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For potential PhD applicants

Recommendations and Advice for Potential PhD Applicants

Dear prospective PhD student:

No matter how many years pass since I applied for PhD programs in psychology (to give you an idea just how many years it’s been, I completed my applications on a typewriter) I still vividly remember the process as both very stressful and very exciting. I was incredibly excited about doing graduate work and had tried to assemble the best application I could, but still found it dispiriting to boil down my accomplishments into a sterile little form with many spaces left blank (Peer-reviewed publications? None. Book chapters? None. Patents? None).

Many years later, I have now recruited and mentored many PhD students myself. I have also mentored dozens of undergraduates, many of whom have gone on to PhD programs. (Here are my wonderful mentees, past and present.) And I have reviewed countless applications for the PhD programs in the Department of Psychology, the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience, and the Interdisciplinary Program in Cognitive Science at Georgetown. All of this gives me a sense of the questions students have and the kinds of applications that tend to be successful.

In light of these experiences, here is my advice for you:

1. First, spend some time thinking about why you want to pursue a PhD in Psychology, Neuroscience, or Cognitive Science:

Worse reasons

  • You want a PhD to validate that you are a smart, worthy person
  • You love college and would like to remain on a college campus by any means possible
  • You aren’t sure what to do with your life, but liked your psychology classes 
  • You are passionate about making the world a better place and believe a PhD program is a good platform for advocacy work

 Better reasons

  • You have worked as a researcher in one or more psychology or neuroscience labs and loved the experience
  • You find yourself thinking about psychology-related research questions and how to answer them even in your spare time
  • You frequently find yourself gravitating to behavioral science-related news stories and wishing you had been the one conducting the exciting research you read about

PhD programs are research programs (I am not a clinician or in a program that offers clinical degrees, so I am not referring to such programs). Programs like ours use an apprentice model to train students to become behavioral scientists who are capable of conceptualizing, carrying out, analyzing, and interpreting original empirical research. Students also learn other skills relevant to becoming a university academic (in case that path appeals to them) such as teaching classes and performing service for the university and academic societies. You may be a good fit for a psychology PhD program if you have accrued enough experience doing empirical psychology or neuroscience research to know that you love it and have a knack for it. Enjoying and doing well in psychology classes is important, but it’s not enough. PhD programs require and reward very different skill sets than undergraduate coursework does. 

You should not apply for a PhD because you think it is the primary option (or the default option) for a smart, ambitious person hoping to make the world a better place. The world is full of ways for smart, ambitious people who want to make world a better place to do so: non-profit organizations, think tanks, government agencies, K-12 schools, and industry. Most of these organizations do not require you to have a PhD. If you want to do advocacy work, there is no need (and often no benefit) to get a PhD first—just go right into that line of work!

In general, I only recommend people apply to PhD programs if their dream is to pursue the kind of work you have to have a PhD to pursue.

2. Determine which PhD programs to apply to

There are around 200 PhD programs in psychology in the United States alone, and many other fantastic programs around the world. Each generally accepts only a small percent of applicants. There is no hard and fast rule about how many programs you should apply to, but nearly everyone applies to at least 5, and often 10 or more (I applied to 10 and was accepted to 8). It depends somewhat on how strong your application is and how set you are on attending a dream program versus any program.

To help you narrow down your list, I recommend the following steps:

