The following advice is from Gavin, a senior of NUS Psychology. He has graciously taken out some time to provide advice for the current Psychology students of NUS Psychology, and we’re really grateful to him! If you have any additional questions for him, please email us at email@example.com, and we’ll send you the details about how to contact him, as we will not post it here for privacy reasons. All the best, hope the advice is useful for you! (:
The following advice and information pertain to PhD programmes in Psychology, but some are also relevant to research Master’s programmes (MBA/MD/JD programmes are a different beast altogether).
Why should I go to graduate school?
- Most (reputable) universities only hire PhDs as professors
- For fields like I/O or Clinical, a PhD is usually only required if you want to pursue a research career. For industry/corporate jobs, a Master’s is usually good enough.
You should not do a PhD if:
- For fields like I/O or Clinical, a PhD is usually only required if you want to pursue a research career. For industry/corporate jobs, a Master’s is usually good enough.
- Read the following links for more information about the “costs” of doing a PhD
Masters (coursework/research) vs PhD
- A coursework Masters is like a higher level undergrad. Basically, you are taking more difficult modules (e.g. level 5000 modules in NUS).
- A research Masters is also sort of like a higher level undergrad, but you will also have to do a thesis in addition to (lesser) coursework.
- Mostly (99%) unpaid – you pay your own way.
- Takes 2 years usually.
- Unlike in undergrad or (most) master’s programmes, the bulk of your time as a PhD student will be spent on research rather than coursework/lessons.
- You get (most of the time) paid to do a PhD. Basically, you are a research assistantproducing research for the university which gives you a small monthly allowance and a degree at the end of your PhD.
- You will be studying a very specific topic. See: http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/
- Takes 5-7 years
Should I do a Masters (research/coursework) or PhD?
- Masters (coursework): If you are in a “professional” field (e.g I/O, Clinical), and have no intention of doing research, then do a Masters (coursework). Having a Masters will usually lead to better pay.
- Masters (research): If you are unsure if you want to do academia, do a Masters (research) first. If you find that you want to pursue academia, then proceed on to the PhD. Or, if you have already decided to do a PhD but feel that your application is not strong enough (it might be better to do an RA, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of your profile – see the section below on applications).
- PhD: If you want to work in academia (research + teaching), you will need a PhD. Yes, you can do a direct PhD without doing a Masters first (mostly US schools though). Some universities consider the 4th (honours) year as equivalent to a Masters (mostly UK schools).
What are the requirements for graduate school?
- Most PhD programmes require at least a second-upper. It is possible to get in with a second lower or third, but the other aspects of your application must be strong (see the section below on applications). Master’s programmes might accept second-lower or third or no honours. Check with the programme for specific requirements.
- You don’t need to have already graduated. In fact, you must start preparing in Year 3 Sem 2, and apply in Year 4 Sem 1, if you want to go straight after undergrad. Again, this is dependent on specific programmes, but 90% of the schools follow this timeline.
- You don’t need a master’s before applying for a PhD for most programmes in the US. However, many programmes in Canada and the UK require a master’s first (if you did honours, it can be counted as equivalent to a master’s in some UK schools). Again, check with the specific programme.
What are the differences between US, UK, Canadian, Australian, German, Dutch, Singaporean etc. PhD programmes?
US vs UK
- US programmes are generally 5-6 years. This includes coursework in your first few semesters. You do not need to have a concrete research proposal at the time of application, but you should have a rough idea of what you want to research on.
- UK programmes are generally 3 years. You would need to already have a specific topic in mind, and some schools (most notably Oxbridge) require you to submit a research proposal at the time of application.
- UK programmes are really just researching all the way. There is no time for coursework or teaching. Which is good and bad. If you’re looking for an academic career, teaching experience is definitely important – you are likely to not get this in a UK programme.
- Some US schools have a mandatory teaching requirement for graduation. Even if the school does not have one, there are plenty of opportunities for teaching.
