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Seeking advice... Master's and Ph.D.


L83Ste

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I recently graduated with a B. S. in Psychology (seeking a Ph.D. in Social Psychology). I also graduated with highest distinction (4.0 GPA) and Honors because I completed the Honors Program requirements. My GRE scores were okay, I would have liked better. 160V 155Q 5.0AWA. I know I have a strong transcript. 73% of my grades on my transcript show an A+. I have two years of TA experience in statistics. I have also tutored for probably 10 different courses with people of different skill levels and backgrounds. I was also the president of psychology club and we did several outreach events this semester including sending gift boxes to soldiers, helping needy families on campus, and gathering about $2,000 worth of toys for a children's hospital. I don't know how important the club events were to my CV, but we did accomplish several goals this semester! I was also the vice president of our school's Psi Chi chapter. I have presented research four times including two presentations at Honors conferences, one at the MPA, and one, recently, in NYC at the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics conference. I am currently researching with a faculty member and this is my second year with him. I'm in the process of writing my first manuscript as second author, but I have no publications. While my grades are good, I'm not sure what "competitive research experience" actually means. Does anyone have any information on that? It's not important to me to get into a top 10 school. I would rather have a school where I'm comfortable with the researcher that is a pretty good school. 

 

I am in panic mode right now. I am a nontraditional student and my husband prefers if we do not move. We have two children, so if we moved it would be uprooting the whole clan. It's about more than my dreams right now. Anyway, I applied to only three schools this year. Two of them are within driving distance and the other is with the researcher that I think is my best fit. The thing is, my husband just beat cancer for the second time this year. He literally finished chemo about five months ago. It has been one awful year! 

 

I'm not as confident with the two schools nearby because I know the fit is better at the distant school. I might get in, but I'm not holding my breath. I am planning right now for three rejections simply because I like to be prepared. There is another school within driving distance that offers a Master's in Social Psychology, but not a Ph.D. The other three programs I applied to were Ph.D. because they were combined. The fit is not that great with the Master's at that school, but the researcher said that students are basically free to explore various areas of research and work with many faculty members. I can still apply to that program if I don't get in the other three. If I get rejected, would it be better to apply to this school for the Master's program that I think I can get into, or should I focus more on doing as much research as possible and finding more schools to apply to for the following year? I see so many people with Master's degrees that are applying to Ph.D. programs that it makes me wonder if I should look for separate programs rather than combined. Any thoughts or advice? 

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Depends, what do you want to do? Can you do it with a masters? If not, I would say don't waste your time. As a parent your time is more precious than mosts'. You would have to pour a lot of time into the program to do well enough to get into a PhD later, and it may not be worth it. You sound competitive to me, bit as you mention your Q score could be better, and fit really matters. I uprooted my family of 4 for fit, but my SO did not just beat cancer. It is a tough spot to be in :( . Also, for what it is worth, sometimes it takes more than one application cycle.

Edited by EastCoasting
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Thanks for posting this and seeking the advice of this community! You've asked some questions that I can speak to; others I will have to defer to later posters. 

 

Your situation is indeed unique (a non-college aged married woman seeking direct admission to a Ph.D. program). However, I think you would be surprised to find just how many Ph.D. students stem from "nontraditional" backgrounds. In fact, I spoke with two women who were once in a situation very similar to yours (I spoke with them because they are current Ph.D. students at a university I will interview at in a few weeks). That alone tells me you are not at a disadvantage. That said, I cannot speak to the specific preferences of certain faculty. I have worked with professors who rarely admit students into Ph.D. programs straight from undergrad. On the other hand, I have spoken to professors who like to admit students straight out of undergrad, no gap year(s), no M.A, nothing. 

 

Personally, I would absolutely describe your research experience as "competitive." Everyone mentions publications coming straight from undergrad, but by no means do I think it's a necessary prerequisite. This belief comes from talking with professors who are on admission committees, current graduate student, etc. Does it make you stand out? Yes. Have students entered Ph.D. programs without one? Yes. I hope you mentioned on your CV the manuscript you're currently writing. Even a simple mention with "in prep" can make your application stronger.

