It’s that time of year again, when applicants are finding out the results to their quests to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology. As a faculty member, it is an exciting time as well—after looking at applications, interviewing potential students, and helping to make decisions about how our program will be shaped in the coming year—we invite individuals to join us for 5 or more years. Every year, however, I see the same right things and the same mistakes that applicants make (sometimes the same mistakes by the same people year after year). With this said, I began thinking of the advice I would give someone who has officially decided to pursue this path. I have come up with a list that is not intended to be in any order or comprehensive. When one considers the ratio of the applicant pool to the number who are accepted, it can be somewhat random in selecting one great applicant from several other top applicants.
Start early (aim for the summer of the year before applications are due) and find out as much information about the schools, the faculty who are available to supervise, and the opportunities that are available during and after the PhD. In terms of faculty selection, one should contact faculty to find out if s/he is considering taking someone for the following year and what projects s/he is or will be working on in the next little while. In doing so, you should be somewhat knowledgeable about the person’s area and make sure that it is in the realm of your interests. I have received emails noting that person X is extremely interested in working with me because of my focus on autism disorder (I do not study autism). I think a good email noting your strengths and why there is a general fit with the faculty member (again, make sure that you have correctly identified the fit) can be important. Why is it important? It can work out in 3 good ways. First, you can find out whether the person is or is not taking a student. This will help you in deciding to apply to certain programs and to whom you will tailor your application. If I say I am not considering a student for next year, it will likely be wasted if you note why you should be accepted to our program because of the perfect fit with me. Second, although I will not make decisions based on an email you send, it leaves a trace that you are doing your homework early and that you are potentially interested in working with me. When it comes time to selecting from the applicant pool, I do a quick search through my emails to see who, of my top candidates, had expressed previous interest. Again, because acceptance into programs seems somewhat arbitrary, every little detail can be used in your favor. Finally, and perhaps the most important reason why you should email is that if you tailor your emails correctly, I may give you important hints about what I will be working on (and perhaps if I have funding that goes along with certain projects, which may be helpful in supporting you in graduate school). You can then use this information in deciding if this would be of interest and, if so, in tailoring your personal statement to closely match what I will be working on. As a specific example, I am currently doing work in three major areas: early sexual experiences, youth access to mental health services, and family communication patterns. If you look at my publications, there will be much more of a forensic focus (e.g., juvenile sexual offenders). Like all people, my interests and patterns change. I have a number of applicants who seem to do all of the right things by contacting me and finding out what I am working on. However, when I get to their personal statement in their eventual application, I read that they are interested in working with me because of my focus on forensics. While I still have interests and work in forensics, my major directions (and funding) should give some clue that a student who is interested in studying psychopathy within an institutional setting will not rise to the top of my list, no matter how good are their academic credentials.
On the topic of academic credentials, every faculty member seems to weight things differently. GRE scores and previous grades are generally seen as important, but it gets more specific. In terms of GRE scores, some professors focus more on the verbal score (as an indicator of your writing ability), others on quantitative (as an indication of the complexity of statistics that you might be able to undertake in graduate school), and still others on analytical (as an indicator of your abilities to think critically). The best thing you can do is to perform well across all three sections. However, it is not always possible and can be somewhat forgivable if you stand out in other ways or if the section that you did not do well in is not weighted as highly by the specific advisor who is interested in you. Grades are important, but they are also examined in context. Where did you get your degree? What kind of courses did you take? What were your grades in relation to the median for each course? I personally find it the most difficult to determine great grades from good grades (and cumulative GPAs from various institutions can spin my head). As such, it is one thing I do not emphasize as highly as GRE scores, CVs, personal statements, or reference letters. I do look, however, with an eye toward at least two things: a) whether there is a fit between what you say you’re interested in and the courses you have taken, and b) how you would fare in internal and external funding competitions relative to other applicants.
CVs are important. They tell a story of what you have accomplished. If I see a strong record of work in research labs (ideally, more than one or intensively in one) and publications and presentations, that begins to set an applicant apart from the pool. Specifically, if an applicant has been involved in research labs for 3 of their undergraduate years, it suggests that going to graduate school was not an afterthought and that conducting research is something the person doesn’t at least mind doing. If you have the chance to present research findings, or even more so, publishing a paper (e.g., honour’s thesis), I would suggest doing so. This is the general commodity of advisors and they often get very excited at the possibility that their next student will be productive. People have asked whether getting clinical experience is important for a graduate school application. The answer is yes, but typically only a little bit. I would like to see that there is some clinical interest and volunteer experience, but I do not feel that you have to spend all of your time getting this experience (this is one thing that you will get plenty of in graduate school).
