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Undergraduate

Graduate School Advice

Advice From Faculty And Graduate Students

Some of the faculty members and graduate students of The Ohio State University Psychology Department have provided their advice on issues concerning graduate school in Psychology. (Please note that each person providing advice has experience in a different field of psychology. Therefore, each person's advice may differ accordingly.)

How do I decide if Graduate School is right for me?

Consider your motivations.  If you feel like you really enjoy a subject and have questions, you'll have the right motivations to get you through the tough spots.  Being smart and wanting to be called Dr. one day is not enough succeed. 

~Holly Brothers, Graduate Student of Dr. Gary Wenk, Behavioral Neuroscience Area

Graduate school is not for everyone. It is most suited for people who are really passionate about a particular topic. If you find yourself wanting to know more info in class, reading topically relevant articles or blog posts in your spare time, or thinking about psychology in random places at totally random times--then graduate school might be for you. The undergraduate advising office does a lot of workshops and has a lot of resources about what to expect in graduate school. I also recommend talking to as many graduate students/former TAs as you can to find out what their experience is like and if it is something you think you would like to do.

~Kristin S. Edwards, Graduate Student of Dr. Ben Givens, Behavioral Neuroscience Area

Having the wrong motivation for going to graduate school will make an already challenging experience seem impossible. Going just because you think you have to or because your parents tell you that you have to is not going to be enough to get your through the really rough days (and you will have really rough days).

~Randi Shedlosky, Graduate Student of Dr. Bob Arkin, Social Psychology Area

Graduate school is a big commitment of time and money. Make sure it is right for you and the program you are interested in is also right for you. Don't feel rushed into attending graduate school. Rather than viewing at as means to an ends, think of it as an educational experience you want as part of your life. You want to look back after obtaining the degree and say that the experience was worth it.

~Dr. Mark Pitt, Professor, Cognitive Psychology

I suggest doing some research or doing an internship of some kind before deciding to go to grad school. Classes are essential to obtain the requisite knowledge, but it's best to spend some time "doing" psychology before deciding to spend 40 years on that path. Summer jobs are another good way to sample the profession before plunging into it.

~Dr. Hal Arkes, Professor, Quantitative Psychology

In trying to figure out if graduate school is right for you, it is important to consider your career objectives and to make sure that graduate school is what you need to achieve those objectives. If you have potential career goals in mind, I would suggest trying to get involved in related activities. This will help you see what your daily life would actually be like in that career and let you see if you will really enjoy it. So, if you would like to do research one day, I'd suggest getting involved in a research project while still at OSU (through the 693 program, for example). If you are interested in a counseling practice, I'd suggest getting involved in activities such as mentoring, peer counseling, suicide prevention hotlines, etc., depending on your specific interests. Not only will these activities help you determine if your potential career path is what you really want, but it will also make you a more attractive candidate when it comes to applying to graduate school.

~Ken DeMarree, Graduate Student of Dr. Richard Petty, Social Psychology Area

How does being an Undergraduate student compare to being a Graduate student?

I feel like undergraduate education was all about learning the answers, while graduate education is more about learning the right questions to ask. Be inquisitive. Make "how" and "why key parts of your vocabulary and everyday life.

~Kristin Edwards, Graduate Student of Dr. Ben Givens, Behavioral Neuroscience Area

Graduate school requires way more time management skills than undergrad, and you have to be responsible for yourself. You have to learn to set your own deadlines and stick to them; there is not necessarily going to be someone else to keep you on track. You are expected to know how to do that on your own at this point.

~Randi Shedlosky, Graduate Student of Dr. Bob Arkin, Social Psychology Area

What can I do to Prepare for Graduate School?

Take a variety of classes inside and outside of psychology. Take the most challenging classes you can. In particular, you can never have too many math or science classes. You'll probably need many of those skills at some point and it is much easier to learn them in a structured class environment than to try and teach them to yourself later on.