 

As I was responding, EastCoasting mentioned some valuable things. Time is of major importance for everyone, but you in particular. From my experience, I have noticed that most people who enter Ph.D. programs already having a M.A. did not do it by preference. In other words, they either did not get into a Ph.D. program but got into a Master's program; or, they wanted a M.A. to begin with, worked for a few years, then realized they wanted a Ph.D. Perhaps later posters can speak to this?

 

All I can say is this: there is nothing more important than family. And also, never count yourself out during the application process. Things have a way of working themselves out.

 

T. Jefferson: "I am a great believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work the more I have of it."

 

Sincerely, the best of luck to you.  

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You are very competitive - congrats!! I have a similar situation with a family, house, baby on the way, and husband with great job as professor (too bad not same program ;)) though I don't have the medical concerns (best of luck!). If you think you could be happy with a masters or prolonging phd, doesn't hurt to apply to MA and may learn more about interests. As for fit - a lot of people will not like me saying this but fake it til you make it. Of course you want a "perfect" fit but you may find a new interest with those schools nearby. It's not just me saying this either. I know a prof at one program I am applying and the chair at the other through my current job. I have met with both about school and they said the same!! Fit is very important to getting in so make sure you can spin your experience and research goals. Luckily for me 2 of the 3 schools near me do have great fit but my preferred school is a bit of a stretch. If you can get creative with your experience and interests to make it work - do it. My boss got degree in child psych and now works with Veterans - not uncommon to change population or interest of research. There is a lot you can do with MA if you want the backup. I am currently a licensed therapist doing research and my backup is open a private practice in addition to my research job if this falls through. I would prefer to be a research professor but sometimes you have to be flexible with a family :) good luck!!

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Thank you all for your replies! I really appreciate the encouraging words. 

 

I'm actually about to turn 34...my kids are 13 and 9, so they are pretty self-sufficient for many things. I am not having more kids, so that's a plus. There are a few things I have to consider before accepting any offers. My oldest son has Hemophilia, so we would have to know there is a Hemophilia center within driving distance. My husband will have to have routine tests done over the next few years to make sure the cancer hasn't returned for a third time. Luckily, they said his cancer will always be treatable, but...Oh my goodness! Our family is drained after two times. 

 

The programs I applied to close by actually do not even offer a terminal Master's option, so I had to go that route for those schools. The distant school has a Master's option and I checked the box indicating that I would like to be considered for Master's entrance if I was rejected for Ph.D. I hope that wasn't a mistake. I really hate to uproot the family for a Master's program only, but I guess we have to do what we have to do! I definitely need a Ph.D. for my goals. I would like to teach and do research. 

 

In my undergrad, luckily, I did gain a lifelong research partner with the chair of the department. That's a plus! I guess it is all about waiting now.... 

 

If I am rejected from the three schools, would you all think that I should retake the GRE for stronger scores? I got 84th percentile in verbal, 60th in Quantitative, and 93rd in writing. The quantitative when compared to other social science students was above the 80th percentile though. However, I would be willing to study harder and retake it. I didn't have a lot of study time this time because I was busy working on my capstone paper along with other classes, doing TA and tutoring work, working on projects with the club, the chemotherapy, and spending time helping my kids with all of their stuff, too. Now, I have graduated so I will have ample study time to retake it if I need to.... For what it is worth, on all of my practice tests I always scored higher on quantitative (158-161 on tests from Manhattan Prep, Magoosh, PowerPrep, Kaplan, Princeton Review). 

 

 

Thank you all again for the replies! :)

Edited by L83Ste
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I'm a lot like you in that I'm married in my 30s.  No kids, though.  Just not for us.  My undergrad is in social studies education with a minor in psychology education.  So I'm on year 8 of being a high school AP Psychology teacher.  My husband was first to further his education, getting an MBA.  After he was done I enrolled in a General Psychology masters program at a small university nearby.  It wasn't my first choice, but I could complete it while also teaching and without moving.  It made sense for us financially.  I wasn't going to be a competitive applicant for PhD programs as it was.  So now, I've applied across the country for PhD programs, and my husband is flexible enough to find a job wherever I get accepted... and wherever I get a postdoc after that... and where I can find an job after that... (assuming of course that I get accepted at all- I didn't last year).