Canadian programmes are generally 5-6 years (similar to US), but you might need a master’s first
Non-UK European programmes are a bit chapalang. I’m not too familiar with non-UK European programmes, but I think that they see it more as a job than a “study-ship”. I have only looked at German/Dutch programmes, but I think French and other non-UK European programmes are similar. They will have specific openings for PhD applicants to work on specific projects which they have already pre-determined. Most UK schools have such arrangements as well. Check the following websites for PhD studentship openings:
- Holland: https://www.studyinholland.nl/scholarships/grantfinder
- Germany: https://www.daad.de/deutschland/studienangebote/international-programs/en/
Australian programmes. I don’t have much info on Aussie programmes as there weren’t many that related to my interests. Sorry. Do however check this out:https://internationaleducation.gov.au/endeavour%20program/scholarships-and-fellowships/international-applicants/pages/international-applicants.aspx
- The Endeavour Scholarship is a bond-free scholarship provided by the Australian government for graduate study in Australia
- The application period is really weird though, so do take note. For example, for admission to the 2017 intake, you will have to apply by April 2016 (end of Year 3 Sem 1 if you want to go straight after undergrad)
Singaporean programmes are similar to US programmes in terms of structure.
- If your goal is to pursue an academic career in Singapore, then it might not be a good idea to do your PhD in Singapore. This is because many schools are unwilling to hire their own PhD graduates as “it is generally viewed as insular and unhealthy for academia; it is thought to reduce the possibility of new ideas coming in from outside sources” (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectual_inbreeding“).
- I’m not sure how our local unis view this, but better safe than sorry. Nevertheless, if you are capable then I don’t see why our own universities will deny you a job (Dr. Stephen Lim did his PhD here at NUS). Also, if the big names in your area of interest are in Singapore, then you shouldn’t give up the opportunity to work with them.
How do I apply to graduate school?
Identify your areas of interest. You can start by identifying your favourite classes and topics.
Start researching on which professors (not schools!) you would like to work with.
- For an academic career, what you do during your PhD is more important than where you got it from. You won’t get a faculty position even if you graduated from Harvard/Yale/Princeton if you have 0 research output. If you are looking to go into industry, the brand name of the school matters quite a bit more, especially if you are doing a Masters.
- Look through articles you are interested in and find out who the authors are.
- Go through the abstracts of recent conferences to see which professors are currently doing research that interests you.
- Look at the editorial board for the journals in your field of interest.
- Look at rankings such as US News Graduate School Rankings. Go through each school and look at the faculty members to see if any professors are doing research in your area of interest. It’s best to check out their recent papers though since sometimes the descriptions on their websites can be outdated.
- Caveat: Rankings are really meaningless and unreliable, but it gives you a general idea of what the “good schools” are. Case in point: MIT is ranked #10 in Cognitive Psychology, while Stanford is ranked #1. But, if you’re interested in vision/attention, it might not be a good decision to choose Stanford over the chance to work with Kanwisher or Desimone or Potter at MIT. Similarly, Purdue isn’t even in the list, but if you want to do retrieval-based learning, then Purdue would be a better choice than the Ivies or the top ten schools on the rankings for that matter.
- “Better” schools generally have more establoshed faculty, but relatively “unknown” schools can sometimes have big names.
- Again, where you do your PhD is much less important than who you do it with, and what you achieve during that time
- Ask your professors.
Narrow down your list
- Look at the previous students of your Professor of Interest (POI). Are they doing jobs that you would like to do? Some labs produce students who go on to work mainly in industry, while others remain in academia.
- Look at the publication record of your POI. Do they publish regularly with students?
- Look at your POI’s network (collaborations, mentors etc.). How is s/he connected to the researchers/companies in your field? This might help you get a job when you graduate.
Contact the professors you would like to work with. You should (must) ask them if they are accepting students, if not you will waste your time and money on applying to that school. Some are also nice enough to tell you which other professors you can approach if they’re unable to take in students or think that you would not be a good fit in their lab.
- You can also ask more questions about their research to see if it is a good fit with your interests (but don’t ask questions that can be easily answered by reading their papers/website), and maybe impress them with your enthusiasm or knowledge.
- Use your school email or some other email with a decent name! firstname.lastname@example.org isn’t going to leave a good impression.
- NOTE: I’ve read that in some fields, it’s bad to email a prof to ask anything other than if they’re accepting students. Do your own Googling before deciding whether to email or not!
Prepare for and take the GRE (required for US and Canadian applications; most European schools do not require it). You should take the GRE before school (Y4 S1) starts, so that you can focus on it. Also, taking it early would give you some time to retake it if your scores are not good enough. Try to aim for 90 percentile for the Verbal and Quant sections. Most schools don’t really care about the Writing section you get below 50 percentile.
Take the TOEFL/IELTs (required for some US and Canadian applications). It is relatively easy; not much preparation is required apart from taking a look at the sample tests to get a feel of the format and difficulty.
Write your Statement of Purpose (SOP). See section below
Write your research proposal (if applicable). Mostly only for UK programmes
Write your CV.
