Sunday, April 19, 2009

Grad School: Starting Over From Square One

When I started my blog here back in November I had already completed most of my applications, had what I thought was a good game plan and a solid overall package. I did not use this medium to get any kind of advice on anything dealing with the admissions process. *FAIL* on my part. 

So, I would like my readers to serve as my own personal committee - like a dissertation committee, only for grad school admissions instead. You can elect yourselves - I need as much help as I can get. 

But first, because most of you are not in the social sciences, a little information about how grad admissions *supposedly* work for psychology:

The first thing they tell applicants is to make sure you know what you want to research. Your entire search for a program is supposed to be based on that. You are not applying to a program - you're applying to a specific PI and his/her lab. Your goal, for most programs, is to convince that one PI that you are the perfect person to work with. In some cases, such as at Yale, you must first get past the Grad School of Arts & Sciences before the potential PI even sees your application materials. This is accomplished by your transcripts and GRE scores. If you aren't the cream of the crop when it comes to those, your personal statement, writing sample, and rec letters are completely irrelevant because no one ever sees them. (Which means you may have wasted a $90 application fee and countless hours perfecting your essay just for them. Do I sound bitter?)

The second thing they tell us is that research experience is THE most valuable part of your application packet. The more, the better. They also tell you that if you can get even just co-authorship on a publication, you are pretty much guaranteed to make it past the 3rd round of admissions cuts. A first authorship on a publication for an undergrad is nearly unheard of, and if you can get it, it will open doors for you that you can't even dream of. 

Now, here are the current qualifications that I've got to work with (identifiers, be damned at this point):
  • Graduated summa cum laude from MRU with cum gpa of 3.93, psychology major gpa of 4.0
  • Accomplished this through attending school full-time while working full-time at a "real" job - I was not a barista at Starbucks (no offense to anyone). 
  • Worked as a research assistant for a year now for Rockstar professor at MRU, resulting in second-authorship on a paper presentation at a conference. Currently writing a portion of the manuscript that is to be submitted for publication in May. 
  • Worked as a research assistant for Largely Unknown professor at MRU, basically was used for my ability to conduct thorough literature reviews, wrote a large one with annotated bibliography. This professor is completely unreliable for rec letters (remember Professor X?).
  • GRE scores: 96th percentile for verbal, 53rd percentile for quantitative, 88th percentile for analytical writing. 
  • One incredibly glowing recommendation from community college professor (PhD from my MRU) who would jump through hoops if it meant getting me into an awesome program. She is the Ultimate Mentor. 

Roadblocks for me:
  • I cannot pursue an independent research project because I am no longer enrolled at MRU. This was confirmed by Rockstar professor when I inquired as to whether it was possible. Therefore, first authorship on anything is not going to happen. Period. 
  • Unless I get the RA position I applied for, I have no means of getting additional research experience before this fall. If I do, it will be under Grad Student mentor, whose research does not allow me to get experience with things I have not done before. 
  • The GRE stresses me the fuck out. I have been out of high school math since 1998. I bought all the prep books, did all the practice questions and all that. I spent 4 months studying for this thing. It did not help me get faster at answering the ridiculously stupid way they have of delivering the questions. The reason my score was so low is because by the time I got to the stats questions (which means you're at the 700 mark), I ran out of time and had to randomly guess on the last 6 questions. This is what killed me. And I am generally a very good standardized test-taker. 
Obviously something was wrong with the way I went about this last time. Whether it was choosing the programs I applied to or something with my applications, I don't know. Ideally, I would like to write to the PI at program #4 and say, "Why was I the one who got waitlisted?"

I chose the programs based on the research interests of the faculty there, which was what I was told to do. The PI's whose research I admire the most, whose work has profoundly changed my field, are all retiring and not accepting grad students anymore. I feel like I'm not really sure where else to look for a program, and I am concerned that I will let my interests fall by the wayside just to get accepted. 

