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Getting Experience is Essential Preparation for Graduate School

September 28, 2012

Many professors and career counsellors liken the process of applying to grad school to the processes of finding and applying for a job. I think there are some key differences, but I would also agree there are many significant similarities. I’ll discuss one of them in today’s post — the importance of having the right kind of experience. Anyone who has been in the job market knows how important it is to have relevant experience in the same or at least a similar kind of work. All other things being equal, most jobs go to applicants with experience. It is similar when admissions committees or individual faculty members consider which grad-school applicants to accept and which to deny. Applicants with relevant experience have the upper hand over those with less experience.

Before discussing what counts as relevant experience, and offering advice on how to go about getting it, let’s considering why it’s so important, in the first place. For the people who decide who gets in to their graduate programs, it’s about managing risk. From the perspective of an admissions committee or individual faculty member, the applicants with relevant experience have a lower risk of failure than the inexperienced applicants. It is reasonable to assume that an applicant with the right type of experience may be more dedicated to a career path than one without such experience, and therefore, the former student is less likely to drop out before finishing graduate school. Moreover, because they have already shown they can do things that are essential for success in graduate school (e.g., writing, public speaking, creative expression, critical analysis, etc), there is a relatively high probability that they will finish their program in the normal time period, without causing any grief for the faculty members who supervise them. People who get into grad school primarily on the basis of high grades and ‘book smarts’, on the other hand, often struggle once they are there, or they fall off the rails and fail to finish their program, altogether.

What counts as relevant?

My last post discussed how the need to get relevant experience is the main reason why students who are considering graduate school should start preparing at least several months before they will actually be dealing with applications. This is especially true for students applying to programs in which they will have a faculty member for a graduate supervisor, because these students should be striving to provide three letters of recommendation that will attest to their abilities and potential as a researcher. It takes a great deal of time to set up three letters like that.

In most cases, the letters should come from three different professors, and each of those professors should have personal experience supervising the student’s work in a research context (e.g.., an undergrad Honors thesis, or work as a volunteer lab assistant), or evaluating a significant amount of scholarly work produced by the student (e.g., major essays, literature reviews). Students need to put themselves in the right kinds of situations, and persist and perform over a long enough period that the professor can actually discover and appreciate their important traits and abilities. This may require several months, and it may also have to repeated once or twice in order to get enough truly effective letters of recommendation.

Some professors hire students to work as research assistants and pay them from a research grant, but opportunities to work as a volunteer are far more abundant. An academic advisor might be able to tell you which faculty members in your department provide such opportunities. You can check departmental bulletin boards for help-wanted ads, but the best opportunities are seldom advertised, so you need to be proactive and ask professors directly whether they have an opportunity for you.

If you do get hired as a volunteer assistant to one of your professors, be willing to make a commitment and put in sufficient time and effort so that you will actually be of benefit to them and to their work. A mistake that some students make is to volunteer to help out for only a few hours each week, and in some such cases, once the time and effort required to train them is taken into account, the arrangement proves not to be beneficial to the person whom they were intending to help.

Keep in mind that summer can be an excellent time to find employment or volunteer opportunities as a professor’s assistant. For many professors, being free from having to deliver lectures and grade papers during the summer means they can spend more time on their research. This is when they are most in need of a student assistant to help get things done.

Undergraduate research experience is always relevant, and the more of it one has when applying to grad school, the better will be their chances of getting in. Students often fail to realize the variety of ways there are to get the experience they need, however, and some may be confused about what other types of experience are seen as relevant. Academic advisors are helpful sources of advice and direction, and anyone interested in applying to graduate school should speak to an academic advisor before getting into the application process. A good academic advisor should be able to explain how students in your field obtain relevant experience. They should be able to tell you if there are classes you could take that require students to work on a research project for course credit, or whether there is an opportunity to do an independent study.

But, there are other kinds of relevant experience, too, including the general interpersonal, communication, and organizational skills that are developed through a regular job, so long as the job involves the right kinds of duties and responsibilities. That means things such as, data management or analysis, report writing, organizing activities, problem solving, etc., and not the things that normally come with a job in retail, fast-food, or janitorial services. A career counsellor should be able to tell you what kinds of off-campus employment or volunteer opportunities exist in your locale.

Work-study and co-op programs

Find out if your school runs a work-study program. These are usually government-sponsored programs designed to share the cost of employing students in relevant work, often with faculty members in certain departments who can provide such opportunities. Many work-study programs are intended only for financially needy students, so not everyone is eligible.

