Finding a Graduate Program That’s Right for You

By: Abe Flanigan, 2015 MSRE graduate assistant

The summer before my final year of undergraduate, I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school to further my study of psychology. The problem was that I didn’t know which type of program I wanted to enter. During my undergrad, I spent several years volunteering at a center for victims of domestic violence. I enjoyed working there and felt a great sense of fulfillment helping these strong women get back on their feet. However, I was also a research assistant for one of my professors. I loved the work we were doing. Researching the factors that influenced students’ motivation and performance in the classroom fascinated me. So, I was torn between pursuing a counseling-oriented program or an educational psychology program. This was a question I needed to answer. I didn’t want to simply apply to both types of programs, see where I got accepted, and make a decision from there. Instead, I wanted to find a program that was the right fit for me. Fortunately, there were a lot of people around me who provided me with the guidance and experiences necessary to find my way.

Below, I am going to outline some suggestions I have for finding the right program for you. Reflecting on the topics I was learning in the classroom, talking to successful members of each field, seeking out internships, and conducting research all helped me decide which program was best for me.

Use your coursework as a guide. As a psychology major, I had to take a lot of field-related courses. Counseling psychology, social psychology, educational psychology, cognitive psychology, and many others introduced me to the different walks of life in psychology. However, these courses were more to me than obstacles I needed to overcome to earn my degree. They represented potential career fields. While learning about the different topics, I would often ask myself, “Is this something that I can see myself working on in the future?” In doing so, I was able to eliminate a lot of fields from consideration for graduate school. I wasn’t interested in industrial-organization psychology, the principles of social psychology were interesting but didn’t peak my research interest, and so on. By reflecting on what I was learning in the classroom, I was able to decide which programs peaked my interest and which programs did not. Counseling psychology and educational psychology were the two courses that peaked my interest the most. So, I decided that I needed to find out more information about what life was like in those fields.

Reach out to people in your prospective field(s). Googling information about different fields will give you an introductory understanding of what that particular field is about. However, to really understand what life is like in that field, you need to talk to the people in it. By sharing emails and talking to faculty members and students in counseling programs, I learned that the work could be extremely rewarding. However, some people have difficulty not letting their experiences as a counselor (e.g., helping people cope with the death of a sibling) interfere with other aspects of their life (e.g., “bringing work home with them”). Because I am a naturally empathetic person, I realized this is something that I may have struggled with. Without talking to people in the field, I would’ve only focused on the potential rewards of being a counselor while ignoring the potential pitfalls. Learn what life is really like in the field(s) you are interested in before you decide to commit yourself to it. Talk to your instructors, graduate students in your department, or ask them about other people you can get in touch with.

Embrace and search for opportunities. Getting involved is probably one of the most helpful ways to figure out what aspects of your field interest you. Psychology is a pretty broad field so trying to narrow my focus to one specific area was really hard. So, I got involved. I joined Psi Chi (our national honor society) and talked with other students about their interests. I joined our department’s Social Sciences Research Group to immerse myself in research. I volunteered several hours each week at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. And, I took on an internship with a clinical social worker. All of these experiences helped me get a taste of psychology’s many flavors.

 Network, network, network. This is a skill that will always be important. When I was exploring prospective graduate schools, I sent a lot of emails to faculty members at different universities. My process was simple. I would find a couple of articles that I was interested in, find out who wrote them, and shoot them an email. In the email, I would mention the article I had read, “I really liked your article about…” Then, I indicated my interest in the field, “I’m really interested in how the presence of distractions impacts students’ success because…” Then, I would ask what kind of research they planned to do in the future. Sometimes I would get a really warm response and sometimes I didn’t hear back. However, the responses I did receive helped me weed out some schools from my consideration.

Conduct and explore research. As a McNair scholar, you’re already involved in research. So, my advice here is similar to how you should reflect on the courses you are taking. Which research topics are you most interested in? If you’re currently conducting research on improving sustainable water systems but have a more genuine interest in researching how to expand the use of solar energy, then start scouring the solar energy research literature. As a young, aspiring researcher, don’t be afraid to explore the horizon for research pursuits that interest you. In graduate school, a major portion of your time will be dedicated to research. So, now is the time to figure out what research topics you’re interested in, who does that research, and where it’s being done. If you do, then you will have a better idea of the research environment you want to find yourself in. For me, conducting research represented the turning point in trying to find the right program. While presenting at a national conference in Washington, D.C., I walked into a poster session. As I looked around, I saw all sorts of posters related to motivation, self-regulation, setting goals, and other topics that fascinated me. I spoke with some of the presenters about which programs they were in and their common response of “Educational Psychology” was a huge hint that this was the field for me.

Tying it all together. Your journey towards selecting a graduate school should involve more than surfing through their program’s website. Think critically about which course topics you could see yourself dedicating a significant amount of time researching and studying. Talk to faculty members, researchers, and graduate students in your prospective field(s) to get a feel for what life is like. Look for opportunities like internships and organizations to gain professional experience. Make sure to take steps towards building your professional network in the field. And, try your hand at assisting with or leading a research project. By doing all of these things, you will give yourself a better idea of the kind of program that suits you best.

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