Thoughts on Grad School Acceptance

Many Psychology and Neuroscience students with whom I interact are hoping to go to graduate school.  Most students aiming for grad school are aware of the importance of grades, GRE scores, and letters.  Good grades and GRE scores are clearly important, but they only tell part of the story about an applicant.  Many students don’t realize the weight given to letters by the graduate admissions committee, so I want to address that here.


Entering a Ph.D. program in the sciences is like becoming an apprentice.  You do not simply enroll, take classes, pass tests, and get the degree.  No — you become an integral part of a social entity: the lab.  The lab is headed by a PI (Principal Investigator); this is the professor with whom you applied to work (yes — when applying to a Ph.D. program you should aim for a particular lab and address the desire to join that lab in the essay that you are asked to prepare).  There might be several post-docs; these are researchers who have completed the Ph.D., typically elsewhere, and have joined the lab to bring their expertise to bear on the problems addressed by the lab.  Then there are the grad students;  you will enter as a junior grad student and will be expected to learn from all of the more senior people, grad students and post-docs alike, not just from the PI.  There are likely to be some technicians; these people probably won’t have higher degrees, but will have many skills that keep the research going.  Finally there might be undergraduates working in the lab, hoping to gain the same sort of experience that got you into the lab in the first place.

Your ability to fit into this complex social entity is addressed only by the recommendation letters written on your behalf; GPA and GRE scores can’t tell this story.  The professor writing the letter for you will be asked to address your ability to get along with peers and with superiors — basically your ability to play nicely with others.  If you can’t get along, if you can’t play nicely with others, the PI will not want you in the lab. When I write a letter of recommendation, I always ask myself, “Self, is this student someone whom you could in good conscience send to the lab of a friend — a friend you will run into at meetings and who might be considering your future students?”  If the answer is “Yes” then I can write a strong letter.  If instead myelf replies, “No, I’ll have to hide from that friend because of what I have knowingly done to her” then I cannot in good conscience recommend you.

Keep this in mind as you work to prepare yourself for graduate school.

A postscript: Setting up a meeting with a professor and then failing to show up should be avoided.  This is not considered “playing nicely.”

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  1. Jeff Wilson » Thoughts on Grad School Admission — October 23, 2012 @ 12:02 am

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