Applying to psychology Ph.D. programs

Applying to Ph.D. programs in psychology is a multi-stage process, with some of the “stages” being less straightforward than others. Of course, there are many routes to graduate school, but here is one typical “path” I would recommend if you are considering pursuing a Ph.D. DO NOT PANIC if you have already deviated from this trajectory! It is NOT the only way to get into a Ph.D. program. I listed these steps because they are the ones I and many others followed, not because they are required.

Please note: This advice is largely aimed at students applying to U.S. Ph.D. programs.

  1. In undergrad: Gain research experience by working in a psychology research lab that does work you think sounds interesting (You can read my thoughts and tips on conducting research as an undergraduate here.

  2. For ~1 - 3 years after undergrad: Continue to gain research experience by working as a paid lab manager or research assistant in a psychology research lab. (If you did not work in a lab in undergrad, these positions might be difficult to get. You might need to start out as a part-time volunteer in a lab so you can gain relevant experience before landing a paid position.) Think about what questions you are most excited by, whether you enjoy doing research for 40-50 hours per week, and whether you would like to remain in academic research for the foreseeable future. Though many students pursue non-academic careers after grad school, if you are primarily interested in industry/data science/etc., it’s worth considering whether you need a Ph.D. to gain the position you ultimately want.

  3. The summer before you apply to Ph.D. programs (~13 - 15 months prior to your planned start date): Start thinking more seriously about the types of labs in which you would like to do your Ph.D. Make a list of possible mentors with whom you would like to work. For psychology programs, the lab you join and the advisor you work with is typically more important than the name of the school you attend, but you should also consider the size/strength of the psychology department and the resources it has available, and whether you could see yourself being happy living wherever the school is located for at least five years.

    Most Ph.D. programs in the U.S. provide five years of funding through a combination of teaching and research assistantships. I do not recommend applying to any U.S. programs that do not guarantee financial support for five years. Once you have a list of potential advisors with whom you are interested in working, you can email them to introduce yourself and see if they will be admitting graduate students in the upcoming admissions cycle. NYU graduate students compiled a collection of these emails here if you are looking for examples (but don’t plagiarize!!). If a professor has a note on their website that they are accepting students in the upcoming cycle (and you can tell that this note is recent and actually does refer to the cycle you are interested in), you don’t have to email. Previously, I advised prospective students to email to get on professors’ radars. But in talking to many professors, I realized that professors who are interested in recruiting new students to their labs read graduate applications very carefully —- if you submit a strong application, they will take it seriously, regardless of whether you have emailed in advance. If you do decide to email a professor, don’t be despondent if they do not reply. Professors are generally buried in emails, so don’t read too much into it. If you are excited about their work, you should still apply to the program. If they tell you they are not accepting students, then don’t waste your money applying, unless there is another professor in the same department who you would like to work with. Some professors might offer to skype with you. You should take them up on this, but consider it a “pre-interview.” They are likely talking to you to figure out if they want to interview you for real later, after you submit your application. You should prepare for these conversations the same way you would prepare for an interview, even if it sounds more casual.

    After you have a list of programs you’re going to apply to (usually ~6 - 12, but this varies), determine whether you need to take the GRE. Many programs no longer require it! Many students ask how important it is for programs that do requirement. And the answer is … I actually don’t really know / it varies. If you are super worried because you did poorly, then it’s probably a good idea to apply to some programs that do not require or accept GRE scores.

    The summer is also a good time to start drafting your personal statement. You can generally write one main statement that you can modify for each school you apply to. The personal statement should not be too personal. It’s not like the essay you wrote to apply to college. It should be a narrative about your research experiences and what you are interested in researching in the future. Again, NYU graduate students have compiled a number of sample essays here.

  4. Early fall in the year you are applying to Ph.D. programs (~11 - 12 months prior to your planned start date): Start reaching out to people who can write you letters of recommendation. You will generally need three letters, and you should give your writers as much time as possible, particularly because they will likely be writing letters for many people at the same time. Send them an organized list of everywhere you are applying with clear deadlines and instructions, and follow up many times to ensure they have submitted. Also, talk to them about your plans and goals! Ask them for advice! If you have worked in a lab, you generally should have a letter from the professor in charge of the lab, though it’s okay if your more direct supervisor (a grad student or a postdoc) helps draft it. If you have never worked in a lab, you should probably not be applying to Ph.D. programs (in psychology at least), though there may be some exceptions to this ‘rule.’ Other letters can come from professors who have taught you in psychology courses or related fields. Thank your letter writers and keep them updated! They are rooting for you and want to hear how things work out (good news and bad news).

  5. Late fall / early winter in the year you are applying to Ph.D. programs: Submit those apps!

  6. December - March in the year you are applying to Ph.D. programs: Programs will begin to contact students for interviews in December, and interview invitations may come as late as March. If you haven’t heard from a program by late March, you can assume that you will not be accepted there. Interviews / school visits are a great opportunity to suss out the “vibe” of a lab or program. The lab is trying to evaluate if you are a good fit for them, but you should also be trying to evaluate if the lab is a good fit for you. Here are some questions you might be asked and some questions you might want to consider asking.

  7. January - April in the year you are applying to Ph.D. programs: You should start to hear about whether or not you are admitted to programs. If you are accepted to multiple places, remember that you can reach back out to your potential advisor and students in the programs to ask more questions. Find out as much as you can about your potential advisor’s mentorship style. Are they hands on or hands off? Do people generally like working with them? Do they have reasonable expectations for graduate students? Any red or yellow flags raised? Etc. Talk through your decision with trusted friends and mentors. You can also “decide” mentally what you are going to do and sit with it for a few days to see how it feels, prior to actually accepting / declining any offers.

Can I apply to Ph.D. programs straight out of undergrad?

You can! Most people (in psychology) don’t for a combination of reasons. The main advantage of taking time off is that you can gain more research experience, which will both make you a more competitive applicant and help you hone in on your specific research interests so you have a better sense of what you want to study before you commit five years to a specific lab. That said, students who gained extensive research experience as an undergraduate and already have a strong sense of the research they want to pursue can be competitive applicants as seniors in undergrad.

Should I do a master’s degree?

Probably not, unless you can find one that is fully funded. If you have not taken any psychology courses and/or had a low undergrad GPA, then an MA may make you a more competitive candidate. However, the best preparation for a Ph.D. is to gain research experience, and while you can gain research experience through a master’s program, you can also gain research experience and get paid for it by applying for full-time lab manager or research assistant positions. The main downside to MA programs are that they are expensive.

I still have more questions!

Of course. This page was not meant to be comprehensive. Here are some other resources: