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It's almost over...lessons learned 2018


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I realize the application season is far from over for many of you, but I felt it's a good time to be retrospective. I wanted to share some of my anecdotes and qualitative data in hopes that it will help those in the future.

Before I begin: this is based on my subjective experience and is not meant to be interpreted as prescriptive. I applied to a combination of I/O Psych and Measurement programs, thus this may be less relevant to some of you- I don't think that will be the case.

Here are some thoughts looking back:

Grad Cafe

The beauty of Grad Cafe (though cliché) is the journey. Many applicants will not visit this place, many will avoid it like the plague, many will lurk. The exceptions provide invaluable information, they empathize, and even sympathize. This process is one that validates and demeans, it's not clean, knowing that you're not alone does so much. You learn about your "competition"- that they are just as smart and accomplished as you; they also are kind and helpful, I found solace in the fact that a deserving person was accepted when I was not. You start building your network here. These people may be in your cohort, may see you at a conference, or may score you a job in the future, so make it count.

Clean the Results Survey...

I did a project a while back trying to crowd-source some data to help those applying. I quickly realized that the results survey is a garbage-fire. All of the open-ended text boxes (i.e., program, school) are very unclean. It does have a predictive component but if someone types something incorrectly others will start getting that as a predictive option. It is also hard to find particular hybrid programs, so I think a tagging taxonomy would bode well. I've emailed the admins about this. The benefit of Grad Cafe can be improved by cleaning the user-experience. This would be a good place for sourcing how grad students deal with rejection or giving particular programs a profile in terms of when they respond to students. You'd need to control for self-selection, but I see this providing a huge benefit to society. Admins clean up the response strings and make the tag structure more defined....constructive feedback, don't delete this post. 

 

Initial Email

-The most underestimated part of the application process

Most of us are highly conscientious so bugging a person we don't know may be excruciating.  Funding is the name of the game for many programs. If you apply to the wrong lab it doesn't matter how strong of an applicant you are. Take the time to send an email to figure out who is planning on taking students. I also find that emailing the current students is both less intimidating and more insightful so do not shy away from this. Another thing this will help is your personal statement. I spent so much time specifying advisers  just to find out that some of the programs don't want you working with just one person. The program websites are always filled with obsolete information, get current information from those living it.
 

GRE/GPA

- A perfect GRE/GPA score will not guarantee your acceptance

If this was the case no program would have an interview portion nor would you have to submit CVs and Personal Statements. Obviously, programs will use the quantitative metrics (GPA and GRE) when convenient, so in the beginning when the pool is large. Programs may get 300 applicants so selecting 30 to interview would be tedious without a common scale. The first filter will be a quantitative metric and if you aren't above average...none of your other qualifications is going to fix that.  You can't change your GPA but you can improve your GRE. I've heard all sorts of metrics: (Quant + Verbal) * GPA, sometimes programs will weigh verbal more or quant more, you never know. You want to make the first cut, so don't think you need the highest score because chances are you won't have it. Shoot for that 75th-80th percentile. Some of you may think that it is impossible but it's not, this is coming from someone that increased their GRE score by 20 points in a short amount of time. If you're struggling go here. The GRE is based upon adaptive Item Response Theory (IRT) so focus on increasing your mastery of the more difficult questions.

 

Personal Statement

- Don't overthink it

I spent most of my time doing these. I'm a terrible writer. There is no special sauce, no formula. Just don't tell a 2-page story about your grandma dying. I do suggest demonstrating that you know how to craft a research idea relevant to your person of interest. Also if you see research that they've done where the findings relate to an experience you've had....golden. I asked over 20 professors (from different programs) if they had to choose just one: GPA/GRE, Personal Statement & Recommendations, or CV and Research experience to select a candidate, which would they choose? No one said personal statement. Once again I'm in the area of I/O, so other areas may differ but none of us are in Creative Writing.

 

Research/CV

-You do research in a PhD program, so research experience is critical

This is the area I lack. My estimation is that it is why I got rejected from places, and is what sets apart the candidates after the GRE/GPA hurdle. I would really love to see the stats for applicants that got 75th percentile on the GRE with publications versus an applicant that is in the 99th percentile without research experience. A vast majority of the professors I spoke to said if they had to select a candidate based on 1 metric that they would choose CV and Research experience. It makes sense because students will be doing research. Don't underestimate how you layout your research experience on your CV. If you can get on MTurk and code someone's data or if you can present to a small clinic or non-profit, do it. 

