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Find news and insights from the SPLAT Lab here! Written by Lab Director Craig Rodriguez-Seijas, PhD
May 19, 2021
On the First Cycle of Graduate Admissions to the SPLAT Lab 2021: Lessons Learned on the Academic Road
As some of you may know, this was the first year that I went through the graduate admissions process in attempts to attract a PhD student to work under my direct supervision. I wanted to provide some of my own personal thoughts on things that came up on my end during the process. I hope that this will provide a bit more clarity for applicants and can be helpful for anyone considering applying to work with me in the future, and hopefully for those thinking about graduate school in Clinical Psychology more broadly. It is important for me to note that these thoughts only apply to me. I cannot speak for other PIs. But what I can do, and what I feel comfortable doing, is elucidate some of the things that went through my mind during this process.
A Beautiful Curse
Going into the admissions process, as a first-year Assistant Professor, I was pleasantly overwhelmed to find that >130 persons applied to work with me specifically. I honestly expected not even half that number of applicants. Many people have spoken about the increase in admissions for graduate school this past year, and we here at UM saw a more than doubling of applicants in general. I say this was both beautiful and a curse because I was able to read the information about so many wonderful applicants, many of whom would surely make fine scientists in the field, and because it was time-consuming and certainly difficult to narrow down applicants for decision-making purposes. Additionally, it created an immense sense of guilt on my own part knowing that (1) I only have funding to accept one student, (2) I wanted to make decisions in the most equitable manner possible, and (3) figuring all of this out was quite the task.
Making Sense of it All
Let me provide you all with a little insider information on how I went about trying to make sense of this all. Below were the things I looked for in the applications process:
- Research Fit
The biggest deciding factor was research fit. And this was the most important piece for me for several reasons. As an early career faculty member, who is currently in the process of building my lab and research program, it is important most of all to have a mentee who would be interested in the types of research that I do. A large question in my mind when thinking about fit was: Will this person enjoy working with me and on these projects? With such a large pool of applicants, I was fortunate to be able to think in a relatively fine-grained manner about fit. In terms of fit, what stood out to me when reviewing statements of purpose was the extent to which applicants could effectively explain how their own research interests aligned with the work that I tend to do. So how did I go about doing this? I literally created an excel spreadsheet where I color coded (low, medium, good, excellent) my impression of students’ interests in things I considered important (e.g., SGM interest, BIPoC interest, Diversity focus/commitment, Interest in statistical modeling approaches). Note: When I say fit I do not mean wanting to do the exact same things that I do necessarily, but instead wanting to work on research that both fits with what I do, and in the cases where it expands some of my own interests, would still be things I feel I can effectively mentor (i.e., facilitate data use, collaborations with peers, etc). From that initial color-coded spreadsheet, I narrowed down from >130 to a “short” list of ~60, and then to a “shorter” list of ~20, to a “shorterer” list of 9 applicants [all of whom I met with to chat a bit more], and then a final “shortest” list of 4 applicants to interview “in person” (see virtually). So, this meant reviewing, re-reviewing, re-re-reviewing, and finally re-re-re-reviewing applicant materials along the way. I also had the fortune of having another professor and a current graduate student review my applicants to ensure that there weren’t applicantions that would be important to review that I might have missed. I say all this to really drive home how much time and energy was spent making these decisions.
2. Statements of Purpose
There was a very specific reason I spent a lot of time putting together documents on the website with example SOPs (for a review, see here and here). One of the things I personally weighted highly was the SOP. The way I looked at it was this was the part where the applicant could tell me, in their own words, about their interests and why they’d want to work with me. To clarify: I looked at all parts of everyone’s applications. But I personally found most enjoyment from reading the SOPs. I would really reiterate looking at the examples that we’ve provided, and which I will continue to update, to see how to craft these.
3. On Prior Research Experience
Prior research experience is certainly something helpful. However, I did not eliminate students with relatively less experience outside of their undergraduate training. Indeed, as I read applications, the thing I was trying to understand and decipher is (apart from research fit), does this person know what they’re getting into with a PhD? Do they have the types of skills that would also be helpful for graduate school (e.g., persistence, critical approach to thinking about scientific topics)? Again, to clarify I don’t expect students to come in as fully formed scientists. Indeed, the point of graduate school is training and learning. So, on my end, it was the delicate balance of being able to decipher genuine interest in this content material and some familiarity with the expectations that come with graduate training. While graduate school can certainly be an enjoyable process, it takes a lot of hard work and persistence, and is mainly about working behind the scenes completing projects. Some candidates whom I shortlisted and interviewed had much less prior research experience than others, and this was where Rec Letters and SOPs gave me the additional information to understand that the applicant possessed the interest and skills, and that their CV does not reflect their interest or potential in the field. I personally took those clarifications very seriously, knowing my own history with applying to graduate school. Similarly, for students with a wealth of prior research experience, I also took into consideration the extent to which happenstance and luck contributed to that (e.g., having access to opportunities based on their undergraduate institution’s clout or other such factors that aren’t necessarily related to the individual and are more structurally related to privilege). My personal goal was not to find the student with the most experience to make my life easier, but to balance research interest and many other factors to make a shortlist of students I felt I would be capable of mentoring and helping to develop into clinical psychological scientists (which could take many forms).
