Graduate School Application Process (Part II): Where to Apply

In these crazy times navigating COVID-19 it can be challenging to plan for such an uncertain future. However, in these past few weeks, I have found it comforting to continue to look towards the possibilities of what life may hold in the coming months after this unorthodox semester blends into summer and the academic year begins again. For many of you, you will be returning to Princeton to continue your undergraduate careers. The class of 2020 will be entering the next chapter of their lives, and for me, that means beginning a Ph.D. program in Psychology.

The author with her adviser who she has worked with on her junior and senior independent work. Research advisers are incredibly helpful in the grad school application process.

With so much unknown, I hope to provide some insight into the graduate school application process for those of you that may be considering pursuing an advanced degree. In this post, I’ll talk about the process of selecting which programs to apply to. If you are unsure whether graduate school is the right path for you, check out my last post in this series. If you are ready to dive into the process and begin exploring all of the exciting possibilities and programs out there, read on!

For me, although I had been fairly set on continuing my research experiences and pursuing a Ph.D. after college, I had no idea what the process would look like and as I begun to choose programs to apply to, it was easy to feel overwhelmed. 

Again, just as in the initial stages of making the decision to apply to graduate school in the first place, my adviser became my most valuable resource during the actual application process. I spent the summer before my senior year on campus, collecting data for my senior thesis in my adviser’s lab. In the middle of the summer, we sat down together to narrow down a list of 5-7 graduate programs I would want to apply to. Importantly, this list was formed not based on schools, but based on mentors. When selecting graduate schools to apply to, one of the most important factors is finding a supportive adviser whose research interests match yours. So, in this meeting with my thesis adviser, the first things we discussed was the type of research I wanted to do in graduate school.

As in any field, there are many different topics for research in Psychology, and I knew I wanted to continue the same type of work I was doing for my thesis—exploring children’s early language development. Given that this is also my adviser’s expertise, he was able to point me towards dozens of other researchers around the country who were working on similar questions in their research. Even if you may be looking to shift your research focus in graduate school, talk to your independent work adviser and they can most likely direct you to another faculty member in your department who is more familiar with the topic you want to study, and they can pass along some names of researchers in your field that would be a good match for your interests. 

After compiling this list of potential mentors, I was able to consider other factors that would help me choose the best options. For me, the second most important factor was location and I used this to settle on a final list of programs to apply to.  But, there are plenty of other factors—size of the program, course requirements, teaching requirements, theoretical orientation of the department (i.e., a basic science approach vs. translational approach), etc.—that you could use depending on what is important to you.

Once you have your list, you are ready to actually fill out your applications! Unlike undergrad, medical school, law school, etc. there is no central application portal for graduate programs. Instead, you must create an account with each school you are applying to separately, and it is likely that each program you apply to will have at least slightly different requirements for their application. Make sure to read these guidelines carefully on the department websites and feel free to reach out to administration offices if anything is unclear. I called all of the departments I applied to multiple times throughout the application process! If I learned anything while completing these applications was that it is always better to ask if you are confused—there are often quite minute details that you could miss.

Lastly, it is often a good idea to send a quick email to the professors you are interested in applying to work with before submitting your application to confirm that they are accepting students the year you are applying. Because many universities fully fund Ph.D. programs, financial considerations can prevent professors from accepting students every year. This is also a great opportunity to put your name out there, and if the professor is willing, talk to them more about their research interests ahead of time to make sure their work would be a good fit for you! Often, you adviser may be able to help you initiate these introductions and inquiries over email.

Although the graduate school application process can be stressful and overwhelming at times, use the resources you have! Talk to your adviser, reach out to other researchers in your field, and don’t hesitate to reach out to the programs you are applying to with questions. Professors have all been in your shoes before, know how complicated the process can be and want to see you succeed!

–Ellie Breitfeld, Social Sciences Correspondent