Decisions, Decisions...

At the beginning of the entire process, before it ever turned to an application, I had some important decisions to make:


Do I want to go to a MA or a PhD program?

I was surprised to discover that many places offer a PhD program to people who only hold a BA. It takes longer than a MA program, but - and here's the real kicker - a PhD program has a much better chance of providing financial assistance to participants. This assistance, in some programs, covers full tuition, medical insurance AND a stipend (similar to a salary).

Many of the better universities only offer a PhD program. Some grant you a MA along the way, some will just give you the PhD diploma at the end, without ever officially going through the MA stage.

Most PhD programs take between 4-6 years to complete. MA programs take around 2 years. As always, check with individual programs to be sure.

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What Exactly Am I Interested In?

First of all - even though I've defined what my general area of interest is (willpower and, later on, intuition), my current program doesn't hold me to that topic, and I am free to change it if I want to. The choice I made during the application process was important, but not necessarily binding. However, it was a good idea to try and really define what is it about psychology that I was really interested in - this choice was the basis for most of the steps that followed. When you find your area, you will (hopefully) ride it all the way to the PhD program - this is how you'll find specific programs and professors to target, among other things. It's best to put a lot of thought into this part of the process. A lot. At the beginning, I had a vague notion that I am interested in "Delay of Gratification." I Emailed many different professors, if I believed their interests had any relevance to it. My goal in Emailing them was double:

  1. I wanted to learn some of the lingo (to help me do more research, and sharpen my definition of my interest area). I learned, for example, that "perseverance," "self-regulation," and "goal achievement" were all additional keywords I could use when searching for material.
     
  2. I wanted to make initial contact with professors who, later on, may be on the receiving end of my application. This way, I am also showing my commitment to the process - I ask them where to look for more information (possibly their own publications), study the material, return with more questions, and generally show them that I'm serious about the whole thing.

Most reactions were extremely pleasant, even when they could not help me. Only one was somewhat nasty.

When Emailing professors, I took my time in composing the letters. Most importantly, I remembered that they owe me nothing, and made them aware that I appreciate their help and the time they spend in reading my letters. While I relied on their kindness, hoping that they would be willing to help a complete outsider, I never assumed that they are supposed to help me. When they did Email me back, I made sure to thank them.

Here are some examples of letters I sent, and responses I received.

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Which University Should I Apply To?

The Advisor

In a PhD program, much of the work is done under the guidance of a specific professor - the advisor. In some programs it's possible to change advisors after you start, in others it can be more of a problem, due to financing reasons (see "Finance," below).

Essentially, I visited the web site of almost every university in the country (I used the extensive list at http://www.socialpsychology.org/ranking.htm as a portal), and in the departmental websites I checked the research interests of pretty much each and every professor. If I saw a possible match, I sent my "probe" Email, asking politely for advice and suggestions.

I would sometimes also go into the students' web pages and see their research interests. If I found any good matches there, I would write them as well, asking about the specific program as well as for some advice. This happened rarely, but it did. Here's an example.

Finance

After that was the question of funding. This information was usually specified very plainly in the web sites. Luckily, all programs I was interested in offered complete financial support (tuition + stipend).

If the source of your financing is a grant your advisor received, you may need to find a new source of funding if you switch to a different advisor in the course of your graduate studies. In some programs (for example here at Stanford), the funding is departmental - it doesn't matter who your advisor is, which can make changing advisors easier.

Location

You will probably also think about whether the climate is agreeable, if you would want to live in that specific state, and so on. I know I did.

Whenever I was in the mood, I would look up some information about the cities/towns where the universities are - either through links on the university homepages, or through Google, or by asking friends who may have been there, etc.

Chances of Admission

I spent some time looking for admission statistics, something to give me a rough idea of who gets in, and with what scores, background, etc. Very few universities provided this information - the University of Wisconsin, for example, did a fabulous work at that.

I also looked at the students' web sites (when they had them) and tried to understand what their resume was like.

The result of doing all this was that I became convinced I would never be accepted anywhere. :-) Like I said, all I had was a "B-" average from a BA I got in Israel and some ambition.

On the other hand, once I got over the initial despair (I couldn't afford to stay in it for too long) it did make me realize just how well I'll need to do on my GRE. It actually strengthened my motivation.

I had a very hard time believing I had a chance of being accepted to a top university. I almost didn't apply to Stanford, just because of how intimidated I was by a name like that. Needless to say, I'm pretty glad I applied here eventually.

Bottom line: It's possible to get accepted to any level of program you want to, provided you're willing to make the effort during the application process. It really is that simple.

Good, Better, Best

I heard this advice from a number of people: Apply to some universities you're almost certain you'll be accepted to ("safeties"), some that you have a chance of getting into, and some that are long shots. Who knows, you may get lucky - but this way, you won't stay without a school next year.

I agree wholeheartedly that it's good to apply to "long shots" - but I eventually decided not to apply to any university I didn't want to study in, even though it meant I didn't feel like I had any "safety" applications. It just wasn't worth the hassle and the cost of applying to a place I would eventually not go to even if they did accept me. I respect my own happiness and satisfaction - I wouldn't send me someplace where I don't want to be.

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