This SPSPotlight article is part two of a series, "Expert Advice on Applying to Doctoral and Postdoc Programs for Students from Underrepresented Groups," providing detailed results from our recent SPSPotlight survey. Part one is available here. This guide advises prospective graduate students from underrepresented or marginalized groups on navigating the application process and succeeding. This summer, we surveyed community experts from SPSP and other APA members in collaboration with the Society for General Psychology,the Society for the Psychology of Women, and the Society for Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology.

The community expert survey included questions specifically for eight different categories of underrepresented students – Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and other racial minorities, veterans and military, students with disabilities, first generation, LGBTQIA+, international, older adult or career change, and the economically challenged. This SPSPotlight guide was created from qualitative data analysis of community experts' survey results for each category. Stay tuned for more details and insights from this report in future issues of SPSPotlight.  

BIPOC and Other Racial Minorities

Top Themes

Based on responses provided by academic experts, the top application themes for prospective graduate students from BIPOC or other racial minority groups include:

  • Research interests aligned with diversity and inclusivity: Prospective students should clearly articulate how their research interests align with promoting diversity and inclusivity in psychology (e.g., addressing the needs of marginalized populations, and challenging systemic biases).
  • Community involvement and advocacy: Experts encourage highlighting your involvement in community organizations, advocacy groups, or initiatives that promote diversity and inclusivity in psychology that demonstrate a commitment to creating positive change (e.g., working with marginalized communities advocating for mental health).
  • Mentorship and collaboration: Seek opportunities for mentorship and collaboration with individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, as this demonstrates a commitment to supporting and uplifting others in the field.
  • Personal growth and resilience: Highlight instances of overcoming challenges and demonstrating resilience or determination, which are highly valued in graduate school applications.
  • Engagement in dialogue and professional associations: Actively participate in discussions and initiatives related to diversity and inclusivity in psychology. Attend conferences or workshops and join professional organizations that prioritize diversity to demonstrate a commitment to staying informed and engaged in the field.
  • Thorough research and reaching out: Prospective students should research potential programs and institutions, including resources, community fit, and departmental support. Reaching out to mentors, current graduate students, and networking can provide valuable insights and support.
  • Highlight academic and research achievements: Discuss prior research projects, academic accomplishments, and publications that required perseverance and determination. This demonstrates the ability to tackle complex tasks and stay committed to goals.
  • Embrace unique narratives and perspectives: Prospective students should embrace their unique cultural, racial, or personal experiences as strengths that can contribute to the field of psychology, fostering a more comprehensive understanding of human behavior.
  • Seek out resources and support: Utilize online resources, attend diversity-focused events, and seek recommendations from individuals with experience in the field to help identify labs/teams committed to diversity and inclusivity.
  • Advocating for inclusivity: Articulate a commitment to promote inclusivity within the field of psychology, whether through research interests, services to underserved communities, or challenging systemic biases. Advocacy for inclusivity aligns with the mission of creating a more equitable and inclusive field.

Advice for Successful Applications

  1. Identify, learn more about, and connect with prospective mentors:
    • Do a deep dive into the published research and ongoing work of prospective mentors.
    • Establish connection – If you have a specific question, consider emailing them prior to applying, with the caveat that some professors have a policy not to meet with students before applying. However, current graduate students in the program or lab are usually happy to answer any questions or chat for a few minutes. They can be a great resource for your prospective mentor's new and developing research directions and interpersonal working style, along with information about the program and the broader community.
    • Research the program thoroughly, especially in terms of its DEI resources, community initiatives, and formalized programs to foster student success. This will help you gauge community fit, which is just as important as research and mentor fit.
  2. Leverage community for success:

    "What has made my graduate education and experience rewarding is by having a mentor who understands what it means to be an individual living with marginalized identities."