  • Identify researchers whose work excites you. Look back through the journal articles you have read recently that you found the most exciting. Who conducted that research? Usually, the last author listed is the Principal Investigator (PI), or the person who helmed the work. Those PIs are a great first start (If you have not read any journal articles recently that you found exciting, do not apply to a PhD program!)
  • Talk to your research mentors. (If you don’t have any, do not apply to a PhD program—your odds of being admitted are slim to none.) Tell your mentors what your goals are and ask them what programs they would recommend based on your interests and skills and the strength of your application. They will often have useful insights into the strengths and weaknesses of different programs and mentors. For example, sometimes people who do great research have reputations for not being great mentors. (My wonderful undergraduate mentor Bob Kleck gave me invaluable warnings to avoid a couple of people.)
  • Focus on both the mentor and the program. A good rule of thumb is to identify 5-10 programs to apply to (many programs, including ours, reduce or drop application fees if the cost is prohibitive to you), and at least 2 potential mentors in each. The most important decision you will make is who your PhD mentor will be. I followed this advice—my PhD mentor, Nalini Ambady, was such a notoriously effective mentor that the SPSP mentoring excellence award is named in her honor. Things to consider include: Is your potential mentor publishing consistently? Have they mentored PhD students? Have those students been publishing and getting grants? Have any gone on to successful research careers (this is only relevant if the mentor is more senior)? A good mentor prioritizes mentorship and their trainees’ success, and you should be able to find evidence of that. 
  • When it comes to picking a program, there are many variables to consider. Prestige is only one, but there is an adage that PhDs rarely get tenure-track jobs at programs that are stronger than the program where they got their PhD, and research seems to back this up. Obviously, there are exceptions! But stronger PhD programs tend to have advantages that help launch PhD students, including more resources to support PhD students and post-doctoral researchers who produce consistently excellent research. How much should you focus on other details like the university and city where the program is located, or the funding package? These are personal decisions that reflect what you care about. You should generally expect to have your tuition and stipend covered by your program, although different programs provide different levels of support. Well-meaning family members sometimes encourage applicants to prioritize compensation and benefits as they would for a salaried job (because in a salaried job one’s starting pay determines future pay). Again, this is a personal decision. But keep in mind that your PhD stipend has no bearing on your future pay, whereas the quality of the research you publish does.

3. Contact potential mentors

Once you have narrowed down a list of potential programs and mentors, send each mentor a brief, professional email expressing your interest in their lab and asking if they will be accepting students in the upcoming application cycle. I recommend sending these emails in the summer or fall before you plan to apply.

In general:

  • Get right to the point and ask if they will be accepting PhD students next year.
  • Briefly describe your experience and interests to make it clear why you are interested in their lab in particular
  • Attach your CV (for advice on putting together a great CV, see this explainer).
  • I recommend against asking them to meet with you one-on-one. I have policy against meeting with prospective applicants one-on-one (via phone, Zoom, or in person) because I have never found these meetings helpful, and I don’t have time to meet with all potential applicants, which creates equity issues.

Here is a template for a good email along these lines (loosely adapted from emails I received from my own PhD students):

Dear Prof. [name],

I hope you are well. I am writing to ask if you are planning to take on a new PhD student in the [year] academic year? If so, I would be excited to apply to work with you.

I received my BA in [major] from [school] in [year]. Since then, I have been serving as a full-time laboratory manager for [mentor/program], where I have been [a few details about research experiences]. I have been continuing to develop my skills in [skills you have learned].

I have never been more certain that I am ready to begin a PhD program in psychology, where I hope to pursue research on [topics], which is why I would be particularly interested in joining your lab. 

I have attached my updated CV. Thank you very for your consideration!



Be sure to send a brief note of thanks when they respond. (If they don’t respond right away, don’t take it personally. Most professors are swamped with emails and messages get lost in the shuffle sometimes. Just send a brief follow up a week or two later if you don’t get a response.) If they are not accepting applications, take them at their word and do not apply to their lab that year! If they are taking students, confirm that you are looking forward to applying.

4. Assemble a great application 

Keep in mind that when you become a PhD student, you typically become part of a lab’s research team. Nearly all research in the behavioral sciences (and certainly all research in my lab) is conducted by teams of people—from 2 to several dozen or more—each contributing unique ideas, insights, skills, and effort. This will give you some insight into what makes for a great application. You are trying to make the case that you will be the most passionate, capable, prepared member of your lab’s research team that your mentor could find. A great application will include:

