The Department of Psychological Science does not currently have a graduate program. If you are interested in graduate school in psychology, you may find the answers to many of your questions below.
So you think you want to go to graduate school?
Many psychology students have some vague notion that they should/would like to go to graduate school once they earn their baccalaureate degree. Unfortunately, getting into graduate school is not like getting into college. The graduate school admission process is highly competitive and only about 20% of undergraduates ever make it to some form of advanced academic education (e.g., law school, medical school, graduate school in psychology or other discipline). That’s not to say it’s impossible; it just requires quite a bit of planning and hard work on your part and it’s never too soon to start. A graduate degree (like an undergrad degree) also does not guarantee a job of any sort, let alone a job in your desired area. Here is some good info from the career center on how and when to prepare.
Why do you want to go to graduate school?
If your answer is something along the lines of “because my family expects me to” or “because you can’t get a job with a Bachelor’s in psychology,” or “because I like going to school,” you might want to think again. First, this is not a decision to make lightly. As mentioned above, graduate school is difficult (the attrition rate once in graduate school is just over 50%) and it is hard to get in to graduate school. The bottom line is: preparing for graduate school will require a lot of sacrifices on your part (e.g., not being able to take “fun” classes like underwater basket weaving because you have to TA or RA instead; not being able to go to the movies Thursday night with friends because you are running participants in the lab). If you truly want to make those sacrifices, that’s great, but do it for you, not someone else. Second, you actually can get a job with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. For more information, go to:
- Careers with an advanced degree in psychology (powerpoint)
- What Employers Want From Psychology Graduates
- Getting a good job with a BA (powerpoint)
- You may also want to watch this video: Expert Advice for College to Career Transitions.
What is graduate school like?
Graduate school is not just a continuation of your undergraduate education, and different types of graduate schools have different models of education. For example, if you want to go to law school, read the book One-L by Scott Turow for a taste. But most of you are likely considering the PhD route. There are a plethora of advice articles out there, but here is a good place to start: http://gradschool.about.com/cs/transitions/a/like.htm.
Information adapted from Deborah Kerr:
Much of your undergraduate education has taught you how to answer questions, the answers to which you were previously given. In graduate school you will learn how to ask questions, and thereby to find answers to previously unanswered questions. The transition from answering questions to asking them is generally not an easy one.
In graduate school there is much less coursework, and much more independent research. Don’t love research? Reconsider grad school.
The choice of graduate schools is also not like undergrad. You should not choose a graduate school based on location or on general school reputation. Instead, look for a close fit with faculty members whose interests coincide with yours.
While the faculty stands ready to help you, it is you who will make decisions about how to approach the difficult task of learning to analyze, think, support your ideas, and to ask and answer questions. The responsibility for your growth and learning is yours.
Graduate school is your new job: you will likely spend 50-60 hours per week attending class, completing readings, conducting research, writing papers, preparing presentations and discussions, and maybe even teaching. The configuration of the work varies: sometimes you will work alone, often you will work in teams to produce an assignment, mirroring the experiences you will most likely have in your professional career.
As a graduate student you will gain a great deal of experience in figuring things out. For example, your teachers will not tell you what you should remember or conclude from the readings – assignments are designed to help you develop your thinking skills, not to answer particular questions posed by the professor (although s/he will surely question you). You will be given guidelines by each professor, but you will rarely be given step-by-step instructions for assignments… your learning is your responsibility and graduate school offers the opportunity for you to practice learning in a setting which is both demanding and supportive. Although the content covered in your classes is important, it is only secondary to the critical thinking skills that you gain from studying and discussing this material.
Scared? You should be. Again, the key is groundwork. The more you can do as an undergraduate to help prepare yourself for the challenges ahead, the better. So what should you be doing?
Graduate School Preparation Timeline
In order to encourage a strong career path, early on in your undergraduate career, you should build relationships with faculty. They can discuss career plans with you and help point you in the right direction. You may also want to consider finding an internship if you are having trouble narrowing in on a possible career path that corresponds with your personal goals (see below for more information). Doing these things help create a baseline for deciding which groups of people you enjoy working with as well as the field of study that matches your individual goals. Not only will building relationships with faculty and internship supervisors give you clarity on future goals, those relationships will benefit when applying for graduate schools and collecting recommendation letters. The Boise State career center recommends students take the career assessment in order to get a better idea of options they have. This is a great place to start if you are truly lost.