 

It actually works out that I applied at 2 of the schools you did, but I did so based on fit rather than geographic location (though I applied to a different school that did meet that criterion).  I think the reality is that it could be difficult to find a program with perfect fit without moving, but not impossible.  If you do not make it in this year, your research experience is already pretty good, but I would retake the GRE.  The threshold seems to be the 80th percentile for social psychology programs.  That would be a smaller thing that could help.  Now for whether you should go for the masters, there are many PhD programs that won't transfer credits or will only transfer a certain number of credits toward a PhD at that university.  I knew that going in, but knew I had NO chance without the masters.  Like EastCoasting said, if what you do requires a PhD, you'll have to go through this again anyway, so a masters may not make sense for you.  If a masters is all you need, then your solution may be just that.

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My husband prefers not to move, but he has agreed to do it. He also said that if I cannot find a job afterward back here, then he will be alright with living somewhere else for a while. Personally, I'm excited about moving and have always wanted to move somewhere else. However, it's not about me. The kids are prepared if we have to move and both of them are very supportive. They're good kids and said they would adapt. I love them! 

 

The two schools I applied to closeby at least were interesting to me. My research can be extended in those directions and it makes sense. It would also help expand their programs into other areas that they probably would not get from some other students because there aren't very many who want to study aesthetics (my area). However, the distant school is a pretty perfect fit in my opinion. I say that because the POI (Is that Professor of Interest? I hope I am using that correctly!) might disagree I suppose. 

 

Many of the schools I have looked at applying (including all three I applied to) required 50th percentile and above. There were a few I did see that required 80th percentile, but they were top-notch schools and I'm not sure I'd fit in at one of those places. Am I mistaken to think that it is usually only top-notch schools that require 80th and above? I would still be willing to retake the GRE though if I need to! I kept all of my study materials just in case I am rejected. 

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I think previous posters have given some very valuable advice, so I will only echo that I think your application is very, very strong, and also add that the feedback I've personally received about GREs is that they generally work to boost a poorer application, so are not weighed too heavily for strong applications (notwithstanding rigid, formal cutoffs). Especially if you have good grades in statistics courses, which it seems likely you do, GRE quant is less important given that stats courses cover the quantitative skills that you will actually be putting into practice. Still, if you have the time, motivation and funds, re-sitting the GRE cannot hurt.

 

As for fit, I am also a little older and married, and I applied to only two schools because I was limited geographically, therefore fit was a little less important to me. My rationalization is that as long as I end up doing something that I think I will enjoy in some way and get on with my supervisor, I'm happy, and it's only for a limited period of time - I am not looking for a life partner! I also believe that there is a lot of flexibility in terms of shaping research directions, and I think at least my faculty are supportive of that.

 

Good luck, stay positive (because you have reason to be), and let that come through in your interviews.

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I really appreciate all of the encouraging replies. I don't like the waiting, but the semester is about to start and I still have my TA job for statistics; it will keep me busy! If I get rejected I will study for the GRE and try again. I'll also be able to apply to more schools that way. Our lives should be a little less hectic with a year off if I get rejected. The doctors said he would be back to himself in about two years and he is already getting there. I'm staying positive! Whatever happens, I will get my Ph.D. eventually! 

 

Best of luck to all of you as well! 

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Just to clarify-- when I said that fit was important I meant that it is important for your mental health (which depending on why the fit is wrong may not be too detrimental--but may be really bad as well), but also for getting accepted. I think people only want to accept students that naturally feel like they belong. I honestly didn't hink it was was a big deal until I went on interviews where fit was bad. Also, do not discount top schools just because you think you won't like them. You really never know until you meet them.

You could also contact grad students of a POI that you're thinking of working with, just to get a feel for the students.