Get letters of recommendation (LORs) from your professors. See section below
Have enough money. You will need:
- 80-90 USD in application fees for each US (not sure about other countries) school you are applying to
- 190 USD for GRE
- 150 USD for Subject GRE – some schools require this
- 235 SGD for TOEFL 200 USD SEVIS fee for US Visa (after you get accepted)
- 224 SGD US Visa fee (after you get accepted)
- Around 100 SGD for miscellaneous fees like sending transcripts or sending GRE scores to more than 4 schools
How do I ensure that I get in?
You can’t. It’s not like undergrad where straight As will get you into most courses. You can, however, improve your chances.
Research and relevant experience.
- Since a PhD is about research, having prior experience with research is definitely a plus as this will show the admissions committee that you have an idea of what research entails and that you have the necessary skills to hit the ground running instead of wasting time learning how to use SPSS etc.
- How much research is enough? I would say 3 different labs would be the best since you would need 3 LORs. It might be a bad idea to do more than 3 if you would be stretching yourself thin and doing meaningless work and end up not learning anything useful or cultivating good relationships with your supervisors. A good idea would be to continue working with the professors in your lab modules/ UROPs. If you do two labs or UROPs or ISMs, you would have at least two sets of experiences and letters. The last one can come from RA-ing for another prof, either in school or in other research institutions such as Duke-NUS. Of course, you would have to work at a lab for a long enough period of time to actually learn something useful and to earn a strong enough letter from your supervisor, so it’s best to start early.
- The type of experience is also important. Grunt work such as data collection/ data entry is not really useful, but that’s where you generally have to start at. You should ask your supervisors for more responsibilities, such as compiling literature reviews or doing statistical analyses.
- I would recommend joining small labs so that you get more work to do, rather than being a small fry at a big lab doing grunt work. The admissions committee are looking out for the potential to be a productive PhD student, so being given more responsibilities is a huge plus to your application.
- Experience can come from labs that are not relevant, content-wise, to your field. The skills that you pick up are more important.
- Programming is a very good skill to have since it is increasingly relied upon in most research (even in psychology). For example, in psychology, this is one of the few skills that can make you stand out among other applicants since programming classes are not mandatory in many psych courses. Take some programming modules in school so you have something tangible to put on your CV. A good way to pick up programming would be to take CS1010S (you might have to appeal to get in though)
- The best outcome would be journal publications, but don’t worry if you can’t get any. Most people won’t have one at the time of application. Conference publications are generally good enough.
- If you’ve just graduated, find a job that can give you related experience. Research jobs will be the best, but at least find a job that is in your field.
- If you have a job in a non-related field (eg. You want to study cognitive psychology but are doing banking now), find a related job ASAP. Your job experience counts for nothing if it is not related (in any way) to the topic you want to study in grad school.
- If you can’t find a job in your related field, then you might want to do an internship/research assistantship for no pay if you really want to get into grad school.
Letters of recommendation (LORs).
- Strong LORs can offset less-than-ideal CAP/GRE scores. You will need 3 LORs for most programmes.
- Strong LORs are those which can vouch for your research capability (since that’s what you would be doing during your PhD). The best-case scenario is thus if all 3 letters come from professors you have done research within the past (e.g. lab modules, UROP, internship).
- If you can’t get 3 research-based letters, then the next best option is to get them from a professor whose class you excelled in or knows you well and can vouch for your ability. But, these letters usually carry little weight as these profs will have little to say beyond “they did well in the class” or “they asked good questions”.
- If you worked in a big lab in which you worked with a post-doc or grad student and contributed a lot, but rarely interacted with the professor, you can try asking the professor if s/he is comfortable with getting the post-doc or grad student to write the letter in the professor’s name.
- If you’ve already graduated, get your recommendation letters from your professors ASAP, before they forget who you are. It doesn’t matter if you are planning to take a year or two off before applying – your professors can write up the letter first and then you can get it from them next time
- Most people won’t have publications, but if you have one, it will be a significant boost to your application. Conferences are good, journal articles are even better (more so if you’re the first author).
- One way to boost this is to take a few years to do an RA or research masters. Depending on the programme/job, it might be better to do an RA because it’s easier to produce papers as you don’t have to worry about coursework/ time limits imposed by master’s programmes.
- A strong statement will get you noticed by the admissions committee. Try not to use clichéd lines such as “I’ve always been interested in Psychology since I was a child” or “I want to study Psychology because I want to make the world a better place” because everyone will be using those lines.