    • Ask for help even if you don't think you need it – you may not know what you don't know
    • Reach out to your support network – this includes your peers, graduate students in your department or broader community, and undergraduate advisors. Applying to graduate school is stressful, and seeking social support from those who have been in your shoes can aid in coping with stress.
    • Get feedback on your materials from people who have applied to grad school, current graduate students, or faculty mentors. If you feel some hesitation with asking someone to go through your materials because you do not want to impose, know that people are usually happy to pay it forward and happy to help.
  3. Structured resources and tools:

    Seek out formal and structured resources and tools at your disposal through the university, department, and professional organizations. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the responses we received:

    • Utilize university writing centers for statement feedback.
    • Some universities and departments have development programs for students from URM backgrounds, which are a great pathway to graduate school (see resource document for examples)
    • Join and meet people through professional organizations that cater to your demographic – e.g., the National Latina/o Psychological Association, Association of Black Psychologists.
    • Add yourself to listservs – the frequent emails can be annoying sometimes, but people often post about programs, events, and opportunities.
    • Put together an organized document where you track all relevant information about programs, prospective advisors, and application status.
  4. Highlight what you bring to the table:
    • In your statement and during conversations, highlight what you can contribute to the research and how you add value as a student.
    • People often have mixed advice about disclosing marginalized identities, which also varies depending on how concealable different aspects of your identity are. Consider the pros and cons of this carefully before you make a decision.
    • If you do choose to disclose your marginalized identity, embrace your unique narrative – your identity and experiences can provide a unique lens through which you can contribute and enrich the discipline.
    • Consider applying for scholarships or independent funding (e.g. NSF GRFP) with the help of an undergraduate faculty mentor.
  5. Utilize formal department or university initiatives to promote URM student recruitment:

U.S. Military and Veterans

Top Themes

Based on responses provided by academic experts, the top application themes for prospective graduate students from BIPOC or other racial minority groups include:

  • Online Doctoral Programs and Remote Learning Options: The survey data suggests that prospective students, particularly veterans and military students, should be cautious about choosing online doctoral programs unless they have a residential element. The importance of in-person learning, especially in the initial years of a graduate program, is emphasized. However, the possibility of a combination of in-person, hybrid, or remote training after the completion of coursework is also discussed.
  • Veterans and Military Prospective Students: Experts suggest several pieces of advice for veterans and military prospective students. These include endorsing their strengths and skills, using their unique experiences and perspectives, advocating for their needs, and utilizing resources such as VA benefits and the Offices of Disability Services throughout the doctoral application process.
  • Importance of Sharing Unique Perspectives and Experiences: Experts highlight the value of the unique perspectives and experiences that veterans and military students bring to academic programs. These perspectives are often overlooked, so it is important for these students to speak up and share their experiences.
  • Preparation for Applying to Doctoral Psychology Programs: Experts recommend that veterans and military students should prepare well for applying to doctoral psychology programs by utilizing additional resources or networking. 

Advice for Successful Applications

  • Unique Perspectives: Veterans and military prospective students can highlight their strengths and skills in the job market by endorsing their unique features and experiences. Experts suggest leveraging their military service, which often provides them with unique perspectives and can be beneficial in various job roles. Stay reassured from previous experiences and be confident in the skills developed during their service.
  • Network: Use connections within the military community to gain insights and advice about job opportunities, particularly in fields like sport psychology, where the U.S. Military is a significant employer.
  • Advocacy: It is also important for these students to advocate for themselves and their needs. This includes communicating any specific requirements they may have due to service-connected challenges that may affect their work or ability to succeed.
  • VA Benefits: Veterans and military students can utilize their VA benefits to help finance their education. These benefits can significantly reduce the financial burden of pursuing a doctoral program, making it more accessible for these students.
  • Online Doctoral Programs: Experts caution against online doctoral programs without a residential element because they believe that convenience and cost should not be the overriding decision factors for veterans and prospective military students. The concern is that students may not get an immediate or long-term return on their educational investment if they choose such programs. The survey responses also emphasize the importance of in-person learning, especially in the initial years of a graduate program.

Students with Disabilities

Top Themes

From academic experts surveyed, the following are top themes to consider for students with disabilities applying to doctoral programs:

  • Accessibility and Accommodations: Most institutions provide necessary accommodations for students with disabilities and have a website with a registration process. Some institutions also offer online, low-residency, or hybrid programs and reasonable accommodations or assignment extensions.
  • Disclosure: Disclosing a disability can help the institution understand the student's needs and provide necessary accommodations. However, some experts mention it may also lead to prejudice and bias with a 50/50 debate on disclosure.
  • Advocacy: Students should be persistent and brave in advocating for their needs. They should connect with on-campus support services and use all available resources.
  • Mentorship: Seeking strong mentors can be beneficial for students with disabilities. These mentors can provide guidance and support throughout the application process and the duration of the program.
  • Utilizing Resources: Students should use the institution's resources from disability offices to learn about new tools that might help them succeed from the start. This includes contacting the university's office of student disability services and setting up an initial meeting or getting in touch online.

