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So, I'm wondering how important this thing we call "fit" really is when it comes to getting a PhD in clinical psychology?  For instance, were you to only receive one offer of admission can you really afford to be "picky" about that?  

Suppose that, throughout the interview process, you realized that you had reservations about the program and lab, the mentor is trying to move their research in a different direction which doesn't mesh as well with your interests (no other faculty there study your interest either), and students in the lab seemed very stressed out (substantially more than at any other interview you attended).  You could even say with certainty that, if you had to reapply in a future cycle, you would not apply to that program/lab.  If that program is the only one you receive an offer of admission from are you better off (a) accepting it because, at least it's a clinical PhD program and you can begin the training and everything moving toward your eventual goals or (b) declining the offer, trying to find a paid RA position in a relevant lab, and reapplying for the next cycle?

Before anyone gets upset/defensive--this is all hypothetical right now, I'm not holding an offer to a program I don't particularly want to attend.  It is the only waitlist I'm on which is still active (having not received any offers and being rejected off all other waitlists) and I'm trying to prepare for the possibility of having to make such a decision a day before the deadline.  I feel crazy for even asking this question because I worked so hard (not to mention the financial investment) trying to get into a program and I can't imagine any other path that I would be happy pursuing.  Plus it really seems ridiculous to think that choosing to wait (without a fully formed contingency plan) might be better than attending a program should the opportunity arise, but you hear so much about "fit" going through this process and it's left me wondering if that is just a luxury for situations where one has a choice or if it is still that critical of a factor when you don't have options of where to go?

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I'm not in clinical, but I believe it is pretty important. And here's why I think so:

You can think of it as a luxury, but in reality, it's important whether or not you have lots of choices. As you mentioned, you always have the choice to apply again.

I used to feel the same way as you, I thought I would only apply once because it's a waste not to, and it would make no sense to work for a while or be an RA because that was just stalling and doing something irrelevant when I could be in a graduate program instead. However, I don't feel that way anymore (for a few reasons) and it has definitely changed my outlook. I'll explain more below.

Are you coming out of undergrad right now? Because what I and other people applying directly to PhD programs thought was that we were super ready and anyone else could see that. So we were ambitious and we applied to lots of super competitive schools - spoiler, we didn't get in. Now, that could be for multiple reasons, but one of them was definitely that these places don't often take people right from undergrad. This is especially true for my direct-entry PhD programs, which were in business. But even people in know in areas like vision science were much more competitive after having been an RA or a lab manager for a while. This is especially true for the US - here in Canada, most PhD programs have a funded masters attached, so it's a bit different. Once I realized this, it changed my thinking a bit.

Everything that I just said above is even more true for top programs. When I see the students' backgrounds in these top programs, yes, some of them come in right from undergrad. But others have counselling masters (if they're in clinical), RA positions, or maybe they've worked for a while. Who knows if they just decided to apply later, if they knew this strategy all along, or if they've applied multiple times? No matter which one of these it is, we can see that this waiting/RAing approach has worked very well for them. Of course, there are people it doesn't work well for either, but if you're considering a program right now that is not a good fit and maybe isn't the best place you feel you can get into, then it's a risk but it might make more sense to apply again after.

Here's some cognitive psych applied to this decision for you to consider: people are risk-averse. Like, super risk averse. One bird in the hand is worth two in the bush is a popular expression for a reason. But that doesn't mean it's always the best way for you to make decisions. It can be very suboptimal in certain cases. Is a poor-fitting school right now really better than a great fitting school later, or the option between multiple schools?

Another part of this risk aversion is being bad at forecasting: you might feel right now that you have a higher probability of not getting in anywhere in a second round of applications than you really do. If you got in once, it's really unlikely you will never get in anywhere again. You could very likely get into the same place, or places within that tier, and perhaps some better (objectively and/or better for you) a second time. So your probabilities could be way off. You also have no idea how close you were to being on the waitlist at the other places - you might think you are near the bottom, but you could have barely made the cut, and applying again could bump you over that cutoff.

