Did that title shock you as bad as it hurt me? This is my reality. I spent a year of my life and applied to over half dozen psychology PhD programs during my senior year of college and I was not accepted to a single one of them.
Before you get the chance to say it, I acknowledge that there are greater problems in the world. There are even greater issues in my personal, minuscule sphere. However, when I received that last notification of seven that I was denied a position in a PhD program, I felt like the world was crashing down.
I spent nearly four months researching graduate programs. I knew from the start that my career goal is to be a therapist. Little did I know, there are many different routes I can take within this broad goal. I could be a psychologist, which is the person who you see in movies and television listening to another individual divulge their deepest darkest secrets. I could be a psychiatrist, who does basically the same thing but also has the medical knowledge to then prescribe medicine for mental illnesses. I could be a social worker, offering help to individuals by developing plans to foster change in the individual and the community. These all seem super similar, don’t they? Well, from here, I can choose a specialization. That is, I could choose to focus my profession on substance addiction, or mental illness, or family dynamics, or school education, or… The options are endless. Needless to say, I could already tell that my graduate school search would not be an easy one.
After deciding that I wanted to enter a program dedicated to clinical psychology, I had to decide the level of graduate education that I wanted to obtain. Did I want to pursue a PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy) in psychology? Was that too much of a commitment? Should I pursue a master’s degree, instead? Should I consider a PsyD (Doctorate of Psychology)? What’s the difference between a PsyD and a PhD? I learned, over the course of these months, that a PsyD and a PhD are both doctorate programs, but that they differ. A PhD is more research driven, whereas a PsyD has a more applied focus. Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to pursue a PhD in psychology rather than a PsyD.
For me, I had a lot of experience in research already, given that three and a half of my four years of my undergraduate career were spent doing some type of research project. A PhD in psychology would allow me to continue doing research while also gaining experience in face-to-face counseling and therapy, which is my ultimate career goal. A PhD would allow me a greater chance to do research that would be published in an academic journal. A PhD would offer me opportunities to offer undergraduate students academic guidance. Needless to say, it was settled that I would begin researching PhD programs in clinical psychology.
I am a family person. My biggest motivator is my family; they are my greatest supporters. With this in mind, I did not look at schools further than about a five hour drive from my hometown. This significantly reduced my options and my chances of being admitted to a program. But, this was a sacrifice I was willing to make. I did not want to spend five to seven years (which is the average amount of time it takes to obtain a PhD in psychology) away from my family.
A major factor that determined whether or not I chose to apply to a program was the so-called “fit” to the program. In other words, was there a professor/professors in the program with whom my research interests closely aligned, such that I could spend five years doing research in this area? Or, with whom my previous research experience was closely relevant that I was well-prepared to enter the program? There were many schools that I was interested in, but that there was not a professor on staff for whom I was a good “fit.”
Ultimately, my list dwindled from twenty-eight (!!) institutions to seven. It was clearly a huge cut and was a list that took months to reduce. However, this reduction allowed me to focus in on each school, focusing on what GRE (Graduate Record Examination) scores to strive towards, what essays to write, how much money to save for application fees, and much more.
I made a spreadsheet that included each school and its requirements, ranging from application fees to application due dates to GRE score requirements to how many words required for personal statements. This spreadsheet was, and will always be, overwhelming. But, it was a great way to keep my thoughts in line and to distinguish between the programs, which became blurry after a while.
My next step was to prepare for the GRE exam. What is the GRE? The GRE is basically the SAT or ACT of college. It is required by some graduate institutions for entry into a program. The general GRE measures your competency in writing, grammar, and mathematics. There are subject GRE exams, as well. For example, there is a psychology GRE. For psychology (and perhaps other disciplines, as well), the psychology GRE is only required for individuals who didn’t receive a bachelor’s in psychology. As I previously mentioned, it measures competency in the subject. My B.A. in psychology proves my competency, but if I am applying for a psychology graduate program in psychology with a bachelor’s in business, the institution may require evidence that you are prepared to enter their program.
I purchased three prep books in June before my senior year of college (or rather, I asked for the books for my birthday because I was a broke college student who would rather save the $90 for food and drinks than to spend it on a GRE prep book). I studied for about two months before my exam, gradually dedicating more time each week to my preparation. The day of my exam was incredibly nerve-wracking. I showed up to the test center hours early and made camp at a Panera next door. At an appropriate time, I showed up to the center and, soon enough, was sitting in a little cubby taking my exam on a computer. My prep books were a God-send, as they had full-length tests that were structured in the same fashion as the real test, so there were no surprises. The test took me hours — like, three or four hours. The best and worst part is that I found out my scores immediately, before I stepped foot outside the test center. To put it bluntly, I was not thrilled with my scores, but was not disappointed either.
For transparency and to possibly help a fellow GRE test-taker, I will share my scores. My highest score was on the writing section. I received a score of 5.5 out of 6, which is the 98th percentile. I was very satisfied with this score! On the verbal section, I received a score of 159 out of 170, which is the 83rd percentile. For the quantitative section, I received a score of 159 out of 170, which was the 70th percentile. To put it into perspective, some of the programs I applied to required scores in the 165 range, whereas others required scores that were a bit lower. I was on the lower range of what was required, which was a bit disheartening.
My greatest advice is to start studying earlier than I studied. If you have the resources and means, I suggest purchasing a prep book! If you don’t have the resources to do so, definitely check out YouTube videos offering study tips or reviewing test material. Whatever you do, do not procrastinate your studying and definitely do not enter the test without any time spent studying.
