PhD in Psychology (or other fields)

Add table of contents with links to sections below!

 

Introduction

If you are interested in becoming a psychology researcher or a university professor in psychology, or in another field, this is the right track for you!

Much of the advice in this section applies to any PhD program, especially PhD programs related to Psychology such as Education, Neuroscience, Public Health, Social Work, Occupational Therapy etc. However, there are also some differences in how the applications work and what they emphasize across fields. So this advice is most closely geared towards Psychology PhD programs but should also be useful more generally.

General Resources

Resources for Underrepresented Applicants

  • APA Resources for Students of Color Applying to Graduate Schools in Psychology
  • The Ebony Tower has an applying to graduate school section for students of color. The Ebony Tower as a whole is an academic thought collective designed to generate dialogue around the experiences of young scholars of color. In particular, we are interested in naming the issues that impact the success and well-being of academics of color and offering resources and advice to overcome those hurdles. The Ebony Tower will serve as a safe space to read and share stories of struggle and triumph, to gain insight about navigating academic spaces that may be socially and intellectually stifling, and to learn about the work of rising and established scholars of color. The site will feature personal narratives, resources, spotlight of impactful and thought-provoking scholarship, and advice addressing all aspects of graduate life – from applying to a program to landing a job.

  • Video of Getting into Grad School: A Panel for PIPOC Students with the following panelists you can follow on twitter: Brianna BakerJocelyn CarterKevin ChapmanShauna CooperCeleste MaloneMitch Prinstein

  • Sometimes academics and academic orgs on social media will post about virtual workshops they are doing tailored to helping students, and particularly students of color, apply to graduate school. Following active academics online on Twitter, if you have an account, might be a good way to get news of when these events are happening. It might also help to follow academics you may be interested in applying to work with in the future. Some examples include Científico LatinoSACNAS, etc. 

  • There are many scholars who write resource blogs and/or host podcasts about applying to and attending graduate school. They discuss a wide range of topics, such as applying to graduate school as a first-generation college student and the importance of obtaining research experience before applying. Some examples include Blk + in Grad School, A First-Gen's Guide to Grad School, PhDisabled (experiences and advice at the intersection of disability, chronic illness, and academia), etc.

Resources for Applicants in Clinical or Counseling Psychology

  • Before applying for a PhD in clinical or counseling psychology, you should read the section above on MA vs. PsyD. vs. PhD. 
  • It is important to emphasize that PhD programs in clinical and counseling psychology are extremely competitive. If you want to go this route it is especially important that you get lots of relevant research experience.
  • See this information from the Council of University Directors of Clinical Psychology’s Your Guide to Getting In as well as their diversity resources
  • As already mentioned above, read Mitch’s Guide.
  • Consider reading the Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology, written by Michael Sayette - a faculty member at Pitt! At Pitt we have a copy in the advising office, and this book has been sent to the advising offices at a number of schools.
  • Read Dr. Sophie Choukas-Bradley’s guide for applying to grad school for clinical psychology. 
  • Search for APA accredited programs in Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychology

Different job options after getting PhD

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Before getting into the details about applying, we encourage you to read this section about different sorts of jobs you can get with a PhD. Many students don’t know about these different paths and the pros and cons of them until already entering grad school, and it is smart to think about the long-term before committing to getting a PhD.

After getting a PhD someone can either ‘stay in academia’ and get a job at a university (or a university affiliated research organization such as a hospital), or they can ‘leave academia’ and get a job in many other non-academic careers. Here we break down the options.

      Academic Careers

      Tenure Track: Research and Teaching. After graduate school many people seek a ‘tenure-track’ career. This means being a faculty member in a psychology department or a related department, and involves both teaching and research. Some schools are more research heavy, and some are more teaching heavy, and many are a strong combination of the two. At many schools, especially the research heavy schools, you are involved in training PhD students. If you work at a liberal arts college then you probably won’t train PhD students and the research expectations will be lower. And some jobs are in the middle, such that you may have more moderate expectations for research and teaching.