Fit sometimes has to do with the quality of the school. We say it as if it's totally subjective, but its also a but objective as well. There was one school I interviewed at which had just an atrocious atmosphere and seemed problematic for so many reasons. The funding was crap, the students were unhappy (and they told us), the profs were demanding in ways that didn't make any sense, the program lacked structure, the communication of the program was misleading/incorrect, and there was no ability to even have a conversation with the people who I was supposed to be supervised by. I don't think anyone "fits" within a program like that. So why are we blaming the "fit" or the student for not "fitting", when it's objectively bad? This is broader than just your question, but if you're chalking something up to fit and it's really about your basic needs as a student, then you should keep that in mind. No one "fits" with a place with bad funding, they either make it work because they might have to, or they choose not to go.

A PhD is a super long time. I'm feeling this so much right now. And the thought of working in a place where such major things are a problem (not only your research topics but the structures to support you and how people who are currently there seem to be feeling) is a red flag, not just a bad fit issue. Even where I am, where the support is there, people seem less stressed, and there is (imo) the right balance between freedom and structure, the courses/research/general approach to the field is just not aligned for me. I would consider that more of a fit issue than what you're describing, which sounds more like a bad program issue. But either way, those two kinds of situations likely won't make you happy for 5-6 years.

Also one thing about waitlists: I was on one, and I think the waitlist time gives you a lot of insight into whether you want to go there. I was actually not looking forward to having to make the decision between the waitlist school and the school I eventually chose, and not for good reasons such as liking both of them. I liked one, and I felt like I "should" have chosen the waitlist school, had I gotten in. In a way, I was fortunate that I didn't, because I didn't want to be pulled towards that choice by location (even though its so much better), ranking (again, much better), or overall prestige/how other people would feel (obv related to ranking). Don't go somewhere because you "should", really, it's a bad idea. I know people who are leaving programs now because that's (partly) why they made their decision in the first place.

So this got super long, sorry! I think I really resonated with your question, as I'm dealing with similar things now (from a different stage, more masters to PhD) and there are a lot of commonalities.

Best of luck with your decision!

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Have you experienced what you felt was "good fit" with a PI during an interview? I wasn't really sure what it meant until I had two interviews in a five day period. The first one left me on top of the world thrilled for days while the second one was really disappointing. Even though I was initially very excited about the second school, after the interview I just felt it wasn't right at all, and that was one conversation out of the thousands I'd have with that PI if I went there. With the PI I'll be working with it's hard to imagine I'll ever not want to talk with her. 

It's 40+ hours a week you'll have to work with these people that you may not get along with or not be interested in the work you're doing, for 5-7 years. Grad school really tests you. It's just easier to get through if you're in the right environment, which is why fit is so important. 

Not getting in is scary. I didn't get in my senior year and had to find a job, which I've now been at three years. I have so much more experience and I was a much more competitive applicant this past round. I don't know you but you've got kind of an maybe-scary (job) and a definitely-scary (bad fit school). I'd opt for the maybe-scary, personally. 

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Thank you both for your insights!  You both really just reiterated all the things I've been thinking, which probably really tells me that I should stick with what I've been thinking my choice would be.  (BTW-I love that you brought up risk-aversion and forecasting because I made those same points when trying to explain my stance earlier!)  Objectively speaking, the program is a good one and most of the students didn't seem overly stressed--only those in the lab I was applying to (it was rather odd actually), it really was more of the subjective "fit" combined with some things about the specific lab...maybe a couple very specific aspects of the overall program/opportunities as they relate to my specific eventual career goals (but nothing major in that regard).

I think the reason it's really such a hard choice for me to come to terms with is because I feel incredibly guilty and selfish thinking that I would turn down an offer "just because it isn't the ideal place for me" when my family has already sacrificed and put up with so much for me to get to this point.  If it were just me, I honestly would have withdrawn my application after the interview because I did experience a "great fit" with two programs/PIs and an "absolutely phenomenal fit" with another (the one that leaves you feeling like everything in the universe suddenly makes sense, like there's nowhere else in the world for you, that you're walking on air/untouchable for a whole week--I wanted that spot more than I've wanted anything in my life) which, by contrast, just made the poorness of fit at this one that much more salient (I actually found myself wishing I could just leave the interview early--the other places I didn't want to leave).

