You’ve finished your bachelor’s degree. What does the remainder of your path hold? For many psychology students who want to become clinicians or go into the academic realm of research and teaching, the next logical step is finding the ideal graduate program. Both master’s and doctoral programs have their drawbacks and benefits, but there are some general tips for navigating life as a graduate student that should benefit you no matter what degree you decide to pursue.
When applying, impressive grades and GRE scores will be great, but they might not weigh as much as research experience or a unique internship when the admissions committee is deciding your fate. Rather than focusing solely on whether you passed your classes, master’s and doctoral programs place greater emphasis on completing original research or gaining hands-on experience through lab work, practica, or internships. All of this will improve your long-term career prospects. Doctoral students have to complete and defend a dissertation composed entirely of original research before receiving their degree, so graduate schools want to know that the students they admit have strong research training potential.
I was surprised and rather intimidated to learn that my graduate institution considers any grade below B– to be a failing grade, and this is not uncommon among graduate programs. But as a general rule, graduate programs focus less on grades than traditional undergraduate courses because they aim to prepare you for a career.
This isn’t to say that graduate academics don’t matter at all. Exams will be less about memorizing facts or concepts and more about integrating ideas into practical applications. Most classes only meet once a week and assign mountains of reading or hefty assignments, so prepare to do a lot more work than you may have for your undergraduate classes.
These assignments will be specialized, because the career you’re preparing for will be in a narrow specialty of psychological science. Early on in your graduate career, you’ll have to decide which of the psychological subfields you’re most interested in, apply to the programs specializing in that area, and articulate what about that topic excites you. As an undergraduate, you probably had opportunities to explore different areas of study and take electives in whatever you found interesting, but at the graduate level, the curriculum is generally designed to sharpen your skills in a specific field.
Graduate school is also about forming relationships and networking with your professors as well as your peers. Potential doctoral students will need to identify particular faculty members with whom they want to work, and hope that these people are accepting new students into their labs. You want to find a mentor whose research interests are similar to your own, so they can guide you along the processes of conducting experiments, presenting at conferences, and submitting manuscripts for publication in an area that excites you. It is also critical to find a mentor who is an expert in your research areas, because they will have a large network of colleagues in this field who will become potential collaborators for your current and future research. At this level, it’s about laying the groundwork for a productive, long-term career, and that involves networking beyond your own lab or institution.
Because of the collaborative nature of research training, your professors and mentors will most likely treat you more like an equal than a student. You’re still learning, but you’ll share more responsibility for their work. Because you’re more like colleagues now, you will engage with your advisor and other professors in open dialogue about your research ideas and lab work. In classes, professors will challenge you to think critically about everything, and it will be okay to openly disagree with them. In order to get the most out of our training experiences, we must be willing to look for flaws and holes in previous research and the ideas that led to it.
Comparisons With Your Peers
Perhaps because psychological science is such a broad and diverse field, even undergraduates can easily feel a sense of competition with their peers. Every semester it can seem like someone else just started the perfect internship or made lasting connections with an awesome faculty member (and future writer of recommendations) in their research lab. Everyone in my undergraduate institution was doing something different, and even though I also interned and presented research at a national conference, somehow my own experiences always felt like they came up short.
What this cycle of unhealthy comparisons taught me was that I could control only how well I did, and I pushed myself to succeed at the opportunities I had been given. Because there are a limited number of jobs in each area of psychology, graduate school will probably feel even more competitive. But remember that the other students are sharing the classroom and research experiences and are generally going through the same stages at the same time. All the students are on their own timelines and pursue their individual paths depending on their interests.
Furthermore, the success of our peers means that others are enriching their own lives and taking psychological science in innovative directions. One person’s success does not take away from another’s, and for every acceptance or step forward in their career, they probably have countless other “failures” that go unnoticed.
Graduate school is a challenging step, but one that will force you to grow and that will prepare you for your future in psychological research. Exactly what that looks like is up to you.
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