PhD Admissions Question
December 15, 2009 9:24 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand PhD admissions


A few months ago I finally decided that I want to go for a PhD in psychology. My background is in biology and I don't have research experience or a ton of formal coursework in psychology (although I do have chemistry research experience), so I went in knowing that my chances are probably not great for the programs I'm looking at (top 15 or so mostly). I was Phi Beta Kappa at a good undergrad, my GRE scores are significantly higher than the median in the programs I'm looking at, and I think my statements of purpose are pretty good. So I'm very well-qualified except that I don't have a degree in psychology, and if I was applying to biology programs I don't think I'd have much trouble.

I'm skeptical about my chances because I've been reading through the admissions sites on the departments I'm interested in, and most of them say they get like 300 applications for 10-15 spots. With such a low admissions rate it seems like you would have to be perfect in every respect to get in.

So I have two separate questions:

-First, who gets in to top-20 PhD programs in psychology? What kind of background do you have to have, given their admissions rates? Or, in those 300 applicants are there a bunch of people who just apply for the heck of it, so it looks more competitive than it actually is?

-Second, I qualify for a special fellowship that funds PhD students for 5 years. It is specifically for people with disabilities. I haven't got the fellowship yet, because you have to apply along with a research advisor, but I would have a very good chance of getting it. Lots of admissions sites say that they have to deny qualified applicants every year because they have limited funding. Is it appropriate to contact professors in the department and mention that I probably would be able to bring in my own funding? If so, would the ability to be funded from outside improve admissions chances, or is this a non-factor?
posted by anonymous to Education (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
- First, who gets in to top-20 PhD programs in psychology? What kind of background do you have to have, given their admissions rates? Or, in those 300 applicants are there a bunch of people who just apply for the heck of it, so it looks more competitive than it actually is?

I have been working in an fMRI lab at a top 10 school with a number of grad students over the past year or so. I have seen the same numbers regarding selection that you describe, however I can only imagine that a large amount of those applicants are in fact dismissed immediately due to bad applications, low GREs, etc. You say 300 applicants for 10-15 spots, that's 20-30 per slot. Let's say 1/2 of these people don't even have a chance. So perhaps 15 people to consider. Out of those, there might be 5 that are clearly better than the others. After that point, I would think it depends most on what exactly the professor/principal investigator is looking for and who they think would be a good fit for the lab. It also really depends on which labs have funding and open spots for grad students at the time.

-Second, I qualify for a special fellowship that funds PhD students for 5 years.... Is it appropriate to contact professors in the department and mention that I probably would be able to bring in my own funding? If so, would the ability to be funded from outside improve admissions chances, or is this a non-factor?

Funding is pretty tight at many academic institutions right now. This is primarily due to the massive hits they, and many of the private foundations who write research grants and sponsor projects, took to their investments in the economic downturn. While there was some increase in NSF funding, many places are still recovering. I would definitely bring up the fact that you can provide some of your own funding, although I don't think it would ever put you ahead of a better candidate. A few other things to keep in mind. First of all, the acceptance process is very different at different institutions. Some accept you into the program and put you on a lab rotation for the first year or more to pick a lab. At others you are paired directly with one person from the beginning. Second, I have seen firsthand just how arbitrary grad student selection can be. In any given department, lets say there are half a dozen different labs. Each one focuses on a different area, and currently has a number of grad students at different stages of their program. If the lab you are looking at just accepted 3 grad students last year, they probably aren't going to take any this year. I have seen highly overqualified applicants who did undergrad at my institution and might have even worked in our lab get denied because there just wasn't available spots for them at the time. One applied the next year and got right in. Also, some professors see grad students as a burden, others see them as a workhorse, others as an invaluable part of the group. My best advice is to find some labs that are working on the type of thing you are interested in, and talk to the principal investigator over email or in person beforehand. Not only so that you can make an impression, but also so that you can get a feel for the environment and people.