For information about specific graduate programs, please refer to Graduate Study in Psychology – available at Boise State’s library or to order on-line at: http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4270098.aspx. APA accredits programs in clinical, counseling, and school psychology, at the doctoral level only. If you are doing a PhD in one of these three areas, make sure your program is APA-accredited. If you want to go to school in a different area (social, experimental, health, cognitive, I/O, developmental, neuroscience, etc.), then APA does not have any accreditation process for those programs.
If you are unsure what different types of psychologists actually do (e.g., clinical v. counseling, forensic, social), please see http://www.apa.org/careers/resources/guides/careers.aspx.
Once you have decided on a career path or if you need information about a specific career path (e.g., what does a Cognitive Psychologist do?), you should make an appointment with the SSPA advisor (firstname.lastname@example.org) for further assistance.
In order to get into graduate school, you should consider doing several extracurricular activities in order to strengthen your application. It is never too early to begin preparing for graduate school. More information about each of these activities is provided after the timeline.
Coursework – most of your freshman year will be focused on taking your core or foundational requirements. If you are unsure what to take, the SSPA advisor can help. Email email@example.com to make an appointment. In addition to your core/foundational work, you should be taking your 100 level psychology coursework: PSYC 101 and PSYC 120.
Related Work/Volunteer Experience – This would also be a great time to think about getting related work or volunteer experience, especially if you are unsure exactly what you want to do after you graduate. For example, if you think you want to work with kids, spend some time volunteering in a location that allows you to work with this age group (e.g., Discovery Center, Boise and Girls Club, Boise Parks and Recreation, child care facility). You may find you love it, but you may also discover working with kids isn’t for you. The earlier you can make these types of decisions, the better. In addition, if you are eligible, you might think about joining the Honors College (http://honors.boisestate.edu/). The additional academic challenges included in such programs will better prepare you for your future academic coursework.
Coursework – You should be finishing up your core/foundational studies this year. In addition, you’ll begin taking specific classes required by the major that are both within the department (e.g., PSYC 295, PSYC 321) and outside of the department (e.g., MATH, BIOL 227 & 228).
Extracurricular Activities – during your sophomore year you should begin developing relationships with faculty that might ultimately provide you with letters of recommendation. This might include serving as a Teaching Assistant for a class that you have taken and did well in. This might also include joining the Association of Psychology Students and Psi Chi (https://psychology.boisestate.edu/students/student-organizations/) to get to know more about what specific faculty members do. If you are eligible, you might also consider applying for the McNair Scholars Program (http://education.boisestate.edu/mcnair/), which is designed to help under-represented and first generation college students prepare for graduate level education. Finally, you should continue your related work and/or volunteer experience to help you narrow down your career interests.
Coursework – By this point in your career, you should be finished or almost finished with your core/foundational requirements. Now is the time to focus on your psychology major and take specialty courses that will help further your career. The SSPA advisor can help you decide which of the course selections in each cluster might be best for your career path.
Extracurricular activities – If you have not already, you should become involved in our student organizations (https://psychology.boisestate.edu/students/student-organizations/). You should also continue developing your relationships with faculty. This may entail being a Teaching Assistant and/or Research Assistant. If you ultimately want to work in a community setting (e.g., clinical psychologist, counseling psychologist, I/O psychologist, community psychologist), you may also wish to obtain an internship in a related area (https://psychology.boisestate.edu/students/internships/).
Summer between your Junior and Senior Year
This is a critical summer for you. You should be studying for and taking the GRE, figuring out where you want to apply to graduate schools and what types of programs you would like to apply to. When choosing graduate schools, your best bet is to use the 3-tier approach (see below for more information on picking a good program). Your first tier will be your top 3 or 4 picks. These are your dream schools – places you would love to attend and are reasonably qualified for. The second tier should be 3-4 schools you would be happy to attend, but don’t quite make your short list of top schools – moderately difficult to get into, but still good schools. Your third tier choices are your backup schools. These are typically 3-4 Master’s programs that you are very confident you will be able to get into and would serve as a good stepping stone to get into the tougher PhD programs if you don’t make it the first time around. (Having a Master’s degree significantly ups your chances of getting into a PhD program, but it also adds 2-3 years onto your total schooling, and there is sometimes less funding for Master’s students than for PhD students.) In addition, you should be working with your faculty advisor on your curriculum vita (CV) and statement of academic purpose/personal statement for graduate schools (see below for samples).
Coursework – Most of your major-specific required coursework should be taken by this point, with the exception of the Capstone course (PSYC 487 or 489), which you will take your last year at Boise State.
Extracurricular activities – Your senior year is the time to focus on getting ready for graduate school and firmly establishing relationships with at least three faculty members that will write letters of recommendation for you when you apply to graduate school. Thus, most of your ‘coursework’ this year will entail being a Teaching and/or Research Assistant, doing an internship and/or working in the field in a related job. You may also wish to conduct a Senior Honors Project, Senior Thesis, or Independent Study. See below for further information on each of these activities.