      Pros:

      One of the benefits of a tenure-track job is that these jobs give you a lot of independence to study topics you are passionate about. Likely the top reason that people go through the hard work of getting a PhD, and postdoc, is to have the intellectual independence to ‘be your own boss’ and study what you are fascinated by.

      Likewise, many faculty get lots of joy out of teaching and mentoring college students and PhD students. Different people get different amounts of satisfaction out of the different components of the job.

      After tenure you have a very high level of job security.

      Universities often have other good benefits.

      Cons:

      Tenure track jobs are highly competitive, you may need to make sacrifices about where you live. To be very concrete, if you are dead set on living in one particular city, it may be very challenging to find a job in that city.

      It is common to complete a postdoc after a PhD, so you may need to make multiple moves during your 20s and 30s (for your PhD program, for a postdoc, and then for a job).

      Though some tenure track faculty do switch jobs and move between universities, doing so is often not easy.

      Going through grad school and a postdoc with the goal of getting a tenure-track job can be stressful because of uncertainty in landing a job. Additionally, going through tenure is usually stressful because it requires success in research and obtaining grants so initially job security can feel low.

      Teaching Tracks. Another option after grad school is to seek a job that focuses on teaching exclusively (or teaching with a fairly small amount of research). This is ideal for people who love teaching but have decided that they don’t want to focus on research. Teaching tracks work differently at different universities and are not always called the same thing. Some teaching jobs have a high level of job security, with 3 or 5 year contracts, however, these are more competitive to get. Many universities have increasingly relied on ‘adjunct’ positions, which are temporary positions (e.g., 1 semester or 1 year) and have low job security and also often very low salaries.

      Pros: Great if you love teaching and mentoring college students.

      Cons: Job security and salary can vary considerably for different sorts of jobs.

      Research Tracks. During grad school some people find that they love research and don’t love teaching. Or, some people find that it is challenging to get a tenure track job, but want to continue doing research. One option in this case is to pursue a job that involves research but not teaching. Many of these sorts of jobs are housed in medical schools and are especially applicable for people who studied psychological topics that are medically relevant (e.g., social determinants of health or psychological implications of health, neuroscience and mental health, health decision making, etc.). These jobs are sometimes also housed in other research centers at universities; they are less common to be housed directly in psychology departments though sometimes this does happen as well.

      Pros: These jobs can be ideal for some people who really love research.

      Cons: One potential downside is that researchers in these positions often are required to get a lot of grants in order to keep their jobs, which can be stressful. Additionally, you may need to also do a postdoc after your PhD, which could involve another move.

      Non-Academic Careers

      After going through a PhD program, some students decide for a variety of reasons that they do not want to stay in academia. The intense training in research and data analysis during a PhD can provide a very strong foundation for many jobs outside academia. For example, students may decide that they are more interested in serving as a data analyst or researcher in a think tank, nonprofit, business, data analytics consulting firm, or higher ed administration. Research in these settings is sometimes attractive as having more direct “real world” impacts. Alternatively, some students decide they aren’t as interested in or teaching as they initially thought, or that the academic lifestyle isn’t for them, or they have geographic constraints that makes it difficult to find an academic job in the city they want to live.

      Specialties in Professional Psychology

      If you get a PhD in clinical or counseling psychology and decide not to pursue an academic career, which is common despite the emphasis of the degree, one option available to you is to work as a practicing clinical psychologist, which involves treating patients in many different settings such as in hospitals, prisons, outpatient psychotherapy groups, or private practice. If you are thinking about clinical psychology you should also read the section MA vs. PsyD vs. PhD.

      There are also other careers that allow an individual to go into particular professional careers. For example, many students express an interest in certain specialized clinical careers such as forensic psychology, rehabilitation psychology, and clinical neuropsychology. These fields are specialized fields that one enters after obtaining a PhD in clinical psychology. Industrial-organizational psychology, is also a speciality that can allow a direct route into a non-academic career at either the masters or PhD level. To find out more about specialized fields see the list of 54 APA Divisions and the list of recognized specialties in professional psychology.