The problem is, and I understand this is unique to the social sciences, is that what you research in grad school determines your reputation when you go to get a job. Job listings for universities will specify "social psychologist with research in areas X, Y, or Z." Until you get that faculty slot and nail down tenure, you are basically committed to what you put on your applications in the first place. **This is important**

So, can I realistically do this? Can I improve my application enough between now and November when deadlines begin? I need a plan here, folks, and I need your help. No one in my offline circle of friends and family has ever even finished a bachelor's degree - they cannot help me. 

Would I love to go to Yale or another SFRSHS school? Yes, I would. Would I do anything I could in order to make that happen? Yes, absolutely. Do I know what to do to make that happen? Nope, not really. Because I thought I did everything I was supposed to last time, and it didn't work. 

It doesn't need to be Yale or another SFRSHS program. But it does need to be a program that will remove roadblocks for me, not create new ones. 


Isabel said...

I had the exact same experience with the quantitative GRE. What pissed me off was I finished the verbal part in half the time (and scored in the 99th percentile) but of course that leftover time can't be added to the quantitative part. The computer adaptive testing or whatever the fuck it is killed me. In the practice books there were easy (no calculations) questions interspersed, but once I answered 2 or 3 q's correctly they ALL were complex, and it was really awkward interfacing between the screen and my scrap paper, so I ran out of time and guessed at the last 6 or 7 and ended up in the 59 percentile. And there was no time to retake it. I have heard that the computer practice tests, which work the same as the real test, work great. At the time I was broke, but I regretted not doing that. The books don't represent the test experience anymore. But you have a chance to retake it - if you're good at stats I bet you can improve that score dramatically.

In my situation actually getting to know my future advisor in advance really helped, especially after the GRE debacle. I had to be pretty aggressive and persistent (and charming of course)in making that happen though...

Mrs. CH said...

I think you just have to listen to your gut on this one - think about how your life would be if you took that position. Really think about all the details you possibly can. Then, see how you feel about it. Does it make you nervous/apprehensive/sick or does it make you feel excited/motivated?

I just wanted to say that I really admire how you're dealing with this situation. I'm one of those "take what you can get" people, and sometimes it really backfires. I really need to learn to put more stock into what I want and that I actually deserve it. So, I think it's amazing that you're willing to contemplate putting things on hold for a year so you can get into a program you really want.

Whatever you decide, I think it's clear you'll make the best decision for you.

JLK said...

@Isabel - You said "In my situation actually getting to know my future advisor in advance really helped, especially after the GRE debacle. I had to be pretty aggressive and persistent (and charming of course)in making that happen though..."

How did you do this? I really need to know

@MrsCH - Taking what I can get was really the mentality I had when I got off the plane on Tuesday. I knew that I could excel there, and I think I was trying to ignore the consequences of getting my degree from them and sugar-coating its drawbacks. I'm still looking at it and thinking that I know I would live a happy, relatively stress-free life there - but is that more important than getting what I want further down the road? Probably not, but I'm not sure yet.

amused said...

I have been meaning to write you a longer post/email about all of this but have had a hard time finding time for much of anything as school winds down for the semester... but a quick comment: when I graduated from college I moved back to the area where I grew up and knew that I needed to be doing research while I was there (it also happened to be the area where I wanted to go to grad school for many reasons). I looked up all of the schools in the area and found all of the professors that did research even somewhat related to my interests and sent emails either to the lab email address or if there wasn't one, to the professor, just letting them know I had recently graduated from X university where I had worked with Y and Z and such and such research and I was moving to the area and would like to get more research experience and would love to work as an RA in their lab - and that if they had the possibility of paid positions I would be very interested in that but that I would be happy to volunteer as well (and attached my CV). Some people wrote me back and set up interviews/meetings and a few people I never heard back from. I ended up working with one post doc and one professor (and turned down working in a third lab because I decided that would be too much) and got great experience with both of them (that wasn't my independent project or anything but that showed I was learning new tools to put in my toolbox). I actually started those positions in September so I wasn't even that far into them when I applied to grad school but they really added to my application I think.

