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FeministPsychologist

Reflections & Advice for Future Applicants

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Like many others in this thread, I have applied 3 times. I was completely unprepared the first time; I got 4 interviews the 2nd time, but was rejected from all; and I have been accepted this 3rd time, and to my top choice of programs. I've also learned a lot from this process, some of which I think is worth sharing:

Stop focusing on everyone else around you. I made the mistake of always comparing myself to both other applicants and students, and I always felt a sense of inadequacy. Even at the interviews, I always felt like I was the weakest candidate there and had no chance. Even during this current cycle, those thought persisted. For example: the program that accepted me interviewed 8-10 applicants per PI, so there were a LOT of people there. I thought for sure, I had no chance. Well folks - I got in! That goes to show that you have just as much a chance as anyone else at that interview. And, in general, you have no idea how well someone is going to mesh with a PI or program, so don't compare yourself to someone who you feel is superior.

Take your time. If you feel any sense of uncertainty, I would recommend taking a year or two off and working in a research setting. I was rejected after applying straight out of undergrad, and again the next year. I actually did not apply last cycle, due to a job commitment. However, I am very thankful for the experience I was able to gain in these 3 years I will have as a research assistant. I feel much more prepared for graduate school, and that definitely came across on my interviews. I have absolutely no doubt that this is what I want to do.

Prepare, but don't memorize. It is very important to practice answering some questions that may be thrown at you, to avoid looking like a "deer in headlights" during the actual interview. Topics like your research interests, potential study ideas, your past research experience (things you learned), and "why their program" are all pretty standard, and they expect you to be able to answer them with ease. However, you don't want it to come across like you've memorized a canned answer. The more natural your conversation flows, the more comfortable you feel, and the better rapport you have. Just be yourself - you know your stuff!

Don't give up! If this wasn't your time, it wasn't your time. Don't give up just yet. Of course, there may come a point where you at least consider another option, but give it a little time first. This process is grueling and competitive, and honestly, timing and luck definitely play a part, as well. You may be the most qualified candidate out there, but there was just someone else who meshed better with your POI. It was just the wrong place at the wrong time. Just remember to pick yourself back up, take a deep breath, and take another go at it. Mentally, physically, and financially, it's tough - but it's also an amazing learning experience. THis is weird to say...but I'm almost glad I was rejected so many times. The program I was accepted to was my top choice (I had never applied in the past), and I couldn't be happier. I am so much happier with this acceptance than I would have been with any of the other I interviewed at. 

 

Congratulations on all who were accepted, and best of luck to those who continue their application journeys. 

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5 hours ago, philopsych said:

This was talked about in another thread, but I want to see what you have to say about this. I have a niche interest and most of the schools that have labs working on it are top clinical programs. So, in addition to it being hard to get into a school to research what I want, it's also difficult to get research experience(who wouldn't want RA experience at one of the top programs). One of the PIs I interviewed with suggested that my best bet would be to get research experience in the techniques I want to use to pursue my niche interest, but maybe not the same topic (of course, same topic would be great, but it's just hard to find). Is this advice counter to the advice you've received?

I would say it's all about how you present your story and your path to research. If there was a lab in your area of interest but you preferred to work at another lab at the same institution for some reason, for example, your POI might question if you were serious about pursuing that field. The more niche your interest, the more understanding your POI would be, I would think, if it is generally harder to get those experiences. Although it's ideal to find a lab that checks off all those boxes, I think that's definitely a good idea to pursue research experiences at a lab that's 1) productive and will allow you to get paper and poster experiences and 2) will teach you statistical and research methodology you hope to use as a grad student. Then, it's all about packaging and how you present and justify those experiences to your POI. 

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On 4/4/2019 at 3:40 PM, buckeyepsych said:

I am not OP, but this would probably also be my biggest takeaway from a successful Round 2 of apps. Let's say you are interested in research topic X. If you apply to only labs that have X as a primary focus, you're going to be competing against every other applicant in the world who is also just as passionate about X as you are, and unfortunately, no matter how great your application is, it starts to become a game of chance in that scenario. Someone is probably going to edge you out based on a slightly better application or interview. On the other hand, if you apply to other labs who primarily study Y but perhaps did one project that included X or have been working in an area related to X, you can make a much more unique and convincing pitch that YOU are the one applicant who can bring this passion and experience for X to this lab that typically studies Y. 

^ this is still my biggest takeaway but I also want to say:

-If you can, do everything in your power to find a strong mentor for this process, ideally someone who got the degree that you want to get. They know the process well and it's a nice balance between all of these anonymous opinions you can find online and the advice of friends and family, who probably hold you in unconditionally positive regard. Find an awesome professor (or even advanced grad student) who will offer frank advice when needed but who still has your best interest at heart.