      If you are interested in these careers, you should seek a PhD program that has an emphasis in the area. Unlike the more basic research areas (e.g., cognitive, developmental, social psychology) that provide training in research, training in these programs involves both research as well as a clear path to a professional career outside academia. However, because these career paths are highly specialized, there are fewer programs that offer these as specialties. It is important to research these fields carefully.

To go into research or not

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Please note - this section below is not intended to dissuade you from doing research if that is what you want to do. In the Psychology department at Pitt we love research - that is why we do it! But we also want you to feel free to find your own passions!

In college, professors often heavily push research to students. There are many reasons for this. First the pursuit of knowledge, the core of academics, is driven by research - without research we don’t have academics. Second, many professors are researchers and take joy in helping students follow similar paths (and also have less ability to advise students towards other paths). Third, in college, professors often push research experiences because they provide more hands-on experiences that involve learning skills, whereas standard classes can sometimes be focused more on more abstract knowledge - so research experiences can provide you with useful skills that you may not get in other ways.

That said, just because research is pushed a lot in college does not mean it is the right career for everyone! In fact, the vast majority of Psychology majors do not go into research. And even if you like research it does not mean it is the right career for you - you might like other things more!

In the end, you need to decide if pursuing a research career is right for you, and this should be based on a careful reflection of your own personal goals and what you derive satisfaction from. If you are highly curious, passionate about particular research questions, and self-motivated to persist through many challenges, research can be great for you. However, if not, perhaps research is not the right road. How do you know? The best way to know is to start doing research and find out how much you like it!

Here are a couple traits that are a sign that you might like research:

      Passionate about a particular research topic

      Motivated by discovering something that no one else has discovered before

      Highly motivated to learn on your own and teach yourself new skills

      Able to persist despite challenges

      Willing to work on projects for long times (many projects take 3-4 years to complete)

      Have a love of data

 

Another thing to think about is what drives your interest in research. Many students consider academic research to be a likely career because they get a lot of exposure to professors who are researchers. This is kind of similar to how earlier in life many people think that they might want to become teachers or doctors - because these are two professional careers that almost everyone gets exposed to (through school and going to the doctors office). However, as explained earlier, there are so many potential career paths after majoring in Psychology - you should not feel compelled to do research. This is one of many options!

Is someone encouraging you to go into research? Maybe it is a professor you know, or maybe your family? Try not to be overwhelmed by all the outside influences. Undergrad is a time for exploring interests and figuring out what career can meet your needs and this applies to research just as it applies to dentistry, or accounting, or teaching, or anything else.

By the way, getting a PhD is not the only route for you to be connected with research. First, many careers benefit from knowing and utilizing research, especially careers in providing mental health. Second, many careers in business or nonprofits use some of the same skills such as data analysis, running experiments (e.g., marketing, user experience design). Third, there are many opportunities in your life to learn about research or make use of research for guiding decisions (e.g., about medical treatments, or other personal decisions) even if you aren’t conducting research. So getting a PhD isn’t the only way for you to be connected with research.

Applying for a PhD in Clinical or Counseling Psychology

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      Before applying for a PhD in clinical or counseling psychology, you should read the section above on MA vs. PsyD. vs. PhD.

      It is important to emphasize that PhD programs in clinical and counseling psychology are extremely competitive. If you want to go this route it is especially important that you get lots of relevant research experience.

      As already mentioned above, read Mitch’s Guide.

      Consider reading the Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology, written by Michael Sayette - a faculty member at Pitt!

      Read Dr. Sophie Choukas-Bradley’s guide for applying to grad school for clinical psychology.

      Search for APA accredited programs in Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychology

What are faculty looking for in applicants to PhD programs?

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The process of applying for a PhD program is very different from the undergraduate application process. When applying for college, the admissions committee is mainly seeking evidence that you are a good student, so they mainly care about your grades and SAT scores. When applying for a PhD program in psychology, though it is important that you did well in college, there are two other things that are vital.