Lastly, I wouldn't downplay your biology background too much. I'm not sure exactly what field of psychology you want to go into, but right now the cognitive sciences are huge. This field encompasses not cognitive neuroscience and investigations using fMRI, EEG, TMS and behavioral measurements, but also low level neurochemistry stuff and crazy stuff like brain-machine interfaces. There is definitely applications for someone with a more traditional biology background if that is what you are interested, and even if you aren't I wouldn't be too worried that it is going to hurt you.
posted by sophist at 10:05 PM on December 15, 2009

Also, once you have narrowed it down and are going for an interview, read some of the papers from the lab. People in academia live and die by their publications, and being familiar with their research and ready to comment on it or ask questions will show that you are passionate and interested in what they are doing.
posted by sophist at 10:16 PM on December 15, 2009

Bear in mind that most big-deal grad programs in your field are likely to be drawing from the same pool of applicants. So of those 300 who apply to School A, maybe 15 will get in — but another dozen will get offers from School B, and ten more will get offers from School C, and so on. There are still more applicants than seats, of course, but the odds aren't so heavily stacked against you as you seem to think. Just apply to a lot of schools and hope for the best; it's entirely possible you'll get in somewhere.

(Still, you should have a Plan B if you don't. You might apply for Master's programs as well, or consider sticking around at your undergrad institution for another year and taking some more Psych classes to give you a stronger application next year.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:25 PM on December 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Good advice here from sophist and nebulawindphone. Many people apply to 5 or 6 schools (or more), so that number gets pretty well inflated, and quite a few are totally unqualified to start with.

As for your special funding: I wouldn't email potential advisors just to inform them of your potential funding. It might be appropriate to bring it up if you're already emailing them to express your interest or to inquire about the program. You could also try emailing a relevant staff member (in my department she's known as the graduate student services officer) and ask what the appropriate way would be to convey this information to the admissions committee.

As sophist said, funding is tight, so I think most programs will be interested in the prospect of getting a grad student at little or no cost to their core budget.
posted by col_pogo at 12:20 AM on December 16, 2009

Not strictly psychologist. Also not USA.

But... In the UK the funding crisis has hit big time. If the scholarship is transferable to another country and you know what area you want to work in... You'd probably walk into a plce in our top 20. Bonuses: In the UK there's no taught component to PhDs, so if you know what you're interested in and who you want to work with you can just get on with it. Also, discipline-hopping is not a problem (my BSc/MA/PhD are all in different subjects).
posted by handee at 12:53 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I got a PhD in cognitive science in one of the aforementioned top-20 programs, and am now a professor in cognitive science (albeit no longer in America). From the sound of it I would say you may have a chance, but probably not a strong one.

Speaking as a potential supervisor, my biggest worry about a candidate with your credentials -- by far -- would be that you simply don't have enough psychology background to know what you would be getting into. The world is full of people who are interested in psychology; what I (and presumably your potential advisor) would want to know if you are one of the (much rarer) people who actually would enjoy doing research in psychology. The two are quite distinct, and many people -- very bright people, very good students, very high GRE scores -- simply find that doing research isn't for them: it is too solitary, too frustrating, there is too much time between the effort and the pay-off, or whatever. In my experience, the single best predictor of how likely somebody is to complete the PhD is whether they have actually done research before (and enjoyed it). So I would be extremely hesitant to take on a student who hadn't actually done psychology research, regardless of other credentials, simply because there would be increased probability that they would end up realising that the PhD is not for them.

(This is something else to keep in mind; if you haven't done research in psychology, are you sure you want to do a PhD?)

One way to mitigate this factor is to have a statement of purpose that makes it extremely clear that you know what you are getting into. Having research experience of any kind will help somewhat, to the extent that the experience of research is similar regardless of the field. If you have some other concrete reason to think my worry wouldn't apply in your case, mention that. However, I wouldn't find "I have read a lot of psychology and really find it intriguing" very convincing; I wouldn't doubt that a student applying to a PhD program is interested in the topic, but what I would want to know is if they could actually do research. And that means, do they enjoy the research? Will they still be motivated if they have a year of no results and frustration? Do they enjoy the process of running experiments or models, writing up results, and analysing data? If the answer to any of these is no, then they will not be a very good PhD student for me, no matter how smart they are.

