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How competitive is my grad app (cognitive psych PhD)

ThatstudentguyThatstudentguy Registered User Posts: 2 New Member

Dear Fellow Users,

I'm looking for some feedback on the competitiveness of my graduate school application (for psychology). The following are the specs:

Cum GPA: 3.6+ (achieved 4.0 for past 5 semesters. Near 4.0 cumulative when subtracting freshman year. Also, achieved A+ in two graduate level stat courses. Am taking another graduate course in my final semester.)

Psych GPA: 3.98 (42 credits)

GRE: 157 in both V and Q. 5 on AW.

I have been working in two cognitive labs for 2.5 years (one learning and the other memory).

Completed a senior honors thesis in the learning lab and am now working on a second follow-up study.

I've also designed and am still currently running a separate independent study in the memory lab.

I've presented two posters (one at the Association for Psychological Science and the other at my university's undergrad symposium) and one talk (given at Midwestern cognitive science conference).

The lab directors of the above labs will write me excellent letters. The other letter will come from one of my grad stats professors who was on my thesis committee.

I also have limited teaching experience: substituted an undergrad stat lab once, and led preexam study sessions for an experimental psych class.

I've also been employed in the learning lab one summer in the past.

Have received two grants (one for undergrad research and another for traveling to present said research).

I am graduating and applying in December and am interested in studying spatial ability and it's relevance in educational settings, mainly STEM fields.

Any feedback and/or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Best regards,


Edit: My GRE scores are likely the weakest part of my app. How badly will this affect my overall app?

Replies to: How competitive is my grad app (cognitive psych PhD)

  • juilletjuillet Super Moderator Posts: 11,783 Super Moderator
    One of my close friends did her graduate work investigating spatial learning in educational settings, particularly STEM (physics). She went to UCSB for her graduate work, so I'd check that program out if you haven't already.

    You are a good candidate, but a pretty 'average good' candidate if you know what I mean. In other words, while in general there's nothing in your application that would definitely keep you out of a program (maybe your GRE scores), you sort of fit the average to slightly above-average profile of a good PhD candidate in psychology. So it's really all going to come down to fit with your department.

    Make sure you write a really good statement of purpose and that your recommendation letters are very strong!

    If you can, try to retake the GRE. A 157 on both sections is pretty low - it's barely above the minimum my graduate program recommended (155 in each section).
  • mommyrocksmommyrocks Registered User Posts: 1,217 Senior Member
    edited August 2017
    I recently scoped out the admissions requirements of a few science PhD programs for my daughter to consider. While they were not in cognitive psychology, my takeaway was that the requirements can vary significantly from one program to the next.

    Some universities will not review her application if she has not first contacted professors there and gotten one to agree to be her sponsor. Others don't even want her to contact a professor at all. Some require a 3.5 or higher GPA, and others only require a 3.0 minimum. Some care a lot about GRE scores, and others don't. Some have long lists of specific courses they expect her to have taken, and others are much more flexible. Some require an interview in person, and some don't. Many of the websites gave a lot of good tips for what makes up a great application. I wound up starting an Excel chart with notes about all of these requirements along with the tips, so my daughter can use it next year (she's a junior this year).

    What I'm saying is that how competitive you are depends on where you are applying, who the other applicants are, and how much you fit what a particular PhD program has described as its ideal applicant, and also how your research interests align with one or more professors (that have funding). If an interview is required, it can also depend on how well that goes. Admission might also depend heavily on your statement of purpose, and how well you convey the fit of your interests with a particular program's interests.

    If a program requires you to contact a professor before applying, or if they strongly recommend that, then be sure to do that as soon as possible. Keep in mind that admissions rates to PhD programs typically range from 5% to 15% -- much lower than admissions to most bachelor's degree programs.

    Overall I think you have achieved a lot. Excellent work on the grades and research experience and posters! My first thought in looking for any weaknesses was that you have not published research in a peer-reviewed journal yet, and some of your competitors will have done that already. I also didn't see you mention any leadership roles or volunteer roles, such as science outreach to the public and/or contributing to your university.

    Be sure to apply to some "safeties." I say that loosely, because it isn't clear to me that there even is such a thing as a safety when applying to PhD programs. It is not uncommon for someone to be denied admission everywhere they apply, and then they have to wait and reapply later. Hopefully you will have good luck and have a choice of places to go!
  • ThatstudentguyThatstudentguy Registered User Posts: 2 New Member
    Thank you for your helpful feedback! I have been contacting POIs and it had been going pretty well. Some programs recommend doing so while others may not speak to the matter. However I find it necessary to contact them with regard to whether or not they are accepting apps, especially given that applications are time and resource consuming. I don't have a publication as of yet, however I'm preparing a manuscript for submission based on my thesis data and some follow-up work.

    I agree with you that competitiveness and weight given to different parts of apps largely varies by program. Some admissions sites are clearer than others on this matter.
  • juilletjuillet Super Moderator Posts: 11,783 Super Moderator
    As far as safeties go - there's really not such a thing as "safeties" in the traditional sense, in that no PhD program is truly safe as to guarantee admission, but competitive applicants can apply to less selective programs to raise their chances of getting into a program. I am personally against the idea of safety programs in PhD admissions for a couple of different reasons (which I'll address below). But it's not a bad strategy if you really want a PhD.

    Most people's conceptions of a safety is a program that is a less-good fit but has a lower level of selectivity to enhance chances of getting in. But most people who aim for PhD programs in non-clinical fields of psychology (and most fields, really) are aiming to enter academia or have some kind of research career, and the reputation and prestige of your program and advisor really matters in that process. In some really competitive fields, only graduates of the top programs get tenure-track jobs, and the rest toil in adjunct positions or leave the profession altogether. For some, it may be better to spend the 7 years of your life doing something else than going to a low-ranked program and not really ever being competitive for academic jobs. In other fields that are sort of less cutthroat right now, going to a lower-ranked program may keep you out of the running for the best academic jobs but still leaves some open to you and more opportunities outside of academia. I think this is where cognitive psychology sits.

    So I think it's really up to you. My personal opinion, when I was applying to PhD programs, that if I could not go to the perfect PhD program and study exactly what I wanted to study, I'd rather spend 5-6 years of my life doing something else and go into another career. In my eyes, I thought, what was the point of spending the time doing research on stuff I wasn't actually interested in?

    But I know other people who would rather spend the time in a program that was a good fit instead of a great fit, and get the PhD, and spend their postdoc years or early years in academia working their way back to what they really wanted to do. It's just a personal decision - I'm not saying mine is the most right one by any means.
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