First, it is important that you have acquired the relevant skills and research experiences to help you succeed in grad school. Different research areas and different labs make use of different skills such as statistics, brain imaging, working with patients, etc. Though a large part of grad school involves building up these skills, starting to develop them prior to grad school will make you stand out.

Second, it is important to show evidence that you have really identified your core interests. In most research-oriented psychology departments you get admitted to work with a specific faculty member. This means that the faculty member wants to make sure that you are a good fit for their lab. This means not just deciding on a general area of psychology (e.g., cognitive, clinical, developmental, social, bio-health, etc.) but going two levels further. For example, if you are applying in cognitive psychology there are people who study language, memory, decision-making etc. Within language, there are people who study reading, second language acquisition, speech production and perception, etc. This is the level (e.g., reading, second language acquisition) that you should try to identify, not the top or middle level. This will help you identify the specific faculty you want to work with, and also convince them that you have really identified your core interest of what you want to spend at least five years, and possibly the rest of your life studying. There are two caveats:

      Sometimes students have identified a couple areas of interest and apply to faculty who work in a couple areas. This is reasonable, but it is still very important to have a clear understanding and background knowledge of the areas that you are applying to work in.

      In the vast majority of Psychology departments applicants apply to work with specific faculty. However, in some other fields (e.g., sometimes Neuroscience) it is more common for students to apply to the department and then rotate through a couple different labs before focusing more on the research in one lab. In this case, the fit to a particular lab may be somewhat less necessary or less clear when applying. Still, it is important to apply to programs that have faculty who study the topics you are interested in, and to have shown effort in identifying your interests. You should learn more about the program you are applying to in order to better understand if you are applying to the program as a whole or applying to work with a particular faculty member by reading about the program online.

That said, many students go to grad school to study topics that are different from the topics studied in the lab that they join in college. The reason is that there are so many different subtopics, at any one university there are not enough faculty to cover every subtopic you may be interested in. In sum, it is quite common to switch topics when going to grad school. That said, you should try to work in labs as close as possible to your core interests.

When you apply, it will really benefit you to be able to show evidence of the following four questions:

      Do your research interests fit closely to the faculty member’s research interests, and also their mentorship style? Here is a video about choosing faculty members to apply to work with in grad school.

      Are you knowledgeable of prior research in this area of research or related areas?

      Are you able to talk in depth about your prior research experiences to convey the theories you were testing and the methods you used to do so? (Your prior research experiences don’t need to be on the exact same topic, but it helps to have experience that is somewhat related.)

      Have you learned relevant skills? These can vary depending on the lab that you want to join, but it can involve skills in the following sorts of areas: more data analysis (e.g., being confident using statistical programs), computer programming, neuroimaging, interacting with particular patient populations, time management, working in groups and managing others. Again, your prior research experiences don’t need to be on the exact topic you aim to study in graduate school and if you learned these relevant, transferable skills in a different setting, you will need to emphasize them in your applications.

Experiences in Research Labs

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Getting the Most out of Working in a Lab

How do you get the experiences and skills that are are necessary for a strong PhD application? Though some of these skills can be picked up to some extent in classes you take, the key to developing these skills is to get very meaningful long-term experience working in one or more research labs. This is why if you are interested in getting a PhD we suggest that you start working in labs fairly early in college.

But more than just being in a lab, it really matters what you do with your time. Have you maximized your learning opportunities, volunteered to take on more independent tasks and tasks that require building additional skills, and assumed more responsibility? In most labs there is some amount of ‘grunt work’ that needs to be done (e.g., schedule appointments for participants). In some labs you initially do more basic tasks and over time transition to more sophisticated tasks. However, if you are in a lab in which the only opportunities are grunt work, you should think about asking or volunteering to be involved in more higher level tasks, and if this is not a possibility, you should consider switching to a different lab. Many labs have lab meetings in which you read and discuss papers. This is an especially good opportunity for you to build up your own knowledge and skills by reading carefully, and asking questions.

