Should I apply to a PhD program in psychology?
In order to reduce your uncertainty about getting a PhD in psychology and to help you decide whether to apply as a graduate student in my lab (or possibly in anyone’s lab), I have prepared some guidelines.
As my advisor Dr. Douglas Kenrick told me, there are a lot of smart people who have done well as an undergraduate majoring in psychology, and due to a lack of insight into career options, have decided to get a PhD by default. Once in grad school, many of these people continue to study for their classes but fail to do much of anything else. After a few years, they do not come up with any interesting and plausible research ideas, or if they are handed an idea, find it too cumbersome a process to follow through with it and end up floundering around, lost. At that point, they may even become resentful of their advisors, who don’t seem to be especially interested in showing them the ropes.
Perhaps these frustrating years could have been avoided if these students knew ahead of time that getting a PhD in psychology is much different than undergraduate psychology. It is also much different from professional programs such as an MBA or JD. In academic graduate school, taking classes is necessary but very insufficient for success, and running subjects is but one very small component of a much larger process. And not everyone gets a job. Graduate school is a gateway to an academic career. Though teaching college without doing any research is a viable career option, as is consulting in industry, in order to earn a PhD at most institutions, you must be able to successfully produce research from beginning to end.
Is it a big ordeal? Absolutely. You should understand and be forewarned that research is largely unrewarding to most people. When you’re doing research, months or years can go by without any perceived rewards. Most humans are not designed to continue any activity that does not provide any immediate or foreseeable reinforcements, so it is really not surprising that the overwhelming majority of people do not really like doing research. In order to be able to withstand the rigors of research and an academic career, my guess is that you should, at base, be intellectually curious, self-motivated, and resilient. The first quality is probably why you are considering graduate school, and it will nicely provide you with some initial steam. However, the second and third qualities will likely determine whether or not you finish graduate school.
Should I apply to be Dr. Li’s graduate
(Note: Dr. Li will not be accepting new grad students for 2009)
In deciding whether or not to apply to work with me at UT-Austin or to even apply to any academically-oriented graduate program, please consider the following (in addition to checking out my research interests). One way to look at it is that I am directly stating the reciprocal "altruism" that underlies a successful grad-student/professor relationship. It's a reduction in uncertainty for both of us.
The graduate student-advisor relationship is an apprenticeship that you will need to undertake in order to earn a PhD and eventually be competitive on the job market. In this apprenticeship, you will need to 1) pick up critical skills, 2) acquire proper credentials (publications), and 3) have an advisor who is willing to go to bat for you. Ideally, you want to be working with an advisor who will be able to offer these 3 things. The advisor has already been through the highly competitive process of publishing as well as doing whatever else is necessary to get a PhD and a job as a professor, and is an invaluable resource. In order to remain in good standing and to be able to receive benefits, you need to be very productive for the advisor. Professors are not bound to accept graduate students and to unilaterally impart resources on them. If you view it this way and understand it, you will have a much better time in grad school, a better working relationship with your advisor, and the best career outlook possible.
The exact nature of this relationship may differ based on the exact school and program, where the professor is in terms of his/her career, and the degree to which he/she is trying to publish empirical papers, theoretical papers, books, etc. For applicants who are considering working with me at this time, the most important considerations are your abilities to assist me in carrying out research, mostly empirical at this time, and eventually in carrying out your own research with my collaborative assistance.
My approach with most things is to be high in the quality/quantity ratio. I am not one to require an above-average amount of hours from TAs, RAs, and grad students under my direction. However, I do expect that the responsibilities I assign you are done well and on time. Your ability to succeed in helping me run projects requires organizational and managerial skills; specifically, supervising undergraduate research assistants, running or orchestrating experiments, analyzing data, and corresponding with various people. If you're able to do statistical analysis, web programming, or writing, then you're even more valuable.
Carrying out your own research involves not only the previous skills but also more initiative – e.g., generating ideas worthy of research, designing and conducting experiments, analyzing data, finding and reading articles, and writing. It is generally preferable that your ideas are an extension of my current areas of interest, because it is costly to invest time in unrelated research areas. However, I am indeed very open to innovative or interesting ideas, especially those that are interdisciplinary or applied.
Graduate students may have trouble coming up with ideas that are both testable and interesting (worthy of publication). If this happens to you, all is not lost. If you are a conscientious and helpful student and can handle the responsibilities that I give you, I am certainly open to helping you come up with research ideas. Of course, you must still be able to carry it out. Some graduate students show insufficient interest in or are unreliable with respect to their advisors' work (as perceived by their advisor). Then they wonder why their advisors don't show interest in the students' progress. Of course, there are exceptions, but hopefully, you get the idea of how this apprenticeship works.
Perhaps the greatest stumbling block in graduate school is writing papers. Writing a literature review and building a case for your study is very difficult, especially because it must be done in “journalese,” the language of journal articles. A lot of people have a tough time with this. However, this is what the entire academic career comes down to, and you will have to pick this skill up if you don’t already have it if you wish to earn your PhD.
All that said, this can be a great path to take for those who are capable of taking it, especially if you find a good student-advisor match. When I evaluate potential graduate students, I look for what I consider to be a win-win situation. I highly value conscientiousness. Generally, to be seriously considered for any competitive psych PhD program, your GRE scores should be at least 1200. If they are in the 1100s, then you should be able to demonstrate a level of conscientiousness that offsets any concerns about your GREs (e.g., close to a 4.0 GPA, a demonstrated ability to write papers).
If you’re interested in applying to work with me, please a) make sure you apply to the Individual Differences and Evolutionary Psychology (IDEP) area here at UT-Austin, b) clearly identify in your personal statement that you would like to work with me, and c) distinguish yourself from other qualified applicants, by including the following in your application, either in your personal statement or as an addendum:
1) Your reason(s) for pursuing a PhD under
2) Your ability to organize and manage research projects in the Li lab.
3) Your ideas for research. If you don't have any concrete ideas at this time, then suggest how my necessities and luxuries research might be extended in some other direction.
4) A writing sample, if available (as close to a journal article as possible).
5) Any other relevant skills or special assets you might have (e.g., interactive web design, programming skills, digital videography, statistical methods, other academic background, grant writing experience, etc.).
As a graduate student in the Li lab at the University of Texas at Austin, you will have access to a new computer in a large lab suite in a new, modern building.
Feel free to email me with questions (and try not to get discouraged if I do not respond right away!).
R. Hermann Lotze (Leipzig,
Carl Stumpf (Gottingen, 1868)
H. S. Langfeld (Berlin, 1909)
Gordon Allport (Harvard, 1922)
M. Brewster Smith (Harvard, 1947)
Chester Insko (Berkeley, 1963)
Robert Cialdini (UNC-Chapel Hill, 1970)
Douglas Kenrick (Arizona State, 1976)
Norman Li (Arizona State, 2003)
Imagine yourself here