Your letters of reference are tricky because you have no idea what your referees are saying about you. I can say that most referees are typically saying nice things about you. However, the focus is in the details. “I think this is an applicant who should be strongly considered for admission to your graduate program” (we strongly consider all applicants, so this is not hard to do) and “This is the best person with whom I have worked in the last 10 years, and I believe that your program would benefit from having her in it” are two very nice statements. Which one would you lean toward? It also gets hard because some letter writers say nice things about everyone while others really don’t have much nice to say about anyone (at least it does not come across in their letters). Well then, how are you to know what kind of letter writer is the person you are asking? You might not. For someone big in a particular field and who does not have a lot of time to write letters, s/he may not come across as super positive. However, this may be fine. When I read letters, I usually, although not always, get a sense of whether the letter is succinct (i.e., this is a really good letter from X) or if the opinion of this person about the applicant is less then super positive. What may be in your control in getting your reference letters together is in being the best you can be (volunteer in research labs, take on extra work, take criticism and feedback well, deal with stress in mature ways, get along with people). That way, you will be pretty certain that your letters rise to the top. Also, when you ask people to write letters for you, select those who know you best. Sure, you can ask the professor whose class of 100+ students you took 3 years ago. However, what can s/he say about you besides the A+ you received? Furthermore, if I were to request that referees write a letter for me, I might give them an “out”, or a pass. I might send him or her an e-mail rather than cornering him or her in the hallway. In addition, I might phrase my request carefully:
Dear Professor X,
I will be applying to graduate school in the fall and I was wondering if you would be able to write me a strong letter of reference. I know you are very busy, so I would understand if you cannot at this time.
If the response is an astounding, “Absolutely!” then I think you can be confident in the letter. If you receive something noting that they are not really familiar with your work or do not have a lot to say, I would take that as a hint.
Your personal statement is incredibly important. You should start early on this and it should ideally be crafted for each program to which you are applying. Do not cut corners here! I would rather see a thrown-together CV than a boiler plate personal statement. This personal statement suggests whether you can write (if you cannot write something about you and that you had endless time on, how might you fare in graduate school about a detailed research question). It also gives an indication of your knowledge about the program and relevant faculty members’ interests (see Point #1 above) as well as your work ethic (it is very easy to distinguish a tailored essay that took a lot of time from one that filled in the blank for graduate program X).
If you should reach the interview stage, do your homework on the individuals who are interviewing you. Also, brush up on why this program would be your ideal choice. Come up with lots of questions to ask. Identify potential research questions (i.e., things you might study) but at the same time express openness to explore other options of mutual interest. Be able to talk about why you are choosing a career path in clinical psychology or applying to a particular program. Be able to discuss in a coherent and succinct way the work that you have done. Most importantly, be strongly versed in your potential advisors’ research. Keep in mind that you may have widdled the ratio down from 1 in 30 to 1 in 3 or 4. The interview is important and can further move you firmly in either the accept or the decline column. If you happen to know the advisor to whom you are applying (i.e., the interviewer), treat that person as if you did not already know him or her. Treat this as a fully professional experience. Follow up the interview with a nice note indicating your appreciation for taking the time and your genuine interest in pursuing graduate studies at said program.
With all of these points made, you might be left scratching your head thinking that everything in your application is important and that I have not given you anything. Yes, everything is important. However, I keep seeing the same easily avoidable mistakes pop up. Surely, given the somewhat arbitrary nature of selecting applicants, you would be well served to go through the list I have provided and check whether your application fully satisfies these points.
As a word of hope or caution, not getting into a program should not be taken as a mark against you and may not be an indication that you should stop pursuing your career goals. I would see how far you got (getting to the interview stage at several schools with no acceptances would suggest something different than not getting interviews). Do you need to separate you from your undergraduate grades? Perhaps getting more experience or a master’s degree (and doing well) would help. Are your GRE scores on the lower side? Perhaps you should spend time studying so that you can increase those scores. Do you not have enough experiences? Maybe you go back to your undergraduate supervisor and pursue publishing your honour’s thesis. Alternatively, you could get other paid or volunteer research experience after your undergraduate degree.
With all of this said, there may be times when you should choose another path (applying to the same program 4 years in a row without getting accepted may be an indicator, at least for that school)—one more suitable to you. This is great to learn, and I would be quick to pursue other great options.
All the best in pursuing your program of choice!