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Honestly, I have so many interests that I feel I could fit in at quite a few places as long as I felt the POI was supportive. I was wondering about contacting graduate students, but my worry is that they will see this as badgering them and will suggest to the POI not to accept me. I wanted to contact them to ask a few questions, but I was not sure of the correct questions to ask and how informal or formal to be with them. Any suggestions? 

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Speaking from experience, they WILL NOT think you're badgering them. All graduate students I've come in contact with are extremely helpful and kind. After all, they were once in the position you're in (applying to programs). They understand the mental strain and rigor involved with waiting, going on interviews, and, in specific circumstances, getting rejected. It's tough. Most of my support throughout the application process has come from graduate students I've interned for over the summer. Someone "paid it forward" by helping them; now they're doing the same.

 

I would err on the side of formality anytime you're speaking within an academic circle, but understand that they're students too. By inquiring in the first place, it shows that you care. Students and professors like people who are passionate! Passion is most likely one of the traits that put them in the position they're in. 

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Thank you! I think I'm more nervous about contacting students more than POIs. I'm not really sure what to say to graduate students, but I think I'll try contacting a few and see how it goes. :) 

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I contacted graduate students prior to applying especially in departments that had websites that didn't provide as much information about the current directions of that POI's lab.  It can give you a sense of what that POI is like as an advisor.  Hands-on, hands-off, etc.  Some POIs provided contact info for graduate students when I e-mailed them last semester since some sites don't provide which students work with which professors.

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That's what I figured. If I don't get in this year, then I will start researching other options (which I actually have already started doing, just in case). I'll message graduate students before applying next time... 

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  • 2 weeks later...

I'm throwing in my two cents here because I've recently realized (and just decided to apply to a couple of Master's last second)...

That if I take one of these Master's programs, it would leave me with enough spare time to work on my research projects **right now** - which is not the case if I enter a PhD. It sounds odd to hear myself saying this, but I'm really leaning towards the Masters because my first priority right now is to get some of my own research done. The prospect of spending the next two years (starting a PhD) taking all the heavy course load requirements and helping out with others' research while my own sits on a back-burner totally bums me out. Most of the PhDs I applied to keep you on a pretty tight schedule the first two years.

This is in contrast to one of the Masters I applied to which leaves a lot of leeway to take extra courses or choose alternatives to those required, while leaving enough spare time to keep my projects moving along. I know most people think that by plugging through the PhD program they will advance their careers, etc. etc. But all I really care about at the moment is getting my research projects moving, this is why I am seriously considering dropping the idea of a PhD, for now, and going to a Masters program that I know will support and encourage me to hit the ground running with the projects I'm working on rather than numb my brain with a heavy course load.

Of course, a lot of people don't have things in the pipeline, driving their choices, so I totally understand not having this sense of urgency deterring you from a PhD. But I do think there may be a lot of other good reasons to do a Masters in stead. One of the bonuses I'm looking forward to is to take some extra, related courses in different disciplines that I've always wanted to take, and will ultimately make me more competitive. I think that alone might be a good motivator for some.

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@ Psych face, thanks for the reply! One of my PhD applications actually had a box that asked if I would want to be considered for a terminal Master's if I was not accepted as a PhD student. I did check "yes" there, but I'm not sure if I want to pick up the family and move for a Master's. However, I know I'd have the option to go for PhD after and I think that I would be accepted once they see my work, but who knows?

 

There is a Master's program close by I am considering. Luckily, the applications aren't due until June, so I can wait to see if I get in somewhere else before I spend the money to apply there. I have a few years worth of projects going on with the Chair of Psychology at my undergrad institution right now, so that will keep me busy if I did take a year off. 

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@ Psych face, thanks for the reply! One of my PhD applications actually had a box that asked if I would want to be considered for a terminal Master's if I was not accepted as a PhD student. I did check "yes" there, but I'm not sure if I want to pick up the family and move for a Master's. However, I know I'd have the option to go for PhD after and I think that I would be accepted once they see my work, but who knows?