Note: You will be applying to schools this Fall if you plan on attending graduate school right after you earn your Bachelor’s degree. You will also be taking the GRE Subject Test if your schools require it. The Psychology Subject Test is a GRE subtest that is specific to our discipline and illustrates your general knowledge of Psychology (think Intro Psych textbook). If you didn’t do as well as you would have liked on the GRE when you took it last summer, this is the time to re-take it. Finally, your graduate school list should be finalized, you should have your application materials ready (more on that below), and you should have politely asked 3 to 4 people to write letters of recommendation for you (see below for more information).
How do I choose a Program?
Graduate school is all about fit. You can have the best GRE scores and GPA in the world, but if a specific faculty member at that school doesn’t want to take you, you won’t get in. So your first step in choosing a program often involves finding faculty members whose work interests you (PsycInfo is a good place to start looking for who is authoring papers in your areas of interest). Once you’ve selected key faculty members, get online and research the specific schools and find out what programs they offer. You should also consult the APA’s Guide to Graduate Study in Psychology and search by program type (ISBN is 9781433815485). Finally, there are several websites out there that specialize in helping you find the right school for you: http://www.gradschools.com/article-index/graduate-school-articles/choosing-a-graduate-program-47, and http://www.princetonreview.com/grad/choosing-a-school.aspx to name a few.
How do I get in to graduate school?
As mentioned above, there are a variety of things you should be doing to up your chances. Below, we will discuss several of these in more depth.
Related Work/Volunteer Experience
Having experience in your field of choice will make you an attractive candidate for specific graduate school programs, especially if your experience is relevant to the program you are applying for. Such experience can also enable you to make an educated decision about whether or not that field is right for you. In addition, many programs require students to shadow a professional in the field before applying and/or entrance into that program. Finally, many of our students started volunteering at organizations and ended up with jobs in those places as soon as they graduated.
If you are taking one or more years off of school after you graduate, be sure to spend this time doing work that is related to the graduate program you want to go into. Many graduate programs like and value experience such as this! Stay in touch with your professors during your time off. Another great thing to do during this time is to find someone who has the job you want to have, and talk to them about what they did to get there, what kind of degree they have and from what kind of program, etc. This will improve your focus and your chances.
Similar to volunteer experience, an internship is a valuable tool that will provide you with real-world experience in the field you wish to go into. Internships are also a plus on any curriculum vitae and graduate school application.
For more information about internships, go to: https://psychology.boisestate.edu/students/internships/
For information on the difference between internships and volunteer experience, go to: http://internships.about.com/od/internships101/p/faqsandmyths.htm.
Teaching and Research Assistantships
Teaching assistant and research assistant positions give students the opportunity to get to know faculty while acquiring leadership and research qualities. Getting started early on in your bachelor’s degree is strongly recommended in order to get as much experience as possible. By the end of your degree you will have more clarity as to which avenue of research you to wish to pursue. With more responsibility in the classroom setting, professors are equipped with detailed descriptions on how to provide graduate schools with outstanding recommendations for the prospective graduate program. For more information, see:
- Importance of an undergraduate research experience (powerpoint)
Each faculty member has their own requirements for Teaching and Research Assistants, but generally you are only able to TA for a class that you have already taken and earned an A or B in. In addition, you must have a 3.0 GPA to be eligible for an RA or TA position. Please contact the faculty member you wish to work with directly to learn about available positions.
What do I need to prepare to apply for graduate school?
Getting into graduate school requires a number of things we’ve already discussed: a good academic record, teaching and research assistantship, internships (if applicable), and solid letters of recommendation. But ultimately, it all comes down to fit. A faculty member on staff at the school you wish to attend has to take you under their wing, so to speak. For that to happen, you need to convince them that you are the perfect fit for them. How do you do that?
Personal Statement/Letter of Intent/Statement of Academic Purpose
The personal statement is a way to exemplify your personality that might not be seen on other portions of a graduate school application. This section gives you opportunity to show off your skills, passions, and qualities that make you unique and applicable for their program. Although colleges differ on how heavily weighted the personal statement is to other programs, it is important to broadcast yourself in a way that sets you apart from other students fighting for the same position. What makes you unique to the other candidates with similar GPA and GRE scores? The personal statement is designed to show that you deserve to be accepted, making a difference in their program. Although committees want to know about you, keep personal stories brief. Divulging personal sob stories rarely capture a committee’s attention in a good way. Work with your trusted faculty adviser to improve your personal statement, and take their feedback seriously.
