TIP-Topics for Students: What to Expect When You Are Applying: Advice From Current Students and Faculty
Stefanie Gisler, Bradley Gray, Jenna-Lyn Roman, and Ethan Rothstein Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY
Whether a professional working in the field, a professor on the cutting edge of research shaping the minds of future generations, or a current student forging your own path, it all starts with the same first step: an application to graduate school. Since many readers will be applying to programs in the coming months, we asked current students and faculty members from a variety of programs for anonymous feedback on what faculty and graduate students look for in prospective students, as well as for any information or advice they wish they knew before their own application experience. Contributors shared knowledge gained from their own personal application process, as well as what they learned from going through the application and selection process of new students entering their programs.
The idea for this article came about from our own application experiences, as well as from discussing career plans with junior and senior-level undergraduate students. There was overwhelming agreement from past, present, and future applicants regarding feelings of fear and confusion about what is expected, so we hope this article will help dispel those feelings to some extent. That being said, SIOP’s website presents information for 113 master’s and 71 PhD I-O Psychology programs in the U.S., and each program is unique.1 By no means are we able to provide a singular resource of information about the expectations of all programs for prospective students, as no two programs go about the application process in the same way. Instead, we hope that the information we have consolidated here provides a fresh and beneficial perspective to those who seek it. Based on the responses we received, we share feedback regarding expectations about research experiences before applying, the application with emphasis on the personal statement, and last, advice on how to find the best sense of fit with a program.
Prior Research Experience
How much previous experience in I-O is necessary to get accepted into a program? While work and research experience may not be a requirement, students and faculty alike feel that the more you have the merrier. Though some faculty praised applicants with the ability to achieve academic success while working a part-time job, overall, faculty members placed far greater value on research experience than work experience. Faculty members endorsed the old adage that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, stating unequivocally that having prior research experience plays a strong role in getting accepted. Indeed, many indicated preference for students who essentially appeared like they were already graduate-level students during their undergraduate career: doing research, working on projects, actively engaging and contributing in class, and completing all coursework, just as they would be expected to do as a grad student.
A distinction came up regarding research relevancy. Overall, faculty said they place more emphasis on the analytical skills that students gain from past research experience than on the subject or results of the student’s research. Although research relevance can be important when discussing program or advisor-level fit, research interests may change, but the research skills remain. Students from a variety of research backgrounds or who transferred to I-O from different specializations (e.g., Clinical, Social, or Cognitive master’s programs) affirmed that their past focus did not hinder them from being accepted or succeeding in an I-O program. To this point, if you still have time, get involved as a research assistant at your university, in your community, or with a research facility. Reach out to professors doing research that interests you and see how you can become involved, because the experience will be invaluable not only in building your skills, but in giving you a preview of the graduate student experience.
Multiple faculty members and students also highlighted the importance of having intellectual curiosity. As one faculty member described it, you may have research skills, but without the motivation to think critically, question research, and critique, it will feel like you are disinterested and must be dragged through the research process. This does not mean that applicants should apply with their theses and dissertations already planned (though that would be impressive) but that they should at least be prepared to discuss an area or topic they want to pursue beyond simply “Industry” or “Organization,” and be willing to ask questions. Part of graduate school and professional work in the field is constantly learning and applying the scientific method, so a strong intellectual thirst is a necessity to get accepted into a program and to succeed in general.
The Application and the Personal Statement
The typical program application involves submitting a form unique to the school’s psychology department or graduate program, as well as GRE scores, a personal statement, transcripts from past schools, letters of recommendation, and a CV/resumé. Some programs are not abundantly clear about their application requirements to the point that it seems like finding out how and with what to apply is part of the application process itself. But, as the applicant, you will be solely responsible for completing and submitting all documents. One student mentioned a “rule of threes” when applying to schools: three safety, three good fit, and three reach schools. Others indicated that they had a budget for application fees and decided based on that. Regarding applications in general, students recommended being organized and tracking all of the requirements, due dates, and online forms for each of the schools to which you apply. The majority of advice regarding the application focused on creating the personal statement, so we have centered on that.
Current students described their doubts about what to include or not include in their personal statements. In general, a statement expresses how and why you are interested in pursuing a future in I-O, the faculty with whom you would want to work, and why you are applying to the given program. The personal statement provides the greatest opportunity to explain who you are and how you arrived at this place in your life. It should be unique to you, in active tense, and lacking generic explanations of your interests or experiences. One faculty member gave the advice that applicants should read each paragraph they have written out loud to someone and discuss the following questions: “What am I trying to convey with this? Does this do it? Is there a better or clearer way to do so?”
Other suggestions about the personal statement answered specific concerns applicants may have. For example, should you mention if you want to go into academia or applied upon graduating? Current faculty stated that applicants do not need to indicate this in their personal statements and that it is not unusual for students to be unsure. Thus, even being undecided is safe to admit, and you can mention your desire to join an environment that provides opportunities to develop your interests so that you can make that decision upon leaving the program. However, you should not ignore the nature of the audience to whom you are applying. For example, it could be unwise to write that you wish to go the academic route or are undecided when applying to a program where that is not the focus, such as programs where students have no teaching opportunities beyond a 4th and 5th-year teaching assistant position or from which the vast majority of students do not go into academia.
Another point of contention was whether to express interest in one faculty member or two. Although some students said to choose a single person, as incoming students will be paired with that individual for the next 2–5 years, others said to mention a primary and secondary faculty member. Faculty members may be on leave, may not be taking students that year, or may have changed their focus and no longer research what you are interested in, so having multiple interests and mentioning two professors will be fortuitous in these circumstances. Again, it is suggested to consider the nature of the program to which you are applying. For some programs, it is indeed the case that incoming students work in one research lab for the full length of their studies. Other programs utilize a multiple-mentor model in which students are encouraged to work with more than one faculty member, and the application may tell you how many faculty members to pick.
