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How did you decide where to apply?

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Hi everyone. I am just wondering how you decided/are deciding where to apply to graduate school (what factors you are considering/considered, what is/was most important to you). Also, what information are you looking for when you research graduate programs and what questions do you usually have? 

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My top considerations for where to apply (which I will be doing this winter):


--Faculty research interests/fit

--Particulars about program

       -size of program (larger is better, up to a point)

       -perceived program climate


       -chances for internships

       -reputation of program

       -opportunity to explore/change research focus (see size of program)

--Chances of me being accepted based on GRE/GPA (I have a great GPA, but I'm taking the GRE at the end of June.)

--City/location appeal (I don't give a lot of weight to this b/c from my experience I can be happy living anywhere, depending on what I'm doing while I'm there.)

--Funding (listing this b/c funding is essential to me, but all the programs I'm looking at are funded)


I have a list of ten PhD programs and two master's programs.  Later in the summer I will begin contacting faculty at the PhD programs.  From those interactions my list of schools may change.


If there are other major factors I should consider, I would like to know about them!

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Faculty/Research fit, reputation/prestige of the school, funding/cost, and what proportion of the faculty are gangster.



I didn't really focus on odds of acceptance,

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I knew I wanted a research-heavy Clinical Psych PhD, so I went through the "Clinical Psych PhD" book and made a spreadsheet of all the programs that were very heavily research based (6s or 7s on a 1-7 scale). Then I went through all their websites and all their professors and kept the ones who had people with interesting research. A bit tedious, but reading so many research descriptions helped me figure out exactly what area I wanted to go into. I ended up applying to programs/faculty members within my area but also stretched my research towards other areas that were somewhat related that I wouldn't have necessarily thought of otherwise.


I then also looked at faculty members and programs within my resaerch area that weren't on my spreadsheet (either because they weren't as heavily research focused or because they weren't Clin Psych programs) and added a few of those- names I knew from reading research, or word-of-mouth, or things like that. I then emailed professors to see if they were taking students (a good number weren't) and then I got feedback on my list from various people in the field at that point (other students, my current mentor, other grad students, etc.). At the end, I ended up with a solid list of 12 programs with decent diversity in the program emphasis, program type, and even research focus a bit. It gave me a decent number of options when I interviewed so I was happy with how I approached the process.


Good luck!

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First, I thought about my profile and my goals to determine what "level" of program I would be applying to (or, more accurately, what mix of levels).  This will give you an idea where to start. I needed this to help narrow things down, because I am a transplant from a related field, and I wasn't as familiar with the scholarship in my area as some people are.  I also have relatively broad interests (my focus is in application of ideas more than specific theories), so I had a big potential pool. 


Then I spent hours (seriously -- you can't start this soon enough) reading through faculty research interests.  I made a spreadsheet (I strongly recommend that you start this early, too - it will save you time in the long run) of schools, and noted when I had gone through the faculty in my area.  If there were any good matches or potential matches, I listed them along with some notes about their interests, and considered the school a "possible" application.  Any school that was a "possible," I made note on the spreadsheet of when the application deadline was (you'll thank yourself in October if you do this now!), and I read through the requirements to make sure there were no surprises.  I also noted the application fee, along with anything else I thought I might want to know later but was likely to forget after combing through 50 school pages.


Once I had a list, I went back to faculty members that seemed the most interesting and did more research about them.  I also started talking to faculty in my area and asking them for ideas about people I should look into -- this is really a important step, but it's much better to already have a list yourself when you start to do this, because you will have a better idea who people are, and it's easier to give you advice if you already have some ideas.


I didn't email potential faculty POIs ahead of time -- you should.  Everyone agrees that you should, including me, I just...didn't.  For the record, that worked out okay for me, though I probably wasted a few application fees.  But it's good advice to do it.