For tips on what to include in your personal statement, see:
- Writing a Personal Statement (powerpoint)
- Writing a Personal Statement (including sample prompts) (handout)
Letters of Recommendation
Strong letters of recommendation are essential for admission into graduate school. Apart from GRE scores and your letter of intent, letters of recommendations are perhaps the most heavily focused on part of your application packet as graduate school committees make their admission decisions. Committees generally require a minimum of two to three letters while some professional programs require as many as five. Most applications require a minimum number of letters from faculty members at the university you received your undergraduate degree. Forming strong, personal relationships with members of the psychology department faculty is essential for earning strong letters of recommendation. In addition, you need to make sure that you provide letter writers with all of the necessary information about you (e.g., CV, letter of intent, cumulative and Psychology GPA, anything you want them to address in your letter like a low GRE score, which classes you have taken from them and what grade you earned in those classes, a list of all the program you are applying to as well as the reason why you are applying to each of those programs, instructions for where to send the letters, any forms the schools may require that letter writers complete, a list of each school’s deadline) so that they can be sure to highlight your accomplishments in their letter. Last, be sure to ask your letter writers well in advance and have your packets of information to them no later than one month before the letter is due. For more information, go to:
- Earning Strong Letters of Recommendation (powerpoint)
- (for faculty) Writing Strong Letters of Recommendation
GPA and Transcripts are among the top 5 criteria examined when graduate school faculty members evaluate an applicant for their program. Although graduate schools typically give more weight to your last two years when assessing grades, a low cumulative GPA might be enough for faculty to exclude you from their applicant pool (see graduate school websites or their entries in APA’s Guide to Graduate Study in Psychology for information on specific GPA admission requirements). Generally speaking, Masters programs usually have GPA requirements in the 3.0-3.5 range and PhD programs have GPA requirements in the 3.5 to 4.0 range. In addition, faculty members often weigh your cumulative psychology GPA more heavily than your total cumulative GPA. As such, you should provide your Psychology GPA on your curriculum vita. To figure out your GPA for just your psychology classes, go to this website: http://www.back2college.com/gpa.htm
For further information, see:
GRE Scores (General, Psychology)
The Graduate Record Examination is the test that you will have to take prior to applying to most graduate programs. This test is known as “the great equalizer” because methods of grade distributions may vary from university to university but your GRE score shows where you stand among all other applicants. This is often the first piece of information committees examine when considering applicants. In fact, many schools have GRE cutoff scores. At the very least, most graduate schools publish their average GRE admissions scores on their website or in the APA’s Guide to Graduate Study in Psychology. Your GRE score should fall close to or above their average score to be considered among the top applicants. The range of scores for the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning measures of the GRE revised General Test is 130 to 170, in 1-point increments. The range of scores for the Analytical Writing measure is 0 to 6, in half-point increments. Always check with the school before applying to make sure your GRE score meets their cutoff or range of acceptable scores. Doing well on the GRE is essential for forming a strong application. There are two portions of the GRE that graduated committees for psychology programs especially look at: the general GRE (the test that is the same for all GRE test takers) and the psychology GRE (the specific psychology-related portion). For more information see:
Purdy, J. E., Reinehr, R. C., & Swartz, J. D. (1989). Graduate admissions criteria of leading psychology departments. American Psychologist, 44, 960-961. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.44.6.960
There are many ways to prepare for the GRE. Preparation courses are offered by several different companies, as are preparation books. All of these can provide valuable information. Ultimately, though, the most helpful way to prepare for the GRE is to actually take it. Most prep courses and books offer sample tests. You can also find them on-line. Before you decide how much time you want to spend devoting to studying for the GRE, you might first wish to take a sample test and see what your baseline score is. If it is far below the cutoff or average score of the schools you are interested in, you either need to spend a great deal of time trying to improve your score or rethink your list of schools.
Curriculum Vitae or Resume
The Curriculum Vita (CV) is a way for you to highlight how your personal and academic experiences make you a good candidate for admission to a graduate program. A CV is like a resume, only instead of containing your paid work experience, it shows what you have done that pertains to graduate school. Your CV should include contact information, educational history, volunteer/service learning experience, teaching assistantships, research assistantships, presentations, awards, honors, and memberships in professional organizations. For a sample CV, see:
Landrum, R. E. (2005). The curriculum vita: A student’s guide to preparation. Eye on Psi Chi, 9, 28-29, 42.
