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Non-traditional Ph.D. Candidates


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I was combing through the forum, I haven't seen a lot of posts from non-traditional PhD students. I know that there are a lot of us out there, but I'd like to hear and share experiences. Also, the nerves associated with garnering credentials and the career shift.





After I graduated from my undergraduate degree, I wasn't quite competitive enough for a PhD. program, and life happened anyways. My GPA was a 3.4; Combined GRE 990 (old scale); research experience with poster presentations at APS and EPA. Experience as treasurer of psych club, Supplemental Instructor for general psych, and working with autistic children during a summer camp.


However, I knew I needed stronger credentials to be actually competitive. I had no distinct focus yet, and my interests ranged, well, everything. So, I retried about 4 years later after working with psychopathology (specifically schizophrenic, borderline personality, etc.) and teaching (anatomy & physiology/ethics/life span developmental psych/English composition).


Only to realize that, being out of school so long my scores weren't improved much (V 154; Q 145; AW 4.0), and with no current research experience, that was a waste of time! So, I went into a professional program. I chose College Counseling, since I knew it would be in the realm of academia and help me merge my experience in the field, get back into research, and work on fleshing out my credentials. 


Now, I able to work as the Psychology Department Grad Assistant (doing class - specifically statistics tutoring, administering the entire research subject pool, and basic secretarial/grade entry). I'm also working on a research independent study. Looking at the counselor biases involved in treatment plan formation. Really, I want to look at Ethics/Morality within the community. I adore neuropsychology and cognitive psych. I just haven't had a chance to research it up close and personal yet.  But I find myself concerned with the process just as much now as I did 6 years ago!


From those who are non-traditional Ph. D. Candidates, what has the experience been like for you?

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Not great so far, honestly. I graduated from undergrad in 2007 with a Bachelor of Science in social studies and psychology education and secured a job teaching AP Psychology to high school juniors and seniors. In 2011, I entered a part-time non-funded master's program (which maybe won't have been worth it) which I graduated from in 2014 with a Master of Science in General Psychology. This is my second round of PhD applications, and I look to be shut out once again. I'm finally quitting my teaching job (maybe the net was holding me back from putting myself fully out there and giving it all I have) and am looking for research assistant jobs, but it looks like I'm getting shut out of those just as much as PhD programs. I'm a bit jaded about the process, and while my husband is convincing me to try YET again next year if I truly get rejected from everywhere, I just don't know. I imagine I probably will, but if I can't get a research assistant position or something to beef up my application between now and then, I just don't know that there would be much point to reapplying.


I don't know what subfield you're interested in, but I applied to Social Psychology programs which are some of the most competitive (when UW rejected me last week, they mentioned 700 applicants and 20 spots available, which is less than a 3% acceptance rate overall for their psych PhD). So this is not the most optimistic response, but a very honest one. Make sure you have something that makes you shine, because I feel like places might be looking for those young, scrappy out-of-undergrad types. I never really felt like my non-traditional background was all that helpful. Life experience doesn't publish journal articles.


(I swear I started out this 2nd application season much more hopeful than I am right now...)

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Oh, I understand, and I'm quite thankful for the honest response. in the real world, people assume that 'life experience' means you must have an edge. But in the non-traditional academic, it really doesn't. 


I'm trying to get into a blend of programs, really. I want to study Moral/ethical psychology. I love the neurocognitive side of it, as well as want to work on the social justice end of it. So I'm applying to some clinical (super competitive), some cog (slightly less competitive, but stricter on what research background you have) and some social (which is as competitive as you mentioned). While working in the psychopathology field is great, I don't think that will help my cause enough. 


On the research angle, I'm putting together a research independent study on moral/ethical concerns in counseling. If I can get that published/presented, at least I'll have research I'm a solo author on. But I don't see my undergrad experience being enough to demonstrate a passion for research. It was way too long aho.

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