- Have an opening paragraph that is unique which will make the readers more interested.
- You should have a “master” personal statement which you can edit to fit the schools you are applying to.
- Then, look at the requirements and guidelines for each school you are applying to, and cater your statement to suit them.
- Some programmes will have unique features that you can talk about. Some stuff you can talk about would be teaching requirements, unique courses or programmes, the focus of the department, partnerships with research institutes or industry.
- Write concisely and clearly. There are only a handful of people on the admissions committee and they will be reading hundreds of statements. They are likely to just skim through your statement, so go straight to the point and don’t use complicated sentence structures.
- Get someone to proofread for you! This is especially important if you are an international applicant. Professors will be less likely to take a student with poor English abilities as that means they would have to spend time editing your manuscripts for grammatical errors etc.
- The personal statement is one of the most important parts of your application. I have a collection of websites on personal statement writing, as well as personal statements of those who got into top programmes. Listing them here would be too overkill, so please feel free to contact me for more information on how to write a good statement!
Good grades (high second-upper or first class).
- The application season is usually August – December, which means that the grades you submit to the schools will be your cumulative scores at Year 3 Sem 2 (not Y4S1 cause results will only be out like mid-December).
- It’s ok if you have had a bad start to your undergrad career. As long as there is some sign of improvement over the semesters, you will be fine. Also, you can take more higher-level or even graduate-level courses to show that you can handle challenging material.
- Grades are actually not that important if you have good LORs and research experience– you can get into good programmes even with a second lower.
- In fact, you won’t get into a programme even if you have a perfect CAP/GPA/GRE if you have zero experience and mediocre LORs.
- Grades are usually what determines who gets past the first cut. Most programmes will list the minimum degree class required. If you don’t meet the requirements, don’t worry – you can still get in. What you would have to do is to impress your POI so that s/he can help you bypass this first cut.
- This can be done by emailing your POI during/before the application season and talking to them about your research ideas.
Good GRE scores.
- Actually, GRE scores are not really important as long as you get above 85 percentile. A bad score (below 60 percentile I think) might keep you out, but a good score won’t get you in.
- It’s actually quite manageable if you study for it. You can get decent scores on the Quant section with just a few weeks’ practices – it’s like sec 4 math (thanks MOE!). The vocab part is really difficult though, so good luck with that. Message me if you’re preparing for the GRE – I have a lot of resources that you can use.
- Some schools require the subject GRE. Some schools don’t, but “highly recommend” that you take it. For the Psychology GRE, it is basically something like PL1101E. I had (and still have) almost no knowledge of the other branches of psych other than my area, and I wasn’t confident of acing the test, so I skipped it although it was “highly recommended” for a number of schools I was applying to. I was still accepted by these schools, so I think the subject GRE is only used as a sort of a tie-breaker, or to make up for poor overall GREs or CAPs/GPAs.
- If your professor is good friends with a professor you’re applying to work with, that’s a big plus. You can get your professor to introduce you to your POI, or simply write an email to say that you will be applying. At the very least, your application (out of a few hundred others) might be looked at more closely.
- For some schools, if you can secure funding from sources like A*Star or NUS or SingHealth etc., your chances of getting in are higher. I’ve also heard that it is easier to get into UK programmes if you have your own funding. One of the schools I applied to also told me that it would be easier to get in if I have my own source of funding.
- Most, if not all, outside sources of funding come with bonds. Do think carefully if you really want to be bonded.
Contact your Professor of Interest (POI)
- S/he might receive tens to hundreds of applications, so contacting them beforehand will help to get you noticed especially if you leave a good impression.
- As mentioned above, if your POI is interested enough in your application, they can speed up the process/ help you bypass certain requirements.
- See also the previous section on contacting professors.
Apply to a number of schools.
- Grad school application is mostly a crapshoot, with a lot of factors beyond your control. One way to ensure you get in at least somewhere is to apply to around 6-10 schools (which seems to be the norm).
- But, only apply to schools that you know you will want to attend. There is no point in applying for a school “just to be safe” if you know you won’t attend it if it were your only offer.
- CCA, leadership, volunteering etc. are actually mostly useless, unlike in undergrad or job applications. Your role as a PhD student is to produce research, and these are secondary to your “job description”. It won’t hurt (I think) to include these though (in your CV – not your personal statement), just to show you have some semblance of a life, but it definitely won’t be a point of consideration for the admissions committee. It might perhaps be used as a tie-breaker between you and someone else with similar credentials.
