, you can find yourself in a very difficult situation.  Sometimes it is hard to switch and sometimes it is even hard to graduate if you end up with a dysfunctional advisor (and yes, even some psychologists have psychological problems). 

Neuroscience would also be a good choice for studying the "nature-nurture" debate, or the balance between biological and environmental influences.  However, all of these others fields would be ways to study that too.

That may not seem like I have narrowed it down much for you!

In fact, these are only very general guidelines that will not take you very far in the application process.  The next steps require some legwork.  As I usually tell students, this is your future and it is worth an investment of your time and energy. 

The next steps means spending some time researching specific programs.  At first it almost doesn't matter which programs—spend some time just getting the "lay of the land" and starting to see which courses and areas of research are most interesting to you. 

Many people do not realize that in many of these programs, in a very real sense, you are not applying so much to an entire program as you are to a specific faculty member and her or his lab. All competitive application letters will refer to specific faculty members that you are interested in working with.  At many popular programs that get a lot of applications, faculty members will literally only read the applications that mention them by name!  This requires studying not just programs but also individual faculty member's websites and, for the ones that interest you the most, probably also looking at an article or two published by these researchers.

Next, it is good to contact these faculty members and find out if they are taking new graduate students.  Most faculty members will only take one, or perhaps two, per year.  If they are approaching retirement or going on sabbatical, they often will not take new students.  Sometimes faculty members shift their research interests.  My master's thesis advisor switched from the study of attribution in social psychology to the study of entrepreneurship.  So it's good to know that their current interests are, not just what all of them are.  Email is the preferred way to contact faculty members. 

Finally, Lucy, for applying to graduate school I suggest that you do everything you can to show that you are committed to joining the community of professional psychologists.  Some of your experiences working at camps for children will be advantages.  If you are interested in research I suggest trying to get some experiences, even volunteer experiences, doing some kind of research this year.

Good luck!  This is a great time and I wish you the best of luck exploring and envisioning your possible futures.

--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.

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