 

Interviews & Recruitment Days

- It's all about the questions. Don't be vanilla.

 I didn't dress the best. I'm sure I creeped out all the current students and applicants, but they remembered me. Ask good questions, I can't emphasize this enough. 100% of the interview/recruitment days I went to accepted me afterwards. I definitely wasn't the smartest person there, but I asked good questions. Don't ask things you can learn from a follow-up email or on the website. Act like you're about to marry them, or that you're on a Tinder date 4 glasses of wine in. 

Some examples (all of which I've used):

For students: What would you improve about your program? What class was a waste of time? What are 3 things your adviser can do better? If you had to punish someone deeply, what professor would you handcuff them to?  How much time have you spend off-campus with those in your cohort? How much of your weekend is spent doing work? My favorite: If all of the faculty participated in the Amazing Race with a clone of a generic student, who would you put your money on? Who would drop out?

For faculty: What are three adjectives your students would use to describe you? What is a unique skill you offer that the other faculty do not? If you could add a course from the core-curriculum, which would you pick? In your opinion what proportion of a PhD student's time should be spent in the following areas: Assistantship, Coursework, Research, Personal Life? From your perspective what is the biggest social challenge? emotional challenge? and financial challenge? a student faces in grad school.

 

One love...

Thank you all,

 

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Overall great advice! The only part I would add to is the section about GRE. Most top 30 programs will cut you if you're GRE is too low but this is not true for the rest. My GRE is absolute garbage, I mean HOT, wafting garbage, yet I'm on two waiting lists for 2 Clinical Psych PhD programs (prayers for me). I think it's more important that people pay attention to the school's requirements. Most are forthcoming with whether or not the GRE has a cut off or if they take a more "wholesome" application approach. Lastly, I was actually rejected by Michigan State because they said they wanted to hear more from me in my personal statement (yea...of all things to be rejected for. lol). I though the rest of my app did the talking but it turns out Personal Statements are maybe a liiiiittle more important than we'd care for them to be. But again, great advice and that's awesome you collected data/feedback for everyone! Hopefully people actually use it lol

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11 hours ago, Left Skew said:

I realize the application season is far from over for many of you, but I felt it's a good time to be retrospective. I wanted to share some of my anecdotes and qualitative data in hopes that it will help those in the future.

Before I begin: this is based on my subjective experience and is not meant to be interpreted as prescriptive. I applied to a combination of I/O Psych and Measurement programs, thus this may be less relevant to some of you- I don't think that will be the case.

Here are some thoughts looking back:

Grad Cafe

The beauty of Grad Cafe (though cliché) is the journey. Many applicants will not visit this place, many will avoid it like the plague, many will lurk. The exceptions provide invaluable information, they empathize, and even sympathize. This process is one that validates and demeans, it's not clean, knowing that you're not alone does so much. You learn about your "competition"- that they are just as smart and accomplished as you; they also are kind and helpful, I found solace in the fact that a deserving person was accepted when I was not. You start building your network here. These people may be in your cohort, may see you at a conference, or may score you a job in the future, so make it count.

Clean the Results Survey...

I did a project a while back trying to crowd-source some data to help those applying. I quickly realized that the results survey is a garbage-fire. All of the open-ended text boxes (i.e., program, school) are very unclean. It does have a predictive component but if someone types something incorrectly others will start getting that as a predictive option. It is also hard to find particular hybrid programs, so I think a tagging taxonomy would bode well. I've emailed the admins about this. The benefit of Grad Cafe can be improved by cleaning the user-experience. This would be a good place for sourcing how grad students deal with rejection or giving particular programs a profile in terms of when they respond to students. You'd need to control for self-selection, but I see this providing a huge benefit to society. Admins clean up the response strings and make the tag structure more defined....constructive feedback, don't delete this post. 

 

Initial Email

-The most underestimated part of the application process

Most of us are highly conscientious so bugging a person we don't know may be excruciating.  Funding is the name of the game for many programs. If you apply to the wrong lab it doesn't matter how strong of an applicant you are. Take the time to send an email to figure out who is planning on taking students. I also find that emailing the current students is both less intimidating and more insightful so do not shy away from this. Another thing this will help is your personal statement. I spent so much time specifying advisers  just to find out that some of the programs don't want you working with just one person. The program websites are always filled with obsolete information, get current information from those living it.
 