Anyway, all that said, it's just proving very difficult to justify this to my spouse, especially given that my research interests aren't very common and any RA position providing experience in the topic would require relocation.  Not that moving isn't something we were all prepared to do, it's just that I'm meeting a lot of resistance to the idea of uprooting our family for just a year or maybe two only to move again when (if) I get accepted in a future cycle.  I think there's also a barrier in that they don't really, fully understand how these kind of programs are really far more about the specific lab/mentor and "fit" (all other things equal such as funding, etc.) than ranking/prestige and it's difficult to explain that the experience can be so drastically different based on such factors.  I just want to make sure that I don't make a unilateral decision for selfish reasons if they might not be as founded/legitimate as they seem to me.

Finally, Congrats @dormcat on getting the opportunity to work with the PI you don't think you'll grow tired of conversing with!

And, I hope that everything works out for you @eternallyephemeral, I'm sorry to hear that you find yourself in a similar situation but I greatly appreciate your thoughtful response and wish you all the best!

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1 hour ago, psychIsLife said:

And, I hope that everything works out for you @eternallyephemeral, I'm sorry to hear that you find yourself in a similar situation but I greatly appreciate your thoughtful response and wish you all the best!

Thanks for your well wishes! I think you know that guilt is not a good reason for making this serious decision, and like you said, if you would just move again soon, that' snot a good idea.

I think sometimes, it's good to be more selfish. We always think of that as a bad thing, but I know for myself (and some of the women in my family), they could use a bit less selflessness. Trust me, it's not good for your health, and its not good for your happiness either.

I really, really wouldn't worry about the justifying aspect. That is way less important than your own well-being. And it's okay if people don't understand, sometimes they don't understand that a place like Columbia isn't actually as a good as U of Akron for some programs (that's true for I/O!), because it sounds better.

And regarding the cog psych ideas, that's partly why we do this, right? Because the things we learn are relevant to everyday life!

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I think you've gotten a lot of great advice so far, but I'll throw in my two cents!

In my mind, there's nothing more important than fit when choosing a grad program. I applied this cycle straight out of undergrad and was really fortunate to receive offers from two really great clinical programs, and I felt a lot of pressure to accept one of them simply because it's what one is expected to do in that situation. I didn't feel that the fit was terrible with either of them, but it wasn't great either. I thought that the research fit with the PIs was only moderately good, and I didn't feel that I would get quite the high caliber neuropsych training that I was looking for. On the flip side, I had an offer for an RAship with a PI whose research interests are incredibly well-aligned with mine (the general "fit" was great too, in the overall sense of the word).

In the end, I decided to turn down my grad offers and pursue the RAship. I felt such a genuine excitement and eagerness about the RAship that just wasn't there when I thought about the grad programs, and I think it's really important to go where you'll be motivated to perform well. As difficult as it was to turn down the offers (and it really was an agonizing decision process), I just didn't feel comfortable accepting an offer solely because there were offers to accept. Five years is a long time, and those five years are a really formative time in our development as researchers/clinicians, so I want to try to position myself to have the best grad experience that I can. I know it's definitely a risk, and maybe it will or won't lead to an offer from a program with a better fit in the future, but either way, if I can have this great research experience in the interim, I think that alone makes the decision worth it.

With that said, I'm probably on the extreme end when it comes to the importance of fit (especially research fit). A lot of other people think that research fit isn't very important in grad school as long as the PI's work is broadly related to your interests, and that you shouldn't really be concerned with fit until you start looking for post-docs. I'm sure that there's some validity to that, so it's good to try to get as many different perspectives as possible (I probably sought advice from 30+ people before making my final decision). But in the end, despite what everyone else thinks, you just have to make this decision for you and try not to look back. Good luck!

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@NeisserThanILook I'm sure that must have been an absolutely agonizing decision to make.  I'm glad you were able to reach a decision that you feel really good about.  Thank you for chiming in with your unique perspective.  Trying to hear from as many different perspectives as possible on this is why I finally decided to go ahead and post (I'd been debating whether or not to do so for quite a while as I'm always very wary of anything that might possibly lead to identification).  I am, of course, also asking people that I know personally but I don't actually personally know anyone else who is applying to programs right now so it's mostly faculty members.  If you don't mind me asking, how did you come across the RAship opportunity?  Did you apply for it at the same time you were applying for programs or was it one of the PIs from one of the programs you were applying to who maybe couldn't take a student but had an opening for an RA?