~Kristin Edwards, Graduate Student of Dr. Ben Givens, Behavioral Neuroscience Area

In any psychology class, begin to talk with your instructors. Introduce yourself, and ask questions not only about the class, but about their research. If it is possible, ask if you could gain some research experience by working in their lab. Once in a psychology lab, don't be afraid to ask the advisor and graduate students about the process of applying to graduate school. Make yourself be known to people that are in charge, and don't be afraid to ask questions.

~Eric Tracy, graduate student of Dr. Mark Pitt, Cognitive Psychology Area

Do not wait to think about your grades. Keep your G.P.A. up. Once it starts dropping, it is hard to recover.

~Randi Shedlosky, Graduate Student of Dr. Bob Arkin, Social Psychology Area

What does Research have to do with getting into Graduate School?

Research is essential for two reasons. First, it gives a faculty member more information about which to write when it comes time for letters of recommendation. Second, it enables the student to find out what it is like to do psychological research.

~Dr. Hal Arkes, Professor, Quantitative Psychology Area


Research experiences are all about reciprocity and finding mutually beneficial situations for both students and laboratories. As a student you’re hoping to get valuable hands-on experience, knowledge, and connections. Researchers are hoping to get students who can make a meaningful contribution to ongoing projects. The earlier in your academic career that you can get involved in research, the better off you will be--but it is better to be late than never. It often takes a relatively large investment of time to train research assistants, so many labs prefer students who will be around for a while so they can reap the benefits of that training time cost. Build connections with professors early by asking questions in class, and stopping by their office and asking what they do and why/how they do it. When you're ready to get involved, focus on the specific ways you can contribute to a lab and what you hope to learn.

~Kristin Edwards, Graduate Student of Dr. Ben Givens, Behavioral Neuroscience Area

Many of the people who drop out of graduate school do so because they discover that grad school is not what they had expected and that the field they're attempting to enter is not what they really want. Psychology doctoral programs invest a great deal, both financially and through mentorship, in their graduate students. By participating in research, you will have demonstrated that your interest is informed by actual experience. This will assure the faculty on the admissions committee that their investment in you will be worthwhile, because you are more likely to stick with the program. It also helps you decide if graduate school is right for you.

~Ken DeMarree, Graduate Student of Dr. Richard Petty, Social Psychology Area


Doing undergraduate research is not required, but it will tremendously increase your chances of getting into a competitive program. No one is going to offer a research position to you unless you ask. Be proactive. Tell your professors you are interested in their research and ask if you can get involved. Most professors are more than happy to extend research experience to interested students.

~Holly McCartney, KAPLAN test preparation teacher and Graduate Student of Dr. Nancy Betz, Counseling Psychology Area


A must for several reasons: It allows you to get an inside look on how the facts discussed in texts are collected. You can work directly with faculty members, whom you may later want to write a letter of recommendation. Broadens your education in the discipline.

~Dr. Mark Pitt, Professor, Cognitive Psychology Area


Because the PhD is a research-oriented degree, even in clinical programs, having research experience as an undergraduate is very important. Experience doing research is very important for those who are going to graduate school. Whereas the emphasis is on course work for undergraduates, the emphasis will be on your research abilities in graduate school (at least after the first year). You should get experience so you know whether research is what you want to do, and you should get a letter of recommendation from the appropriate supervisors describing your accomplishments and contributions. The more independent and involved you are, the better. You should contact the faculty member with whom you wish to work, and meet to establish a project on which you can

~Graduate Student of Dr. Randy Nelson, Behavioral Neuroscience Area

How do I find Graduate programs that are right for me?

Ask faculty members in your chosen area to tell you about the best programs in that area. Then go to each department's web site to find out who at that school is closest to your area. E-mail that person, explaining your interests and asking if he or she would be an appropriate person to guide you in your graduate career. If your career goals are unclear, then go to the school which has a good program in the general area to which you are most attracted.

