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Taking a break between an MA and a PhD...bad idea?


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I apologize for the following long-winded post....I really need to vent.

I'm finishing up a BA/MA at a CUNY school in general psychology. I have a good GPA (overall: 3.93 and major: 3.97) and lots of research experience (3+ years in one lab and 3 posters on which I am first author).

However, I also have bad GRE scores (M: 670 and V:570) and the research experience that I have is not a perfect fit for what I want to do in grad school. I want to do work on sleep and cognition and am thinking about cognition/neuro cognition programs. But I do not have experience in an actual sleep lab and I have not worked with any neuro imaging methods AT ALL....everything I've done so far has been on behavioral data.

Starting next month I will work in a lab that does a lot of work with ERPs, fMRIs and TMS. Also, the lab I have been in for the past three years will start doing actual sleep deprivation stuff. Finally, I know that there is a fellowship that will give me experience with PSGs next summer. If not, I can seek out that kind of training later this year. So, this gap year should help me get better research experience that will make me more competitive for the programs I am interested in.

I will also be either a TA or an instructor depending on what positions are available in the dept for next semester...I should know next week.

Now, I am wondering if it is a good idea to hold off on applying to PhD programs for a year, in effect, giving me two gap years instead of the one I had planned on before. This way I have stronger letters and some more relavent research experience. I have spoken to some of the labs i am interested in and they told me that they do not take people who do not have experience with PSGs, so, I would be at a disadvantage.

But, some of my professors have told meto just apply. Last year, I did not apply because I thought I would be more ready this year. I also said the same thing the year before. I am afraid that I am just making excuses and now I'm afraid that I might never go into a doctoral program. Does anyone else feel this way? Has anyone else been through this before?

Also, do you think it is a bad idea for me to apply to 5 programs I really, really want to go to (sort of like "pipe dream" schools/labs) this year? And hold off on "really" applying next year? So, if by some miracle I get in, I'll go and I will get the experience of going through the process. Will I be at a disadvantage if I apply to a lab in the next application if I am already rejected this cycle?

Edited by randompsychologist
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When I read the subject of your post, what immediately came to mind is "this individual should not take a break because s/he would lose a lot of momentum in her/his program of research". However, after reading your post, I don't think my knee-jerk really applies to your situation. Because you will remain immersed in doing research and you are in a transition phase (not only between programs but also between research streams) it may be helpful to take some time off. You will have the opportunity to build your CV and as long as you maintain a good connection with your potential referees, you could very well be in a much better position to apply to PhD programs later on.

I don't know how old you are, but you likely have quite a few years ahead and there is probably no rush to get your PhD. What I would emphasize again is that if you take some time off, be sure to keep your research momentum going. Admission comittees will see how active you were during your "downtime" and recognize that you are a candidate that is serious about pursuing a career in research.

Personally, I went straight from a terminal M.Sc. into a PhD program and switched research topics (defended thesis in late August, moved cities and started PhD in early September - not recommended!) - as a result I lost about a year of productivity because I had to get my bearings again in a new stream of literature that I was unfamiliar with. A part of me would have really appreciated some time off to relax and reassess my goals.

Lastly, regarding applications: consider that if you really really want to get into a school, you need to have a very solid application in order to have some hope of being accepted. I'm not referring to grades or GRE. Carefully drafting a statement of purpose that is customized to each school is going to be your most helpful tool to get in. This takes a lot of time (and a fair bit of money). If you feel that you will not get in for other reasons, it is perhaps better to hold off until you are in a more advantageous position to apply.

Hope this helps a bit. It is a tough decision and I wish you the best in making it.

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Lastly, regarding applications: consider that if you really really want to get into a school, you need to have a very solid application in order to have some hope of being accepted. I'm not referring to grades or GRE. Carefully drafting a statement of purpose that is customized to each school is going to be your most helpful tool to get in. This takes a lot of time (and a fair bit of money). If you feel that you will not get in for other reasons, it is perhaps better to hold off until you are in a more advantageous position to apply.

Hope this helps a bit. It is a tough decision and I wish you the best in making it.

That is a good point. If I am serious about applying for this cycle, I need to compile my list of schools, start contacting POIs and recommenders, and writting a personal statement NOW.

Sigh... I really, really have to think about this and make a decision soon :(

That extra year is starting to sound better. I can't believe you defended your thesis and then moved in a week. That's insane!

Edited by randompsychologist
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another thing to keep in mind is that additional research experience in your area of interest may help you narrow or shift your focus significantly. But, if you have had a clear, consistent idea of what you want to study for a while now, that may not be a factor.

Also, if you are looking into labs that focus primarily on EEG/ERP or fMRI, you will definitely be better off if you can show experience with those methodologies (that is, waiting to apply would be better). If a lab does some imaging and some behavioral, that you are learning it in the future may be enough, and applying now may be fine.

ETA: a practice application round may be helpful (would have been for me!), but I know some Ph.D.s who said their labs did not consider anyone who already applied previously. But, the process is so random you never know.

Edited by nessa
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It seems weird as an official policy--if that's the case--but makes some sense psychologically. If a candidate makes a bad first impression that could sour their second attempt, just like any other workplace.

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It seems weird as an official policy--if that's the case--but makes some sense psychologically. If a candidate makes a bad first impression that could sour their second attempt, just like any other workplace.

But what if I didn't make a bad impression, and instead it was down to me and one other person who was a slightly better fit? Then it just seems totally unfair.

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But what if I didn't make a bad impression, and instead it was down to me and one other person who was a slightly better fit? Then it just seems totally unfair.

Oh, I agree that it's dumb as a blanket policy because "just missed it because of fit" is different than somebody who had to take the GRE three times and whose first statement of interest was riddled with errors. I just meant that as an example for why someone might have a bias against repeat candidates--they may be trying to weed out the latter but unintentionally getting the former. (Baby out with the bathwater, etc)

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Oh, I agree that it's dumb as a blanket policy because "just missed it because of fit" is different than somebody who had to take the GRE three times and whose first statement of interest was riddled with errors. I just meant that as an example for why someone might have a bias against repeat candidates--they may be trying to weed out the latter but unintentionally getting the former. (Baby out with the bathwater, etc)

Ugh, that's really disheartening. I mean, I guess I can see the reasoning, but it really is unfair. It makes me worry even more about this upcoming application season, which will be my third attempt.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Sorry, didn't mean to worry people unnecessarily!

Are you serious?! Then I'm totally screwed. Did they give any reasoning for that?

No, I don't know- but I would be in touch with POIs if you are applying again before worrying too much. I think this practice is definitely the minority, but it was pointed out to me as an argument against doing a test run of applications, so I thought it would be good to pass on. But, before people get too worried, remember that POIs throw out applications for all sorts of random reasons. For clinical at least, it's so competitive they have to be pretty capricious to narrow down the applicants. Maybe you already applied, maybe they're looking for expertise in a really specific area, maybe they look for applicants with a certain degree or from a certain kind of school. You never know. Also, if they liked you but someone was a slightly better fit I feel they would be excited to give you a second chance if they could.

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