If you're unsuccessful this year, the good news is that this problem is easy to remedy. Get some experience doing research. Many professors in the US will hire a lab manager, which is a great way to combine research assistant with getting some $$. You could also just volunteer in a lab. Anything is way better than nothing, and if you get involved in an experiment on a more than grunt-work level, that would increase your chances tremendously the following year.
posted by forza at 3:51 AM on December 16, 2009 [7 favorites]

I'll add that having an undergrad major that is psychology is itself not a problem at all, at least in the area I am in (computational modelling in cognitive science). In fact, most of the people who I work with had an undergraduate major in math, physics, computer science, linguistics, biology, or some other technical field. But nearly all had some psychology research experience before applying to psychology programs, and those that didn't had some other mitigating factor (e.g., the professor already knew them well and knew they were aware of what they were getting into).
posted by forza at 3:55 AM on December 16, 2009

I did my PhD in a behavioral biology lab, doing animal brain and behavior work. The students in the lab were a mix of neuroscience, zoology and psychology grads. The PI had appointments in all 3 departments. Your background is only an issue if you are interested in something like social psychology, and even then not such a big deal if you can get some experience.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:03 AM on December 16, 2009

I sat on the admissions committee in a top-20 program in physics while I was a graduate student. An important fact was that even though we wanted an incoming class of around 20 students, we sent out something more like 80 or 90 acceptances. The reason for this was touched on by nebulawindphone above: if we were interested in a candidate, it was also highly likely that said candidate would get at least one or two other offers. If we just made 20 offers, we wouldn't have nearly 20 incoming students.

As you suspect, there was also a "slush pile" of applications that weren't seriously considered. I think my program received something like 500 applications, 200 of which we admissions committee members didn't even see (since they didn't survive an initial vetting.)

Conclusion? The odds aren't as dire as you might think, especially if you're a solid student with good grades and standardized test scores.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:20 AM on December 16, 2009

I think my statements of purpose are pretty good.

What you should try to do is get someone in a psych-related field to read them, ideally someone who has been involved with admissions. These are often used as a filter for people who don't seem to have any idea what they're getting into, especially for students with undergrad degrees in a different area. Convincing a department and/or a particular PI that you have some idea what you want to do is going to be the biggest hurdle, and I agree with others that to help overcome this you should aim for research areas where your chemistry background could have some value. Also, you should try to get your letter writers to explain why you might want to do this -- a letter from a chemist saying "this person is great" is fine, but hopefully they can go beyond and explain why you'd be great in the programs you're applying to.

You may want to consider cognitive science-type programs (or maybe neuroscience, cf. the chemistry issue), since I think they tend to receive and consider a wider range of applicants than straight-up psych programs.

I haven't got the fellowship yet, because you have to apply along with a research advisor, but I would have a very good chance of getting it.

I think this is something to mention as a plan while interviewing, because whatever you think your chances are, you don't have it yet. Actual outside funding would probably improve your chances to some extent, but the ability to be funded is something everyone has in principle. To be blunt, without knowledge of the particular fellowship that verifies the way you characterize it (knowledge which people won't have) I don't think most people with experience in applying for grants/fellowships would assess the likelihoods in the same way as you. Another way to think about this issue is that a program that wouldn't already admit you fully funded might not be the right one for you anyways.
posted by advil at 6:20 AM on December 16, 2009

What I would be interested in knowing is, what type of career are you looking to get by having a doctoral degree? If you're interested in research solely, then you could also consider neuropscyhology programs that may have fewer applicants and a bio background would be incredibly useful for (one of my friends is in a Ph.D. program in this field with an undergrad in bio). If you're interested in being a practitioner and seeing clients but less interested in research, you may want to look into Psy.D. programs which is more practitioner-scholar oriented than scientist-practitioner oriented. Psy.D. programs can take less time and often can cost less than clinical psychology Ph.Ds.

With a Pys.D., you still have a chance at teaching. One of the regular adjuncts in my Masters program (oh, will I ever get it done?) has a Psy.D. and works in the Department of Mental Health as well as maintains a private practice and teaches 2 classes/semester. Sure, he's not tenure track, but he's been apart of my program for like 15 years now. If you want a tenure-track position somewhere, then yes, you'll want the Ph.D. Some places, depending on what the school is looking for, may accept a Psy.D. if the program is more clinical than research based.

Anyway --- since you didn't really mention what field within psychology and what type of model you were most interested in, I thought I'd throw this out there. I've seen, too, quite a few people who have earned Masters in Counseling of one sort or another go on to get licensed and then a couple of years later apply to doctoral programs that they previously didn't get into. Some of them got in the second time around when they had some more experience under them. This is a less immediate route, but depending on what you ultimately wish to do, it may be another one to consider.
posted by zizzle at 6:41 AM on December 16, 2009

Second, I qualify for a special fellowship that funds PhD students for 5 years.

Isn't there a spot on your application to mention funds that you have applied for? There has been on every grad school application I have done (a lot). Make sure not to overlook it.
posted by whatzit at 4:25 PM on December 16, 2009

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