Spring 2010
Volume 3, Issue 2
Eye on the Future Research Focus
Preparing For the Rest of Your Life: The Graduate School Search
By Jessica T. Wong
University of Chicago

Whether it's a post-baccalaureate, master's, or doctoral degree, graduate training is critical for professional development. How do you decide which program is right for you? How do you search for programs and potential mentors? The graduate school search and application process may seem time-consuming, overwhelming, and sometimes frustrating, but it is definitely manageable with careful planning.

First, identify your specific interests and your long-term career goals. Which specific area(s) of psychology particularly excite you? Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years? Twenty years? Graduate school is a big commitment, so make sure that you are pursuing an area that you could see yourself involved in for the long run. If you are not entirely certain in which field you want to concentrate, consider applying to programs in a variety of areas that interest you. Reading articles in various fields will provide you with additional insight into current issues, research questions, and key scientists. Also, think about the profession that you ultimately want to work in and which types of programs would best suit your needs. For example, certain programs place a particular emphasis on research, teaching, clinical practice, industry, or any combination of these.

Once you narrow down the areas that you want to pursue, search for schools and programs that best match your interests. A good place to start is with a psychology program and institution guidebook, such as the American Psychological Association Graduate Study in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2009) or the American Psychological Association Graduate Study Online database (available here). These resources detail important information such as each institution's programs, degrees offered, average GPA and GRE scores of applicants, level of priority of application materials (e.g. grade point average versus personal statement versus GRE scores), student body profiles, tuition costs, and financial aid. These facts may give you an idea of which programs are out there and where, as well as allowing you to realistically evaluate where you stand amongst other applicants.

In addition, your own professors and academic advisors may provide you with valuable information about programs and schools (Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000; Ware, 1993). In fact, these faculty members might be the best people to ask about programs and potential matches. They may even have relationships and networks with other people in their fields.

For every program that matches your interests, contact faculty members with whom you would like to work in graduate school. Your graduate advisor could make or break your graduate experience, so finding the right match is crucial (Appleby & Appleby, 2006; Buskist & Sherburne, 1996). Email is probably the most effective and efficient way to make this initial contact. Tell potential advisors a little bit about yourself, such as your academic background, research interests, and related experiences, and find ways to tie these activities to the faculty member's recent work. If you did not have the opportunity to get deeply involved in the field, discuss unique perspectives that you bring to the table and highlight the reasons why you are interested in pursuing that particular line of research with him or her. Inquire as to which directions they are looking to take their work in the future, so you can get a more accurate picture of what you will likely be getting involved with. Also, make sure to ask if they are accepting students for the semester you wish you enroll because it is fruitless to apply to work with someone whose lab is full.

Following your initial contact, the faculty member may tell you in more detail about their immediate research directions and/or give you advice on how to structure your application for their particular program. If they are not taking students, they may suggest colleagues who are. Even so, contact as many professors as you can in order to get a feel for what types of programs and people are out there. Keep track of your correspondences in a separate document or spreadsheet by listing the school, program, faculty, lines of research, whether they are accepting students or not, and perhaps the tone of the response (e.g., very encouraging, lukewarm). Faculty members are very busy people, so do not be discouraged if they do not answer right away, or even at all.

While conducting the grad school search, start writing your personal statement and ask for letters of recommendation. The personal statement, which details your relevant experiences and why you would be an asset to the program, may take longer to write than you anticipate. Seek feedback from faculty and peers; it may take a few drafts to perfect your writing. After submitting each application, email the faculty you contacted earlier to let them know you applied. This will help jog their memory of who you are and leave the impression that you are serious about their program and line of research. Hundreds of people apply to graduate programs, so you and your application need to stand out.

Above all, understand that the graduate school search and application process takes time and may be challenging on certain occasions, especially if you have school, job, and/or family responsibilities that you need to attend to. Stay organized and do not freak out. The process cannot be completed overnight, so make sure you take time out for yourself to relax and have fun ? you will be much more refreshed and mentally prepared to tackle those applications. Good luck!


American Psychological Association (2009). Graduate Study in Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

American Psychological Association. Graduate Study Online. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/gradstudy/

Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2006). Kisses of death in the graduate school application process. Teaching of Psychology, 33, 19-24.

Buskist, W., & Sherburne, T. R. (1996). Preparing for graduate study in psychology: 101 questions and answers. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Keith-Spiegel, P., & Wiederman, M. W. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology, counseling, and related professions. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Ware, M. E. (1993). Developing and improving advising: Challenges to prepare students for life. In T. V. McGovern (Ed.). Handbook for enhancing undergraduate education in psychology. (pp. 47-70). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Author Note:

Jessica T. Wong is a Ph.D. graduate student at the University of Chicago, where she is studying the cognitive neuroscience of memory and aging. She currently serves as the APSSC RiSE-UP representative for aging research and as a reviewer for the APSSC Student Grant Competition, Student Research Award, and RiSE-UP Research Award. Outside of school, Jessica enjoys competing in triathlons, performing in a local dance company, and cooking.
Editor: Kimberly Lowe - Associate Editor: Mandi White-Ajmani