-While obviously applying to the maximum number of schools you can is a good strategy in terms of upping your chances of being admitted somewhere, I actually wouldn't necessarily give the advice to apply to a ton of schools to everyone. If you have a relatively niche research interest and/or you have certain other standards you want your program to have (i.e. having to do with funding, research rigor, teaching/clinical opportunities), the truth is there probably aren't 15-20 schools that fit the bill. Especially if you are like me and you are just getting started in your life post-undergrad, waiting another year (and another....and maybe another...) for the perfect program is probably a better choice long-term than attending a program that doesn't meet your standards.

Those are like my most important pieces of unsolicited advice lol. I am always happy to exchange messages if someone wants to talk more :)

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Now that application season is pretty much over, I've been able to get some feedback regarding my application. Some have pointed to weaknesses in my statement of purpose that I'm not exactly sure how to improve. With that being said, is there anyone that has been admitted this cycle or a previous one that would be willing to send me their successful SOP as an example? I'm mostly looking for ways to better express my interests and passions, as I have been told I was not the most successful in that area. 

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Here is a handout from a personal statement seminar I went to. 

I got some really solid advice from a good friend who is getting their PhD at Purdue, he talked about how to write your personal statement differently and interestingly without getting caught up in the natural formula that people use. Personal statements tend to be written chronologically. For example: "I've done A, I've done B, I've done C and those led me to D". There is nothing wrong with this, but there is a way to change it up so that your personal statement feels less formulaic and can highlight a lot more than just your resume/CV. 

Try writing your personal statement in terms of "themes". This is really hard to do because it forces you to look back on your life and analyze yourself like you are a character from a book haha. But I will show you what he sent me when I gave him my rough draft. Keep in mind that he helped me formulate this outline based on what I wrote, so yours could be very different: 

PARAGRAPH 1: Personal story

PARAGRAPH 2: Research interests: what questions interested you? 

  • How did your research mentor(s) introduce you to questions?

PARAGRAPH 3: Research application

  • How did you start answering questions/researching into your interests?
  • What were you doing to answer these questions

  • What did it show me (show that you know WHY you were doing research)

PARAGRAPH 4 - Research impact, personal motivation

  • How have you changed as a person through your research?

PARAGRAPH 5 - Future; grad school (what is your research?); job after grad school (professorship, teaching, research), societal/community impact

  • From your past research, how have you decided what you are going to do now

 

One good way to organize your personal statement is to write what your story chronologically, then highlight in different colors the different categories of the paragraphs shown above. For example, highlight everything yellow in your personal statement that has to do with "research impact and personal motivation" and then organize your essay by color and see if you can get it to flow. If anything, this is a great exercise to conceptualize your own life, which is a super hard feat. Personal statements are very hard because of this reason. 

 

Hope this helped! Let me know if you have any questions 

 

Writing a Personal Statement_2018_handout.pdf

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3 hours ago, PsychedforPsych2 said:

 I'm mostly looking for ways to better express my interests and passions, as I have been told I was not the most successful in that area. 

 

4 minutes ago, hlr20 said:

Try writing your personal statement in terms of "themes". This is really hard to do because it forces you to look back on your life and analyze yourself like you are a character from a book haha. 

I second what @hlr20 said! Themes not only allow you to express your interests in a clever way, but can also make your personal statement much more cohesive and meaningful. Thank you for sharing your outline! 

Here is an idea of the outline I used for most of my statements (which I then tailored to each program I applied to based on a format they expected). Keep in mind, I applied to a scientist-practitioner program so it's not solely about research. 

PARAGRAPH 1: Personal story; introduce theme.

  • Strong hook that connects to a theme you are trying to convey.  
  • Thesis = I am applying to X program at Y university to do Z research. 

PARAGRAPH 2: Relevant volunteer/job experiences (my research interests correlated much more with my non-research experience in terms of the population I am interested in working with)

  • How have you grown through these experiences?
  • How have these experiences influenced the research interests you are pursuing?

PARAGRAPH 3: Research experience

  • What have your previous research experiences taught you?
  • What gap have you noticed in research?

PARAGRAPHS 4/5 - WHO do you want to work with in this program (if applicable), and WHY this program?

  • What are your specific research interests, and which professor are you interested in working with based on those interests? How can their experience help you?
  • How will this program specifically help you reach your goals? Try to tie in aspects of the program to your personal interests. (Ex: The social justice orientation of this program aligns with my desire to support marginalized populations.)
    • Make sure to explicitly mention your goals and tie them in to the training provided by the program (Ex: The vast teaching opportunities in this program will help me be prepared for a career in academia.)

PARAGRAPH 6 - Summarize, explain societal/community impact

  • Why is this research needed, and why is it urgent?
  • Why are you the best fit for this type of research and program?

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Did anyone conduct a mock interview?