~Dr. Hal Arkes, Professor, Quantitative Psychology Area


Since my experience is in research-based programs, my advice here is geared toward students who are applying to similar programs. The first thing to do is to determine what research areas of the field most interest you. Knowing that you are interested in Social Psychology in general is a good start, but it will not help narrow down the number of possible programs. If you know, for example, that you are interested in motivation, then suddenly the list of schools becomes more manageable. If you do have clear research interests, I would suggest finding specific professors whose research interests you. Often times, when you are admitted to a program, you are admitted to a specific lab, so in searching for graduate schools, the specific people you would be working with can be as important as the quality of the program in general. I began my search on the web, looking at the research interests of various faculty members in different programs. I kept track of everything in a spreadsheet so that I had all the information in one place. After I had done this, I talked to my faculty advisor to get his suggestions. My advisor was able to help me choose which of the programs I had considered were good fits for my interests. Plus, he had a good idea as to which programs would be difficult to get into and which ones I should consider as "backups" based on my grades and experience. Different professors will have different perspectives on the programs and potential advisors you are interested in, so you may find it useful to talk to several people about your list of potential schools. Most importantly, however, I'd make sure that the people you talk to are as close to your area of interest as possible. A cognitive psychologist researching memory processes at OSU may not know much about social psychologists at other universities who are doing research in stereotyping, but a social psychologist should (and vice versa).

~Ken DeMarree, Graduate Student of Dr. Richard Petty, Social Psychology Area


Like people, all graduate programs have personalities. The goal is to find the program that matches your interests and attitude. Web site provides you a glimpse of the personality, so study them. Don't be afraid to email faculty/students for information. Their responsiveness can be informative.

~Dr. Mark Pitt, Professor, Cognitive Psychology Area

As Dr. Pitt pointed out, graduate programs have personalities, and so do specific labs and professors.   Would you respond better to an advisor who is authoritative, strict, always in the lab, never in the lab, etc.?    Do you want to be part of a big lab or small lab?  Is the lab that you’re looking at too sociable, too competitive or too uptight?   Take the opportunity to ask these things of the people in the lab with whom you communicate.  Being comfortable with the people, lab and program will help you succeed and, next to picking the right subject matter, will help ensure that you enjoy your tenure in grad school.

~Holly Brothers, Graduate Student of Dr. Gary Wenk, Behavioral Neuroscience Area

In general, a graduate student develops a close working relationship with the graduate advisor. Therefore, visiting or at least having an e-mail correspondence with a person you might work with is a good idea. This might require you to narrow down your interests so that you can ascertain which faculty member shares your interests. If you cannot narrow your interests down this far, then try to visit the school if possible to talk with some grad students and some faculty members.

~Dr. Hal Arkes, Professor, Quantitative Psychology

How does funding work in Graduate programs?

Usually graduate programs provide both a tuition waiver and a stipend for graduate students. Often the latter is obtained by teaching some lower level courses. Thus funding is generally not a problem, although the amount of the funding will not be generous.

~Dr. Hal Arkes, Professor, Quantitative Psychology Area

How do I obtain letters of recommendation?

Think ahead. Establish a relationship long before you need the letters of recommendation. Then, the letters will take care of themselves. Don't wait until the last minute to ask someone to write a letter of recommendation.

~Dr. Hal Arkes, Professor, Quantitative Psychology Area


I'd suggest asking the faculty who know you the best for letters of recommendation. So, faculty you've worked as a research assistant for or taken a small seminar class with may be good places to start. It is also good to include your letter-writers in the earlier stages when you're deciding what schools to apply to. If you do this, they may be better able to write about your interests and motivation as well as your abilities. When you meet with faculty to ask for a recommendation bring any relevant materials with you. In addition to any forms they may have to fill out, this will include your transcript (unofficial), personal statement, and resume (with any relevant experience included).

~Ken DeMarree, Graduate Student of Dr. Richard Petty, Social Psychology Area


Informative letters about your abilities, performance, etc, count. Ask people who can comment on these qualities.