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@psychIsLife Thanks for the kind words! Happy to help in any way I can. Yes, the latter. There was a PI who I really wanted to work with because of the great research fit but wasn't taking a student this year. So I decided to apply to a handful of programs anyway just to get familiar with the process and see where it went. After interviewing for a few of the programs, I decided to email that PI again to tell them about my situation and ask if they had an opening for an RAship (partly as a back up in case I didn't receive any offers, partly because I thought I may prefer that RAship over the grad programs). The PI told me that there was an opening, and we talked a bit over email and on the phone about the position and about my decision (after I had received my offers), and I ended up flying out there to meet with everyone and get a feel for the work I'd be doing before making my final decision. So I didn't really formally apply for the position, I just emailed the PI to state my interest and send along my CV, and the rest ended up falling into place!

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I had a longer response full of anecdotes but it can honestly be summed up as this: If you aren't sure, don't go.

This is 4 - 6 years of your young adult life that you're investing. Even in the best situations, things can go wrong and remember, people are (mostly) on their best behaviour in interviews. If anything seems suspicious then don't go.

But this was also going around on academic twitter: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/08/opinion/sunday/the-utter-uselessness-of-job-interviews.html

(so extrapolate that to graduate student interviews if you wish)

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You've gotten a plethora of advice, but I figured I would add my two cents. 

 

For me, fit was the core of my choice. The program I will be attending is one of the most competitive in the country, so I didn't even expect to get invited to interview there (much less get an offer to attend). However, I thought from the day I applied that my research interests and goals aligns unbelievably well with my PI. Furthermore, the research they are doing is world class and considered the hallmark research in my field. When I interviewed, I told my PI directly that if they make an offer, I'll accept. They did and I did. 

 

The fit is phenomenal... Academically and socially. I can imagine myself working great with my PI, and the students all seem happy and close because they all have different angles on the same general research problem, so the vibe is supportive and not competitive. 

 

I'd be lying to say other factors weren't at play in my choice (e.g., location, generous stipend, prestige of the program), but in the end of the day it was my PI that drew me there and our fit it what's important. 

 

Just my two cents, but if you don't have an interest in the new research direction of the PI, it may not be worth attending. I know I'm pretty dead set on my goals - sounds like you are too! Probably finding a clinical or RA job (or both like a VA or research hospital RAship) would be a good plan... That being said if your research is obscure this may not be feasible. 

 

I do wish you the best, and hopefully you'll be afforded the chance to make this choice! :)

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22 hours ago, psychIsLife said:

Anyway, all that said, it's just proving very difficult to justify this to my spouse, especially given that my research interests aren't very common and any RA position providing experience in the topic would require relocation.  Not that moving isn't something we were all prepared to do, it's just that I'm meeting a lot of resistance to the idea of uprooting our family for just a year or maybe two only to move again when (if) I get accepted in a future cycle.

A few things. First, you're not selfish for wanting to best prepare yourself for your lifelong career. At all. One of the first conversations I had with my husband when we first started dating was about how unpredictable the 10-15 years post-undergrad could be. I'm sure your husband supports your career choice and respects what it takes to get there. Also, read up on the two-body problem in academia for more conversation about this very common issue and the feelings asssociated with it. 

Second, I also have very niche research interests. I'll be studying women's psych but right now I'm in a child development/neuroscience lab. Basically the exact opposite of what my career will be. Sure it would be great if this lab did the research I want to pursue, but I've learned so much anyways. Maybe I won't use EEG, but frankly being in a huge, functioning lab for three years has taught me so much outside the specific tasks and measures we use. Don't limit your options thinking you won't get anything out of a lab doing research not relevant to your career. 

Third, what you described as "absolutely phenomenal fit" is what I had with my PI, and it's what you should chase. I talked with someone from TGC who will be at the same school as me, but who is transferring from their current grad school where the PI switched gears without really informing them. Doing research daily is taxing and you want to be passionate about your work. You've gotten a lot of good advice and I echo the others when I say you really want to be excited about what you'll be doing, don't go if you aren't sure. 

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Thank you everyone for all of your input; I'm blown away by how helpful and kind so many people are on here.  I've been away from the boards for a while, focusing on other things coming up, so I apologize that this response is so delayed.  I just wanted to let everyone know how much I appreciate all of the responses, it has really helped me to feel a bit better about my decision.  

Strangely, I actually feel better now that things are even more uncertain than they were before....but that's probably a good thing.  Now I just have to figure out the more immediate future.  Best of luck to all of you in your various endeavors and congratulations to everyone on their achievements!

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