Post Bacc/PhD Cognitive Psych Applicant Advice?

Hey y’all! I’m hoping some grad students might be able to share their experiences with me and what they believe would be a good move for me! I would ideally like to apply to cognitive psychology PhD programs in the Fall, but I’ve been considering post bacc programs because of my lack of research experience. I would like to know what y’all would suggest I do! Here’s my background:

I’m currently a third year undergrad studying for a bachelor’s in psychology. I am in the honors program and I am taking a few honors psychology courses (cognitive psych being one of them). I am very involved on campus as a member of our student government and I am on the executive board of my sorority. I also have a position as a campus manager for a clothing company. I will be joining a lab in the Fall, and start assisting in some lab research in the Summer. Apart from that, I will be conducting my own research during a capstone project in the Fall and for my honors thesis. Before my time at my current institution, I was a biology major (but I wanted to switch to psychology because I found that I was no longer interested in biology). During my time there, I had a very personal event that really impacted my studies and inspired me to pursue psychology.

I’m hoping anyone could give me some insight on what my next move should be? My ultimate goal is to obtain a PhD and to become a professor because my passion is teaching. I have tutored students ever since I was in high school and that has really impacted my career goals but learning about psychology has really made me want to conduct my own research and contribute to the field :smiley:

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If you have a high gpa and expect strong recommendations and test scores (assuming they come back), I think you should apply to phd programs and some master’s programs for safety.

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thanks for your response! I plan on my GPA being around a 3.4 or above when I graduate, which is most likely low for the average admitted student; however, I do have multiple circumstances that have impacted my ability to acquire a higher GPA. I plan on my recommendations being pretty strong- with one of them being the professor whose lab I will be joining in the summer/fall and whose class I’m taking. as for test scores… we’ll see haha! but thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my post with your feedback and advice, I really appreciate it! :smiley:

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Hey there @ama1999! I have a PhD in a different field of psychology.

Research experience is one of the most important - if not the most important - component of your applications for PhD programs in psychology. A PhD is a research degree, and it takes on average about 6 years to earn - a significant chunk of your life. Furthermore, your education is usually funded at this level; you’ll receive a fellowship that’ll cover your tuition and fees as well as a modest living stipend (usually around $30-35K these days). So that means that professors want to make sure that students

  1. have potential to succeed in academic research, both as a graduate student and later as an independent researcher; and
  2. know what they are getting themselves into for the long haul - know that they already love research.

The best way to determine that is by looking at the student’s prior research experience. So students who have some experience assisting a professor or other psychological researcher are most competitive for slots in PhD programs, and it is pretty rare for someone to get accepted with no research experience. Since you’ll be starting in your lab at the same time that you start applying for programs, you won’t really be able to get a recommendation from the professor or talk about your lab experience in your applications. Put frankly, you would not be a very competitive candidate for PhD programs in psychology if you apply this fall, even with a high GPA and test scores.

However! You’re on the right track, thinking about getting research experience in your final year of college and also in pursuing post-baccalaureate programs that will prepare you for a research career.

If I were you, I’d focus my energies on finding post-baccs or thinking about getting a job as a lab manager at a university psychology lab, which are the kinds of experiences people often have post-college to make them competitive for such programs. If there are 2-3 PhD programs that really call to you - the research is just perfect and the program makes you excited - you might consider applying to them just to see. (You never know, right?) But realistically, you’ll be much more competitive if you get 1-2 years of research experience after college

As a side note, all of your extra-curriculars are wonderful and I hope you keep doing them! But they won’t affect admissions to a PhD program in psychology very much. Additionally, I had a 3.4 GPA in undergrad as well. Make sure that you have a professor who can testify that your grades were impacted by a major event and that you have a higher potential - it helps a lot.


Thank you so much for your response! I’ve been looking at post-bacc programs and I think I’ll still apply to a few PhD programs (since I get fee waivers). :smiley:

I was thinking with a gpa of 3.9 and 170 GRE they might overlook the lack of research of experience, with a 3.4 probably not.

Even with a 3.9 they won’t overlook the lack of research experience. Research is the heart and core of a PhD program and a career as an academic, which - for better or worse - most professors will assume that you are attempting to pursue (and that they are training you for). Strong academic performance is important, but not all A students like research or want research careers.

With a 3.9 you might get away with less research experience, but most PhD programs would rather admit a student with a 3.5 and 2-3 years of experience than a student with a 3.9 and no research experience.

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Maybe it is different in psych than stem, but so many schools tried to recruit my kid because of test scores. Would they have rejected her if she had applied with no research experience? Maybe, but I doubt it. Those schools were singularly interested in stats.

Just checked, some were guaranteed funding and admission.

This is the key that most students miss on this board. You don’t vet PhD programs by the school names. The accomplishments that would stand out on an undergraduate application don’t matter on PhD applications.

You look for professors doing research in the area that you are interested in, ideally in line with research you’ve already done.

As @juillet mentioned, you’ll be at this a LONG time. You don’t want to be doing something you don’t like, working with someone you don’t like or heaven forbid…both.

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It depends on the STEM field, but it’s not different in STEM.* Research experience is still all but required. I’m not saying that no student has ever gotten into a PhD program without research experience, but I do want students to know that it is a rare, uncommon thing so that they don’t have unrealistic expectations when applying.**

Yes, some schools do try to cast a wider net by going after students who get high test scores - they sometimes procure lists from ETS and use that information to recruit students. But test scores are the least important part of a PhD application - particularly now, when so many programs are waiving test score requirements. A PhD program that is singularly interested in stats is suspect, IMO.

*The exception I’ve learned about from our math folks here is pure math, and perhaps that extends to some other theoretical fields. But any lab research fields are going to expect you to have lab research. A PhD program is like being an apprentice; they are dropping $$$$ on you every year, and they want some reasonable assurance that you know what you’re getting into and won’t quit 6 months in.

**And quite frankly, even if you could get into a PhD program without research experience…I wouldn’t recommend it! You’d be behind the rest of your cohort and the other PhD students in your lab - heck, you’d be behind some of the undergraduate RAs. You’d have to ramp up very quickly; it’d be added pressure on top of just adjusting to the pace of graduate school and the new expectations. You should get research experience not just because it’ll help you with admissions; you should get research experience because you love research and you want to learn its norms and foundations so you can excel at it!

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For graduate school? Most engineering programs set a softish threshold for GRE and could really care less about test scores beyond that. They care about GPA, research and LORs.

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