Expert Advice on Applying to Doctoral and Postdoc Programs for Students from Underrepresented Groups (Part One)
This SPSPotlight article is part one of a series that aims to share learnings from top experts in academia on insights for students from underrepresented groups working on the upcoming doctoral and postdoctoral application season. There are difficult compromises and sacrifices that students from underrepresented or marginalized groups applying to historically White institutions may typically face. With this in mind, the SPSPotlight team recently surveyed experts from the personality and social psychology academic, institutional, and research industries. We’ve compiled a list of expert advice to help students from underrepresented or marginalized groups ace the upcoming doctoral application season.
In research and preparation for this two-part series, the SPSPotlight team surveyed SPSP members and several other division members in collaboration with Division 1, the Society for General Psychology, Division 35, the Society for the Psychology of Women, and Division 47, the Society for Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology. The survey was also shared on #AcademicTwitter and through @SPSPNews and @SPSPGSC. The response to the survey was surprisingly well received, and the expert advice shared for this article was over 10,000 words. In Part one, we will summarize the highlights and overall themes from our experts. In Part two, we delve deeper into advice from these experts for each underrepresented group, along with insights from SPSPotlight co-editor Fahima Mohideen.
The SPSP SPSPotlight team would like to thank all individuals and institutions who contributed to this article, with experts from University of Denver, University of Pittsburgh, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, University of Central Florida, University of Granada, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, University of Rhode Island, James Madison University, Rutgers University, DePaul University, Ithaca College, Saint Martin's University, Seton Hall University, Simon Fraser University, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, The University of Georgia, The University of Texas, Dallas, The University of Texas, El Paso, Queen's University Belfast, Walden University, and other survey participants from private practice or anonymous R1 institutions.
A recent journal article from SPSP’s Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin discusses the conflicting independent familial norms minority Latinx students face in addition to the paradoxical norms of interdependent college lives, creating complex dynamics for those “who negotiate in multiple social worlds” and describe this sense of being in-between their social cultures’ expectations or cultural affordances. For many students, especially those from underrepresented groups, this is a relatable context. The article cites Kingston, who shares that the process of expanding our cognitive learning is as large as the size of the universe to the extent that it will leave little “room for paradoxes.” As an older adult student with multiple layers of minority identities, I’ve realized that there’s nothing more powerful than personal development through higher education that defies these paradoxes. Higher education is crucial for future professional success at any age and from any background or identity. Having an advanced education is the best investment in yourself, despite any divergent factors that your environment, self, age, and life circumstances may dictate. In this two-part series, we aim to help motivate, inspire, and transform the path of your unique journey alongside expert advice and resources from the psychological sciences community.
Highlights and Findings
SPSPotlight surveyed the group of experts with sections on behalf of students from underrepresented backgrounds, including BIPOC and minority, international, individuals with disabilities, First Generation, LGBTQIA+, international, older adult learners, and the economically disadvantaged. The survey consisted of the following questions:
- What is your best advice for students from underrepresented backgrounds to succeed throughout the application process and beyond?
- Are there any helpful links for students from underrepresented backgrounds to apply to social psychology programs?
- Are you currently recruiting students for this round of doctoral applications?
- Does your institution or program provide remote or distance learning opportunities?
- Do you recommend mentorship opportunities, and if so, what is your best advice in seeking mentorship?
The following recommendations and advice were recorded from surveyed participants via a Qualtrics anonymous survey. SPSPotlight was delighted to hear from so many talented experts who graciously contributed their time to the article and the mission.
From some of these responses, there seemed to be a resounding ‘no’ as to whether their laboratory or academic programs were actively recruiting (or accepting) new students for this doctoral application cycle, with very few indicating active recruiting. There was another minor subset answering ‘maybe’ to this question, which is interesting to note. Additionally, approximately 42% of survey participants shared that their programs or laboratories were inclusive in representing underrepresented students or students from marginalized backgrounds.
Kevin Binning, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Psychology and lead at the Diversity and Equity Lab advises, “Don’t just join a lab” and alternatively, “Really try to learn what that lab is doing and why they are doing it, and practice communicating how your experience in that lab makes you a great candidate.” Dr. Binning shares, “Find an adviser who you trust and ask them to consult with you about your application strategies - how are you applying, how is your statement written” encouraging Veterans and Military student populations, “We need and value your experience and the perspective you bring.”
In the new educational era of generative AI in educational practices, Professor Marty Martin, PsyD, MPH, MSc of DePaul University shares, “Be sure that you have a stellar GPA and truly supportive, not ‘boilerplate’ letters of recommendations especially in this age of ChatGPT. If possible, join and be active as a member and leader if possible in student groups and even local/regional/national psychology associations.” Dr. Martin further emphasizes, “Again, make sure you have a SUPER HIGH GPA. Be sure that your letters of recommendation are superb and unique to you.”
