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DippinDot

Might be a dumb question-- are the horror stories about multiple failed app cycles true? Is there more to it?

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Hello everyone, 

If you're reading this I hope you're doing well and trying to take care of yourself.
As application updates are rolling in I've noticed a trend of unfortunate situations where posters have been in the PhD application game for a few cycles (2-3) and continue to be unsuccessful in their endeavors. I keep reading about experiences where they've gotten 0 offers time and time again, and it's definitely scaring me. I was wondering if this has anything to do with the specific field they're in, or the research they want to do? For example, I can see this happening for clinical psych PhDs simply because they're so dang competitive (~1-3% admission rate for some of the top schools). But what about other psychology fields that are non-clinical? Maybe I'm just asking because I'm hoping for someone to tell me that these are outlying or special situations, and that people will typically succeed in getting at least 1 offer after trying for 2 or 3 cycles (and doing productive things between cycles that actually make them a more competitive applicant ). And it would be helpful to hear about how this experience is in psych PhDs specifically. I know the general, underlying explanation for this unfortunate situation is that the combination of funding and match make PhD admissions almost unpredictable, but it's so hard (and scary) to believe that people who are working so hard, are well qualified, and are persistent still don't get any acceptances after years and years.

Am I just being naive?

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25 minutes ago, DippinDot said:

who are working so hard, are well qualified, and are persistent still don't get any acceptances after years and years.

Sometimes it's the things you mention. But it's possible that aspects of your underlying assumption (quoted) are wrong. The people who have applied 3+ times and are still unsuccessful might not have the aptitude for graduate studies--or are consistently aiming higher than their aptitude would allow. Sometimes there are factors that more RA experience just won't fix, like hitting a ceiling on GRE scores, having an undergraduate degree from a middling institution, or unknowingly resubmitting unremarkable reference letters (in content or source). Not everybody is cut out for graduate school (or medical school, or dating a supermodel, etc.).

ETA: I am curious why it's scary that not everybody can get what they want, career wise. I absolutely understand why it might be personally uncomfortable to think that one can't have one's dream, but why in the more general sense that "people" won't be able to do it?

 

Edited by lewin
eta

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I tend to agree with @lewin's analysis on the "what if a person just isn't cut out for this."  I would add that sometimes you have to go away to come back.

 

In general, though, there's a handful of things that institutions look for:

- Performance in undergrad

- Performance/writing in MA

- GRE scores

- Ability to articulate yourself

- Letters of Rec

- Research fit

There's not much you can do about going back in time and changing past grades (e.g., the performance items).  You can't call yourself at age 18 and tell yourself that you should probably go to bed rather than to that frat party (not that I'm speaking from experience at all).  But you can work on the others. 

If you're rejected, it's worth asking for feedback to figure out what you can improve over the next year before you start applying again.  Is it a research fit?  That's easy, apply to different programs, talk to POI in advance, etc.  Writing ability?  Talk to a writing coach at your MA institution, or perhaps take some academic writing classes to hone that skill.  Hell, ask one of your MA professors to help you write a paper for publication.  GRE scores?  I'm a believer (despite my own average-at-best scores) that that is something you can affect.

Basically, even if half the institutions you apply to never respond with feedback, the others will!  Especially if you phrase it in a polite, respectful way that shows you're not mad, and you just want to be a more competitive applicant next year.

 

Also not addressed: If you're going straight from BA to PhD, I gather that a lot of schools admit very few students straight from undergrad.  So consider applying for the MA program first.  Then they'll see how amazing you are and accept you for the PhD when you get done with the MA.  :)

 

Edit: It should be noted that I'm not a psych person.  I just saw the post as "Recent" on the main page.  So, your mileage may vary.

Edited by E-P
YMMV

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As someone, who just got into a Clinical PhD program in my second round of applying, I'd like to also say that knowing how to apply makes all the difference. In my first round, I wrote my SOP more like a undergrad college essay. I didn't know that there were unwritten (not in the prompt) rules of what should or should not be in the SOP. I googled what the essay should look like, but the samples available online were not of quality. It wasn't until I started reading more and inquiring on gradcafe and on sdn that I got a better idea of what was necessary. I've seen a lot of my friends apply for medical school, and in their undergrad institution there is a dedicated pre-med office for navigating the ins and outs of the application process. I haven't seen an office like that at my alma mater for applying to PhDs. So my advice is to reach out to people that have gotten in and ask as many questions as you can about the process.

Edit: This thread helped me a lot with the SOP -

 

Edited by dr. bubbles
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I applied to clinical psych MA/PhD combined programs directly out of undergrad, many, many years ago. The first year, totally shut out. The second year, I applied to everywhere again along with some terminal MA programs at smaller schools (as @E-P recommended). Got one. Phewf. 