~Dr. Mark Pitt, Professor, Cognitive Psychology


Your [699] supervisor will be happy to write a letter of recommendation for you. Provide any forms that are necessary. Also, get letters from anyone with whom you work at the time you finish working with them. Peoples' memories fade fast. If you intend to do any kind of postgraduate work, then you should get letters of recommendation from a person whenever you finish a project with them. Professors usually have many students working with them, and will tend to forget you and what you did as the years pass; if you go back after an absence, they might remember little about what you actually did. Thus, ask for a letter of recommendation whenever you finish a project. (If you are continuing to work with that same person the next quarter, of course, you can wait awhile.) If the person agrees, set a date that is mutually agreeable. After that date has passed, check to see that the letter has been written. Be polite, but forceful, and continue to return until the letter has been done. A tangible piece of evidence to remind the person and clutter up their desk is always helpful: An addressed envelope, a page with your name, the dates you worked with them, what you did, etc. You have every reason to expect your supervisor to write a letter, so don't be apologetic (or belligerent), but approach it as you would any other request. Too many letters are always better than too few.

~Graduate Student of Dr. Randy Nelson, Psychobiology and Behavioral Neuroscience Area


Try to establish a relationship with a couple of faculty members during your junior year. These people can then comment knowledgeably on your abilities, which will make your application more competitive than if your letters of recommendation are written by people who do not know you well.

~Dr. Hal Arkes, Professor, Quantitative Psychology Area

What do I need to think about when writing a personal statement?

Your personal statement should convey that you are qualified for graduate school and have clear objectives. You should highlight any relevant experience or coursework that have contributed to your interests or that make you a particularly qualified candidate. In particular, this is an opportunity to talk about any clinical, research, or teaching experience you have (depending on the program you're entering). If you have more specific interests, those are good to include as well. If you appear focused, the faculty may be more convinced that you know what you're getting into and that you have given your career goals careful thought. Of course, you also have to make sure that the program you are applying to can serve your interests. If you present a focused statement of research interests that do not overlap with any of the faculty in a given program, they will not want to admit you because of this lack of fit. You often have limited space for these essays, so it also provides an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you can write clearly and concisely. Be sure to have the writing center and any faculty or graduate students you have worked with look your essay over to give you feedback as well.

~Ken DeMarree, Graduate Student of Dr. Richard Petty, Social Psychology Area


Have clear goals.

~Dr. Mark Pitt, Professor, Cognitive Psychology

Do not just restate everything that was in your C.V. Try to explain why your experience makes you a good fit for the program and how it has prepared you for your career goals.

~Randi Shedlosky, Graduate Student of Dr. Bob Arkin, Social Psychology Area

What should I know about the G.R.E. (Graduate Record Exam)

The GRE is a lot like the SAT in content, so it’s easy to blow off studying, but consider that you’re competing with other students who are in the top echelon of academics as well and they will be putting in the time.

~Holly Brothers, Graduate Student of Dr. Gary Wenk, Behavioral Neuroscience Area

Do not allow a school's published "minimum GRE score" to prevent you from applying. Acceptance depends on much more than solely GRE scores. It is not uncommon for an applicant to be admitted with slightly lower GRE scores, if the rest of his or her application is great. Apply wherever you want to go, regardless of published "minimum scores." It's always worth a shot!

~Holly McCartney, KAPLAN test preparation teacher and Graduate Student of Dr. Nancy Betz, Counseling Psychology Area


The GREs are like bad-tasting cough syrup: They are no fun to swallow, but a necessary evil for admissions.

~Dr. Mark Pitt, Professor, Cognitive Psychology


GRE scores are an important part of admissions. However, as long as you earn scores at or above the school's "minimum cut off," they will not have a large impact. It is not worth killing yourself to score 800s on each section. Extremely high GRE scores are not as important as research, grades, and experiences in other areas.

~Holly McCartney, KAPLAN test preparation teacher and Graduate Student of Dr. Nancy Betz, Counseling Psychology Area