Anonymia Unsigned, Ph.D. shares extremely valuable insights before applying for graduate schools, to “search for and apply to fellowships and scholarships for Ph.D. students of your background,” adding that “if you can bring in your own funding or partial funding, that will be a huge boost logistically.”
Dr. Pena-Shaff, Professor at Ithaca College, adds that it is important to “Seek help and advice from faculty; try even if you fail (that is learning too), create networks.”
Heidi A. Vuletich, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at the University of Denver who recommends that applicants “get as much feedback on your materials as you can! A great resource is the Application Statement Feedback Program (ASFP),” which provides candidates from underrepresented backgrounds with free feedback and support for writing personal statements. For Fall 2023 applicants, ASFP has an applicant interest form with more details and contact information for the program.
Dr. Michael Zarate, a professor from the University of Texas at El Paso, recommends goal-planning and states, “Make focused decisions. What do you want to accomplish, and how will any prospective mentors help you achieve that?”
A doctoral faculty member from Simon Fraser University, MT, Ph.D., shares an inspirational quote, stating, “it is more important and beneficial to find a compassionate supervisor than a supervisor whose area of research is exactly the same as yours,” and this is also a strong point to consider.
Clinical sport psychologist, Rob Smith. Ph.D. shares the importance of finding “the mentors you read about in articles” or books to “get to know their work, and if they share topics of interest to you, contact them directly and ask if you can have a brief conversation about their work and graduate program.” Dr. Smith states that this tactic will help you stand out because “you're more than a name to them and may even become an advocate for your admission if you apply.” Dr. Smith continues to encourage students to “seek scholarship awards from colleges and associations committed to supporting disadvantaged applicants” and to “seek grad programs offering stipends” while noting that some of these programs have “limited spots for qualified applicants.”
SPSP survey participants were asked specifically about students identifying as Americans with Disabilities and the disclosure of disabilities throughout the application process. The majority of those surveyed encouraged students with disabilities to disclose them and ask for necessary medical accommodations. However, some participants did mention a ‘50/50 chance’ when surveyed in the disclosure during the application question on this topic. From reading many responses, there are better odds of being your authentic self and identifying your needs. Many experts commented on this topic, and we will cover it in a future edition, Part two of the surveyed topics and questions deeper.
Rob Smith. Ph.D., adds a recommendation for students with disabilities that “the largest employer of sport psych professionals is the US Military - performance and mental health being their biggest area” and to “use your connections” such as contacting the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committees to “ask about leads for training to one day pursue work in the disabled athlete arena.”
Professor Efraín García-Sánchez, Ph.D., of the University of Granada, candidly shares that “many of the things that have helped me were due to being offered great development opportunities” and reminds of the importance of conducting “a very good search and trying to identify the places/people/teams that are likely to offer such an opportunity.” Dr. García-Sánchez emphasizes that “labs/teams that are fully committed to fostering diversity in academia and that have some records of underrepresented students on their team” and that “it's crucial to identify the right people and connect with them.”
Julie Prosser, Ph.D. in Applied Social and Health Psychology and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Saint Martin's University, shares important advice: “if your family cannot/does not support you, make sure you find a support network that will” adding the understanding that “your path through higher education may not look the same as others who have familial support or better knowledge of the system. And that's okay!” Dr. Prosser also recommends, “Pay attention to those who are willing to help, and reach out to see if they'd be okay being a mentor, in whatever capacity they are capable.”
Maggie Albright-Pierce, M.S., a Ph.D. student and instructor at Rutgers University shares, “Don't discount your experience in other areas of life” and recommends the Rutgers University Diversifying Psychology Day. Ms. Albright-Pierce shares that “those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds may have different or additional challenges in getting into graduate school,” including “from the start, nearly all schools require application fees. What you may not know is that some will waive those fees. Please be empowered to call and ask administrative assistants to see if this is an option. While applying, certainly look into schools that offer assistantships, tuition remission, and potentially even graduate housing.”
One of SPSP’s Student Committee’s own, Richard "Rich" Chang, M.A., currently completing a Ph.D. program at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, candidly shares, “My first advice is to get on academic Twitter” as “many scholars are actively sharing their research, scholarship opportunities, workshops, and recruiting students on Twitter.” Rich also adds, “I recommend working with other peers or friends who are applying for graduate studies. It is important to have community and support when navigating unknown terrain.” Rich adds that The Psychological & Brain Sciences Ph.D. Program is currently recruiting new students.