 

In order to maximize your time in a lab, you must be proactive. This can involve volunteering to take on additional tasks, raising concerns that you have (e.g., about study protocols or coding), proposing solutions to problems, or even posing additional research questions. For some students it may feel uncomfortable to do these things because it draws attention to you. However, all of these suggestions make for better science and help get work done in the lab, so faculty will be very happy to have proactive students.

Figuring out Which Labs to Work In

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In the prior section we explained that when applying to grad school it is critical to identify your interests, not at the general level (e.g., cognitive psychology) and not at the next step down (e.g., language), but at the further level (e.g., second language learning).

Once you have identified your interests, if you are working in a lab fairly related to the topic you want to study you can ask the PI of the lab to recommend people you might consider applying to work with. You can then start to look more closely at those faculty, start to read some papers and identify the ones that you would really want to work with in grad school.

If the lab that you are working in isn’t that closely related to the topic that you eventually want to study you will have to do more work on your own to identify those people. Importantly, you should read some recent primary literature in the field you want to go into, and by reading some papers you can think about which authors you would want to work with.

In either route, most faculty have detailed websites about their research, often with links to their papers. Carefully look at the information on their websites to help you decide where to apply.

One thing that we do not recommend is that you search for schools to apply mainly based on the rankings of schools. First, rankings of schools are biased and subjective. Second, the rankings lump all the faculty of a department together, when in reality you are working with just one or a few faculty. At any given school there may not be any faculty member who studies your particular topic of interest - there are so many topics in psychology! For this reason, it is not especially effective to try to look at all the faculty at a given school and find one that you like. It is better to find the researchers who study what you want to study and then consider whether you would be willing to move to that location. Of course, some people are geographically limited. In this case you may need to try to find faculty at the schools you want to attend whose interests are close enough to yours, though this means that you may need to be more flexible in terms of what you want to study. Given that grad school is a big commitment you should make sure that the fit is close enough that you really do want to work with them for 5-6 years of grad school and also remember that this decision does affect the trajectory of your career.

If you are interested in clinical or counseling psychology, to decide where to apply, we recommend looking at the Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology. This book, written by Michael A. Sayette (a faculty member at Pitt!), and John C. Norcross (University of Scranton), gives up to date information provided by the directors of the program - information that may not even be available on their own websites such as how much of a practice vs. a research emphasis they have. It includes tables showing every program that has particular research opportunities (e.g., PTSD research) or clinical opportunities (e.g., eating disorders clinic). You can buy this book online, and there is also a copy in Pitt’s Psych Dept. advising office, and if you aren’t a student at Pitt, your advising office may have a copy as well.

PhD Program Applications

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Timeline

Here is a rough timeline for applying to grad school, based somewhat off a timeline developed by ABCT.org.

  • Earlier
    • Should be working in one or more labs and developing relationships with faculty as described in the prior section
  • Summer prior to applying
    • Research programs that you might be interested. 
    • Ask your mentors to suggest people you might want to work with and also ask for letters of recommendation. 
    • Consider using ABCT.org’s excel file for keeping track of your grad school applications.
  • August-September
    • Work on your application materials.
    • Provide people writing your letters of recommendation your application materials and ask them for feedback and edits.
    • Gather program-specific requirements
    • Consider contacting potential faculty mentors you are considering working with. Send a brief expression of interest email and attach your CV. Can inquire about whether they are accepting new students but first check if information is available on the website or the faculty mentor encourages doing so.
  • November-December
    • Applications are due - see program websites for exact deadlines
    • Submit 2 weeks in advance in case there are any issues
    • Verify receipt of applications and all supplementary materials
  • December-January
    • Programs begin extending interview invitations
  • January-March
    • Interviews, waiting to hear back...
  • April 15th
    • Deadline to accept offers of admission

Materials to Submit for Applications

An important thing to consider when applying for a PhD program in psychology is what you need to submit in your application to provide evidence of the skills and experiences listed in prior sections. Look at the website for the programs that you are interested to apply to in order to find out more details about the requirements.