GRE/GPA

- A perfect GRE/GPA score will not guarantee your acceptance

If this was the case no program would have an interview portion nor would you have to submit CVs and Personal Statements. Obviously, programs will use the quantitative metrics (GPA and GRE) when convenient, so in the beginning when the pool is large. Programs may get 300 applicants so selecting 30 to interview would be tedious without a common scale. The first filter will be a quantitative metric and if you aren't above average...none of your other qualifications is going to fix that.  You can't change your GPA but you can improve your GRE. I've heard all sorts of metrics: (Quant + Verbal) * GPA, sometimes programs will weigh verbal more or quant more, you never know. You want to make the first cut, so don't think you need the highest score because chances are you won't have it. Shoot for that 75th-80th percentile. Some of you may think that it is impossible but it's not, this is coming from someone that increased their GRE score by 20 points in a short amount of time. If you're struggling go here. The GRE is based upon adaptive Item Response Theory (IRT) so focus on increasing your mastery of the more difficult questions.

 

Personal Statement

- Don't overthink it

I spent most of my time doing these. I'm a terrible writer. There is no special sauce, no formula. Just don't tell a 2-page story about your grandma dying. I do suggest demonstrating that you know how to craft a research idea relevant to your person of interest. Also if you see research that they've done where the findings relate to an experience you've had....golden. I asked over 20 professors (from different programs) if they had to choose just one: GPA/GRE, Personal Statement & Recommendations, or CV and Research experience to select a candidate, which would they choose? No one said personal statement. Once again I'm in the area of I/O, so other areas may differ but none of us are in Creative Writing.

 

Research/CV

-You do research in a PhD program, so research experience is critical

This is the area I lack. My estimation is that it is why I got rejected from places, and is what sets apart the candidates after the GRE/GPA hurdle. I would really love to see the stats for applicants that got 75th percentile on the GRE with publications versus an applicant that is in the 99th percentile without research experience. A vast majority of the professors I spoke to said if they had to select a candidate based on 1 metric that they would choose CV and Research experience. It makes sense because students will be doing research. Don't underestimate how you layout your research experience on your CV. If you can get on MTurk and code someone's data or if you can present to a small clinic or non-profit, do it. 

 

Interviews & Recruitment Days

- It's all about the questions. Don't be vanilla.

 I didn't dress the best. I'm sure I creeped out all the current students and applicants, but they remembered me. Ask good questions, I can't emphasize this enough. 100% of the interview/recruitment days I went to accepted me afterwards. I definitely wasn't the smartest person there, but I asked good questions. Don't ask things you can learn from a follow-up email or on the website. Act like you're about to marry them, or that you're on a Tinder date 4 glasses of wine in. 

Some examples (all of which I've used):

For students: What would you improve about your program? What class was a waste of time? What are 3 things your adviser can do better? If you had to punish someone deeply, what professor would you handcuff them to?  How much time have you spend off-campus with those in your cohort? How much of your weekend is spent doing work? My favorite: If all of the faculty participated in the Amazing Race with a clone of a generic student, who would you put your money on? Who would drop out?

For faculty: What are three adjectives your students would use to describe you? What is a unique skill you offer that the other faculty do not? If you could add a course from the core-curriculum, which would you pick? In your opinion what proportion of a PhD student's time should be spent in the following areas: Assistantship, Coursework, Research, Personal Life? From your perspective what is the biggest social challenge? emotional challenge? and financial challenge? a student faces in grad school.

 

One love...

Thank you all,

 

I like your questions!

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I would also like to add a bit about what I learned. First of all, SAVE UP SOME MONEY. This process is expensive. :(

Anyway, I am a weird applicant. I majored in neuroscience and all of my research experience is in basic neuroscience (although I have a lot of clinical experience as well). I applied to clinical psychology Ph.D. programs, really not knowing what to expect since I lacked pure psychology experience. I sent out initial emails to confirm my POIs were accepting students (which like was said, is SO important to do - don't waste $50+ applying to work with someone who isn't taking students that cycle). I will say, I think I personally read too much into how enthusiastic POIs were about me as an applicant based on their responses to that initial email. Once interviews rolled around, I found myself surprised by who actually interviewed me and who didn't because it was not always the people I expected. 

I think my personal statement is what got me into graduate school though. I was able to tell the story of my weird journey from another field to clinical psychology, how my interests developed, and why my tangentially-related background actually makes me a great (and unique!) fit for the programs/labs I applied to work in. You're going to hear this a billion times but it's so true: it's ALL about fit. You won't get into a lab if it isn't clear how your interest in that lab developed from your experience. Oh, and yes, you definitely need research experience if you want to apply to a Ph.D. program. For research-oriented clinical Ph.D. programs, I would say most applicants that I met on interviews had 2 or more years of dedicated research in labs.

And interviews, like everyone always says, are ALL about your questions. At one program I interviewed at, I did not get asked a single question. They had already phone interviewed me before I got there, so I guess that was enough for them. Have questions on questions on questions ready for your POI, other faculty members, and other students. And keep an open mind when visiting programs. I ended up not liking a program I thought I would love, and loving a program I thought I wouldn't be super into. 

I think GradCafe has been an awesome part of the process for me, though. This is just such a confusing and stressful process, and it's nice to have a bunch of confused and stressed out people virtually commiserating with you. :-P Best of luck to everyone moving forward! 

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- I wrote about my dying grandmother (albeit 3-4 sentences, certainly not two pages) in my personal statement, and got 9 interviews at R1 PhD programs in clinical psychology. I also have a garbage GPA and GRE. Write about what feels organic and authentic to your personal narrative, even if it feels cliche. 

- Seek out excellent letters of recommendation, as opposed to simply "good" ones. I sincerely underestimated how important this was until I identified writers that could speak to my character, research productivity, and integrity as someone to work with. This was something that was brought up in almost every conversation I had with prospective PI's at my interviews/pre-interviews. 

- EXUDE EXCITEMENT. My god, if someone hit me over the face with a brick about this, I may have avoided at least 2 confirmed 1st alternate waitlists due to my lack thereof. I am not an innately excitable person. I come from the northeast...we're grumpy and lack vitamin D. Its incredibly difficult for me to fake excitement, despite great interest in the PI's I applied to work with. I aired on the side of neutrality (not to be confused with being rude/standoffish). I didn't drop the "this program is my top choice, I will come here if I get an acceptance" lines, etc. I think this was just true to my personality, but if you're able to be extra peppy, you may avoid being waitlisted like me

...the story ends well, I got 4 acceptances so I guess Im not that big of a dick ;) 

 

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I really like how you mention to reach out. That was something that I didnt do my first go around, and was waitlisted at 3 schools. This year I contacted every single POI and got 6 interviews and accepted to all 6. I think it started with just reaching out, saying something meaningful about their work and how it related to mine. I would continuously get the canned response of, "I look forward to reading your application". But I think making any kind of connection is going to be extremely helpful, especially if you say something that they will remember. I ended up getting accepted to my top choice (R1 PhD), and my POI remembered what I had said to him during email, the research questions that I was asking him, and how I went beyond just the typical "I think you're lab is a perfect fit for me...". So please, if you're going to do one thing, make sure to reach out to your POI before even applying; it can really make a difference and get you into a fully funded program!

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I would personally also advise folks to not be super intimidated about applying to the "most competitive" schools. For instance, I'll be going to my first choice school in the fall and it's an R1 and ranked as the number one program in my field. I was super intimidated to apply there and even considered not applying because 1. I had heard the environment was very competitive, 2. I didn't think it was worth my time/money because my GRE and GPA are only average, and 3. I literally heard people make jokes (in passing) about how no one ever gets into this program so why even bother trying. Ultimately, I applied because my research fit was excellent and I ended up getting in! While interviewing I found that the school did not have nearly as much of a competitive environment as I thought it did initially, and I actually ended up loving the program. Not sure if this will help anyone else out but I thought I would share my experience!

 

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18 minutes ago, PsychPotato said:

I would personally also advise folks to not be super intimidated about applying to the "most competitive" schools. For instance, I'll be going to my first choice school in the fall and it's an R1 and ranked as the number one program in my field. I was super intimidated to apply there and even considered not applying because 1. I had heard the environment was very competitive, 2. I didn't think it was worth my time/money because my GRE and GPA are only average, and 3. I literally heard people make jokes (in passing) about how no one ever gets into this program so why even bother trying. Ultimately, I applied because my research fit was excellent and I ended up getting in! While interviewing I found that the school did not have nearly as much of a competitive environment as I thought it did initially, and I actually ended up loving the program. Not sure if this will help anyone else out but I thought I would share my experience!

