by Michael D. Anestis, Ph.D.
Having returned from a holiday vacation with a week remaining before classes resume at USM, I thought I'd take a moment to sit down and write something for PBB. Given that we're in the midst of admissions season, it seemed worthwhile to put together some thoughts on that process. Before doing so, I should point out that whatever I write on this topic is based upon (a) my experiences as an applicant and grad student (b) my experiences as a faculty member in a clinical PhD program and (c) my general understanding of things through conversations with and observations of friends and colleagues. I'm certain my perspective is not comprehensive and do not assume it applies across all situations.
Getting into a Clinical Ph.D. program
There are many components that go into successfully navigating this intensely competitive and stressful task. Different programs - and even different professors within a single program - will have different systems for determining how best to determine which applicants are the best fit for them, so there are no universals. That being said, the word "fit" is key here. Generally speaking, you want to be able to make the case that you are the ideal individual to step into a specific lab with a specific professor with specific interests because what you do will represent a natural extention on what is already going on there.
As a very heavily research oriented professor, I'm looking for intelligent people who are excited about research and who have interests that align well enough with mine that I can be a helpful mentor (but with enough room for differences that our thoughts can inform one another rather than simply echoing). Some of that is straight forward and numbers-based: what was your undergrad GPA? did you succeed on the GRE? Numbers like that aren't everything, but they aren't nothing either and, in a sea of smart people, something needs to provide a filter of sorts.
More than anything though, a person like me is looking for clear evidence of research potential. This can take many forms. Have you worked in the lab of somebody I know, performing tasks that indicate aptitude while earning the trust of somebody whose judgment I've come to rely upon? Even better, have you presented a poster at a conference - particularly one that is relevant to what I do? A step further...have you published a peer reviewed empirical paper relevant to my lab or are you working on one now based on an honor's thesis? Have you applied for research-based grants? These things aren't necessarily required, but in many cases, providing clear evidence that you not only want to do these things, but have already demonstrated a clear capacity for doing them really helps you stand out amidst of group of incredibly smart and interesting folks who share your interest in getting into grad school.
These tips - provide strong numbers (GRE, GPA) and robust research experience that matches the interests of your proposed advisor - help you build your application, but that's not the only way to up your odds of acceptance. Other options involve shifting your perspective on things, particularly with respect to location. You should be open to the possibility that this might take more than one (or two) tries and that such struggles do not reflect a lack of intelligence or capacity on your part. You should also consider the possibility of not limiting yourself to one specific geographic location. I spent almost my entire life in the northeastern US up until age 25, when I moved to Tallahassee for graduate school. The city was removed from many aspects of what I was and what I knew....and it was an amazing experience. The thing is though, even if I hadn't loved Tallahassee and FSU, it only would have been a handful of years of my life and, had that been my only option, that would have made it a great path to where I am now (with a job I love). There are many scenarios that might limit your willingness or ability to cast a wide geographic net in your applications, but make sure those reasons are solid before you limit yourself, or you'll make an already difficult task much harder. Also be open to the fact that your perception of the "best universities" likely does not align with the "best clinical PhD programs" or (better yet) "the best research match for me in a clinical PhD program." The rankings are the same as they were when you were applying for undergrad and it will take some work on your part to determine your best option.
Some other thoughts to consider during this component of the process:
- Should I consider taking a year or more to build up more research experience?
- Is there a professor at this school that does work that matches my interests? *note: do more than a cursory glance to determine this, as the professor will be able to tell*
- Am I really interested in pursuing a research-based degree?
Succeeding in a Clinical PhD Program
Defining success is tricky and obviously hinges on your short and long term goals. For me, success involves positioning yourself to obtain the job you want after graduation and, for folks who apply to work with me, I assume (but certainly don't demand) that this will be a tenure track faculty position based primarily upon conducting research. That being said, while all of what I say here is relevant to that outcome, this doesn't mean that none of it is relevant to other paths.
The most important thing you can do to succeed in a clinical PhD program is write. Write, write, write, write, write. Write every day. If you're not writing - and improving that invaluable skill - be thinking about how to frame your arguments, what weaknesses might be present in your experiment, what the next question to ask should be for your next project. Nobody wants you to be a research machine who does nothing but work - although graduate school is demanding and time-consuming in a way that is difficult to overstate - but the only way to understand your capacity for thinking, producing, and moving the field forward is to go ahead and do it. Potential gets you into grad school, at which point you need to start translating that to meaningful tangible products that improve in quality at a developmentally appropriate pace. Writing can seem daunting, tiring, annoying, impossible, boring, soul-crushing, pointless, repetitive, fake, and countless other suboptimal things, but pushing through those feelings, finding your inspiration, developing a work ethic and level of grit that enables sustained productivity, and becoming a clear efficient thinker will get you where you aim to go and optimize your potential as a scientist. So I'll say it again....write.....a lot. My graduate avisor constantly told us not to be solely in the business of developing ideas and collecting data. You should always have something you're producing....preferably several things.