Applications typically require the following components:

  • Coursework and Grades

    • Some programs may require you to have completed specific coursework. Even if not, your coursework is important to show that you have experience and skills relevant to the particular topic you want to study. With regards to grades, some graduate programs have minimum GPAs, and others do not. Many programs list an average GPA so you can see how your GPA measures up to their applicant averages.

  • GRE General Test

    • Some psychology graduate schools require the GRE General Test, and more recently some do not. While most graduate schools do not require a minimum score, many will have an average score expectation for their given program. You can research the programs you are interested in applying to in order to see their GRE score averages and how your scores measure up to their applicant averages. Many students find that by taking a practice test, it is a helpful tool in assessing exam strengths and potential areas for improvement. Kaplan offers practice exams.

  • GRE Psychology Subject Test
    • At many schools the GRE Psychology Subject Test is optional or not even accepted, but they may be required in some places. These tests are typically offered roughly in September, October, and April. You should see if the schools you are applying to require this test before taking it.
  • Letters of Recommendation
    • Your recommendation letters are especially important. At least one, preferably two letters should be from faculty who you have worked with closely in their lab. (The others can be from faculty who taught a class you took and got to know them.) When working in a lab, different labs work in different ways. In some you will work closely with a grad student or a postdoc, and perhaps have somewhat less contact with the faculty member. In others you will have more contact with the faculty member. When considering labs to join (or when considering whether you want to stay in a lab), you want to make sure that you have at least some quality contact with the faculty member, as they will be writing your letter of recommendation. 
    • The best letters of recommendation come from faculty who know the student closely and have been impressed by the student. Letters of recommendation are likely to comment on the following sorts of traits:
      • Detail oriented and highly organized
      • Curious, and ‘love for the data’
      • Independent
      • Can overcome challenges
      • Knowledge of particular research areas
      • Have already developed some skills vital for success in the particular field
      • Positive self image, and can-do attitude, but not cocky
      • Works well in teams
    • Therefore, anything that you can do to demonstrate these traits will help your recommender write a stronger letter of recommendation for you. This now ties back into the point about taking initiative in your research experiences. The more initiative you take (both for personal things like learning particular skills as well as for helping the team), the more you will find out if you actually like research, and the stronger letter of recommendation you will get. 
    • Lastly, if your grades during some point of college were lower for a particular reason (e.g., you were initially planning to go to medical school but found that this path was not good for you; you were experiencing a challenging life event), you may consider talking with your recommender and asking them to mention this and explain it briefly in the recommendation if they think it is wise.
    • When requesting a letter of recommendation, here are some tips:
      • Request letters well in advance of the due date – at least month but preferably multiple months. Being in contact with your reference writers far in advance will also give you opportunities to ask them advice about the application process.Ask if they would like to schedule an appointment to meet.
      • Give them copies of your CV, transcript, and drafts of your personal statement.
      • Especially if you have not worked with them in a while, or have worked on multiple things, it can be helpful to write a summary of all the different things you have worked on in their lab and what you have learned.
      • Provide an excel sheet of the schools you plan to apply to and their due dates.
      • Ask them for advice in general and specific questions you have about applying!
      • Thank them for their time.
  • Personal statement
    • Your personal statement or “statement of purpose” is your opportunity to explain your research interests and experiences. 
    • Where to go for help?
      • Ask the faculty member you are working with, or someone else in the lab or multiple people, to give you feedback on your personal statement. Especially since they are in the field you are hoping to study or a nearby field, they will be able to give you the best advice about your personal statement.
      • See the General Advice section above and advice in Mitch’s Guide and from Dr. Sokol-Hessner.
      • You can also ask the Writing Center and the Career Development Office to read over your personal statement. 
    • What is a personal statement and what is it used for?
      • It allows you to present yourself beyond grades and GRE scores.  It provides you with the opportunity to tell them what is unique about you and your background.
      • It enables the program to assess the degree of “fit” between you and them.  They will be asking themselves if what you are looking for in graduate school is a good fit with what they can provide you.  