Nina Briggs, a doctoral candidate from Queen's University Belfast, mentions that her lab is currently recruiting new students and shares, “If you are going to a program in another country, it's worth reaching out to the careers center (or equivalent) as soon as possible to make sure that they have experience helping people apply to jobs in your home country and/or helping international students find jobs there.”
Patricia Monique Sanchez, a third-year doctoral student writes, “As a Hispanic woman in this field, one thing that helped me tremendously during my application cycle was to lean on my community. I learned about many of the programs I participated in and labs I worked in through peers. Another helpful thing is to always add yourself to listservs, it may cause heavy unnecessary emails, but you may also get helpful ones that lead you to new opportunities.”
Shanna Persin, a doctoral student at Walden University shares that “The pursuit of a graduate degree, particularly in the field of psychology, is a journey laden with both challenges and opportunities” and encourages you to “embrace your unique narrative.”
SPSP.org includes excellent resources in professional development and applying to graduate school in a series called Roadmap to Graduate School, with follow-up features on Acing Your Application hosted by Stylianos Syropoulos and Garam Lee from the SPSP Student Committee presented during a Free-Form Friday webinar session that you can watch here. Former SPSP Student Committee members Fernanda Andrade and Katie Austin also provided two presentation decks for the series, Getting Started with Your Applications and Acing Your Grad Application Resources.
SPSP’s roadmap to grad school includes suggested questions to ask during the interview sessions, the handbook and comprehensive guide Road Map to Graduate School in Social and Personality Psychology: A Guide for Students by Students, a flowchart to help decide if you want to apply to graduate school, or how to consider graduate programs and what to prepare for.
Professor Peggy Brady-Amoon, Ph.D. from Seton Hall University, shares her expertise with prospective students in her recent book, Building Your Career in Psychology, which was written to specifically support diverse student populations.
Dr. Amy Canevello is a professor and long-time faculty mentor at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the Department of Psychological Science. Dr. Canevello recommends the OSSI Institute at UNC Charlotte, which is an Organizational Science summer institute program designed by Dr. Shawn Long that is “aimed at providing students from underrepresented groups and underserved institutions with a crash course in getting into and surviving graduate school. The program tries to target students who are interested in org sciences (I/O psych, Org Comm, Sociology, and Management), but the typical cohort includes students with a wide range of interests. Details about the application and eligibility can be found here. Please contact Dr. Oscar Jerome Stewart if you would like more information.” Dr. Canevello also mentions, “We're always looking to expand recruitment for this program.”
Doctoral student Moses Rivera, M.S. from the University of Central Florida, recommends reading The Academic’s Handbook, 4th Edition by Flores and Olcott.
Supervised psychologist Rhea E. Nesbitt, MS, from James Madison University, shares a resource for tips on personal statement writing and adds, “Add eyes, voices, and accountability throughout the process. This means talking to your support network and reaching out to people in the institutions or your areas of interest. Use the community to review your materials, thoughts, and applications.” The resource also includes a Sample Personal Statement.
Opportunities Recruiting New Students from Underrepresented Backgrounds
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Diversifying Psychology Weekend
- The University of North Carolina at Charlotte: Dr. Shawn Long Organizational Science Institute
- University of California at San Diego: Diversifying Psychology Event
- Rutgers University: Diversifying Psychology Day
- University of Pittsburgh: LRDC Summer Internship at Pitt
- The Graduate Center, City University of New York: Basic and Applied Social Psychology
- The University of Nevada, Las Vegas: Gambling, Addictions, and the Marginalized Experience - GAME Lab
- The University of Nevada, Las Vegas: The Psychological & Brain Sciences Ph.D. Program
- Queen's University Belfast: Centre for Identity and Intergroup Relations
- The University of Georgia: Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology
- University of Granada: Programa de Doctorado en Psicología
Stay tuned to next month’s SPSPotlight Newsletter for Part two with a more individualized look into each expert's advice.
Be well, stay inspired, and get motivated!
Applying to Grad School. | SPSP. (2023). https://spsp.org/professional-development/graduate-school/applying-grad-school
Covarrubias, R., & Valle, I. (2023). In the In-Between: Low-Income Latinx Students Sensemaking of Paradoxes of Independence and Interdependence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672231180148
Roadmap to Graduate School: Acing Your Application. | SPSP. (2022). SPSP Free-Form Fridays. [Video]. https://spsp.org/professional-development/learning-online/roadmap-to-graduate-school-acing-your-application-2022
Roadmap to Graduate School: Acing Your Application. | SPSP. (2021). SPSP Free-Form Fridays. [Slides]. https://spsp.org/professional-development/learning-online/roadmap-graduate-school-acing-your-application