That last paragraph might seem less than exciting, so this next point is my qualifier: pursue projects that genuinely interest you. Not everything you write is going to be a life-altering, perspective-ehancing experience, but try not to hate what you're doing. Graduate school is difficult and there are a lot of demands on your time and energy. To the extent possible, you want to enjoy as much of that as possible. If not....what's the point? Are you pursuing a job that will enable you to spend time doing things you dislike? I hope not. Find your interests. Be open to them changing (without being flighty). Find your research narrative and develop it through careful testing of your hypotheses and revising of your theories in response to results (and then further testing and revision). Even difficult work can be fun when you actually care. This is why the match component of grad school is so important.
One way to make that last point easier is to build collaborations with friends and colleagues. This will often consist of labmates and other grad students at your institution, but it can expand beyond that and, oftentimes such expansion will allow you to gain access to cool ideas and perspectives, interesting data, and experiences that will make you stand out on the faculty job market down the road. My motivation to pursue a project certainly increases when it comes along with increased interactions with folks I genuinely enjoy interacting with.
Another way to do this is to take the pressure off yourself as a grad student in terms of introducing paradigm shifts into the literature. Nobody wants you to spend all your time writing esoteric papers on niche topics with small effect sizes and minimal clinical value. That being said, you also shouldn't expect that every paper you write will change the world or that every study you run will be an RCT with psychophsiologocal data, multiple time points, clinical participants, etc...It's important to aim high and improve your skills, but it's also important to develop your skills in a developmentally appropriate manner and to build a nomological network of findings for your theory, some of which represent modest but important incremental steps relative to other work in your area.
Like I said before, your definition of success might differ from mine. In order to determine that though, you need to define success very clearly and do it as early as possible. Doing so will allow you to chart a path towards your goal and work systematically to achieve it.
Being Happy in a Clinical PhD Program
More than any other area of this article, this section is focused on an idea that no doubt varies in definition from reader to reader and perspective to perspective. Here's what I can say without a doubt:
I was incredibly happy in graduate school. I was also incredibly tired, worked a lot, and wished I slept more (although as a parent of a young child, I kind of want to slap mid-20s me for having such thoughts given how much sleep I was getting).
This was possible because (a) I loved the work and (b) had a tremendous advisor whose style suited me really well and (c) I entered grad school at a time - three years removed from undergrad - at which I was fully committed to and ready for the process. It also happened for simpler reasons too. I met my wife weeks before classes started (and we're both now faculty members in her childhood hometown). I had an incredible cohort full of people I still interact with constantly and not just for work-related issues. I continued to pursue personal interests - running, going to movies, etc... - forcing myself to make time for them so that I didn't let those parts of myself fade for the sake of one thing. My wife and I decided not to put life on hold, but we always had a plan for how to work in what we needed as people and what we needed to do as professionals. Sometimes that meant shifting plans and sometimes that simply meant accepting that, as a 20-something pursuing a desirable profession, at times it might require some extra effort and work to make sure you have the experiences you want.
Finding that balance is hard and always will be and finding the right people is in some ways based on luck. That being said, there are things you can do to up your chances. When you interview at a school, look carefully to see if people seem happy. Do they joke around with one another? What about the faculty? Is there a dynamic there that makes you uncomfortable? Don't put too much stock in the other interviewees, as that might not be the only day of interviews (so those folks might not represent your cohort) and they might act differently under the microscope, but give some thought to your interactions there. Look to see if there is room for who you are in the midst of what the program is. It will be up to you to build a life that enables you to be happy and you can up your odds by choosing an environment that best fits who you are.
This is by no means comprehensive and I'm certain I'll think of 1,000 things I left out when I post this, but I hope it's helpful. The bottom line is, getting into a clinical PhD program is difficult, succeeding is hard, and maintaining a happy outlook is difficult too....but it's worth it. If it was easy, everyone would be a doctor. It's also a finite experience and, at least for me, the job on the other end of it all made it all worthwhile. So make sure this is what you want and, once you're certain, pursue all the things you need to do to make yourself stand out as the best candidate for a specific professor. Make sure you think you could fit in that location and, once you're there, leave room for all aspects of who you are. This isn't for everyone, but it's an absolutely fantastic option for some.
Dr. Mike Anestis, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi and the director of the Suicide and Emotion Dysregulation Laboratory. He's also moderately concerned he just scared you out of grad school.