 

This is a great point. I also ended up getting into a school I thought I had no shot at. My GPA was below my school's average and my quant GRE was also slightly below their average, but I had a great research fit and lots of experience. Try to not get too hung up worrying about where you can get in numbers-wise (within reason) and focus on where you fit. Apply to schools you want to attend because you never know what could happen. 

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I applied to clinical psych programs and was advised by several people not to mention my history with an eating disorder in my personal statements -- this was a big reason why I got into psychology in the first place. I did it anyway. I applied to 12 programs, interviewed at 5, waitlisted at 3, and admitted to 2 (one of which was my top choice!) 

So just be yourself. Be honest. Be you. I was and it turned out pretty well for me! No one knows everything about the process so don't be afraid to take risks sometimes.

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23 hours ago, Jayne said:

I applied to clinical psych programs and was advised by several people not to mention my history with an eating disorder in my personal statements -- this was a big reason why I got into psychology in the first place. I did it anyway. I applied to 12 programs, interviewed at 5, waitlisted at 3, and admitted to 2 (one of which was my top choice!) 

So just be yourself. Be honest. Be you. I was and it turned out pretty well for me! No one knows everything about the process so don't be afraid to take risks sometimes.

Glad to hear you got in,  but generally it’s not wise to *overly* discuss your psychological past. There’s ways to do it in personal statements and interviews that is just enough info for background without going overboard and making yourself look unstable. People tend to advise against talking about personal issues because it can make you look unstable, and especially for funded programs (which are investing as much in you as you are in them), they want to be as sure/safe as they can about their choice. 

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Great idea to compile all the lessons we've learned! Here's hoping it'll help next year's round of applicants. I was fortunate enough to receive interviews from all 5 programs I applied for, and offers from 4 (one waitlist). It's been a whirlwind, but an incredible experience! As a bit of context, I applied for Psychology PhD programs, specifically for Cognitive Neuroscience (memory). Below are my tips.

 

Applications

  • Choosing programs
    • As a starting point, speak to your current mentor (if you have one) about where to begin your search. Post docs and PIs have excellent advice about big names in the field, up-and-coming researchers, mentorship styles, and the inside scoop about the atmosphere of different institutions.
    • Only apply to programs that you would seriously consider attending. If you know that you would definitely not want to take an offer from a backup school, don't bother in the first place. I have friends who submitted a dozen applications, multiple to places that they weren't very excited about, just in the hopes that something would stick. When it came time for interviews, they realized that it was impossible to proceed with multiple conflicts, and they had to triage.
  • Application components
    • Letters of reference are SO important. I was lucky to have developed really fantastic relationships with PIs at my undergrad institution, and they apparently provided such high praise that it was repeatedly mentioned when I attended interviews.
    • My current mentor gave me excellent advice about writing my personal statement. Of course you should convey that you are passionate about your chosen research topic, but bear in mind that when everyone says the same sort of thing, claims of passion fall hollow. Instead, focus on highlighting your own unique accomplishments right off the bat, in the first paragraph. What are the key points of your past experiences that demonstrate that you have the necessary skills and enthusiasm?
    • I fretted over my GRE scores because the quant component was lower than I had been getting on practice tests. I considered re-taking, but ultimately decided not to, and I am very glad that I did not waste my time and money on another shot. It didn't pose a problem in admissions, and nobody commented on test scores at all in any of my interviews.
    • One program that I applied to "strongly recommended" the Psych subject test of the GRE, but I decided that I didn't want to bother taking it (again, time and money). Omitting the subject test didn't seem to hurt my application at all.