Some final suggestions from faculty and students are to be sure to explain why you are interested in I-O, to explain you are interested in pursuing psychology even if not specifically I-O, and to be sure to express why you are applying to the given school instead of another. On this final point, a faculty member stated that applicants do not need to know when the school was founded or anything like that, but they should at least know who faculty members are and what their current areas of research are. Additionally, some answers here are not going to be seen favorably; though willingness to move to or live in an area is important, saying “I applied here just because I really want to live in the area!” is likely not going to score your application any brownie points.
The majority of feedback we received regarded achieving the greatest sense of fit. This included important questions for applicants to consider both before applying and during the visitation/interview process. Fit was considered in relation to a faculty member and to the program in general.
Regarding fit to a faculty member, as previously mentioned some programs are organized such that you apply to work with one faculty member for the entire time you are a part of the program. This faculty member will have a strong influence on your career, both during and after the program. If you do not like this faculty member, or are not committed to their area of research, then your well-being while in school and future career can suffer. Current students recommend paying attention to recent publications to verify the faculty member is currently studying things you have an interest in and to ask current students about that faculty member’s mentoring and researching style. Ask yourself if this aligns with what you want or if it is what you need to grow. The greatest opportunity to ask these questions will be during a visitation period. Though you can also ask informally by contacting current students before visitation, these responses may be less candid. Aside from that, to the extent it is possible, either have another advisor in mind to transfer to if necessary or choose programs that encourage having multiple mentors. Interests can change or experiences will inform you of what you do and do not want to do, so diverse opportunities are important.
Regarding fit to the overall program, there are many considerations. Again, try and get a feel for the program either during a visitation period, or if possible, by contacting students or during an informal visit. Some people prefer competitive programs, whereas others like more collaborative environments. You can get a feel for this by asking students and faculty, by how students interact with one another during a visit, or by looking to see how many students publish or present together. Current students recommend asking yourself where you want to be in 5–6 years and considering whether the program you are considering will get you there. Then, ask questions to current students and faculty based on what you determine. Look at what alumni are doing if that information is available. Do they work for companies you would want to work for or do the type of work you would want to do? Do the courses match your interests? Do you get internship experience or help before or while on the job hunt? Faculty and students alike recommend preparing questions before you arrive (ask Google if you need help coming up with a list of questions). Students say to not worry about asking multiple people the same question, as different perspectives can help you form an opinion. Additionally, just as showing intellectual curiosity in the personal statement is important, it is essential at this stage as well. Appearing disengaged and not having any questions can make it seem like you are not interested in the program. This presents a disadvantage for those who are introverted or nervous interviewees, but prepare questions, listen actively, and be sure to express your interests clearly. Additionally, one student recommended going as far through the admissions process as possible before ruling a school out, noting that you may discover something through the interview that has a significant impact on your overall preferences.
Finally, there are other important issues that may or may not influence your sense of fit. These include issues such as money, location, and time investment. Some students said that money should not influence your decision and that a more expensive but better fitting program is a worthwhile investment, but for others, funding was an essential part of the decision. The stipend and tuition remission can make or break the decision for students with too many outstanding loans from their undergraduate education or for international students who are unable to work or take out loans at all. Applicants must also consider the location of a school and what that offers. Determine if you can see yourself living there, and note that opportunities provided during and after your program may be in that same area. Although location, time, and money should not be the only deciding factors, for some students, they cannot be ignored.
Give yourself plenty of time to apply. Do not leave everything until November, stay organized, and you will have no problem completing applications on time. Graduate school programs are difficult and time consuming. Know your weaknesses and shortcomings, be prepared to work hard, and know or learn how to cope with stress. Even so, they are an enriching experience and are integral for shaping the future of I-O psychology. We all appreciate the opportunity to be taking part in our program and hope that soon many of you will appreciate your new schools too. We wish each of you luck on your applications and look forward to meeting some of you at visitation day!
1 The SIOP database lists information from all schools that have submitted forms to the SIOP Administrative Office. It should not be considered a comprehensive list.
SIOP. (n.d.). Graduate training programs in industrial-organizational psychology and related fields. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/gtp/
Stefanie Gisler is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. She received her BA from Bucknell University and an MS in I-O Psychology from the University of Central Florida (UCF). Her research interests include occupational health psychology, diversity, and selection. After earning her PhD, Stefanie would like to pursue a career in academia.
Bradley Gray is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. He obtained a BA in Psychology from Wake Forest University in 2010 and an MA in Clinical Psychology from Towson University in 2012. He researches occupational health psychology, with an interest in the relationship between supervisors and their employees, and is also interested in culture change and executive development.
Jenna-Lyn Roman is an MS student at Baruch College, CUNY. She received her BA in Psychology from the University of South Florida. She is interested in work–family research with an emphasis on nontraditional workers and understudied populations (i.e., military families), and gender. She intends to complete her thesis project and apply to PhD programs during the coming academic year for an August 2018 program start. Jenna would like to be a university professor specializing in work–family topics.
Ethan Rothstein is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. Ethan obtained his BA in Clinical Psychology from Tufts University in 2013. His primary area of research has been the interface between work and family, but he has also conducted research on motivation, leadership, team processes, and occupational health psychology. After he graduates, Ethan would like to pursue an applied career in both consulting and industry.
The TIP-TOPics team can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.