Advice for Successful Applications

Guidance for prospective students with disabilities applying to doctoral programs in psychology from surveyed experts emphasizes the importance of finding an inclusive program, discusses the benefits and challenges of disclosing a disability, and advises students to connect with support services while remaining persistent in advocating for accommodations. Experts also encourage students to seek out mentors and persevere in pursuing a doctoral degree.

  1. Strategies:
    • One strategy is to look for programs that have robust online, low-residency, or hybrid options, as these can often be more accessible for students with disabilities.
    • It's also important to find a program where the faculty care about you as a person and are willing to provide accommodations such as hybrid attendance, reasonable extensions on assignments, and support for mental wellness.
  2. Student Disability Services:
    • Reach out to the institution's Office of Student Disability Services or equivalent, if they have one, to learn about the support they offer. For example, Walden University's Office of Student Disability Services is dedicated to removing any boundaries and roadblocks that might impede academic journeys and ensuring full engagement in all educational programs.
  3. Mentorship:
    • Finally, it can be helpful to seek out mentors and use all available resources around you to be successful.
  4. Disclosure:
    • Disclosing a disability during the application process for doctoral programs in psychology can have both benefits and challenges
      • Benefits: 1) It allows the institution to understand your needs and provide necessary accommodations. 2) It can help put other aspects of your application into perspective. 3) It can provide collaboration with your supervisor to work together and come up with solutions for accommodations.
      • Challenges: 1) There can be prejudice and bias, with some viewing the disability as "baggage" or a disadvantage. 2) Not all faculty are aware of their biases, and it may affect their perception of your application. 3) It requires a level of vulnerability and trust in the institution and faculty.
    • Therefore, it is recommended to get a feel of the school or supervisor first and possibly reach out to current grad students to ask about their experiences. It is a personal decision with no one-size-fits-all answer
  5. Student Advocacy for Accommodation Support:
    • Students with disabilities can connect with on-campus support services by reaching out to the institution's Office of Student Disability Services or equivalent. Set up an appointment with a counselor and compose a brief recap describing limitations and needs.
    • To advocate for accommodations effectively, students should be persistent and brave.
    • Students may encounter people who will not want to grant them accommodations or act like it is a burden, but it is their legal and human right.
    • It can be helpful to meet with each professor to share more about their accommodations at large and ensure their understanding.
  6. Mentorship and Resources:
    • Students should seek out strong mentors and use all available resources throughout the application process.

First Generation Students

Top Themes

Based on responses provided by academic experts surveyed for this article, the top application themes for prospective first-generation students include:

  • Mentorship and Guidance: First-generation students are encouraged to seek out mentors and advisors who can provide guidance and support throughout their academic journey.
  • Networking and Building Relationships: Building relationships with professors, current graduate students, and other professionals in the field can provide valuable insights and opportunities.
  • Utilizing University and Online Resources: Universities often provide resources for first-generation students, such as career services and research labs that can assist with the application process.
  • Social Media: Online platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn can also be used to connect with current graduate students and professionals in the field.
  • Scholarships and Financial Support: Seeking scholarships and financial support from colleges or outside associations can help alleviate the financial burden of pursuing a doctoral degree.
  • Embracing Unique Perspectives: First-generation students bring a unique perspective to the academic setting, which can be highlighted in applications and interviews.
  • Self-Education: Reading up on the application process, attending panels, and seeking out information can help first-generation students navigate the academic world.

Advice for Successful Applications

  1. Leverage community for success

    "Being aware of our own limitations to imagine other possibilities might help to try to envision new venues for education and work."

    • Connect with others who share aspects of your identities and experiences, both within and beyond academia. This will help envision a broad range of pathways to success and career fulfillment.
    • Seek out a graduate student mentor who can work with you through the application process.
  2. Seeking information:
    • Work with your university's Career Services Center to refine your CV and practice interview questions.
    • Attend graduate school and job panels where you can connect with graduate students, faculty, and professionals in your field.
    • Social media – e.g., LinkedIn, Bluesky, and Twitter – can be a great resource. People often share their latest research, many post recruitment ads, and other opportunities, and share insights and advice on navigating academia.
  3. Navigating your identity and experiences:

    "Understand 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!"