Most of the larger universities in the U.S. and Canada have co-operative education programs, which integrate academic study with paid work experience in occupational settings related to the student’s field of study. Co-op students take regular classes on a reduced schedule while they work at a real job and earn a wage. Co-op program are primarily created as a way to get students the hands-on experience that will make them more employable once they graduate. Employers also like to use these programs as a way to recruit new young talent.

A potential graduate supervisor is likely to view positively the co-op experience of a grad-school applicant. Compared to applicants who have only classroom experience in their field of interest, the co-op student may be assumed to have a better understanding of how things work in the real world, and better personal insight into whether or not this is the right career path to take. This may make them seem less risky from the point of view of graduate-school faculty members.

Start early

Most students who are serious about graduate school eventually realize the importance of getting some experience, but many of them will fail to take measures to get any until it is too late to take full advantage of the best opportunities. A good time to begin trying to find relevant work experience in your field is in the second semester of your sophomore year or during your junior year. I occasionally meet students who are really on the ball and who start getting in touch with professors in their first year on campus. The sooner the better, as it will give you more time to try different things. And remember, almost all grad-school applicants are going to have some relevant experience, so to stand apart from the crowd one needs to have more experience than most other applicants.

Another reason for looking for opportunities as early as possible is that you might not end up with something immediately. Perhaps you wish to work as a volunteer research assistant in the laboratory of one of your professors, but when you ask her about it she regretfully tells you that her lab is already full and she really doesn’t have anything for you to do. She may suggest, however, that you come by and ask again at the end of the semester, or perhaps next year. If you are already in your senior year and you realize that you still do not have any work experience or other practical experience in your field, you might still have time, but it is important that you immediately move this objective to the top of your priority list before it really does become too late. If you are determined to get into a good graduate program but you are a senior and lacking some of the kinds of experience discussed in this article, your best strategy may be to delay applying to graduate school until a year after you finish your undergraduate degree, and use the intervening time to get some of that experience you need.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Alisha permalink
    May 20, 2013 3:40 AM

    Hi Dr. Mumby,

    I have a question regarding research experience and clinical psychology graduate programs. I don’t have ANY research experience in a psychology lab. I’ve volunteered in an immunology lab for a year (I used to be in a Biology program – I finished that, then immediately started another BScH in Psychology), but no lab experience in a psychology related field. I never volunteered in a psych lab because it was only this year that I became interested in possibly pursuing grad studies in psychology (after taking a super interesting behavioural neuroscience course!). I was wondering if this is going to really hinder my application? I know that for clinical psychology programs, I probably have a very low shot. However, I have written many extensive papers such as a 25 page literature review (in biological field) and an undergraduate thesis (in psychology – however this wasn’t like a “real” thesis where you are working in a lab/professor. It’s set up kind of weird at my school, and basically my thesis involved me asking people to fill out a questionnaire. I then wrote my paper based on their answers). I don’t know if this is even relevant though? My grades are okay I think (esp the last 2 years).

    I just finished my 4th year in the Psychology program and am returning for another year. Is there anything I can do at this point? I feel like its too late, since applications will be due in Fall (for funding at least).

    Also, sort of as a follow-up to the previous poster – does attending a reputable institution or getting a reference letter from a reputable professor help your chances at getting accepted into grad school? I know a large part of academia involves networking with other scientists, so I guess having been part of a “prestigious” lab/university would help?

    Please let me know! I am quite glad I stumbled upon your blog, it is very informative and helpful!! :)

    • May 31, 2013 10:05 AM

      Thanks for the questions, Alisha. Your situation is not at all uncommon. Over the past 25 years, I have met hundreds of students who were unclear about what it takes to get into a good Psychology graduate program, and only learned about the importance of research experience when they were already near the end of the bachelor’s program. I have blogged about this general topic quite often over the past few years, and many of my posts offer practical advice about how to get into graduate school. Please read the dozens of posts I’ve published here over the past few years. Check the archives. You’ll find the answers you’re looking for. (If you want all the information and advice in one place, you could also spend a few bucks on a copy of my book, or even fewer bucks on the e-book).

      As for the previous posts in which I explained why there is no significant advantage to having a bachelor’s from a prestigious school, all of that still stands. Networking is indeed important in development of a research career. But, it’s not really about who you known, and being associated with someone who has a bit of fame will not, by itself, carry a person very far. You might want to look at my previous posts on this blog, in which I discuss getting letters of recommendation for graduate school. (Except for a couple of guest posts, I’ve authored all of the posts on this blog site).

