The first time I applied to psychology grad programs in the U.S. was back in 2014, and I was a year out from finishing my undergraduate degree. I got zero interviews or acceptances. I applied for two more cycles before I got into my current program. I'm an incoming fourth-year PhD candidate now and often marvel at how I get to live out my dream every day.

But the road here was long, peppered with failures and barriers aplenty. In my own experience and that of others I've spoken with, a common barrier faced by international students is a general uncertainty about how the system works or its norms. The U.S. grad school system is unique and difficult to navigate for those outside of it, especially so for those of us from the Global South.

In an effort to dispel some of these uncertainties, here are the things I wish I had known when I applied to grad school in the U.S.

Just how important are GRE scores?

In the last couple of years, several schools have made the GRE optional or waived it all together. While departments differ in their approach to the GRE, one thing to keep in mind—the GRE alone cannot make or break your application. While a low score is a red flag (which can be explained in the SOP and compensated for through other application materials), a high score will not automatically get you into a program.

Research experience is key

Grad programs are looking for students they can train as researchers, an arduous and often tedious career. They want to recruit people who've had some exposure to research and who know what they are signing up for in a PhD program. However, such experience can be difficult to obtain if you're at a non-research college outside the U.S. where research is not the norm, or in an environment with few research opportunities for undergrads. In this case, it's necessary to get creative. A few suggestions to consider:

  • Reach out to professors in your department and offer your assistance in their research.
  • Search for research organizations or university departments that offer research internships.
  • Don't be afraid to pursue opportunities abroad. With remote work becoming more acceptable, it opens up more possibilities. I recently read about an undergrad from India working remotely as an RA for a lab in the U.S.!
  • Seek out communities online. The psychology academic community on Twitter is great for connecting with other researchers and potential opportunities!

It's a good idea (and totally okay) to reach out to potential professors and their grad students

Reaching out to professors will help you get a sense of whether their research direction and working style would be a good fit for you. The summer before you apply is a good time to do this. Do note, though, that some professors have a general policy to avoid interacting with potential applicants before they apply as it may introduce bias into the application process and be unfair to other applicants. It's also totally normal to reach out to one or two grad students in the department/lab you're eyeing. This is a great way to uncover any red flags, find out how supportive the department is towards grad student needs and concerns, and whether the university has a good support system in place for international students. As international students, this is very important.

Definitely consider the financial stuff

If your country's currency value is lower than the U.S dollar, U.S. stipends may appear like a lot of money, and sufficient to maintain a decent standard of living. However, the cost of living in the United States is high, and grad students have notoriously poor pay in most places. Make sure you check the cost of living at the university's location and talk to other grad students about how far their stipend goes when you're making decisions. Additionally, as a rule of thumb, funded PhD programs are better than non-funded ones. Otherwise, you're just signing up for five years of struggling to make ends meet on top of being a grad student. Also, consider the financial and legal aspects of things if you're trying to decide between a master's degree and a PhD. Master's degrees are often non-funded, and visas are approved for a shorter duration (usually two years) than for doctoral programs (usually five years).

Ask for help from those who know the system

This is something I didn't really think I needed to do—or even knew how to—when I applied to grad school. Now that I'm on the other side, I realize what a difference it makes. In recent years, several departments have started organizing informational sessions for potential applicants (check Psych Research List for a compilation and Harvard Psych's PRO-TiP for other relevant resources). These are great places to gain insights into the hidden parts of grad school applications. Other communities, like Project SHORT and Psychin Out offer workshops, mentoring, and feedback to grad school applicants from underrepresented backgrounds looking to strengthen their application materials.

If you don't get into a program, it's likely not your fault

This may be an unpopular opinion, but a lot about the grad school admissions process is designed in a way that keeps some people out and rewards others. On top of this, acceptance rates for social psychology doctoral programs are the lowest among the psychology sub-disciplines. According to APA's report for the 2020-2021 academic year, social psychology doctoral programs had an acceptance rate of only 6%! So, if you don't get into a program, don't take it as a personal failing. If you choose to apply again (it's common to apply in more than one cycle before you're accepted), make sure you strengthen your application in the time between so you're in a better position.

Keep an eye out for the SPSP Student Committee's Roadmap to Grad School ongoing Free-Form Friday sessions! Check out recordings from last year's sessions below:

Note: Special thanks to Garam, Stelios, and Sharlene of the SPSPGSC for sharing their insights for this article.

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