After working as a therapist for a while, I wanted to give the PhD program one last shot. I really researched the POIs and made contact in May of the application year. I attended a few local conferences and tried to meet as many as possible. I feel that there are so many excellent applicants on paper, this was my chance to make an impression and convince them to take a chance on me. They can go to bat for you when it comes to admission committee decisions.

I feel like this is the advantage we have over medical school applicants, where so much of the pre-interview screening is purely numbers-based. I agree with @dr. bubbles that your statement is another chance to shine beyond the numbers. I spent a lot of time soul searching and thinking about why I wanted to do a PhD and why now. When I look back at my application materials from years ago, I wouldn't have admitted myself either!

If you make those POI connections and really write a stellar statement of interest - this could be the bump you need to rise above the crowd of excellent applicants. There's always hope. 

Edited by +ve regard

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There are many ways to improve your "chances" of getting in. However, and I think this is where clinical psych is quite different from most other PhD programs, you can be an amazing applicant and still not get in. It's a bit of a crapshoot sometimes and luck is definitely a factor. Someone can apply with the same credentials to the same program 1 year, not get in, apply the next year and get in. There are issues related to funding, whether the PI is taking students, whether the PI is colleagues with a certain applicant's LOR writers etc. 

Anecdotally, I think on average people get in within 2 application attempts. Now I have seen people who look like amazing applicants on paper who've applied upwards of 2 times and not gotten in. I can't make a judgment there because I don't know where they applied or how they applied (e.g. personal statement/LORs quality, good fit with program). 

I do get a little skeptical when I hear of people applying more than 3 times and not getting in. At that point, I'd really wonder if there are certain aspects of the application that have some kind of weakness not being addressed. 

I completely feel the same way as you do. We've been taught our entire lives that if you work hard enough, you can succeed eventually. I think that is certainly still true for clinical psych, but it is so competitive due to the sheer # of applicants (I believe psych is one of the most popular majors in the country if not the most popular) and limited number of funded spots. There are many programs that are not fully-funded that are still great programs, but I imagine that's not a realistic option for a lot of people. It is all a bit cynical. All I can say is try not to think about that. Focus entirely on how to maximize your application. Have a specific contingency plan if you don't get in. Always have a back-up plan. I've known so many people who did not get in the first time, shored up their application, and got accepted the 2nd time. If you are absolutely sure this is your career goal/dream, then don't give up. 

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3 hours ago, Sherrinford said:

There are many ways to improve your "chances" of getting in. However, and I think this is where clinical psych is quite different from most other PhD programs, you can be an amazing applicant and still not get in. It's a bit of a crapshoot sometimes and luck is definitely a factor. Someone can apply with the same credentials to the same program 1 year, not get in, apply the next year and get in. There are issues related to funding, whether the PI is taking students, whether the PI is colleagues with a certain applicant's LOR writers etc. 

Anecdotally, I think on average people get in within 2 application attempts. Now I have seen people who look like amazing applicants on paper who've applied upwards of 2 times and not gotten in. I can't make a judgment there because I don't know where they applied or how they applied (e.g. personal statement/LORs quality, good fit with program). 

I do get a little skeptical when I hear of people applying more than 3 times and not getting in. At that point, I'd really wonder if there are certain aspects of the application that have some kind of weakness not being addressed. 

I completely feel the same way as you do. We've been taught our entire lives that if you work hard enough, you can succeed eventually. I think that is certainly still true for clinical psych, but it is so competitive due to the sheer # of applicants (I believe psych is one of the most popular majors in the country if not the most popular) and limited number of funded spots. There are many programs that are not fully-funded that are still great programs, but I imagine that's not a realistic option for a lot of people. It is all a bit cynical. All I can say is try not to think about that. Focus entirely on how to maximize your application. Have a specific contingency plan if you don't get in. Always have a back-up plan. I've known so many people who did not get in the first time, shored up their application, and got accepted the 2nd time. If you are absolutely sure this is your career goal/dream, then don't give up. 

I definitely agree with the fact that a good amount of application success being due to luck (after you consider all the other important factors that have already been mentioned in this thread). You could look really good one year because the rest of your application cohort isn't as shining, but in a different year be utterly unremarkable the next year. A lot of success also depends on department politics in a given year. Some POIs will be prioritized in being able to accept students in different years (especially in clinical). If you're in a fairly niche area of research (like forensics, eating disorders, or sex research), you're going to have a much harder time since there's less spots for the amount of applicants than say someone doing general anxiety or depression research. 

Clinical is definitely the hardest of the specialities to get into (in my opinion, it's harder to get into a clinical program than med or law school). Social psych and I/O are also hard specialities to get into, but most experimental programs are easier to be accepted into (at least from my Canadian perspective). 