      • Alisha permalink
        June 25, 2013 2:03 AM

        Alright, thank you Dr. Mumby for your reply, I will definitely read around on this blog!

  2. Jennifer permalink
    February 14, 2013 12:00 AM

    Dr. Mumby,

    I’m so glad that I found your blog. I have been reading a few of your posts tonight and they are truly helpful. I am a second year student at a small university. So small, in fact, that there is only one psychology lab on campus. Coincidentally, the lab is run by my advisor. I became involved in the lab this past fall. I’m actually the only undergraduate in my entire school who is involved with the lab…. I think it’s great so far, but I’m only helping grad students for now and understand that more experience is essential – especially if I need three letters of recommendation for grad school. I have an internship in a Harvard affiliated lab that keeps me quite busy, but I’m not sure if an internship (3 credits) even counts as research experience. What would you suggest I do to gain more research experience, considering the lack of opportunities at my school? Should I look into opportunities at larger universities? Are letters of recommendation best coming from my own professors? Thanks so much for your time!

    Jennifer

    • February 15, 2013 10:12 AM

      Thank-you for the great questions, Jennifer. I have a few answers…
      Your internship at the Harvard-affiliated lab might be quite relevant, in fact. It all depends on what your responsibilities are, who is supervising you, what they think of you and your potential, etc. If the person has a credible basis for evaluating your character attributes, skills, and abilities that are relevant to your likelihood of success in grad school and a career in psychology, then that person might be a useful letter.

      Your idea about looking for research experience at larger universities is a good one. If a larger institution is within a reasonable commuting distance, and if you have the means to get there, then it’s a great idea. There is no reason why your letters of recommendation should all be from professors at your university. In fact, having good letters from credible sources at two different institutions could be an advantage. To some, it can give the impression that you have the kind of initiative that is necessary to be a successful grad student and psychology researcher.

      Before you look to another university, are you sure there aren’t other potential opportunities at yours? You mention that there is only one Psychology lab, but what about labs in other departments? It isn’t necessary that all your undergrad research experience is in some area of psychology. The subject area of the research is not as important as you might think, and the person who would eventually write a letter of recommendation for you will be commenting on your personal characteristics, which will show to be the same, regardless of the subject of the research. And it can actually be useful to have letters from professors in different departments, for the same reasons that having a letter from someone at another institution can give a good impression of a student who has initiative.
      Check out the research being done by faculty in the Biology department, for example. Anyone there working with animals, either in the lab or in the field? How about the Sociology department? Or any other department in the natural sciences or social sciences? You can check out all the faculty profiles to get an idea of who is actively doing research, and then start asking professors whose work appeals to you whether they could use some assistance.You are not likely to be rejected just because your major is in a different discipline. Don’t assume that professors in other departments have all the research students and volunteer assistants they need. You never know what great opportunities might turn up close to home if you look beyond your own department, but if nothing is to be found elsewhere at your university, check out other institutions.

      Jennifer, I hope this helps give you some ideas.

      – Dave

  3. EMm permalink
    January 5, 2013 7:33 PM

    Hi Dr. Mumby,

    I stumbled across your blog after a quick google search about research opportunities for undergraduate psychology students and I have really enjoyed your advice so far. I am a first year student and I hope to apply to graduate school in Clinical Psychology. I am very eager to get involved in research as early as possible as an undergraduate. From looking at the lab websites of professors at my university, it seems like most undergraduate students in their labs, even volunteers, are in third or fourth year with a small minority being in second year. Is there anything that I could do this year to improve my chances of getting a volunteer position in a lab either next fall, when I’m in second year, or the following summer? I have been doing very well academically so far and I have a renewable major entrance scholarship from my university, so I was just wondering if there are any other relevant experiences that I could get now in order to increase my chances of gaining a volunteer research position.

    Thank you,

    EM

    • January 6, 2013 3:15 PM

      Thank-you for the nice comments and for your great question. It seems that you’re already doing most of the things I would recommend, such as making sure you get off to a good start academically, and putting off a major volunteer commitment until after you’ve completed a couple of semesters of coursework. This shows good judgement. You have also been looking at your professors’ websites, discovering things about their areas of research, and the makeup of their labs — generally, gathering relevant information that you’ll need to decide which professors to ask for an opportunity. This shows more good judgement, and insight.