- Caveat: this advice is true for research programmes, but might not apply for programmes such as Clinical Masters where volunteering experience might give you an advantage.
Sample Application Timeline (or: when should I do what?)
- Research your list of potential POIs
- Start studying for GREs
- Start to narrow down your list of schools/POIs
- Start on your master SOP. It will take many revisions, so better start early.
- Take GRE before the semester (Y4S1) starts
- Applications usually open in August. Since different schools have different requirements, it would be a good idea to start creating applicant profiles on each school’s website so you can see the specific requirements. For example, some schools require you to have a list of modules that are related to your field of study, or writing samples, or research proposals etc.
- Finalize your CV. Add in anything you might have done during the summer break.
- Ask your professors for LORs. Do this by late October so that they have enough time to write a strong letter. Also, doing it early will help you avoid the mad rush from other students who are also looking for LORs (which are needed not just for grad school but also some job applications).
- Retake your GRE if needed
- Get in touch with your POIs to see if they are accepting students (see the sections above). This shouldn’t be done too early since they usually won’t know if they will have funding for students until later in the semester.
- Once you know which schools you are applying to, then start creating personalized SOPs from your master SOP.
- Send the necessary stuff (e.g. transcripts, GRE/TOEFL scores) over to your schools.
- Start finalizing your applications
- The deadline for most programmes is in early to mid-December
- Finalize and submit!
- Remember to check back every few days to see if all your application materials (GRE/TOEFL scores, LORs, transcripts) have been received by the school.
- Prepare for interviews. Usually around mid-Jan. Most likely done over Skype. Some programmes offer transport reimbursements for on-site interviews, but these might be insufficient. One way to do this is to combine all these little reimbursements from all your offers such that you have enough for a single trip, then do all your interviews during that single trip.
- There is actually a lot of preparation that has to be done for Skype interviews (too much to list here). Contact me if you need any advice!
- Final decisions (for most US schools) will be made by April 15.
If you get in:
Decide which school you are going to accept
- NEVERdo a PhD that is not funded! If you are offered a PhD without funding that probably means they don’t think you are a good fit (doesn’t mean you are not good enough). Also, the expenses are going to be very high (rent, food, insurance, travelling for conferences etc.)
- Is the funding offer good enough? Is it guaranteed for throughout the course of your study? Most programmes don’t offer to fund for summer. Will the funding for the rest of the 9 months be enough to last you the year?
- The location might also be important to some people. Do you want to be a cool kid in LA? Are you ok with freezing winters in Minnesota? Do you prefer a busy city like New York or Boston, or quiet college towns like Ithaca or Urbana-Champaign? Remember, you will be spending at least 5 years there.
- Consider also other factors such as the number of faculty in your area of interest (so you can collaborate with them), your POI’s working style (e.g. hands-off vs. micro-managing).
- Talk to your professors and get their opinions! They might have information that is not readily apparent (e.g. the POI’s attitude toward students, working style etc.)
- Once you have decided and accepted an offer, it is a basic courtesy to inform your other applications that you have made a decision and to withdraw your application.
- You might consider turning down an offer in order to re-apply next year to get into your top choice, but this can be risky. There’s no guarantee that the schools which accepted you this year will also accept you next year. Besides, you shouldn’t be applying to a school if you would not attend it anyway.
If you don’t get in:
- It’s not the end of the world. Grad school applications are somewhat random. For example, one POI told me that the division had fewer slots that year as more slots were given to new faculty from other divisions only after I submitted my application. Or, some professors decide to take a last minute sabbatical, or funding suddenly got cut etc. Such things happen, and they are out of your control. It doesn’t mean you are not good enough.
- You can email your POI to ask about your application, and what can be improved.
- The main reason for most rejections actually stems from lack of research experience, which leads to poor LORs and a weak personal statement (since you have nothing to write about). Some programmes might reject based on poor CAP/GPA. It is best to contact these programmes individually and see what can be done to offset this. Doing well in a master’s programme will often help to make up for poor undergrad grades.
- Rejections can also be due to a bad fit between your interests and the programme’s research focus. You will most likely be rejected from a programme focused on visual search if you state in your personal statement that you are interested in memory, especially if there is nobody doing a visual search in the school you’re applying to. This can also happen even if the two areas are somewhat (e.g. working memory vs. false memory).
The above sections can be expanded upon quite a bit more but I think that’s enough to give you a general idea on the graduate school application process. If you still need more info (especially about personal statements, research experience, choosing an advisor, interviews) feel free to contact me.
All the best!