Evan M. Kleiman
George Mason University
Imagine making a decision right now as an undergraduate that can impact the next five, ten, or twenty years of your academic career as a future psychologist. Would this be a decision you would make without much thought? Most people would surely say that they would put as much thought into this decision as they have for other major academic choices, such as choosing a college or major. However, it is likely most undergraduates have not put much thought into choosing an undergraduate mentor.
Why is this important?
Your mentor, typically a full-time faculty member, will provide several key experiences on your way to graduate school. Many schools will assign an academic advisor who will help you pick classes and navigate university policies, however, a mentor offers experiences that an academic advisor does not. First, he or she may provide you with research experience, which is crucial for those who want to attend graduate school. You may be able to work as an assistant in your advisor’s lab, where you will have the chance to learn how to conduct research, getting a variety of experiences ranging from entering data to running and designing studies. You may even have the opportunity to be an author on research posters or publications, which are particularly impressive for graduate school applications. Second, your mentor will be a source of information when it comes time to apply to graduate school. He or she will likely know other professors in the field of psychology that could potentially become your graduate mentors and may contact them on your behalf. Third, a mentor is a source for a letter of recommendation, required for any graduate school application.
How to find a potential advisor
Now that you’ve hopefully been convinced that you should put considerable thought into your choice in undergraduate mentor, how do you go about making this choice? First, choose the broad area you would like to study. When you choose a mentor, you’ll want to choose someone who is a researcher in the area you’d like to attend for graduate school (e.g., clinical, industrial/organizational, developmental).
Second, once you’ve chosen which area fits you the best, the next step is finding a faculty member to work with that closely matches this area. A good place to start is the departmental website, which will list all faculty members and their areas of research. Another possibility is to ask other psychology majors who may be working in labs about their experiences.
Third, after you’ve identified a prospective mentor, you must reach out to them personally. Each school has a different procedure for doing this; some have a formal application that gets sent to faculty members, while others are informal. You can usually find application information on your department’s website. Even if your school does have a formal application process, it is often a good idea to email your potential mentor about your desire to work in their lab. A short email saying who you are, what your career goals are, and what strengths you could bring to their lab (such as a computer skills or even a lot of free time) will suffice.
Another option to work in a faculty member’s lab may be through a departmental honors’ program. Many departments have an honors program that typically entails taking advanced honors classes in critical thinking and research design, while also conducting research under a faculty member’s supervision. This can be excellent preparation for graduate school, since many of the experiences in an honors’ program will mirror those you will have as a graduate student. Also, an honors’ degree looks very impressive on a graduate school application.
When should I do this?
Although there’s no hard and fast rule for the best time to begin working with a mentor, most graduate programs like to see at least two years of research experience. This means the best time to start working with a mentor is the beginning of your junior year. Spending more time as a research assistant allows your mentor to learn more about you and write a richer letter of recommendation. Of course, there’s no need to become anxious if you’ve waited for longer. Many mentors will be able to write you a good letter of recommendation with just a few months of solid work.
Your mileage may vary
It’s important to note that this advice is coming from my personal experience. As an undergraduate at Temple University, I worked for a faculty member who was both an excellent undergraduate mentor and a well known researcher and who was able to give me an experience that prepared me very well for graduate school. So, this is not to say that every experience will be the same or that having an excellent undergraduate mentor is a guarantee of admission to graduate school. Still, selecting an undergraduate mentor is one option for improving your graduate school applications and increasing your exposure to the field.
American Psychological Association (Ed.). (2007). Getting In: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Prinstein, M. J. (n.d.). Mitch’s uncensored graduate school advice. Retrieved from http://www.unc.edu/~mjp1970/Profdev.htm
Evan Kleiman is a fourth-year clinical psychology graduate student at George Mason University. He studies attributional style, stress generation, and protective factors in suicide. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.