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Okay, so I'm a first generation college student, trying really hard to wrap my head around grad school and my odds of being accepted.

Background:  I have a bachelor's degree in elementary education from a small, private liberal arts college.  Graduated in 2014.  Immediately after college, I joined Teach for America and spent two years in an inner-city school.  After, I moved back to the western Chicago suburbs.  I have since been teaching kindergarten at a not-for-profit child care center since June 2016.

Here's the catch I have decided I want to do research psychology.  Psychology has always been a strong interest of mine, and my teaching experience has strengthened that.  I am also a lover of science and research, but have no formal training in either.

Limitations:  Because of personal reasons, I must continue to live in the western Chicago suburbs.  Because of financial reasons, I need a grad school where I can get an assistantship offering both a tuition waver and paid work.

Because of financial limitations, I cannot take additional undergrad courses to beef up my prerequisites.

I have zero college credit in statistics or research of any sort.  My liberal arts college did not offer research opportunities.

I only have one undergraduate psychology course, Child and Adolescent Development.  Although I took two other courses that were technically in other departments, but the content was psychology.  I took a class in Education called Theories of Learning, which was an educational psychology class, and a Natural Science class titled Mind and Matter, which was essentially a neuropsychology course.

I've got a full-time 9-5 job that I am not willing to compromise until an assistantship can be attained.

What I've got going for me:

Teach for America Alum (that's supposed to be good on a resume, right?)

3.31 undergraduate GPA (something like 3.4 in the last 2 years)

Excellent standardized test skills.  I have not yet taken the GRE, but on my first practice round, I got 162 quantitative and 152 verbal.  I imagine that with studying, I could raise that quite a bit.  Trying to figure out by how much it needs raised.

A five-course MOOC series specialization titled "Methods and Research in the Social Sciences" published by the University of Amsterdam.  It is not for college credit and it is totally self-paced, but by the end of it I will have completed a little research project of my own, as well as be proficient in R.  I have also used Khan Academy to teach myself statistics.  Unfortunately, neither of these provide college credit.  I don't know if there will be an opportunity to showcase my self-taught skills, or if it would even matter.

Where I'm trying to get in:

Northern Illinois University, Masters (to PhD) in either Developmental Psychology or Cognitive & Instructional Psychology

Admissions requirements according to the Developmental Psychology Program Website:

"For strongest consideration for admittance candidates typically:

  • Should complete and send in your application by February 1. Early application is strongly encouraged.
  • Have a B.A. or B.S. in psychology, although other related majors may be considered
  • Have earned a strong undergraduate GPA; typically above 3.30
  • Have strong GRE scores; typically over 1000 (Verbal + Quantitative)
  • Have strong letters of recommendation
  • Have relevant research experience
  • Note that the Department of Psychology admits only full-time students."


University of Illinois at Chicago, (MA to PhD) in Cognitive Psychology

According to the website:

Admission Requirements

The department accepts only applicants who wish to be candidates for the PhD. Applicants are not admitted as candidates for the MA as a terminal degree. In addition to the Graduate College minimum requirements, applicants must meet the following program requirements:

  • Baccalaureate Field No restrictions. Prior academic work must include course work in psychology and statistics. It is preferred that students have laboratory course work in experimental psychology and physical and/or biological sciences. 
  • Grade Point Average At least 3.20/4.00 for the last 60 semester (90 quarter) hours of undergraduate work.
  • Tests Required GRE General. GRE Subject Test in Psychology is recommended, but not required. While applicants may have had their official GRE scores mailed to UIC from ETS, the application requires an uploaded copy of the unofficial GRE score report from ETS.
  • Letters of Recommendation Three required from those who are familiar with the applicant’s training and ability. Information concerning an applicant’s research experience and ability is especially pertinent.
  • Personal Statement Required. This should include information about how the applicant has prepared for graduate school in Psychology, research experience and interests, what the applicant would like to do as a research psychologist, and who the applicant would like to work with as a faculty advisor. There is no minimum or maximum length for the personal statement.


So I guess my question is where do I go from here?




