What does the “Ideal” Doctoral Applicant Look Like?

Below is a partial list of attributes that I look for in an “ideal” counseling psychology PhD applicant.  Most of us are not ideal applicants (I wasn’t!), so I’m not expecting applicants for our PhD program to possess all of these lofty attributes.  Rather, I list these attributes to give you an idea of what you can work towards to help you prepare a strong application.  As we note on the UK Counseling Psychology PhD program page, we look at applications in a holistic way (e.g., a lower GPA can be offset by strong letters of recommendation), so don’t talk yourself out of applying just because you don’t align with these attributes.  I seriously consider all applicants who express a genuine interest in working with me.

  • Strong GPA (3.5+), though grades are not always an accurate measure of a person’s competence and can be influenced by cultural bias in that institutions’ curriculum and testing practices
  • Strong GRE (Verbal 160+, Quantitative 150+, Analytical Writing 4+), though this test is culturally biased and thus more and more professors like myself treat these scores with skepticism (i.e., applicants who are white, socioeconomically privileged, and had access to well funded and traditional Eurocentric curriculum growing up will do better on the GRE whereas applicants with less privilege will do worse, regardless of the applicants’ true potential for achieving success in graduate school, so professors should take that into account)
  • Strong writing ability, as evidenced by a clear, concise writing style in your statement of purpose, CV, and writing sample
  • Research Experience: I recommend doing a research assistantship in 2 research labs with at least 2 semesters in one of those labs.  Your goal is to learn and practice the skills from different parts of the research cycle (i.e., conceptualization, literature review, design, IRB approval, recruitment, data collection, analysis, writing up findings in form of poster/presentation/paper).  Ideally, you will have taken on more complex tasks and shown increasing autonomy (e.g., conducting your own study with the help of a mentor) that we expect of graduate students. Example: PSY 395/394 Research Assistantship with the HAMMER Lab
  • Applied Helping Experience: experience using active listening skills to help others in a supervised setting (e.g., volunteering at a domestic violence center or hospital, paraprofessional at a University Career Center, internship at a community mental health / human services agency, taking a counseling/helping skills class) Examples include Dr. Hammer’s (a) PSY 399/499 Internship for University of Kentucky psychology undergraduates or the (b) Social Justice Advocacy Internship for undergraduates not enrolled at the University of Kentucky.
  • 3 strong letters of recommendation:
    • 1 from a supervisor of your Applied Helping Experience (preferred that this person has a master’s degree or, even better, a doctoral degree in psychology or a related helping profession like Social Work or Counseling)
    • 1 from the professor of the research lab in which you were an RA
    • 1 from another professor in a second research lab (good if the program you are applying for emphasizes research) -or- from another supervisor of a second Applied Helping Experience (ideal if the program you are applying for emphasizes practice/therapy) -OR- from a faculty member who supervised you on an independent research project (ideal if the program you are applying for emphasizes research)
  • Ideas about what research topics/questions are of interest to you personally and professionally and a self-awareness about why these topics/questions are interesting to you.  When we’re just starting out as graduate students, we usually only have some possible ideas about what we might like to research because, in all honestly, you don’t really know if doing a certain kind of research is a good fit until you try it out.  The ideal applicant is not a person who staunchly believes they know exactly what they want to study are are uninterested in everything else.  Rather, the ideal applicant has some good ideas but is flexible and, most importantly, has strong academic ability, creativity, and critical thinking skills that they can bring to bear on whatever they turn their research focus to.  As a personal example, I started out primarily interested in the psychology of men and masculinity, but then my research interests shifted into the psychology of nonreligion and help-seeking behavior, with more shifts to come.  What was most important was that I was able to bring my intellect, attention to detail, professionalism, ability to work interdependently, and team player mentality to whatever research topic I was working on. These transferable skills are what will help you succeed.
  • An openness to learning about diversity and social justice, including a willingness to explore and critically examine one’s own beliefs/feelings/values as it relates to cultural identity (e.g., race, sexual orientation), privilege, power, and oppression.  You don’t need to be an expert; you need to be open, non-defensive, and willing to cultivate your critical consciousness over time. You can develop your critical consciousness in a variety of ways, including Dr. Hammer’s Social Justice Activism Psychology Internship for undergraduate students not enrolled at the University of Kentucky.
  • A readiness to articulate (1) why the program you are applying to is a good fit for your career goals and professional values and (2) how your current research interests align well with those of the professor (or professors) you hope to work closely with.  Learn more about this on my Personal Statement of Purpose page.

In closing, I want to stress again that these are attributes of an ideal PhD applicant and most successful applicants don’t align with all of these criteria.  Your goal is to strengthen your attributes where you can (see my How to Get into a Counseling Psychology PhD Program YouTube video series for more), not needlessly worry yourself about those attributes that can’t realistically be strengthened at this time, and apply broadly to 7-10 programs so that you can maximize your chances of finding a good fit with the right program.

Take the risk: apply, even when you feel doubt and anxiety.  These are natural, healthy emotional responses to a challenging task.  You can choose sit with these feelings (you can hear my therapist self coming out here!) and still submit a great application.  If you’re interested in the kind of research I do, I seriously hope you will apply to work with me as one of my doctoral advisees.

What does the “Ideal” Master’s applicant look like?

The expectations of Master’s program applicants are less strenuous than those of PhD programs, as you might guess (and thank goodness for that!).  Generally, a decent GPA and GRE score, positive letters of recommendation, and reasonable writing ability will be sufficient to make you competitive for most Master’s programs in counseling psychology.  Of course, the more your attributes align with those listed in the “Ideal Doctoral applicant” section above, the stronger your application for Master’s programs will be.  I completed my Master’s before going on for my PhD; it was one of the best decisions I made.  This is a great option when you are not certain about the cost-benefit of dedicating five to seven years of your life to a doctoral degree or when your CV is not yet strong enough to make you a competitive candidate.