It took me 4 application cycles to be accepted into a clinical PhD program (niche research field). I just kept working on my application every year, making sure I was seeking out extra opportunities to improve my application, and it paid off! 

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I am an international applicant from China (got a masters in mental health counseling in the US). I applied to 13 clinical psych programs last year and got 13 rejections. I applied to 9 educational psychology programs (with a concentration in measurement and statistics) and 1 quantitative psychology programs and got 7 offers.

How do you make of my experience? I think sometimes your choices are more important than your working hard.

That said, I don't think switching from clinical psych to quant psych programs is the only reason why I am much more successful than last year.

You should work hard but also work smarter.

In my case, after the first failed cycle, I re-evaluated my strengths and weaknesses, and realized that quant might be more suitable for me. I've always interested in statistics and I'm good at coding, so why apply for clinical psych and fail again instead of working on my strengths? 

I did an independent study using R and wrote a strong writing sample about it;

I built a personal academic site and published my writing sample and CV on it;

I rewrote my SOPs and customized them to each program;

I contacted all of my POIs 1-1.5 months prior to the app deadline;

I didn't retake and improve my GRE scores because they were already decent;

I asked the same letter writers to write my letters.

I think one of the reasons why some people fail repeatedly is that they haven't realized where their true strengths lie. They don't spend time talking to themselves and trying to figure out who they are. They just follow what other people do, like applying for clinical psych programs. Once they figure that out, things would become much easier.

 

Edited by wnk4242

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Hello all,

I wanted to make individual replies but I didn't expect so many people to give such helpful responses!

Thank you all for your valuable input and sharing your experiences. I understand the application/admission process a little better now and see how the factors you all mentioned come into play.

@E-P Thanks again for your help! :) I will definitely reach out and ask about the weaknesses of my application. I'm glad I have the opportunity of doing the MA as a means of improving myself as a researcher and applicant. @+ve regard I'll definitely try to be more proactive about getting connections with PIs this round too!

@dr. bubbles Thank you for sharing the tip about SoP! I definitely need to work on that for next cycle. I'm in my senior year of undergrad and I totally approached it too much like an undergrad college essay. I also didn't know anything about the application process, and had little to no help from mentors (grad students/faculty/department or career centers). I don't really blame this on them (grad students, my professors) though as I imagine they're super busy. I also wasn't the most persistent in getting help from those people, for that reason. The career center and psych department advisers however....... haha. I totally wish we had the built-in infrastructure/resources med students (sometimes) do for their application process. This is besides the point though. I basically just wanted to say I definitely agree with you. After going through the process once I definitely have a much better handle on what to do to be more successful next year.

And yes, I asked this question because I've been a little skeptical of stories where people not getting any admissions despite 3+ cycles, especially if they claim to have been actively doing appropriate things to improve themselves. I am aware that there may be outliers from time to time of people who truly have amazing stats and seemingly good fit yet are unable to get in a program after years of trying. I guess it's not so much being uncomfortable with the idea that not everyone can get what they want, but more that these people seemingly don't have any obvious issues as an applicant... yet they haven't been able to get in, year after year. It makes me wonder, what about me could possibly be so different from these individuals for me to believe I could get in and have a better outcome than them?

I definitely resonate with @Sherrinford's piece about being taught all our lives that if one to work hard enough, one could succeed eventually. Especially from a western/cultural standpoint. However, I do agree that the way of the world is that sometimes, some people don't get what they want. I also see what @lewin is saying about some people just not being cut out for grad school. Who knows, anything could happen and I could find out that my talents lie elsewhere or am better fit for a different type of learning/growing experience than a PhD program.  @wnk4242  also touches on this, but in terms of specific psych disciplines. I completely see where you're all coming from and will keep what y'all said in mind. I guess all we can do is just try our best to gather as much knowledge about the process, to try as hard as we can, and give ourselves the best chance of achieving our dreams. Me asking this question/creating this thread is one way of doing that. I just want to know more and learn from other people's perspectives on this grueling experience.

Thanks again for all the valuable advice and perspectives! :) Hearing from everyone on this forum has been really fun and helpful.




 

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On 3/2/2018 at 8:56 AM, Sherrinford said:

However, and I think this is where clinical psych is quite different from most other PhD programs, you can be an amazing applicant and still not get in. It's a bit of a crapshoot sometimes and luck is definitely a factor. Someone can apply with the same credentials to the same program 1 year, not get in, apply the next year and get in. There are issues related to funding, whether the PI is taking students, whether the PI is colleagues with a certain applicant's LOR writers etc. 

This discussion has moved on but I just wanted to say that all the things you've listed are true of experimental psychology PhD programs too.

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