4. Coming Out
Perhaps it’s by virtue of my focus on SGM populations, perhaps it’s my own openness about my status, and perhaps it’s an interaction of the two, but something that I noticed in reading applications was that there seemed to be a trend where applicants might have felt a need to come out in their applications to justify their interest in the field (be it SGM or BIPoC identities, or regarding mental health challenges). I want to address this specifically here. While I was very open about my sexual orientation when applying to graduate school too, I in no way feel a need for students to out themselves to justify their interest in any of the topics I study. To clarify: In no instances did this detract, in my eyes, from applicants’ applications. However, there is an uncomfortable feeling that the ways in which graduate school admissions work, students from underrepresented and minoritized groups might feel particular pressure to reveal details that are not expected of students from more privileged sociodemographic groups. In particular, when applying to work with me, as someone who is interested in studying these underrepresented populations, this pressure might be exacerbated. In my opinion, if you’d like to reveal such information in your application I have no problem with it. Simultaneously, if you’d like to NOT reveal such information, I still have no problem with it. I totally understand how stating one’s personal affiliation can be related to one’s interest in the field (hey it’s the case for me!). From the admissions standpoint, research fit was much more important than knowing this information for decision-making purposes. Again, to reiterate, outing yourself in any environment is a deeply personal decision, and whether you choose to or not will have no bearings on how I evaluate your admissions materials.
Addendum: It is entirely acceptable to use this sort of information as a way to gauge the extent to which an institution is welcoming and cares about/for people from minoritized backgrounds. I also want to reiterate my personal commitment to these discussions and advocating for my own students. This portion is more about the potential for a disproportionate expectation that falls on the shoulders of folks from already marginalized groups.
These are some of the big things I thought could be helpful for students to know about the process that I haven’t already addressed in other materials on this website.
A Word to Students Who Were Rejected
Rejection hurts. I had several students reach out to ask for individualized feedback on ways to improve their application materials in the future. While I would love to be able to meet with everyone to give personalized feedback, I honestly just don’t have the resources to do so for >130 persons. I wrote this with the hopes that it could help students understand a bit more of the expectations for admissions.
Here are two common things that did detract from applications.
A. There were several students who applied with seeming more interest in my mentoring style (as I put on the website), rather than substantive overlap of research interests. Students with absolutely no interest in SGM populations, for example, were not shortlisted. Now I also do work on dimensional models, but I am increasingly moving toward critically studying dimensional models and how they relate to minoritized groups. Hence, a lack of interest in underrepresented groups, particularly when many others possess this interest, would lead to an applicant not being shortlisted.
B. Students whose SOPs were vague and generic, rather than tailored to helping me understand our common interests, were not shortlisted. Again, remember that I, and any PI, have very little information to know and understand your research interests. My advice: Be Specific. Help me understand how my mentorship can help you advance your scientific goals.
One thing that’s difficult to convey in this blog post is that, apart from the other tips I provided on the Resources page of this website, the admissions process really boiled down to sifting through many qualified applicants. There is no way for you, or I, to know what sorts of information is coming from any applicants. What I can provide, and hope that this helps with, is more information on what I am looking for when I review applicants. I am absolutely certain that the 9 applicants I chatted with (and many others too whom I didn’t chat with) would all have been successful scientists and would have flourished under my mentorship. What I end with suggesting is using these and many other resources available to tailor your applications in the best ways possible to really help any PI know why you want to work with them.
I sincerely hope this can be helpful in some small way.
April 13, 2021
Welcome to the Stigma, Psychopathology, and Assessment (SPLAT) Lab Blog.
My intention is to use this space to communicate news, insights, and other things through the SPLAT Lab website. Truthfully, I created this in order to be able to create a post with a lot more information about my own experience as a first-year faculty members going through the graduate school admissions process for the first time. Stay tuned for a post with some of my thoughts on the process, as well as potential tips from my own experience navigating the very difficult process of selecting and attracting a graduate student trainee to work with me.