I had lunch with my friend, mentor, and recommendation writer (PsyD), and she put me on the spot, grilling me on every aspect of why I chose the school, why a PhD, what my research interests are, which professors were aligned with my goals, how my professional experience made me a strong candidate, what I wanted to do afterwards, etc, etc.

It was helpful insofar as it really allowed me to practice expressing my thoughts to someone who could actually appreciate the answers, rather than talking to family and friends who have no specialized knowledge in or appreciation of the field.

It was a useful rehearsal.

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On 4/12/2019 at 1:48 PM, FeministPsychologist said:

 

I second what @hlr20 said! Themes not only allow you to express your interests in a clever way, but can also make your personal statement much more cohesive and meaningful. Thank you for sharing your outline! 

Here is an idea of the outline I used for most of my statements (which I then tailored to each program I applied to based on a format they expected). Keep in mind, I applied to a scientist-practitioner program so it's not solely about research. 

PARAGRAPH 1: ..... etc etc 

That pretty much sums up how I approached my statement.

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I don't know if this is advice or just a reality check. Whatever it is, I hope it's helpful.

You're going to be told by many people that you're super intelligent with a lot of accomplishments so you're basically guaranteed to get a spot in a PhD program and probably a top one. You are super intelligent and accomplished, but it's REALLY hard to get into a program. You're competing against people who are just as super intelligent and accomplished as you (maybe more so). Don't feel entitled to a spot. Don't put a ton of pressure on yourself that you MUST get in this year. Do apply to a realistic set of schools (not everyone can get into a top school and not every top school is right for you)

 

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12 hours ago, philopsych said:

I don't know if this is advice or just a reality check. Whatever it is, I hope it's helpful.

You're going to be told by many people that you're super intelligent with a lot of accomplishments so you're basically guaranteed to get a spot in a PhD program and probably a top one. You are super intelligent and accomplished, but it's REALLY hard to get into a program. You're competing against people who are just as super intelligent and accomplished as you (maybe more so). Don't feel entitled to a spot. Don't put a ton of pressure on yourself that you MUST get in this year. Do apply to a realistic set of schools (not everyone can get into a top school and not every top school is right for you)

 

This is a great observation.

My wife became a little frustrated that I agonized over my personal statement, ending up with about 15 drafts to produce the final product, haha. While I may fixate on details and become a little obsessive, the PS can hurt your application if you make an error or don't communicate well.

In an effort to be supportive, people will downplay the significance of elements they don't understand. While the perfect is the enemy of good, you should be serious in your preparation and execution.

It is possible to find balance between building unrealistic expectations and being afraid to try. You can't anticipate with absolute certainty what a POI and admissions committee will respond well to. Some elements you can control more easily than others: GRE, GPA, personal statement, and reaching out to POI. Some are more difficult: research, professional, and life experiences, your personality, the personality of faculty, funding, the saturation and relevance of your area of research interest, and the strength of recommendation letters, etc.

If I wasn't geographically constrained, I may well have applied for top schools, just to see what I was capable of. As it stands, I'm incredibly happy I have this opportunity in front of me. To be honest, I'm glad I only joined this forum once my application process was over, or I may never have completed it. The advice and guidance here is both generous and overwhelming. This is a process, not a binary result, not pass/fail; understand that not getting in this cycle isn't really failure unless you reject the opportunity to learn and grow.

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On 4/3/2019 at 5:35 PM, Psyhopeful said:

One thing I wish I had done was started much earlier, and really spent time researching programs and figuring out exactly what I wanted to study. I was late to the party in understanding that sometimes the people doing the research you want to do aren't in the department you think they're in. It was in the process of writing my statement that I started to see more clearly what I wanted to focus on and then I realized that some of my initial application choices weren't the best fit, and I needed to look elsewhere. It was near the end of the application season when I found that many of the people studying media effects on children were psychologists in communication departments. I'm so glad I discovered this because I was very successful with those applications, but I see all of the programs I could've applied to that might have also been great opportunities if I'd had more time.

I think this ties into something I said in my post:

"Know your potential niche. If you're not reading much about your specialty in your spare time, are you really that interested?"

If I wasn't as old as I am, with a family, and was able to study anywhere in the country, I would focus on finding the top academics publishing in my area of interest and see where they taught or what departments they were attached to, rather than to focus on schools specifically. I'd ask academics and non-academics alike who the top researchers in my field of interest were: it appears that plenty of grad students, as well as sufferers or advocates of certain conditions or issues, write blogs pertinent to their area of interest. They are a fantastic resource.

I'd also look at federal grant-issuing bodies, such as the NIMH for insight into where the money is going and what it's paying for:

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/funding/opportunities-announcements/index.shtml

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/funding/opportunities-announcements/funding-amp-grant-news.shtml

I think if you develop a well-defined set of evaluation criteria, the programs you apply to will be highly relevant for you and rank themselves naturally. This will make it easier to decide between choices when you get accepted to your top 3 programmes! :)

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