 

There is a Master's program close by I am considering. Luckily, the applications aren't due until June, so I can wait to see if I get in somewhere else before I spend the money to apply there. I have a few years worth of projects going on with the Chair of Psychology at my undergrad institution right now, so that will keep me busy if I did take a year off.

Just keep in mind too, that some professors prefer students out of undergrad that they can mold, while others prefer those who've already learned how to conduct research. They don't explicitly tell you which type they are, so I don't know the best way to go about finding out. Some schools may not allow entering PhD candidates (just students at the masters level) so you'd have to redo the masters? If going the masters route, you might just need to be thoughtful about where you apply (from what I've READ, not what I've EXPERIENCED)

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Just keep in mind too, that some professors prefer students out of undergrad that they can mold, while others prefer those who've already learned how to conduct research. They don't explicitly tell you which type they are, so I don't know the best way to go about finding out. Some schools may not allow entering PhD candidates (just students at the masters level) so you'd have to redo the masters? If going the masters route, you might just need to be thoughtful about where you apply (from what I've READ, not what I've EXPERIENCED)

I wish the sites were clear about which they prefer. I also find it frustrating that sites aren't always updated to tell students if the professor is accepting students. 

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I'm sure there are some programs where you do other's reasearch, but everyone I know is expected to produce there own studies by the end of the first year. Of course this is related to the POIs interests, but these are our interests too--that's why we accepted the offer to begin with.

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I think it depends on what you want to do in the end. If you wanted to teach, I would thinking getting a master's and teaching at the community college level might be an attractive offer. In my state, they make as much/ if not more than a lot of the universities, and there is no pressure to "publish or perish!" It's a lot more laid back, and if you liked teaching (especially underserved populations with limited access to higher edu), community college might be a great option, and then you can teach just with your masters. If you want to take this route, you can look up your state's requirements for teaching at a community college online. I think California's law is that you can generally teach psychology as long as "psych" is in the degree title... or something. 

 

Knowing your interests from previous conversations =), you could work with students on research by pairing with the local art communities and art students and conduct research there and publish it. However, if you wanted to go for the big grants for creativity/aesthetics (i.e. the imagination institute grants that just came out) you would probably need that Ph.D. to be awarded it. Stupid, but that's what it takes for a lot of the bigger funding.

 

My best advice is just go with the flow, make your preparations, be open, and don't worry about the what-ifs until they come closer! =)

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I'm sure there are some programs where you do other's reasearch, but everyone I know is expected to produce there own studies by the end of the first year. Of course this is related to the POIs interests, but these are our interests too--that's why we accepted the offer to begin with.

That's true! I'm doing research with an undergrad professor now that is in my area and I still refer to it as "my research". :) 

 

I think it depends on what you want to do in the end. If you wanted to teach, I would thinking getting a master's and teaching at the community college level might be an attractive offer. In my state, they make as much/ if not more than a lot of the universities, and there is no pressure to "publish or perish!" It's a lot more laid back, and if you liked teaching (especially underserved populations with limited access to higher edu), community college might be a great option, and then you can teach just with your masters. If you want to take this route, you can look up your state's requirements for teaching at a community college online. I think California's law is that you can generally teach psychology as long as "psych" is in the degree title... or something. 

 

Knowing your interests from previous conversations =), you could work with students on research by pairing with the local art communities and art students and conduct research there and publish it. However, if you wanted to go for the big grants for creativity/aesthetics (i.e. the imagination institute grants that just came out) you would probably need that Ph.D. to be awarded it. Stupid, but that's what it takes for a lot of the bigger funding.

 

My best advice is just go with the flow, make your preparations, be open, and don't worry about the what-ifs until they come closer! =)

I know, at least in this area, with 18 credit hours of Master's work I can get an adjunct position here. I'm looking for a PhD for sure. That is a great idea about pairing with local art communities! :) I always worry about what-ifs. I do need to stop that! It got worse when I had kids and again when my husband got cancer the first time. I have to plan for the whole family, so it's a lot of stress. I guess I can't change the outcome at this point. I'll find out soon enough if I am planning a move, preparing for coursework, or looking for a new direction this year. 

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