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Tips For Applying To A Psychology PhD Program

This page offers tips and guidelines about applying for a Psychology PhD research degree program — some of which you should know wherever you apply, and some of which is special to our department.

Applying to a psychology research PhD program

Find out what areas of psychology are covered in the department. Not all graduate programs train students in all kinds of psychology!

Our graduate program is concerned with basic and translational science, and not with clinical or counseling psychology. We have four main areas in which each student and the faculty work: Cognition, Behavioral Neuroscience, Perception, and Personality/Social.


Find out what degrees the program offers. Some departments have only a master’s program, some have separate master’s and PhD programs, and some offer the PhD but not a separate master’s degree.

In our department, there is no free-standing master’s degree. Students either come with a master’s degree already earned, or they earn their master’s degree on the way to the PhD (the latter is most common).


Find out what the department offers in terms of support and time in the program. Departments differ greatly in how much monetary support they offer (tuition remission and/or living stipend) and how long students spend in the program.

Our program is designed to be a five-year program, and students are fully supported (living stipend, tuition, and health insurance) for all five years. The time may be shorter if you come with a master’s degree; this is determined on an individual basis.


Think about non-academic features of the department that are important to you. These could be geographical location, size of department, representation of women or minority groups in that department or campus, the local morale in the department, and many more.

Our graduate program is small and close-knit—fewer than 35 graduate students total—and 23 tenure/tenure-track faculty. You get a great deal of attention from your advisor/mentor, classes are very small, and the graduate students interact with each other and faculty all the time.


Diversify your applications! You are very wise to apply to a range of “difficulty levels”—and that includes applying for some master’s programs along with applying to PhD programs. Getting the master’s degree is a great stepping stone, as people with master’s degrees are taken very seriously as candidates for PhD admission. Master’s degree studies can be used as a way to refine interests in the field.

Students who enter our program with a master’s degree have fewer credits to take, and typically some of their required courses are waived. Most students stay the whole five years; however, some finish in a shorter period of time. The specific program of study for students who enter with a master’s degree is determined in consultation with your advisor and our Director of Graduate Studies.


Find out the research interests of the faculty in each department you investigate. In some departments, it is not crucial that a student be “matched” with a faculty member at the time of admission.

In our program, each student is matched with a faculty member who serves as the student’s research advisor, and this match is absolutely crucial. This means you must investigate which faculty members’ research is exciting to you and compatible with your background. You can easily find out the basics by navigating to individual faculty members’ profiles.  Email correspondence is encouraged, making sure to inquire whether a given faculty member is looking for a new student. In our admissions process, you are asked to choose up to three faculty members as potential advisors.


Be sure to talk about faculty research in your Personal Statement. Sometimes personal statements are too vague, too nonspecific about what the student wants to pursue and which faculty are of greatest interest. Show the admissions committee that you have done your homework by finding out what your preferred advisor(s) do and make a case for why you are well suited to join their lab.

In our department, your personal statement is an important part of your application.


Take advantage of all the networking you can. Ask your professors or grad students in your current school for advice on applying to graduate school. Write to graduate students at the schools you are thinking of applying to, to get their advice.

Our graduate students will be very happy to answer your questions, as will the Director of Graduate Studies, Prof. Judith Hall (


Plan ahead so that you can be sure there are individuals who can write convincing letters of recommendation. Whether you are a student (bachelor’s or master’s) or are working in a paid position in an organization such as a research laboratory or a company, you should find and get to know people to be your recommenders. You may be the top student in your course, but if the professor does not know you personally, he/she cannot write a persuasive letter on your behalf. Get to know the people who could write you letters.

In our department, we think a convincing letter has individuating information in it about you — your aptitude, preparation, motivation, and character.


GRE Scores. Departments take the GRE very seriously, even if it’s not the main standard they use for admission.

In our department, the GRE is very important, though it is only one of our criteria for admission. We also care about your GPA, research experience, interests, motivation, and letters of recommendation.


Get research experience! Your chances in any research-based graduate program are greatly reduced if you do not have research experience. Depending on the research area, this experience needs to be very specific, or it could be more general. There are many ways to get research experiences—working in professors’ labs for money, academic credit, or as a volunteer, getting a job in research after graduation, or doing your own research as an honors student or a master’s degree student.

In our department, research experience is essential!