    • Finances matter – consider restricting your applications to programs that provide guaranteed funding for the duration of the program. There is usually funding available, and you want to minimize any need to seek out financial loans.
  4. Advice for cultivating mentorship relationships:
    • Be clear about what you want out of mentoring relationships and communicate this to your mentor so they are able to support you in your unique needs.
    • Becoming a research assistant at a lab is a great way to gain access to mentors at the graduate student and faculty levels (they will also be your future LOR writers).


Top Themes

  • Identifying a supportive academic advisor and research lab: Prospective LGBTQ+ students are advised to research thoroughly and identify people and teams that offer personal and academic growth. Finding a professor or program that practices compassion rather than focusing solely on prestige is essential. Students are encouraged to consider their unique points of view and what they can add to a lab as a pitch in their application.
  • Disclosing identity: Experts advise and encourage prospective LGBTQ+ students to disclose their identity and observe reactions and interactions. It is important to be in an accepting place, as students will be spending a significant amount of time there.
  • Networking: Network with special interest groups, especially student-focused ones, or professional organizations is recommended.
  • Check for queer-supporting organizations: Prospective students should check to ensure there is at least one queer-supporting organization on campus. Talking to current LGBTQ+ grad students may help get the real details on the cultural experience on campus.
  • Special funding or opportunities for LGBTQ+ students: The Point Foundation is mentioned as a source of funding for LGBTQ+ students applying to doctoral or postdoctoral programs.

Advice for Successful Applications

  • Accepting Environments and Safe Spaces: It is important for LGBTQ+ students to find a supportive and accepting environment rather than focusing solely on prestige because their supervisor's main purpose is to support them throughout graduate school, and they are more likely to succeed in doing so if there is a strong connection.
  • Time: Being in an accepting place is crucial as students will be spending a significant amount of time there, and any form of discrimination or non-acceptance can negatively affect their academic experience and overall well-being [2]. Furthermore, students are encouraged to think about what they can add to a lab and use this as a "pitch" in their application, which can be more beneficial in a supportive environment.
  • LGBTQ+ Culture: It is also recommended to talk to current graduate students to get a real sense of the environment and culture for queer students.


Top Themes

  • Social Connections: Opportunities for social connections are crucial for international students. This is further emphasized with advice for prospective international students to include boosting online social connections.
  • Language Proficiency: Experts advise that international students should be proficiently fluent in English, as most programs primarily use English, and this would give them an advantage in gaining entry.
  • Value of References: Experts highlight the importance of references for international students. Volunteering to work in labs of well-known scholars or prestigious institutions and obtaining reference letters from them can significantly improve the chances of acceptance into prestigious U.S. institutions.
  • Enrichment Programs: Experts advise investigating about the enrichment programs offered by the institution for prospective international students, indicating that such programs are an important consideration for international students.
  • Cultural Differences: The experts surveyed acknowledged that the US can be "weird and confusing" for international students, indicating the challenges of cultural adjustment that international students may face.

Advice for Successful Applications

  • Recommendation letters carry a lot of weight in graduate school applications. If you are planning to apply to graduate school in North America/Europe, consider pursuing Research Assistantships at labs in those countries (some labs are open to virtual options. Do not be afraid to reach out and ask). International students anecdotally share that they believe letters from scholars based in these countries made a difference in their application.

Older Adult Learners or Career Change

Top Themes

Based on responses provided by academic experts surveyed for this article, the top application themes for prospective adult and older adult learner graduate students include:

  • Sharing Resources and Experiences: Adult and older adult learners are encouraged to share resources with other careers and not to discount their experiences in other areas of life. These experiences can be a great strength to their passion, values, and approach to research and teaching in their doctoral program.
  • Career Change: For those looking to make a career change and apply for a social or personality psychology doctoral program, it is important to do thorough research about people and programs that value their experience. Advocating for accommodations as needed and sharing experiences openly is also advised. It is also recommended to read "The Academic's Handbook" for further guidance.
  • Demographics of Lab or Team: The age range of lab or team members varies, with most graduate students being around 25 years old. However, some cohorts have skewed a bit older, ranging from late 20's to late 30's and older.

