Application Aggravation

Toothpaste for Dinner comic about grad school

It’s been a busy past couple of weeks for me. I’ve been hard at work doing all the necessary steps toward applying for grad school. I realized the other day that I haven’t written anything about this process, so I figured I’d take the opportunity to do so now.

The first thing to know about applying to grad school is that it is a lot of work. I think this is actually a secret test of whether people are ready for the rigors of grad school; if they get through the application process, they’re ready. There are many steps to the process, and most of them have to be done simultaneously. Luckily, I think I am actually nearing the end of the process.

The first step is to figure out what schools you would like to go to. This is more difficult than it seems, considering there are thousands of universities out there. It’s especially difficult when you’re applying to a program like social psychology, for which every school offers pretty much an identical program. But what I did was talk to some of the faculty members that I know at my own school to get some advice. Of course, when they all have different advice, it makes it difficult. One professor will recommend one school, and another professor will say, “Oh no, I don’t think they really have what you’re interested in. You’d be much better over here.” After listening to their advice, I compiled a list of schools to look at, then went through their websites and found their list of faculty members. I then had to figure out which professors I would be interested in working with. Then I went through an agonizingly complex system of ranking my different schools (which was probably made more difficult due to my penchant for spreadsheets), and came up with a final list. (A list which was then altered after getting advice from another professor, of course.)

While this is going on, another step in the process is applying for funding. For psychology in Ontario, there are two major sources: the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS); and the tri-council fellowships, SSHRC (dealing with social sciences), NSERC (dealing with natural sciences), and CIHR (dealing with health research). These applications require lots of information, but they also require a statement of interest where you must write a short research proposal. I found this difficult to do because I hadn’t even been accepted at a school; how do I know what to research when I don’t know who I’m working with or where I’ll be? These applications take a long time, and then they have to be submitted to the Psychology department at your own university. You see, each school only gets to send a certain number of applications to the government departments, so they select the ones they want to pass on. So, I handed in my application to a person in the Psych. department, where it will get ranked by a psychology committee, then (hopefully) sent on to a committee handling applications for the whole university, and then finally (hopefully) passed on to the government department, where it will get ranked a third time to determine if I get the scholarship. When they say, “It’s a very competitive process,” they’re not kidding.

GRE test study bookAnother step in the process is writing the GREs. The Graduate Record Exam is required in a number of different programs, and is essentially a big standardized test about mathematics and writing skills. People study for these things for months, buying big books to help them prepare. Then of course, some of the schools I want to apply to require the GRE Psychology subject test, which is, of course, a test about psychology. This test covers every area of psychology, from the biology of the brain to the development of a fetus to social psychological concepts like attitudes and cognitive dissonance. It’s a huge range that is covered, and you’re expected to know all about all the areas. I wrote these tests, and I am glad they are over and that I will never have to write them again.

I’ve been talking about the grad school application process, and I haven’t even gotten to the actual grad school applications yet. But that is the final step, and is what I am working through right now. Each school has an application that is essentially the same, but each one is slightly different so that you have to pay close attention even as you write all the same information down over and over again. They ask you about your previous education, and your personal details, and your employment history, and so on. They also want a statement of interest or personal statement that is somewhat like that used in the funding application, but not quite. You are supposed to talk about how your previous experiences and knowledge of the field will help you in grad school—essentially they want you to make a sales pitch for yourself to them. Then each school typically wants two or three reference letters, and generally you want them to be from faculty members. So you have to go talk to the professors you know and ask them if they will be willing to write you a reference letter, and then you have to put their information into your online application and the website will email them on your behalf to get the letter from them. In addition to all this, they want your GRE scores sent to them, and they also want official transcripts from your school. So I have gone into the Registrar and ordered transcripts and had them mail them all out.

Every step in this process takes an inordinate amount of time, and costs a lot of money as well. The GREs require money, the transcripts cost money, and it costs money just to send in the application to each school. All that money spent, and it’s not even remotely guaranteed that it will pay off at all. It’s just paying for the chance to get into grad school.

So why am I doing all this? Well, sometimes I ask myself that question. But even with all this effort and money, I still find it exciting. I am eager to get into grad school and do some real research that can expand human knowledge of the mind and how it operates in a social setting. I am spending all this time and money because I think it will be worth it to do something that I am interested in. I just need to complain about the effort it takes to get to that point, because I wish it was the case that allowing people to do what interests them wasn’t so laborious a process. However, perhaps it’s just a fact of life that getting good things takes effort, so I must push on and work through it. I’m excited at the prospect of getting into grad school. But at the moment, I’m more enthused at the prospect of just getting the applications done.

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