The Angst of Graduate School Applications


The Angst of Graduate School Applications

  • By Ian Bradley
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In my undergraduate McGill class of very bright psychology majors, we were pleasantly diverted from the regular cognitive behavior therapy topic of the day to talk about undergraduate education in Psychology. My own career experience rests much more with internship training of doctoral-level students in clinical psychology, however I was eager to hear what the students had to say. Several expressed great uncertainty about selecting the “right” graduate program in clinical or counselling psychology.


In my early career, I had none of this angst because my algorithm was simple; say “yes” to the one school that accepts me.  However, most of the students had much stronger academic records than my own, and therefore more options.


Surprisingly, the options seemed to cause stress.


I feel that part of the blame rests with the graduate school application process that requires elements of very questionable validity in the selection process, chief among those elements are letters of reference. When lecturing about assessment methods for employment, I often quote a case famous, or perhaps infamous, of a Quebec physician who was accused of some sexual crime with a patient. The details are vague in my mind, but what I clearly remember was the bell-ringing character reference provided to the court by his wife. Whatever her feelings about his misdeeds, she nonetheless found enough good material to write a letter that could have vaulted him into most professional graduate programs. The correlation of letters of reference with later job performance doesn’t justify the effort, either for the students to beg for them or for the faculty to read them.


Another element that graduate schools burden aspiring applicants is a statement of interest. Any bright gaming student knows to construct his or her letter to extoll how the research interests of the potential supervisor are exactly in-line that their long-held intellectual aspirations. Of course, if done properly, the statements for each graduate program are completely different as a function of what the student imagines that professor wants to hear.


With the more conscientious students, this gamesmanship sometimes creates a certain existential angst. It often sneaks up on the undergraduate and suddenly confronts them with the fear that perhaps they should really know what kind of psychologist they want to become. Should they go into research or clinical work? If they select research, what field? If they’re thinking about clinical, what therapy to train in, what patient population to specialize in? The anxiety can be powerful enough to scare them into paralysis, whereby they think that they should delay the application process until the answers to these questions become apparent.


When I hear this, I’m secretly reminded of a Jim Cramer moment of Mad Money when referring to the dithering of the Fed at the start of the 2008 financial crisis, Jim screamed “And they know nothing!”


I don’t scream it with the anger of Cramer but with a kind of sadness knowing that young people are giving themselves an impossible challenge.   To foresee a specific career path will give them success and happiness ten years in the future when they know so little about the professional world of psychology is most problematic. Final year undergraduate students know a great deal about a large number of academic topics, they might even know something about research since most have volunteered in lab, but few have worked in clinical settings. However, reading about a chronic mental patient in an abnormal textbook and then working with a chronic population are two very different enterprises; interest in the former might, might not, predict enjoyment in the latter.


More importantly, what students are not told in their graduate school application process is that career paths emerge as one advances. Doors open that beginning students didn’t realize existed when applying to graduate school. A dining metaphor comes to mind. Some students view graduate school calendars like thick restaurant menus where they are given one and one chance only to order their meal that must satiate them for a very long time. A more realistic analogy is a smorgasbord of dishes that the graduate program and its training sites lay out for the student to sample. The more sampling that’s done, the longer the table gets.


The bottom-line; it doesn’t much matter what graduate program you choose. The important thing is to approach it with an eagerness to learn as much as you can in as many areas as possible. The professional world of psychology is vast and rich.


You will make, rather than find, your own way.