Advice for Successful Applications

  • Research: Thoroughly research potential programs and people. Look for programs that have a history of accepting and supporting non-traditional students or those that emphasize the value of diverse experiences.
  • Connect with Current Students: Reach out to current students in the program, especially those who are also older adult learners or planning a career change. They can provide valuable insights into the program's culture and how well it accommodates and values non-traditional students.
  • Open Communication: During the application and interview process, openly share your experiences and how you can contribute to the program. This can help you gauge the program's receptiveness to your unique background.
  • Advocate for Yourself: Do not hesitate to advocate for accommodations as needed. This can include discussing potential challenges and how you plan to address them. Your assertiveness can demonstrate your resilience and adaptability, which are valuable traits in a doctoral program.
  • Accommodations: Adult learners can advocate for accommodations during the application and interview process for doctoral programs by being open and honest about their needs. This may include discussing potential challenges related to further commutes, inability to attend late meetings/classes, or changes in schedules. They should not hesitate to ask for accommodations as needed and should communicate their needs clearly and assertively. It is also beneficial to connect with other "non-traditional" students and share experiences and resources.
  • Unique Life Perspectives: Older adult learners or students changing careers often bring a wealth of life and professional experiences to their research and academic practice. These experiences can provide them with unique perspectives and insights that can enrich their work. For instance, they may have a deeper understanding of certain social phenomena or personality traits based on their own experiences. They may also have developed valuable skills and knowledge in their previous careers that can be applied within their program. Furthermore, their maturity and life experiences can make them more resilient and adaptable in the face of challenges, which can be a great asset in the often demanding and unpredictable world of research.

Economically Disadvantaged Students

Top Themes

  • Persistence and Determination: Despite the challenges, the experts encourage financially disadvantaged students to persist in their pursuit of doctoral psychology programs.
  • Financial Solutions: The survey data collected highlight the financial challenges faced by economically disadvantaged students in the application process and throughout their studies. These include application fees, relocation costs, and living expenses. Solutions suggested are saving in advance, seeking fee waivers, applying for scholarships, grants, fellowships, and assistantships, and considering part-time work.
  • Role of Institutions and Programs: The institutions and programs play a significant role in supporting disadvantaged students. They can waive application fees, offer assistantships and tuition remission, provide resources and information about affordable housing, and provide online, low-residency, and hybrid programs.
  • Importance of Networking and Professional Organizations: Networking with professionals and fellow students and seeking programs offered by professional organizations can provide additional resources and opportunities.
  • Equity in Grant Opportunities: There is a question about whether there is a heightened focus on helping disadvantaged students obtain grants, with mixed responses from survey participants.

Advice for Successful Applications

  1. Helpful tips for the application process and beyond
    • Money matters: Applications are expensive. So is setting up a new place before your first paycheck comes in. Start saving well in advance for application fees, travel, relocation costs, and living expenses.
  2. Institutional resources for financially disadvantaged students
    • Professional organizations often have programs aimed at defraying conference costs for financially or otherwise disadvantaged students. Apply for these, as conferences are a great way to network and learn more about the latest work scholars are doing.
    • Some schools will waive application fees for financially disadvantaged students, although this may need to be explicitly requested and require documentation of financial hardship.
    • Make sure to check the relative pay and the cost of living at the school's location while considering an offer.


Highlighting a diverse background and experience when applying for a doctoral program is important because it can be seen as a strength. Diverse perspectives from underrepresented groups are valued in academia and can contribute to a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to research. Moreover, having a unique background and experience can make a student stand out from other applicants and show that they can bring something different to the program. Additionally, it can demonstrate that the student has the ability to succeed in diverse environments and overcome challenges, which is a testament to their resilience and adaptability.

Don't forget to check out SPSPotlight's recent newsletter article, Expert Advice on Applying to Doctoral and Postdoc Programs for Students from Underrepresented Groups (Part One), and stay tuned for more insights from this report in future issues of SPSPotlight.

Additional Resources

Good luck!


Applying to grad School. | SPSP. (2023).

Expert Advice on Applying to Doctoral and Postdoc Programs for Students from Underrepresented Groups (Part One) | SPSP. (2023, September 21).

Roadmap to Graduate School: Acing Your Application. | SPSP. (2021). SPSP Free-Form Fridays. [Slides].

SPSPotlight Survey Results. (2023, October).