      • It provides a sample of your writing skills.  Often, the personal statement is the only example of your writing ability.  Like any important paper, make sure you revise your statement several times, have others proofread it, and edit it carefully.
    • What content to include?
      • Personal statements often start with how you became fascinated with and driven to study the topic you want to study in grad school. This can be tricky because it can often lead into extensive discussions of your childhood, and for students who want to go into clinical psychology often applicants want to discuss their own mental health challenges or challenges that someone close to them have faced. Though this can be authentic, because such experiences are so common, it is hard to use them to show your uniqueness, and it can also come off as your initial interests rather than a mature reflection on your true passion. So, often a better way is to explain how your interests were sparked and how you have narrowed down your interests.
      • You should also explain the prior projects that you have worked on. This is an opportunity to show that you can clearly communicate what you have studied in a small amount of space, and provide evidence of the roles that you have played for various projects. Talking about what you have done provides evidence of your skills and dedication. Furthermore, you can also use this to weave in explanations of how you found the topics you are passionate and curious about studying. When writing this section, try not to just list your experiences but really try to reflect on them to talk about what skills you learned and also how these experiences have shaped your interests. Lastly, make sure to not just talk about what you did, but also what you learned (e.g., specific skills, realizations about yourself, etc.). Ultimately you want the reader to see how your experiences have prepared you for graduate study.
      • The last part of the statement is usually an explanation of your fit to the faculty member and school - why you are applying to work at a particular school and with a particular faculty member (or members). Ideally you should be applying to work with a faculty member who has similar interests to you, and you should have at least one paragraph that specifically explains how you see overlap in your interests and theirs. The more detailed you can be the better. You should also look at the facts about the program you are applying for and what sets the program apart, and you can comment about the aspects that particularly resonate with you. However, don’t say you are interested in some optional part of the program if you aren’t and if it doesn’t make sense for your training. (For example, don’t say you want to get training in neuroscience if there is a neuroscience training option but if your intended area of study does not use neuroscience methods and the faculty member you would work with does not do neuroscience, because that looks like you are unfocused.)
      • You can also talk briefly about your long-term career plans. Most PhD programs are geared towards training students to become researchers, and some programs or individual faculty may be concerned if this is not your goal; thus it is important to be careful with how you explain your long-term interests. However, there is now increasing acknowledgement that PhD students may go into a wide variety of careers; this really varies by program and by individual faculty. That said, it is good to research beforehand what sort of training is being offered and what graduate students go on to do for each program – this will help you decide where to apply and when you do apply your long-term career plans should match up with the expectations of the program. It is also good for yourself to keep your mind open about a variety of career paths!
      • Increasing the diversity of graduate students and addressing issues around social justice, especially being able to teach and mentor minoritized students, are highly valued in many programs. If you have overcome adversity or have participated in social justice initiatives (e.g., student groups), you may consider talking about these experiences. The more specific you can be the better. Note that some schools may now offer the option to write a separate diversity statement, which could be a separate place to provide this content aside from your personal statement.
    • Suggestions:
      • Allow enough time to write several drafts of your personal statement.  Don’t wait until the week before the essay is due to start writing.  For many people, it will take several weeks or even months to develop a strong statement.  The first essay is always the most time-consuming so plan accordingly.
      • Give your statement to several people to read and to get feedback especially your mentors, letter writers, grad students you have worked with. 
      • Make sure that each essay you submit is tailored to each particular program.  Don’t send the exact same essay to each school- if you do this, it will be very obvious to the reviewers that you have not taken the time to research their program.  You will likely be able to cut and paste parts of your essay, but also make sure you tailor other sections of it for each program.
      • Follow each program’s instructions closely.  If there’s a 300-word limit, make sure you adhere to this guideline.  Also, make sure you answered every question.   
      • Write professionally and confidently (don’t put yourself down), but not arrogantly. Avoid funny, cute, and casual language (e.g., avoid contractions, slang, etc.)
  • Resume / CV