Next, I began writing my personal statements. Lucky for me, I had to write a personal statement as a class assignment for an undergraduate class and was able to use this as a template/foundation for my graduate personal statements. Each personal statement needed to be specific for the program I was applying to. For example, “Why do I want to work with Dr. InsertNameHere? Why are you a good fit for Dr. InsertNameHere’s research team?” But, each personal statement can have similar aspects that describe who you are and why you are different than other applicants. The first few sentences of my personal statement nearly always start like this:
“Attending a liberal arts college has given me more insight into the harrowing question that plagues us all — who am I? And if there is one thing that I have gathered from my three years studying psychology, sociology, and Spanish, it is that I, in fact, know nothing. Rather, as I continue to learn more, I simultaneously uneducate myself.”
My personal statement is far from perfect, and I will be the first to admit that. But, it does begin to set me apart. It is an acknowledgement of my lack of expertise, demonstrating why I am excited and motivated to enter a graduate program or a new career. It also shows my interdisciplinary education and interests, highlighting my background in three different fields. My personal statement continues on to explain this introduction and more about myself, and then is tailored to each program that I applied to.
One recommendation that I offer is to have your personal statement(s) reviewed by friends, by parents, by professors, by mentors, by tutors, by bosses, by your pets… by literally anybody. Have another set of eyes, if not more, look over it and offer advice. Be open to criticism. Be willing to change your work. It will be worth a few seconds of embarrassment over a grammatical issue if it means increasing your chances of being admitted to a program or being offered a position in a career. Another mistake I made was not doing exactly this. I was too proud, too embarrassed to ask others for help. I wish that I had.
I have to remind myself often that being accepted to a PhD in psychology, especially clinical psychology, is tough and rare. That it is highly dependent on your “fit,” as you are competing against many other high-achieving, involved, ambitious psychology students. This is why I was not surprised to have only been offered one opportunity to interview. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting any institution to invite me to interview, considering the chances. Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I was in shock when I called my boyfriend moments after reading the invitation email. I cried when I told my mom, and she did too. I bought a pantsuit, a new purse and shoes to match, a professional notebook to take notes in. I prepared my interview questions well in advance. This interview was the one thing on my mind for weeks.
The interview was a whirlwind, full of interviews with professors and current doctorate students. I spent two nights with a group of current students who took us out to dinner and we drank and asked questions and learned more about each other. I met two dozen driven, successful, motivated psychology students from across the nation who shared the same interests as I do. I was discouraged when I learned that most other applicants received many interview invitations, and was embarrassed when they asked how many I received. We received six inches of snow in the four hours we were in the interviews, thanks to the climate of the town the institution was located in. It was an incredibly memorable weekend, but also passed in a blur.
Now that we discussed the steps to applying to a PhD in psychology, let’s talk money. Applying to PhD programs in psychology is expensive. I knew it wouldn’t be cheap, but wow, it is expensive. Let’s break it down. I spent roughly $450 on application fees for seven institutions. I also spent money to take the GRE — about $205. You get to send your scores, immediately, to up to four schools. That left three schools (of my seven options) for me to send my scores to, which also costs money. Some schools don’t charge you for this. My mistake was sending my scores to an institution immediately after the GRE to an institution that doesn’t charge anyways. For example, I sent my score for free to University of School that wouldn’t have charged me anyways. I then sent my scores to University of Money for $27. In retrospect, I should’ve sent my score to University of Money for free immediately after the GRE test, since University of School was free regardless. I sent my GRE scores to three additional schools, at $27 each, totaling $81. As mentioned, I only received an invitation to interview for one program, and this was not exactly free. I spent money on an interview outfit, on a professional bag to carry the day of my interview, on gas to and from the institution, on food while I was in the town… I do not remember exact numbers for these costs. But it was at least another $250–300.
I spent almost $1000 to apply to seven psychology PhD programs. I spent almost $1000 to be denied by seven psychology PhD programs. I was devastated when I learned that I was not admitted to any program. But the burden that I carried — that I still carry — of wasting $1000 for no gain, is unbearable at times. There is so much more guilt to face than just the upset of not being admitted. I was financially burdened. I had to tell my family and friends that I failed them, that I did not live up to their expectations. Nobody was disappointed in me; everybody was supportive. But there were people who expected me to get in, with no doubt. To have to tell these individuals that I was not able to satisfy their expectation of me was a pain I had never experienced before. I still find myself sad about it and disappointed in myself. I must remind myself of all the things I did gain from the experience.
I learned more about myself in those ten months than ever before. I learned about financial independence, about self-discipline, and about disappointment. I felt heartbreak about something that was never living — I felt heartbreak over a dream that was in my mind for years, that I wasn’t able to achieve. I learned that I was responsible for that heartbreak, because I did not study well enough or did not ask for enough help. I learned that I was not responsible for that heartbreak, because I was not the right “fit.” I learned how to bounce back from the biggest disappointment of my life.
I did not give up on my graduate school search, although I wanted to so badly at times. I researched, applied to, and interviewed for master’s programs in family therapy and clinical psychology. I applied to three programs, and I was offered a position at all three. I accepted and enrolled in a program that felt was perfect for my interests, that had faculty that seemed strong and supportive and down-to-earth, and that is in a city that I am in love with. I start my first semester of my master’s career in August of 2020, in less than two months, and I couldn’t be more excited. In a few short years, I will have my Master’s of Science in Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling.
Will I apply for a PhD, again, after I finish my master’s? I don’t know. I hope I do, but I can’t predict the future. I do believe that someday I will have a doctorate, but it seems that now isn’t the time.
I will leave this article with a quote that my Poppy sent me about a month after learning that I was not successful in my doctorate pursuit:
“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”
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