Posted on 29-01-2010
Filed Under (Applying to Graduate School) by Anita Kelly

Caroline Rycyna graduated from Notre Dame with honors in 2007. Caroline’s story is a touching one because she had 5 interviews for top doctoral programs in clinical psychology in 2007. But she didn’t land any placements that first year. Her story is one of persistence and ultimately of landing a spot in Ohio State’s excellent clinical PhD program. I hope that you will find it inspirational as you apply to graduate school yourself! –Anita

What follows is in Caroline’s own words:

In the beginning of my senior at ND, I applied to approximately 15 programs, most of the clinical psychology programs, and I was invited to interview for 5 of them. I attended all these interviews with eager anticipation, but I quickly discovered that I was not as confident in what I wanted to study for the next few years in school as others. All of my applications, for the most part, had extremely varying research interests, and I quickly realized during the interviews that I was not as passionate about the professors’ research as I should have been. When I found out I did not get accepted, I was naturally upset. Going to graduate school for my clinical Ph.D. had been my plan since I was in 7th grade, and I felt a little lost. I was repeatedly told not to take the rejection personally, that it had become ridiculously hard to be accepted into these programs, especially coming right out of undergraduate, but I could not help but feel a little blow to my self-esteem, since this goal had always been such a personal one. 

Following the suggestion of some of my professors, I applied for research jobs. I chose the Boston area because there were a multitude of them available, and I had always liked Boston, and one of my sisters lived less than 2 hours away. I applied on job site websites for research positions at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), McLean Hospital, and Brigham & Women’s. I remember submitting my CV to 10s of them at a time, just hoping for some sort of response. After I submitted once for the position of a research coordinator in the Pediatric Psychopharmacology Research Unit in the Psychiatry Department at MGH, the HR representative emailed me the next day expressing the department’s interest in me. A few days later, I did a phone interview, and then they invited me to interview in person. When I interviewed, I met with the psychologists and other research assistants with whom I would work, and I liked them immediately. I accepted the employment offer and began my job in the beginning of July of 2007.

I worked on a team of 7 other research assistants and two psychologists. For example, I coordinated an individualized CBT treatment study for 18-24 yr olds with bipolar disorder as well as a family neuroimaging study looking at children (6-17 yrs of age) at risk for bipolar disorder. My friend, Marisa, coordinated a longitudinal study investigating the relationship between temperament in 2-5 yr olds and risk for later psychological issues, particularly externalizing disorders (i.e., bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, ADHD, ODD). We also had studies looking at kids at risk for anxiety. Needless to say, I was fortunate to be exposed to a variety of quality of research which helped me to decide what I might want to pursue in graduate school. In addition to our team, several other psychiatrists had their own research projects involving individuals with adult ADHD, OCD, eating disorders, PDD, and others. Some research assistants in the lab conducted cognitive assessments and administered clinical interviews (e.g., SCID-IV and KSADS-E) to both children and parents. 

I was lucky enough to both coordinate and also do assessments for the other studies in the department. One of these studies was a family study of children with pediatric bipolar disorder. I found myself particularly drawn to these families and their stories and always was touched by their struggles with acquiring the best treatment for their children while combating the public’s opinion of this controversial diagnosis. I found the same enjoyment in working with the families for my neuroimaging study, as some of the children actually had the BPD diagnosis, while others were partially affected with issues such as depression and/or ADHD. After a year of working with these families, I knew for sure that I wanted to conduct research with this same population. 

My mentor there was kind enough to sit down with me and discuss possible programs that might be a good fit. She mentioned Dr. Mary Fristad’s research at The Ohio State University and how it might be a good fit. I immediately did some research about Dr. Fristad’s work and found her psychosocial treatments for families with pediatric bipolar disorder to be a perfect combination of my interests. Ohio State immediately became my #1 graduate school choice. For the next few months, I worked hard on my applications, thankfully with the help of my friends who were also applying at MGH. I ended up applying to 13 schools, which I was a little unsure about because most of my other friends were applying to more. However, this time around I was looking at programs which involved research on childhood mood disorders, especially pediatric bipolar disorder, and there were not that many in areas of the country where I would consider living. I decided earlier on that I would not be applying to anywhere I could not see myself living because it would be a waste of my time, money, and effort. Thus, I submitted 13 applications and crossed my fingers hoping for the best.