 

Interview Trips

  • Travelling
    • Always dress for your travel day in an outfit that you would be okay with wearing to the first interview event. At 2 of my 5 interviews, I experienced massive travel delays. I lost all the buffer time in my schedule and ended up going directly to the first event from the airport.
    • If the travel agent sends you an itinerary that you don't like (e.g., leaving very early in the morning after the end-of-interview party), you can just ask for a different one. 
    • Travel-sized dry shampoo will save your life.
    • Would recommend bringing some melatonin pills. Personally, I am a night owl, and interviews required shifting my sleep-wake cycle by quite a few hours. Combine that with nerves, and it can be very hard to sleep without some help.
  • Interviews
    • There will be many profs interviewing you, not just those you mentioned in your application. Many of them will conduct research that is completely irrelevant to your interests, but that's okay. You do not have to feign interest in joining their lab. I suggest looking up their lab website blurb and the abstracts of a few recent publications. Try to do some theory of mind and imagine what sort of angle they would take when hearing about your own research projects. You can change the way you frame your research to match the sorts of questions and methods that they clearly favor.
    • The best possible preparation for knowing what to say in an interview is to have presented a poster on your research projects in the past. If you have that experience, then you have several versions (varying in brevity) of a walk-through speech about each of your projects. You'll also have learned how to deal with interruptions  and questions. If you haven't presented a poster on your research, I would strongly suggest practicing telling that scientific narrative.
    • When you meet with graduate students, remain on guard! Remember that they are there because they care about what they do, and they want a peer who will be like-minded. At my home institution, I overheard graduate students in my lab discussing how an interviewee had made a poor impression by asking "fun" questions instead of sensible ones (e.g., "What are your favorite pizza toppings? What would your lab mascot be?"). The "middle-school sleepover" vibes made them think that she did not take the research seriously.
    • You may think that you have a "ranking" of your program choices in your head, but keep an open mind! I went into the interview process agonized about not knowing which school I wanted to attend. After my second interview, I was completely convinced that I had found the right place for me. I was wrong! Interview #3 changed my mind, but not until I had taken several days to process everything. I strongly encourage you to attend all interviews and treat each one as a serious mission to get all the information you might need, even if you think that you don't want to attend the school.
    • Other applicants will have impressive backgrounds, but try not to succumb to imposter syndrome. If they invited you to interview, you earned that spot. As I am still finishing up my undergrad, I was a little intimidated to find that the vast majority of other prospective students were around 4-5 years my senior. We had different experiences, but each one of us deserved to be there.

 

Making a Decision

  • If a program wants you, you will know. They will make that very clear with strong and swift communication, friendly follow-ups from POIs, messages from current graduate students, offers to answer additional questions, etc. Personally, I thought that such positive and prompt responses seemed to reflect a department that values its students and has a solid organizational infrastructure in place, both important things to consider.
  • You are in data collection mode until the end game. Don't worry if you're halfway through the process and you still have no idea where you want to go. Just keep on doing your best to learn more about each program!
  • You can get a dozen opinions and attack the problem with rationality (I initially tried making a giant spreadsheet with 20 criteria weighted by importance...), but ultimately, you should choose a program that feels right. That comes down to research fit, interpersonal dynamic with the POI,  and potential future peers (Could you see yourself being friends, or are people competitive? Do you care?). Personally, I was looking for a program that was interdisciplinary and collaborative, PIs who were approachable and responsive, and peers who would be friendly and genuinely passionate about their research.
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On 3/16/2018 at 5:03 PM, Jayne said:

I applied to clinical psych programs and was advised by several people not to mention my history with an eating disorder in my personal statements -- this was a big reason why I got into psychology in the first place. I did it anyway. I applied to 12 programs, interviewed at 5, waitlisted at 3, and admitted to 2 (one of which was my top choice!) 

How were you tastefully able to include your ED experience in your statement? I have a similar background (it's the reason I got into psychology and I want to do research in the area) but I don't want it to come across as if I don't have an identity beyond "recovered anorexic" .___.

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  • 2 weeks later...
On 3/12/2018 at 9:59 AM, SarahTonin said:

For research-oriented clinical Ph.D. programs, I would say most applicants that I met on interviews had 2 or more years of dedicated research in labs.

Hi @SarahTonin - do you mean they had 2 years of experience while doing their undergrad? Or 2 years full time after graduation? Thanks!

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35 minutes ago, dougie said:

Hi @SarahTonin - do you mean they had 2 years of experience while doing their undergrad? Or 2 years full time after graduation? Thanks!

Either! Some people interviewing hadn’t even graduated undergrad yet. Others were a few years out of school. But it seemed that most people had about 1-2 years total over all of their time. 

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