      Here is something else you might consider: Most professors have regular lab meetings, in which they gather with the graduate students and the undergrads who are working (a.k.a. “training) in their labs. A variety of functions are accomplished at these lab meetings, and there is a lot of variance between professors and labs in terms of the format of their meetings and the kinds of things they do or discuss. But, those things are almost always related to the ongoing research program of the professor and his students. A common activity in psychology professors’ lab meetings is graduate students, post-docs, and undergraduate thesis-students discussing their particular research projects; another common activity is discussing interesting research findings of other labs. There is no better way to get a good look at the current and ongoing activities of a particular research lab, as well as the people and personalities in it (very important factors to consider), than by attending their regular lab meetings. Consider asking a couple professors if you could sit in on their lab meetings, this semester. If you explain your motives — that you’re interested in helping out in the lab next fall, but don’t wish to make a big time commitment before then — there is a good chance you’ll get a positive response. If you do, make sure you attend all the meetings. They will probably be and hour or 90-minutes long, and usually once per week, bi-weekly, or, less often, monthly. So, it won’t take a lot of your time. Importantly, showing up regularly will making a positive impression regarding your reliability and the seriousness of your interests. Showing up only occasionally will make you appear less serious, and this could diminish your chances of getting an opportunity to be more involved, next fall.

      If you end up doing this — that is, asking a professor if you can join his or her lab meetings, this semester, I would be interested to hear about how that turns out for you. Please consider getting back in touch, and letting us know about your experiences. Meantime, thank-you once again for an excellent question. – Dave

  4. January 1, 2013 9:22 PM

    This is very true on what happens in graduate school. I was a teaching assistant for so long before landing a tenure tracking position that I love. it makes all worth it.

    • January 6, 2013 12:13 PM

      Thank-you for your reassuring comments. If you think this blog is a good resource for your students, please let them know about it. I strive to go beyond all the very generic information and advice about grad school that can be found on so many advertisement-supported websites.

  5. October 3, 2012 11:02 AM

    Hi Dr. Mumby,

    Great blog! I have spent the last few days reading all of your blog posts and they are very helpful and informative. I am planning to apply to a research psychology (i.e. not clinical) PhD program in the near future and I have some concerns about my own application that I thought might make good blog posts.

    1. My biggest concern is that my background is not in psychology. I have an unrelated undergraduate and master’s degree as well as 5 years of full-time work experience in a career unrelated to psychology. The particular program that I am interested in is apparently “interdisciplinary” and considers applicants with various degrees but I am wondering about a few things: (a) the best way to explain this drastic shift in my interests; (b) how much of my personal statement should be devoted to convincing the admissions committee that I am interested and serious about psychology.

    2. I have also considered applying to a psychology-related one year master’s program before applying to the PhD program so that I have some relevant course work and a relevant thesis. (I believe it would be easier to get into a master’s program). I don’t want to complete a second master’s degree unless I have no other choice. Would it be appropriate to apply to both a master’s and the PhD program this year and, if I don’t get accepted to the PhD program, complete the master’s and reapply to the PhD program next year? Do admissions committees notice repeat applicants? Does it look bad if an applicant has been rejected in the past, especially since I would be hoping to work with the same advisor I will be applying to this year?

    3. Through my research (and following the advice of your blog posts) I have found two potential advisors in this particular PhD program that have similar research interests to mine. I plan to set up meetings with both of them in the next few weeks to discuss whether or not we are a good fit for one another. Would it be appropriate to mention these concerns to the potential advisor and explain my intended career change? I suspect they will ask but if they don’t…?

    As a side note, I should mention that I have spent the last few years doing part-time volunteer work with community service organizations so I have some relevant experience that I think (I hope) will be looked upon favourably by the admissions committee and potential advisors. I also have some research experience. My master’s degree included a major research paper but it was a topic unrelated to psychology.

    Thank you again for all the valuable tips in your blog. I hope that my questions inspire future blog posts.

    • October 4, 2012 12:09 PM

      Thank-you for the kind words about the blog, and also for sharing some of your experiences and unique aspects of your situation. You raised some important issues, and you’ve given me great suggestions for topics to discuss in future posts. I’m definitely going to get to some of them within the next few weeks, and when I do, I’ll be sure to credit your comments as the source of inspiration. Good luck with your applications. I’d be interested to find out what happens. – Dave

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