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Well, since you're restricted in terms of location, you might as well start making local connections. Is there a way you could start showing up to public lectures (colloquia and such)? Or look into getting to know the professors and seeing if anyone might support an independent project? Are there opportunities for you to work/volunteer in a lab to gain some of that missing research experience? I would imagine the main concern any admissions committee will have is how you know that you actually want this degree, given that you have no background in the field, and also no research experience of any kind. There will be questions of your fit with the department and your readiness for the degree in general. If they are to invest in your funding and training, you'll want to know that it's a good investment. Start by figuring out how you'll answer those questions in a well-crafted SOP. You'll also want to think about where you'll get LORs that will address your research abilities and fit with the degree you're pursuing. Since you're starting from a less than perfect position, one thing you may need to take advantage of is your physical proximity to these schools; if they know you in person, it may help mitigate some of those concerns. 

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I concur with fuzzylogician. Since you already have two programs in mind a faculty member or the graduate studies coordinator in the departments would probably be the best point of contact. UIC says that "prior coursework must include coursework in psychology and statistics," and I would check in with them to see if they would consider your MOOC series. If not, you might not meet the basic requirements for admission, which would be a waste of your application money. Do you already have a PI in mind at the two schools? I'd also send them an email and see if you could come by during office hours to chat frankly about your chances. 

I understand that money is tight, but you might look into taking psychology classes (especially statistics and courses in your area of specialization) at a local community college, where the tuition tends to be more affordable. What area of psychology are you interested in studying? If it's something related to your prior experience (school/edu psychology, developmental psychology, child psychology) that might work in your favor. You might also start applying to paid RA positions in your area: at some colleges, they provide subsidies for further coursework for employees. 

Good luck...


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It sounds like you could gear your application to sound quite Psychology orientated, I'm not saying to lie but emphasizing the Psychology aspects of your existing body of work and real life experience should place you in good stead.  

I am doing my degree in Psychology and blog my old papers which may be of interest to you:


Please check it out and if you start doing psychology themed papers I'm happy to post your content! 

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  • 1 month later...
On 3/18/2017 at 2:16 AM, Jericha said:

Do you think it would help if I took (and did well in) the psychology content tests for either Clep or GRE? 

Hi Jericha,

Yes, I think if you do exceptionally well for the Psychology CLEP/GRE that would significantly help. Since you cannot take classes, I think this is the best way to demonstrate your knowledge. However, if the graduate programs absolutely require certain coursework you may have to search for a way to take classes. 

I also agree with the previous posters about reaching out to professors at the two schools you are interested in applying to. If they like you, usually they can definitely help you when you submit an application (either with looking at your application or vouching for you during the process, etc.)

Best of luck!

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  • 4 weeks later...

I've been in a similar situation.  I majored in Poli Sci, worked in that field for 4 years, got burnt out and in doing some soul searching realized that my passion was really in psychology.  I was location bound because my then boyfriend (now husband) had just begun undergrad and we weren't moving until after he was finished with his degree.  So I took the GRE and applied to the Clinical Psych program at the one university in my town.  I was banking on being a unique applicant and structured my SOP and CV accordingly.  However, I was rejected.  I applied again the next year and got rejected again.  After this second rejection I contacted some of the professors on the admissions committee and asked for suggestions on how to improve my application.  Following this advice, I began volunteering for research projects at work and at the university, and registered for an online grad certificate program through the university to increase my psych coursework (I only had 6 hours in undergrad).  It was also recommended that I look into the Counseling Psych program on campus as the emphasis of the Clinical program was on children and my interest is working with adults.  I then applied to the Counseling Psych PhD program, emphasizing the unique aspects of my candidacy, and received an interview for the program.  Every other candidate interviewed already had a Master's degree, so I wasn't surprised when I was turned down for the doc program, but I was offered entrance to the Master's program which I accepted as a great opportunity to build my chances for getting into a PhD program in the future.

All of this is to make several suggestions: 1) If you don't get accepted right away, be persistent.  If you've got a job and you're stable, there is always next year. 2) The admissions committee for the department may be helpful in figuring out the weaknesses of your application so you may be able to improve it in the future. 3) There may be a winding path to get to your desired result, and that may include additional coursework in psych to make you competitive. 4) Volunteering your time on a research project may an option to beef up your research credentials.  PIs are often glad to accept free help and being in the Chicago area you should have lots of opportunities - both at private companies and colleges/universities.  You may also be able to create a research project yourself by asking your school if you can collect data (obviously you'd have to get permission and go through the IRB process).  Even if your school does not allow you to write up the results it will give you experience developing research questions, analyzing data and making recommendations based upon the results.

Good luck!

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