So my suggestion: start sending out emails and be willing to volunteer 6-8 hours per week (I ended up living with my parents and tutoring on the side but I had been planning to get a real job as well). Also, one of the positions was really more about helping to write papers so it didn't require being in the lab very much which was nice.

Do you have other universities near where you live? Is that a possibility?

If you have more specific applying to social psych program questions, email me!

Isabel said...


Well, the fact that I work on a pretty obscure organism may have helped my situation, as far as getting to know VIP's in my field. Initially, hoping that fact would be enough, I emailed a VIP in the field, whose lab worked on said org, at a famous university in my area, but he of course did not reply.

My next attempt was to attend an evening lecture on a closely related group, which he was hosting....I figured out who he was because of some interactions he had with the speaker. I was sick, with a huge visible cold sore, and planning to keep a low profile (I had to really force myself to make the long drive in the first place) but I couldn't resist asking a question, and ended up having a bit of an exchange myself with the speaker, and noticed VIP turning around to see who I was. Later at the social, which again I had to force myself to go to, he introduced himself to ME! Of course I followed up with another email, which was not replied to, but undaunted, a few months later I later attended a conference/foray he organizes and continued chatting him (and his wife) up and invited them for a hike at a private preserve I was a volunteer at, which they surprisingly took me up on at a later date....then he invited me to come by his lab if I ever needed to use certain equipment for identification. I didn't really need to, I had access to other equipment, but I went a couple of times anyway, just to have more contact with him and his students. And so on, you get the idea. And I know for a fact his support and desire to have me in the lab was important in me getting accepted. Not only did we become friends, I obviously must have seemed enthusiastic and resourceful.

Not sure if that helps, basically in my case I had to play it by ear. BTW I am also from a background that did not help me at all in understanding the ways of academia. Even now, two years later, I still often feel like I just fell off the turnip truck;-)

Hope said...

I may be stating the obvious, but have you tried having a sit-down with Ultimate Mentor and/or Rockstar Prof to discuss your situation and get their advice on what they think you should do? Grad school admissions can be somewhat of a crapshoot (as you’ve learned the hard way); for every person who did X to get in you’ll find another who did the opposite and had the same end result. The most helpful advice for you I think would come from people who are in your field and who know all the details about your situation.

On the GRE front, what are the average scores of admitted students at the places that you want to go to? Knowing this should help you decide if you have a shot at getting your math score up to where it doesn’t hurt you anymore. I think it’s possible to improve one’s scores by studying/practicing for the test, but there is a limit. (At least that’s what the statistical data seems to say; there are always outliers, of course ….)

Anonymous said...

You're making a bigger deal of this than it has to be. I used to be involved in admissions for our grad program. You basically need to ace the GREs. That is the one thing left to do. (BTW, I'm at an Ivy that is not Yale. I'm just saying.)

Everything else looks great. Your grades are stellar, you have some research experience, and are getting glowing letters of rec. You need to write a decent personal statement but judging from your blog, writing looks like something you'd enjoy.

Candid Engineer said...

I am late the party and certainly not trying to impose my will upon you, but your grades are excellent and you *should not* simply take what you can get in this instance. You want to keep your options as open as possible as you move through your career, and you will do that by attending the best grad school that you can, very preferably an R1. With your grades, surely, you can get into an R1.

Your verbal GREs are awesome, but, as you know, you need to bring that math score up. That's really the only thing I see holding you back. You could also double check to make sure all of your letters are great. There is no harm in directly speaking to your letter-writers, telling them your situation, and asking if they think you'd be better off with an alternative reference writer.

I know you've said you don't want to reapply, but that's exactly what you should do. Study for your math section, reapply, and go to the great R1 that you deserve to get into.

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