I also didn't filter heavily on "program type" at the application stage.  If there are major, inflexible program attributes that are deal-breakers for you, then absolutely filter them ahead of time.  But I really felt that I was pretty flexible, if I could find the right fit.  I didn't even limit myself to departments labelled "psychology" -- I applied to faculty that I thought were good fits, regardless of the program label.1  I visited small departments and big departments, and as a result I got to really talk with students and faculty about the advantages and disadvantages of both.  Similarly, I visited programs where teaching is required and where it isn't, where there are a lot of required classes and where there aren't, big universities and small ones, a mountain town, a few big cities, and some rural schools.  I think it's really difficult to know how you'll feel about these kinds of things before you've seen them up close and as a prospective student, and if you're like me, even your established preferences about these things can be overcome by a great fit.  If I had filtered my applications based on my pre-application preferences, I wouldn't have even applied to school I wound up choosing.


Once you have a really comprehensive list, you can start to look at some bigger-picture things and narrow the list.  I thought about how much I could afford to spend on app fees (and then spent more, because, you know, I only wanted to do this process once!).  I thought about how good the fit was with faculty, and how many potential faculty POIs each school had.  I ended up applying very broadly, but I probably could have saved myself some time/money/hassle; the schools that were most interested in me were, universally, those with professors I had identified as the best matches for my interests.  It worked out well, but at the time I wasn't willing to bet too heavily on my assessment lining up with theirs, so I put in applications to faculty that were "good" matches but not "great" matches.


Then you can start getting application materials ready -- you'll probably make more cuts as you apply, if you're like me.  You'll want to prioritize your applications, keeping in mind due dates.  Know which applications are okay to cut, and which *must* get submitted. 


Good luck!



1 I should say that, although I advocate applying to anyone who is a great fit for your interests, in at least one case I did rule out a program that was just "too far" from my field.  The real problem wasn't label, though, it was that only one POI matched my interests.  Because the department was in a totally different field, there was no overlap between me and any other professors, which would have put me in a very precarious position.

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Bren, why did you want a program with a masters on the way to PhD?

Did anyone consider the number of citations referring to the professor's publications as a criteria for choosing a supervisor?

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I didn't look at number of citations. However, I did have grad students and a well-known adviser to guide me on who is known for what, or how reputable someone was. Then I looked at things like their CV (which I guess included all their citations, but I didn't look at it as a pure number- just made sure there were a decent amount and they regularly pushed out papers), their funding, their research focus, the size of their lab, and whether those lab members got papers and if so, what the author order was. But this was more of a holistic process, just to get a general feeling of the research productivity of the lab and the professor.


In my personal opinion, you don't want someone with just the most citations. For example, you could end up with someone who has been around for a long time, complacent, not as motivated to publish, etc. just because they are at the end of their career. It's better to find someone whose research interests match yours well, who has a good reputation, a good track record, and is somewhere between "up and coming" and "established" and still has enthusiasm and motivation.


I can't speak for Bren, but I know that some people prefer that option because if they decide to drop out of the program, they will at least be able to do so with their master's.

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One of the faculty at my current school, in a workshop on applying to and attending grad school, made the suggestion.  Her reasoning was that if, for some reason (life events, you find out you hate grad school, you get a debilitating illness, your career goals drastically change, etc) you do not finish the PhD program, you will at least have a master's after two or three years instead of walking away with nothing.  Of course, those accepted to a PhD program should move heaven and earth to finish their commitment.  Yet, apparently, attrition rates in PhD programs can be quite high.  There are surely varied reasons for attrition (personal v. program), but as I learned in social psych, it's more prudent to consider that the odds apply to me in the same way they apply to those around me. ;)  As it happens, all the schools I really want to go to do offer a master's on the way, so that did not play a part in my selection after all.


Another thing I'm finding, though, is that some programs that offer master's on the way to PhD will bump up the stipend after the master's.  I am sure the increased stipend comes with increased responsibilities, but that would be good for me.


(Now that I think about it, maybe someone should examine whether attrition is higher in programs which offer a master's on the way?  Anybody know of any studies on attrition in PhD programs?)

Edited by Bren2014
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