Some schools will ask for a writing sample. Ideally, this will be a publication you have co-authored. If you do not have a publication, you can use any research paper you have written (think Research Methods paper, or final paper in an upper-division psychology class). Make sure that your sample is well-written and in perfect APA format.
Once you have chosen the faculty member(s) you would like to work with, it is often a good idea to email them. Here is a sample:
Dear Dr. Jones,
I am a senior undergraduate student at Boise State University. I have read your work on the influence of media on body image in male adolescents, including your recent article Is G.I. Joe the New Barbie? My research interests seem similar to your own. Specifically, I have been working with Dr. Smith on a project examining the influence of hours of television viewing on body dissatisfaction in college students. Based on our mutual research interests and my research on your department, I am very interested in application for admission to your Social Psychology doctoral program. Can you please tell me if you will be taking new students next year?
Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.
The faculty member may or may not respond to you, but nevertheless it is a good idea to get your name out there. At the very least, perhaps the faculty member will remember that you contact him/her when your application comes in. Hopefully, you will get a response from the faculty member that will help you decide whether or not you truly want to apply to their graduate program. For example, if the faculty member is not taking new students next year, you might decide to email another faculty member at that school or cross that school off of your list. In addition, these email exchanges can help you get an idea of what it would be like to work for this person. Do they seem interested in you and what you have to offer? Or was their response short and terse and generally unhelpful?
If you receive a positive response from them, you may decide that you want to visit the school in person and meet with that faculty member. This will allow you to get a feel for what that school is like. In addition, if you could meet with current graduate students on your visit, you will get an even better idea of what graduate school is really like at that institution. If you present yourself well, this could help you get into the program when you apply.
What happens once I apply?
Ahhh, the waiting game. Most PhD applications are due in December or January for the following Fall. Schools typically call or email you in February or early March if you made the first cut (roughly one to two months from when applications were due). That doesn’t mean that you are in, however. Most graduate schools do both phone/email and in-person interviews (see below for what to expect). Most Master’s program applications are due in February or March. You will likely hear back from them in late March or early April (roughly a month to a month and a half from when applications were due). You may or may not have to do a phone/email or in-person interview. The magic deadline for all graduate programs is typically April 15th. If you get into a program, they will likely ask you for a decision no later than that date so that if you turn them down, they can make an offer to another candidate. Similarly, if you have not heard from a program (email or phone interview, for example) by April 15th, chances for admission are typically not good. Regardless, DO NOT contact the school and ask them if you’ve gotten in. The only time it is appropriate to contact a school is if you have already gotten into other schools and those schools are pushing you for a decision. At that point, you can shoot off a quick email to the program administrator telling them that you have received offers from X and Y school, but you would rather attend their program. As such, you would like to know where they are in their admissions process. Always be courteous and professional in any contact you have with anyone at your schools of interest.
If you make the first round of cuts based on your academic record, letters of recommendation and personal statement, you will likely receive an email or phone call asking for an interview. This interview may be either on the phone or in person, and you may be asked to do both. Many schools now do interviews in two stages: an initial phone interview by the faculty member you requested to work with, and then if you make that cut, a visit to campus for a more formal interview with several faculty members and current graduate students.
To get ready for an interview, go to the website below and prepare your answers to the questions. You will likely get asked all of them at some point in your phone and in-person interview process. In addition, be prepared to discuss your RA and TA experiences. Make sure you read all of abstracts/articles of the professor(s) you will be speaking with so that you can have questions for him/her prepared about his/her research in addition to the questions they suggest below. In addition, they will likely give you time to ask them questions. It is always best to have a few questions prepared. If you don’t ask them questions, it makes it seems as though you are not interested in their program. The link below provides some suggestions for questions you may want answered.
The On-Campus Interview/Visit
In addition to preparing your answers to the questions mentioned above, there are several other key steps to take when preparing to visit a graduate school.
- What do I wear? – This is a professional interview and you need to treat it as such. That doesn’t mean you need to wear a suit, but you should at least be dressed in “business casual.”
- Remember that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. That doesn’t mean you need to be rude or disrespectful, but you need to get answers to any questions that will help answer the question: “Do I really want to spend the next 5 – 7 years of my life here?” What will your partner do in this town?
- Find out the funding situation – If it’s a Master’s program, do they offer any funding at all? If it’s a PhD program, do they offer TA or RA positions? Do they fund you for 4 years or 5 or not at all? Do they allow you to work outside of their program? Chances are if they are funding you, the answer will be no. So get ready to be incredibly frugal with your money.
- Explore the city – this may be your only chance to figure out whether you actually can stand living in this city for several years? Think about things like cost of living, crime rate, housing, etc. Talk to other graduate students about how they make ends meet.