On January 13th, Dr. Fristad called to invite me to interview, and I was ecstatic! For the interview, I read some of her articles and familiarized myself with her research. When I met her and the other faculty, as well as heard more about the program, I had a feeling that OSU was where I belonged. A week later, I received an email with my admissions offer, and I struggled to decide whether or not I should go to my last 3 interviews. (I went to another interview the same weekend as OSU’s, which totals to 5 interview invitations.) I decided to go to 1 more, which I ended up not liking. It was during this third interview that I realized OSU was where I wanted to be. And the rest is history! –Caroline Rycyna

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Posted on 01-12-2009
Filed Under (Applying to Graduate School) by Anita Kelly

Every fall, I get emails from undergraduates I’ve never met. They ask if I am taking a new graduate student for next year. It’s a difficult question because I never really know whether I can take a new graduate student. It depends on how excellent the students are who match my interests. It also depends on whether other faculty who have priority over me in choosing a student decide that they want to take a student from that year’s applicant pool. Usually the faculty who have priority are newer hires or faculty with grant dollars to fund a graduate student.

Today I asked my colleagues in our clinical program here at Notre Dame how they feel about being asked whether they are taking a new graduate student. The newer faculty were emphatic: They like being contacted (via email) by interested prospective graduate students. They especially like being contacted by students who have read their work and indicate an interest in conducting research on the same topic.

So, your answer to the question, “Are you taking a new graduate student for next year?” is likely to be, “Maybe.” This is true even from faculty who have priority in choosing students. However, it’s still a good idea to reach out to faculty for the purpose of demonstrating that you know about and are interested in their research. You might even discover that some faculty will say, “No.” This will save you the trouble of mentioning them in your statement of intent or of applying to that school at all.

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Posted on 25-11-2009
Filed Under (Applying to Graduate School) by Anita Kelly

Hey. I’m posting early this week. It’s not because I’m worried that too much Thanksgiving Chardonnay will soon keep me from putting two thoughts together. And it’s not because The Beast will be home from school all day Friday. Nope. It’s because I know you need some advice right now on how to write a terrific statement to your dream graduate program. So here it is:

Before you start writing, read what each school wants in its letter and plan on modifying your letter accordingly. Most have the same critical elements, and so you can write the same basic letter for most programs. Consider these steps for your 2-paged, single-spaced statement of intent for a doctoral program:

1. Structure the opening paragraph to let the reader know that you will be outlining your relevant research and professional (and possibly classroom) experiences in the paragraphs to follow. Mention that these experiences have both prepared you well for graduate school and fueled your desire to continue your studies. State loudly and clearly in this opening paragraph that your dream would be to become a professor in your chosen field (i.e., specify chemistry, biology, psychology, or whatever the field is).

However, only say this if it’s true. If it’s not true, then say how much you love research and how important research is to your career goals. (Surely that’s true if your trying to get your PhD.) Then state your career goals. Never say that you are interested in professional private practice. That sounds exactly like you said that your goal is to make money, which might be sufficient to eliminate you from consideration. But that won’t happen to you!

2. The body of the letter should describe in detail what your research and professional experiences have been. Mention when and where you did these, and who your supervisor was. Indicate all the responsibilities you had in each position. If you got to present your research or publish it, definitely mention these facts. As you write, do your best to express enthusiasm for your research projects and excitement for future projects.

3. As you near the end of your letter, you need to make a case for why that particular program is a perfect match for you. Mention the particular professor or professors with whom you would love to work. Indicate what it is about their research that so fascinates you. State why working with them would offer the ideal training and preparation for your career.

Notice that now you’ve come full-circle, ending your letter with a clear statement of your career goals, just as you did at the start of the letter. However, often at the end of the letter, applicants will write something like, “In closing, I believe that I am ideally suited for your program because of my intelligence, work ethic, and dedication to the field.” Then they will be vague about their career goals. That is an awful combination.

Why? Because it never sounds good to brag about yourself, and it doesn’t give the reader any valuable information about you. Throughout the letter, be careful to demonstrate your readiness through your experiences, rather than simply saying how qualified you are. Leave it to your recommenders to do all your bragging.


The bottom line is that if you really want professors drooling over your application, give the impression that you are the ideal person with whom they can collaborate on research projects and publish together. Show them that you are well trained and that you’ve read their stuff, are fascinated by it, and would like to conduct research projects on the exact same topic. For some professors, the statement of intent is the most important piece of information in your whole file. So make it the best letter they will see that year!

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