  • Evidence of strong background knowledge. As you know, scientific accomplishments are only possible because we all stand on the shoulders of giants—researchers whose past discoveries have enabled us to ask new questions and apply new methods. You must have strong background knowledge to know what questions to ask and what tools you can use to answer them. This is best illustrated by excellent grades in your psychology coursework, which shows you learned the material well—and that you are a conscientious person who cares about doing well and can effectively organize your time and effort to do so.
  • Evidence of ample prior research experience. You must have had enough research experience to know that you enjoy research and are good at it! Many people like the idea of research, but they don’t love doing it. That’s fine! Better to find out before you commit to a PhD program. Most PhD applicants start doing research as undergraduates and then pursue research as a full-time research assistant or lab manager or master’s degree student. A few make the jump to a PhD program straight from their undergraduate program, but that is an exception. There is no single path, but you should have at least 2 years research experience working for multiple mentors, which will help you build the skill set you will need to succeed as a PhD student. If you can present a scholarly poster or, even better, co-author one or more publications based on your research, even better. Presentations and papers aren’t required to be admitted, but they are helpful evidence of your ability to make intellectual contributions to research. 
  • Glowing letters of recommendations. Ask your research mentors for letters in plenty of time—at least a month before they are due. Once a letter is written it’s easy to submit it to multiple programs, so don’t worry about how many you need to ask each letter writer for. I generally recommend sending your letter writers your CV and a bulleted list of your research experiences and accomplishments to help jog their memory with the kind of specific details that will help them write a great letter. If you only have two research mentors, asking an instructor who knows you well and can evaluate your critical thinking, writing skills, and personal qualities is also OK. I recommend against asking for letters from faculty who only interacted with you in a large lecture class. They rarely can provide the kinds of details that make for a good letter.
  • A compelling personal statement. A compelling personal statement should be just that—personal. It should be constructed as a narrative. Many good letters begin with a vivid account of how the writer first came to the area of research they seek to pursue, and then a description of the research experiences they pursued (with clear causal explanations of how each led to the next) that enabled them to learn key skills and knowledge and ultimately resulted in the choice to pursue research in the lab they are applying to so that they can go on to pursue their goals. (I recommend you write slightly different, tailored statements for each application you submit, because your research would be different in each lab, and you want to make it clear to each mentor who reads your statement why you want to work specifically with them.) Throughout, the writer’s specific intellectual contributions to research projects they have worked on should be highlighted. The tone should be neither dry nor too informal. Here is a great article on writing personal statements. 

A note: Applicants are sometimes encouraged to focus on experiences of adversity in their personal statements. I don’t discourage this, but adversity should not be the focus except to highlight anything unusual you needed to overcome to achieve what you have accomplished. But the main emphasis should be your accomplishments and future goals. And avoid very personal or intimate details. (Here is a more detailed description of these and other “kisses of death” that can doom graduate applications.)

  • Strong GRE scores. Not all PhD programs require GRE scores now, but nearly all programs consider them. I recommend you take the GRE and aim to do as well as possible. If your background in psychology is weak or spotty (for example, you didn’t major in it), also consider the Psychology GRE subject test. The GRE will be especially helpful if you an international applicant or if you trained in programs that are less well-known. Many graduate mentors (just like anyone else hiring applicants) favor applicants from their personal network. Standardized tests were first created to allow “out-of-network” applicants to get noticed even if they didn’t attend prestigious schools or work with famous mentors—and they still serve this purpose today. (Don’t bother with LinkedIn! Academics do not rely on it.) The bulk of the research indicates that well-validated psychometric tests like the GRE predict graduate school outcomes as well as or better than other components of the application, and may be the least biased component of an application. (This is why our program voted to continue requiring them.) 

A note: No need to sign up for an expensive prep program. There’s no evidence they help any more than the inexpensive prep books or free online programs, plus taking practice exams. (That’s what I used.) Also, ETS offers need-based fee reductions to take the GRE.

5. Final notes on submitting your applications

Be kind to yourself, and give yourself plenty of time! You will want a few weeks to revise and proofread your personal statements, CV, and the application forms. Don’t leave things until the last minute lest you be hit by a network outage or computer crash. Many programs are strict about deadlines. 

Finally, I wish you lots of luck in the pursuit of your scholarly goals. Remember, there is a lot of luck and serendipity involved in whether a particular applicant is accepted any given year to any given program. Whatever happens, you will have plenty of interesting and fulfilling opportunities in your future. Any given PhD program’s decision is not an indicator of your worth as a person or a potential researcher!

Message Dr. Marsh