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Grad school applications

Contacting mentors | Personal statement | Letters of recommendation | Interviewing

CONTACTING POTENTIAL MENTORS BEFORE APPLYING

Making initial contact with mentors with whom you’d like to work can be a good step in figuring out whether you would fit in well with that mentor’s style. However, if you fail to demonstrate a solid grasp of what your prospective mentor has to offer and how you fit into their work, you’ll have a hurdle to overcome instead of a leg up on the competition. It’s also not necessary to contact potential mentors before applying; I didn’t, and I let my personal statement do the selling for me.

If you’re planning on contacting a mentor before applying, here are a few tips. Many of these reflect that at this stage of the game, you are one of many potential applicants. You’ll have to show that you’re savvy enough to respect your potential mentor’s time, that you’ve done your homework, and that you’re thoughtful enough to convey your thoughts well through the written word.

Do:

  • Give a brief (1-2 sentence) overview of the skills you’ve developed in your undergraduate career that fit your mentor’s research methods.
  • Briefly (in 2-3 sentences) cite the specific papers and information from the mentor’s websites (if applicable) that drew your interest to her or him.
  • In a separate paragraph, ask if the mentor is accepting graduate students for the upcoming academic year.
  • Attach a PDF of your current CV with a list of academic awards you’ve received, papers in progress, poster presentations, and skills you’ve acquired (in roughly that order).
  • If the mentor replies to your email affirmatively, it’s then OK to ask for a broad overview of what projects might be happening in the next couple of years.

Don’t:

  • Send a generic query that fails to mention any specifics about your research skills and background.
  • Express a general “interest” in the mentor’s work without giving specifics about what interests you.
  • Ask the mentor to give a detailed 5-year overview of his or her research plans.
  • Ask for a meeting to discuss the program or research interests generally. The former is on the program’s website, and the latter shows you haven’t done your homework.

WHAT TO INCLUDE IN A PERSONAL STATEMENT

Research experience

This is the primary criterion I use in evaluating personal statements. Telling me what you’ve done shows me the skills you’ve acquired, the background information you’ve absorbed, and the tenacity you’ve used to accomplish your work. Generally speaking, I want to see at least three separate research experiences in your personal statement. Each of these experiences should be summarized in a paragraph. Use the first sentence or two of the paragraph to set up the research question. Spend two or three sentences describing the methods you used in the experiment, any programming experience you got in putting the study together, and the data reduction and analysis software you used (if any). Use the last sentence or two to describe the findings of the study (or what you expect to find if data collection is ongoing).

When I say I expect at least three separate research experiences, I mean it – and I mean them to be in psychology. I worked in three biology and biochemistry labs before starting work in psychology, and nary a one of them made it into my personal statement because they didn’t have anything to do with psychology. The more deeply you’ve been involved in each experience, the better. In an ideal statement, you’ll be able to discuss all the points above in a clear, concise, and cogent way.

In rough order of preference, here’s how I rank research experiences when evaluating their importance in applications.

  1. Honors thesis: A manuscript is required for this, and it shows a devotion to a specific project.
  2. Research in a lab for credit or as a volunteer: Preferably for at least two semesters to show you’ll stick with a lab over time.
  3. Summer/other time-limited experience: Especially if this fills in holes in your portfolio of skills.

Clinical experience

To be honest, if you’ve got clinically oriented research experience, that’s good enough for me. Seriously. I expect that when you enter a clinical program, your clinical interests will have time to develop. My own lie along the lines of assessment, and my research program shows it. If it comes down to wondering whether you should participate in another lab experience or an extracurricular activity that will give you clinical experience, I would suggest choosing the lab experience almost every time, particularly if it will round out the skills you’ll bring to your portfolio. If you do have specific clinical experience, summarize the lot of in in a paragraph, with an emphasis on what skills you acquired there that will port nicely to a research context or that fill in gaps in your research skills portfolio.

Teaching experience

It’s somewhat rare for undergraduates to have genuine teaching experience. If you do, a paragraph on this will suffice, detailing the experiences you had. We require our students to teach as part of their graduate training, so knowing that you’ve got the chops to do it can’t hurt, particularly if you’ve got numerical evaluations to back up your teaching prowess.

Your possible mentors

This is the other main criterion I use to evaluate applications. I want to know that you’ve at least thought about how you’ll fit in to the graduate program and to my research in particular. What kind of work do you see yourself wanting to pursue with me? What research questions would you want to address? What’s unique about my lab and my work that makes you seeks me as a mentor instead of someone else?

If you think you’d be mentored well by a couple of faculty in the department, don’t hesitate to put another person’s name down. If you’re equally thoughtful about describing your research interests with that person, please include that possible mentor as well! In essence, you’re doubling your chances of finding a match. But do this only if you’re sincere about wanting to work with both people. One of the ways I knew that the University of Minnesota was where I wanted to go for grad school is that I could see myself working with any of the faculty.

However, if you’ve got an exceptional set of skills, and another faculty member has need, you may be referred to that person for consideration. The one clinical faculty member I didn’t put in my statement for Minnesota was the one who ended up accepting me! I thought the psychopathy “problem” had already been solved from an assessment perspective (ha!), but he needed someone with psychophysiological experience, and I’d worked in Geoff Potts’s ERP lab. In hindsight, Chris’s work probably fit the model that best suited my training goals of all the Minnesota faculty; I’m lucky he saw that more clearly than I did. However, that was a pretty large stroke of luck – be mindful about all possible fits when figuring out who to mention. If you don’t mention someone specifically, it’s unlikely that person will ever get to consider your application.

LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION

Who to ask

For a Ph.D. program, your reference writers should be faculty members who can attest to your strong research skills. Grad students who oversaw you won’t do, though they may help your faculty recommender write a stronger letter. For my taste, clinical supervisors aren’t going to cut it unless you were part of a research project. Professors and instructors who you only knew in a classroom setting likewise won’t have enough information about your research acumen to mean much as recommenders.

When to ask

At the beginning of the semester before you apply (and preferably even before then), ask your potential recommenders individually through email or in person if they can provide a strong, positive letter of recommendation on your behalf. If any one of them says no, take that at face value and move on to the next possible recommender. It may be that the recommender doesn’t know you well enough to provide such a letter; in that case, it’s unlikely less than a semester’s exposure to you will change that. It may also be that your performance in the lab hasn’t been up to snuff; again, it’s unlikely that less than a semester’s worth of remediation will be sufficient to create the strong kinds of positive experiences good letters entail. There might be other reasons for saying no that I’ve not covered here, but begging and pleading won’t ameliorate those reasons.

What to provide and how to proceed

When your recommenders say yes, I would suggest providing to them the following information by October 15:

  • A second draft of your statement of purpose (yes, you should be through your first draft by then)
  • Your unofficial transcript
  • Your CV
  • A summary of your experiences with that particular recommender and dates you’ve been associated with her or him, including:
    • The studies you helped conduct and the number of participants from whom you collected data in each study (to give a sense of the breadth and depth of your experiences)
    • Your duties in those data collections
    • Specific data analytic tools, poster presentations, or manuscript preparation work you did
    • Two notable examples of problems you solved or helped to solve, conceptual issues you worked through for or with the lab, insights that improved how a study was run or analyzed, or something similar that shows how your work stood out
  • (If applicable) Any notes on why your academic transcript or GREs may not be representative of your current achievement and motivation for graduate work

This information helps us pull together letters as efficiently and effectively as possible. Most recommendations are submitted online nowadays; please fill out all the information possible about the recommender so we can get to the meat of your evaluations as quickly as possible. Also, if your recommenders haven’t submitted recommendations within a week of the deadline, it’s OK to prompt them with a brief email stating:

  • Which schools are due
  • By the specific date a week in advance

Sometimes recommenders will wait until close to the deadline to incorporate as many specific, convincing examples of your aptitude as possible. Nevertheless, if the letter isn’t in within a week of the date it’s due, a reminder can help spur us into action. You only need to send one reminder to a recommender for all schools whose recommendations are due on a particular date that haven’t yet been received.

INTERVIEW SEASON

Things on which you’re being assessed – and on which you should assess a mentor and program

When you receive an invitation to interview at a particular school, you’ve successfully attracted the attention of a potential mentor who’s interested in investigating:

  1. Your skills and interests match to the lab and match what you described in your statement
  2. Your fit as a lab member, ability to take instruction, and grow into an independent investigator
  3. Your fit with the program and the existing students

But the interview isn’t a one-way interaction; now is your opportunity to assess how well the lab at which you’re interviewing:

  1. Offers you training above and beyond what you’ve already had
  2. Fits your personality and gives you mentoring that will be helpful for your professional growth
  3. Provides you opportunities to pursue collaborations and be more than just X’s student
  4. Has students whose personalities and interests are compatible with yours

In the interviews themselves, be prepared to be asked questions about your academic background, your research skills, how you might solve a problem in the lab or in theory, and even questions about written material you may have submitted. Interviews that are most enjoyable to me are those in which I can work with an interviewee to develop a study that might form the basis of a Master’s project or something similar. In a situation like that, take the lead that you’re offered, using your own background to explore an issue conceptually.

Nevertheless, you’re also interviewing a potential mentor. As you interact with her or him, make sure you have the answers at least to these questions (and if they’re not answered spontaneously, ask questions directly that will allow you to answer them):

  • What kind of plan does my mentor have for developing me as a student?
  • How likely is it that I’ll be allowed freedom to explore my own research after my Master’s?
  • What kind of supervisory style does my mentor espouse?
  • How well does my interpersonal style mesh with my mentor?
  • What’s my fit with the existing people in the lab? Will I get along with them as people? Do I feel like I’ll be competing against them, or will they help me (and be receptive to help)?

You are ALWAYS being assessed! And you should always be assessing…

Yes, there are likely going to be times where you’re told that you’re not being assessed or graded or something similar. These may come if you’re being hosted by a grad student, at a party with faculty and students, or at a function with current graduate students.

What this verbal cue really indicates is that now you’re free to “be yourself.” And by “be yourself,” I mean who you are in less structured social situations outside of the formal interview context. But you’re still being assessed! In these situations, we’re making sure that you don’t commit major social faux pas, and we’re looking to see how we’d get along with you as a human being. We are also cognizant of the fact that you’re still being assessed and aren’t acting completely naturally, but this is a still a reasonable test of whether you can exchange conversational niceties and comport yourself in a way so that others would enjoy being around you in social situations.

Again, this is a two-way street. Do the students with whom you’re interacting seem like people with whom you’d get along? Do they seem to have the opportunity to live a life outside of the lab and school? Are they happy with the program, or are there lots of (stifled) dissatisfied grumblings? Do they seem to flow freely, or can you pick up on established cliques or groups of folks who don’t like each other? Yes, you may be able to power your way through a less-than-ideal cohort, especially if the institution and/or mentor has lots of resources that others don’t, but it’ll make your life for the next 5-6 years far less enjoyable if you don’t like the people with whom you’d be working and learning.


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